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Friends look for answers in boat murders

David Trauger shot, killed; accused of double-murder arson

ST. MARYS, Ga. – A violent domestic dispute that gripped a small coastal town in southeast Georgia left three people dead, and their friends with many unanswered questions.

David Trauger is accused of setting his wife's boat on fire while she and a friend were on board in August. Trauger was later shot and killed during a confrontation with police.

Susan Graham, one of the couple's close friends, said it's still hard to believe things spiraled out of control so quickly. Graham said this deadly ending was a far cry from the way their relationship began.

"He brought her flowers and candy and wooed her from day one," Graham said. "Then painted this picture of the life they could have together."

Graham said it only took three months for David Trauger to win Karen Barnes over. They met on online in September 2009, and married a few months later on New Year's Eve.

"She brought out the good parts of David in that way because they presented as a couple," Graham remembers. "And she was the good, really a good person, and made him look really good."

David Trauger and Karen Barnes

The newlyweds moved into Trauger's boat, the Premium Time, docked at the Brunswick Landing Marina. Graham said a few months later, Barnes realized Trauger had a drinking problem.

"He was a mean alcoholic," Graham recalled. "He would curse terribly and he didn't normally."

Graham says Barnes worked with Trauger to control his drinking. But more than a year into their marriage, the situation hit a breaking point during a trip to the Bahamas. Graham said Barnes told her Trauger turned violent. Barnes said Trauger started choking her, wrapped a cord around her neck, then snapped her arm.

"When she said David broke her arm I was in shock," Graham said. "I was like, 'He actually broke your arm?' He twisted it."

Graham said Barnes left Trauger. But five months later, the couple reconciled.

"He begged her to come back and he demonstrated that he would make an effort," Graham said.

Trauger also put his cherished boat, the Premium Time, in Barnes name. It was a 37-foot Great Harbor yacht. Trauger had it custom built before he met Karen, and paid more than a half a million dollars for the vessel. Graham believes it was also Trauger's attempt to save their marriage.

Despite his efforts, in April 2012, Barnes filed for divorce. In written statements she stated she was tired of the abuse. But Trauger told his attorney the divorce was part of a plan the two came up with to keep Trauger's former wife from getting the boat.

Trauger's attorney, Crystal Ferrier said, "He thought it was going to be theirs forever, the two of them. Never did he think that he was going to just give it away."

Two months later, Trauger came to the boat, that was docked at the Jekyll Island Marina. According to a witness, Trauger arrived with wine and flowers, only to find the locks changed, and police officers waiting. In chilling dash cam video from that day, you can hear David Trauger's reaction.

"I got really (bleeped out word)," you can hear Trauger say on dash cam video. "Jesus Christ. What am I going to do?"

The anger in his voice intensified as officers asked questions.

A patrol officer asked Trauger, "You still live in Florida?"

Trauger replied, "No, that was the whole deal. That is my home. That's just a mailing address. I have no house, and I got no money and I got no assets. It's all in that (BLEEPing) boat that she just took off in."

Officers asked Trauger for his cell phone number, but he brings up something else.

"If she says I make harassing phone calls to her. Bull."

Trauger told officers he had nowhere to live, and appeared completely caught off guard.

"I don't know what to do," he said. "I can't believe this."

The conversation revealed just how important the Premium Time was to Trauger.

An officer asked, "Was that your intention for coming down?" Trauger answered, "To live on that boat til the day I die."

Witnesses said that day everything changed.

"When they escorted him off the boat, as he was leaving he said 'this is my boat and I will kill you guys,'" witness Jesse Marrero recalled.

Those words sent Barnes into hiding. She docked the boat nearly 50 miles south at the St. Mary's Boat Yard. Then a few weeks later, by chance, Trauger spotted Barnes.

"He said 'Crystal I found her,'" Ferrier said. "'I just ran into her inside a Walmart.' He ran into her inside a Walmart. Ok, David. He goes, 'I followed her out to see where she was going, she ran like you had never seen somebody run.'"

Barnes filed a police report, and one day later, a man fitting Trauger's description was seen at the boat yard. As a safety precaution, Barnes' friend Larry Ford came to stay with her.

Ford's friend Mabel Smith said, "He didn't want her to be alone because she was afraid of her ex-husband. And he was staying with her to help her out."

Barnes then filed a protective order against Trauger. He was never served. Three days later, police found the Premium Time in flames. Barnes and Ford were believed to be aboard the yacht. Police named David Trauger as the main suspect.

"If you'd asked me if he was capable, I would have laughed in your face and said this is ridiculous," Graham mused. "I know him well enough to know he's not a murderer. Well I guess I didn't know him that well."

After a manhunt, police found Trauger outside his Kingsland apartment. Detectives said he fired a gun at officers, they returned fire killing him. Now Graham is left to wonder how a union with so much promise, spiraled out of control.

"He painted this beautiful picture and she bought it," Graham said. "And she put into the picture to make it more beautiful and they should have had a great life."

St. Mary's police still can't positively say it was Karen Barnes and Larry Ford on the boat. DNA testing will take months.

Karen Barnes' family didn't feel comfortable talking on camera just yet, they are waiting for the remains to be positively identified.

But there is a sense of hurt there because they said Barnes told them she was afraid of her ex-husband.