When Judith Barsi turned 10 years old in 1988, she already had a string of commercial, TV and film appearances under her belt. An upcoming Hollywood child star, she had worked on productions with famous actors and acclaimed directors. And after Judith had been cast in the big-budget animations All Dogs Go to Heaven and The Land Before Time, her career looked set to move up to the next level. But behind the scenes, the little girl and her mom experienced harrowing abuse and threats – and, sadly, their ordeal would ultimately end in horrific fashion.
Before Judith’s turbulent home life came to a head, however, she looked set for big things. The young actress’ TV and film career got off to a start in the mid-1980s with appearances in series including Jessie, Knots Landing and Kids Don’t Tell. And it wouldn’t be long before the child star was making a name for herself in internationally recognized shows – many of which remain well-known to this day.
In 1985 and 1986, for example, Judith could be seen in Cheers as well as an instalment of The Twilight Zone entitled “Shatterday/A Little Peace and Quiet.” The episode of the iconic sci-fi series also featured Bruce Willis, who would go on to become a huge Hollywood star later that decade.
Thanks to her on-screen appearances, then, Judith was apparently earning $100,000 a year by the time that she reached the fourth grade. And her career continued apace, too, as she would go on to appear in female-led cop show Cagney & Lacey, kids’ show Punky Brewster and a Christmas special of The Love Boat, in which she played an angel. At the same time, the girl was also seeing success starring in ads.
Yes, Judith performed in television commercials for well-known brands such as Toys “R” Us, Jif peanut butter and Campbell’s Soup. And part of her success was attributed to the fact that she didn’t look as old as her birth certificate revealed she was. According to her agent, she could be cast as a younger child, meaning she was playing seven- and eight-year-olds when she was ten.
Yet while Judith’s appearance may have helped her get acting jobs, there were concerns about her development. As a result, the 3’8” actress was given hormone injections in order to stimulate her growth. Heartbreakingly, though, the tragic events to come – ones that had been set in motion years earlier – would mean that Judith would never see adulthood.
Judith herself was the daughter of József and Maria Barsi, who were both Hungarian immigrants. József had left Hungary after Soviet tanks had rolled into the European nation in 1956. In 1964 he then moved to New York before venturing west to California. And it was in the Golden State that József met Maria, who had also previously fled the brutal Soviet occupation of their country.
Maria and József reportedly first encountered each other at a restaurant in Los Angeles that was a known meeting place for Hungarian emigrants; Maria was employed there as a waitress, in fact. And according to the Los Angeles Times, Maria was attracted to the way in which József used $100 bills to settle his tab. József’s brother-in-law Joseph Weldon would even later describe him as having been “quite charming.”
Then the couple married, after which they settled down in Los Angeles to begin a new chapter in their lives. Maria and József expanded their clan, too, when Judith entered the world on June 6, 1978. She was the couple’s first and only child – though she had a half-brother from József’s previous marriage. And, together, the three formed a small family unit.
Yet although the first years of Maria and József’s married life are said to have been happy, trouble lay ahead. Meanwhile, like so many child stars, Judith was groomed for an on-screen life from an early age – even though Maria’s brother Joseph warned his sibling that the odds of success in showbiz were tiny.
The film and TV world is famously competitive, after all, and Joseph worried that Judith might be being set up for failure. “I told [Maria] the chances are one in 10,000 that [Judith] would succeed,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1988. Maria didn’t listen, though; she was determined to make Judith famous.
Maria thus trained her daughter how to carry herself and how to move. It was by coincidence, though, that Judith landed her first break. Aged five, she was skating at a local ice rink when she was spotted by a film crew making a advertisement – and after that, her career was set in motion.
And it wasn’t long before young Judith was making regular appearances in movies and on TV. Her first role was in the TV miniseries Fatal Vision, which also featured Karl Malden. Following that debut, the fledgling actress quickly began to appear in commercials as well as in further TV shows and films – ranging from comedy hits to serious dramas.
But while Judith also went to Nevada Avenue Elementary School, the frequency of her movie and TV commitments meant that her schooling was often impeded. And as the child actress’ success only grew, her filming schedule inevitably became more and more complex, causing further disruption in her life.
Indeed, according to the Los Angeles Times, Judith appeared in 72 commercials over a five-year span in addition to her TV and film roles. And one of the performances in question came in Jaws: The Revenge – a big part for the young star. For one, it gave her the opportunity to share credits with well-known actors such as Michael Caine and returning star of the franchise Lorraine Gary.
And while Judith’s performances didn’t bring her similar levels of fame, the girl’s six-figure income was nonetheless enough to enable her family to buy a house in the West Hills area of Los Angeles. That home was reportedly a comfortable suburban family dwelling with plenty of room for everyone.
But even if Judith’s success bought financial stability, her father, József, was a troubled man. He had a history of alcoholism and of making threats, for instance. And though József continued to work as a plumber while Judith’s acting career was taking off, he would often be drunk – meaning the family had to go on welfare for a time. All in all, he was a threatening presence in the home.
Nicknamed “Arizona Joe” – as he had lived in the state years earlier – József was a heavy drinker with a short fuse. He was known to fly off the handle if he thought that someone was making fun of him, while he was also sensitive about his Hungarian accent. All this ultimately took a toll on his marriage.
Despite his temper, though, it seems that József actually overstated his record for violence. You see, he reportedly claimed to have gone to prison in New York after he had killed a man in a fight. When his criminal record was explored later, however, his only recorded charges were for drink driving – for which he had been booked thrice. But much worse things were happening in the Barsi family home.
On one occasion, József is reported to have pulled his daughter’s hair then bought her a pink television by way of an apology. Meanwhile, friends later claimed that the dad had frequently spoken about killing his wife. Even more chillingly, József is also said to have threatened to murder Judith and commit suicide so that he could leave his wife “to suffer.” This was despite the fact that he prized family more than anything else, according to brother-in-law Joseph.
József’s intimidating remarks were apparently constant, though. Fellow plumber Peter Kivlen asserted to the Los Angeles Times, “[József] told me 500 times [that] he was going to kill his wife.” Then in December 1986 Maria went to the police, accusing her husband of historic physical and verbal abuse. At that time, the mom reported her husband’s threats as well as alleged incidents in which she had suffered blows to the face and been asphyxiated by József. Yet Maria ultimately opted not to press charges. And it seems that there was much more abuse going on, too.
Indeed, Kivlen claimed that József was possessive and controlling of his daughter. In one story that a neighbor alleged Maria had once told her, the mother explained that she had bought a kite for Judith. Seizing the kite, József then reportedly broke the item apart in front of the child and called her a “spoiled brat.”
And when Judith was getting ready to travel to the Bahamas to film Jaws: The Revenge, her father is said to have made a particularly gruesome threat. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, a relative alleged that József had told his daughter, “If you decide not to come back, I will cut your throat.” Likely to emphasize the seriousness of his words, József is also purported to have brandished a knife near his child.
Ruth Hansen, Judith’s agent, later claimed that József was left off-kilter by the girl’s departure to film the movie. And while the father was apparently offered a ticket to go out and visit his daughter on location, he curiously declined the invitation. After shooting the film, however, Judith started to change for the worse.
It seemed, in fact, that Judith had been gravely affected by her father’s actions. While talking to the Los Angeles Times, Hansen described Judith as having once been a “bubbly, happy little girl.” After filming had ended in the Bahamas, though, she soon noted that her young client had changed dramatically.
Terrified by the threats, Judith is said to have pulled out both her cat’s whiskers and her own eyelashes, with these alarming developments causing others to start to worry about her safety and wellbeing. Maria even visited the Department of Children’s Services to seek help for her troubled daughter, although the case was not long thereafter put to bed.
And it was reported that it was in fact Maria who had requested her daughter’s case be dropped – perhaps because Children’s Services could only allocate funds if Judith was taken out of the home. Helen Kleinberg, who worked for the Commission for Children’s Services, later voiced regret to the Los Angeles Times, implying that the department’s duty of care should have prioritized the child’s needs. After all, in the months that followed, this failure would have a terrible outcome.
In the meantime, Hansen pressed Maria to split from her husband. József had allegedly become ever more threatening over the years, and he had apparently been bitter about Maria’s refusal to reconcile when he gave up drinking. Yet Maria reportedly said that she wished to remain in her local area until the date of Judith’s tenth birthday in June 1988. She would also later remark that she had no desire to give up her home.
And while the precise series of events that followed remains unknown, Detective Sandra Palmer later divulged some information to the Los Angeles Times. According to Palmer, it was possible that József had discovered Judith was seeing a psychologist. What’s more, Maria had gotten a new apartment – though she had not yet taken up residence there.
Judith was reportedly last seen alive on her bicycle on the morning of July 25, 1988, although she missed an appointment at a production studio that day. Then, the following evening, József apparently told Hansen that he had plans to leave after he had the chance to “say goodbye to his little girl.”
By that time, however, Judith was very likely already dead. She had been murdered by József while she was sleeping in her bed, with the man also killing her mother. József, who had apparently spoken often about slaughtering his wife and daughter, had seemingly followed through on his threats and done just what he had promised.
József then allegedly passed some two days alone in the house after murdering his wife and child. And it was during this time that he spoke to Hansen, telling her of his supposed plans for the future. But the sad story was not yet over.
After a prolonged period of time, József is believed to have poured gasoline on his wife and daughter’s bodies before setting the scene ablaze. In the garage, the father then turned his .32-caliber pistol on himself, according to investigating officers who found all three bodies at the scene. It seems that József’s plan had been to destroy absolutely everything.
Then, when a neighbor reportedly heard a noise, they are said to have subsequently realized that the Barsis’ home was on fire. After that, the grisly crime scene at the home was discovered. And while József had left no suicide note, the police concluded that the crime had been a domestic one following a separation and reconciliation.
Furthermore, Judith’s death had some gruesome parallels with her first on-screen performance in Fatal Vision, as the mini-series saw her playing a young girl who is murdered by her Green Beret father. The show was based on real-life events and had been previously documented in Joe McGinniss’ best-selling 1983 true crime book of the same name.
But Judith would at least live on through her final appearances on film. Prior to her death, she had taken on a voice part in All Dogs Go to Heaven, and the children’s movie was ultimately released on November 17, 1989 – a year and three months after the girl’s tragic murder. The song used to soundtrack the closing credits, “Love Survives,” was also dedicated to the late actress.
And Judith had additionally provided the voice of Ducky in The Land Before Time – another movie that she would never get to see in theaters. Her character was known for her enthusiasm and her threefold replies – such as “Yep, yep, yep!” and “Nope, nope, nope!” – and it was said before Judith’s death that she had labeled the part as her favorite so far.
Meanwhile, the tragic case led the local child protection services to question exactly what had gone wrong. After all, the authorities had been aware of Judith’s vulnerability, including the dangerous behavior of her father. They also had knowledge of the self-harm that the young actress had begun to engage in as a result of her trauma and the terrible effect that her home life was having on her.
Speaking to the Los Angeles Times after Judith and Maria’s deaths, Kleinberg said, “It is frightening, because it appears that people on the outside took the right steps, and we didn’t manage it.” Then, when Maria finally made moves to escape her abusive home life, József made his threats a devastating reality.
At the time of their deaths, Maria and Judith had been spending their days in a new apartment. It’s thought, too, that Maria may have broached a separation or even a divorce, as Detective Palmer has claimed that József may have discovered his wife was planning to leave him. But in the meantime, Maria and Judith were still spending nights at home – a fact that meant the mother and daughter were still in József’s grasp.