Falling in Love

Downtown, the couple picked up their marriage license, sufficiently impressing the clerk that he escorted them out and stopped traffic as they crossed San Jacinto.

Barnett shuffled across with his walker, and Niecee, who at 73 was 15 years older, held onto his arm. They ascended the courthouse to the chambers of Judge Elizabeth Ray. Waiting through another ceremony that March afternoon in 1997, Niecee realized she was as nervous as the first time she had done this, more than a half-century before. But not Barnett. He seemed utterly blissful, and Niecee loved him for that.

"I do," she said in her honey-sweet Southern way. Barnett said he did, too, but he couldn't get the ring onto Niecee's finger. She put her finger into her mouth and pushed the ring on with her teeth. Married at last, again. Niecee smiled and kissed her man.

Back at her place, she helped him take off everything she had helped him put on -- the medium-blue suit she had chosen because it matched her skirt, the blue shirt she had selected, whose buttons and cuff links his fingers could not maneuver. Barnett and Niecee lay down together on her pink, lacy bed. He was "passionate yet gentle and considerate" -- just the man for her. And Niecee was lying there, musing over their future, when the telephone rang, and she was told to put her husband back where she had found him, for he was a ward of the state.

She discovered Barnett Garrison in the nursing home. He was not the man he used to be, and Niecee Wolcik was glad of it. She had heard he was a playboy, and she couldn't have loved a man like that. It wouldn't have worked out.

In old newspaper pictures, Barnett looks vaguely like Nicolas Cage, a hulking fellow with a grin that might at any moment become a glower. At Rice, where he briefly held a track scholarship, Barnett was huge for a miler -- about six foot four and 220 pounds. His teammates said he was rough and rowdy, "kind of a crazy guy." He wore a look on his face that said, "stay out of my way, or I'll kill you," Taylor Jones recalled, and he was the only freshman the football players declined to haze. Jones remembered him as a thug.

His teammates said that maybe school wasn't as fun as he thought it would be. Whatever the case, in 1958, Barnett dropped out of Rice after only a year. He began spending his days working as an electrician with his father, and his nights cultivating his social life. At some point, Barnett became the owner of several nightclubs. And living as he did in this town at that time, being something of a connoisseur of beautiful women, Barnett eventually crossed paths with Candace Mossler.

She was "the all-time all-American femme fatale," according to Esquire magazine, but that honor came later, of course, with Barnett's generous help. At the time, Candace was simply a Georgia farm girl whose previous husband had been found stabbed 39 times, a few years before. Narrowly escaping a murder conviction, Candace had been left wealthy but more lonely. The River Oaks set no longer attended her soirees. The man charged as her accomplice, Mel Powers, was no longer her lover. So one evening in 1970, during a party in her mansion, Candace was looking for friends when her eyes fell upon the electrician. The lethal look that scared others away drew her closer. Spotting him across the room, Candace said, according to legend, "That man is mine!"

She was 24 years older than Barnett's 32. She confessed only to 17, and thanks to the kindness of time and the plastic surgeon, she looked younger than that. Genes or the plastic surgeon had afforded Candace a tremendous, heaving breast. The murder had afforded wealth. Barnett stared down on this 95-pound female package, and what else could he say but "I do"?

They were married in a quiet church ceremony in July 1971. Barnett quickly learned what Candace could do for his career. In the Chronicle announcement the next day, he was promoted to electrical engineer, and in the Post, to electrical contractor. All signs were that Candace loved her man. She no longer needed a man for money, and this one dressed well and carried a gun. Candace began flashing new diamond rings around, telling reporters Barnett had bought them for her "because I am the best friend he ever had." On the wall of her office, she hung the picture of a kitten on a satin pillow. Barnett had written there, "My love for you is infinite."

It was infinite to the extent that Barnett would never recover. Some people still think Mel must have come between Candace and Barnett, but those who knew the couple say they had been drinking and feuding on August 13, 1972, when she locked herself in her bedroom. Barnett stormed off to one of his clubs and returned later that night, drunker. All the doors were locked, and Barnett had no keys. In a house of 62 rooms, there must have been easier points of entry than those on the third floor, but Candace's room was up there, and the police concluded Barnett was trying to get to Candace. They found his shoes on the lawn below, a sock balled up inside. On the steep slate roof, they found scuff marks and a gutter torn away. Barnett had fallen into the long summer night, 16 feet per second per second, head over heels for Candace Mossler.

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Randall Patterson