FORT PIERCE — Murder suspect Thomas Barnard is expected to go on trial Monday for the November 2010 homicide of a Fort Pierce tax attorney whose chemically-scorched body was found stuffed in a storm shelter.
Barnard, 35, of Vero Beach, faces charges of first-degree murder and tampering with evidence for allegedly strangling his employer, 58-year-old Ashley R. Pollow, on Nov. 28, 2010. Police conducting a welfare check requested by a concerned neighbor discovered his badly decomposed body Dec. 8, 2010, inside a padlocked fiberglass hurricane shelter attached to Pollow's Fort Pierce home at the 6400 block of Oleander Avenue.
According to authorities, Pollow's upper body showed burns caused by being doused with a sulfuric acid-based drain cleaner called "Liquid Lightning," in an attempt to destroy evidence.
The Treasure Coast Medical Examiner's Office determined Pollow had been strangled.
Records show Barnard pleaded not guilty to the charges after being arrested at his mother's Margate home Jan. 27, 2011. His court-appointed lawyer Michael C. Heisey, of Fort Pierce, declined to comment before the trial, which could last about 10 days.
If convicted, Barnard — who allegedly confessed committing the murder to a former work colleague and to his then live-in girlfriend Michele Lochridge — faces a maximum of life in prison.
State prosecutors had planned to seek the death penalty, but Assistant State Attorney Steve Gosnell in September announced the State Attorney's Office took capital punishment off the table.
The decision to remove the death penalty, Gosnell said, in part came after prosecutors interviewed a neuropsychologist hired by the defense to testify during the penalty phase, if Barnard were convicted. But he declined to elaborate on how that testimony played into the decision.
Additionally, Gosnell said they reviewed the "aggravating circumstances" that must be proven at trial during a death penalty case, such as the manner of death, or whether the killing was premeditation or done for financial gain.
"We also looked at the consequences on appeal in other death penalty cases and based on examining all of that, we decided to remove the death penalty," he said. "There's a lot of legal issues, obviously, that surround the death penalty. It's a very involved part of the criminal law."
Lochridge, 38, of Vero Beach, who also worked for Pollow, told sheriff's officials she didn't witness his murder, but she was present when Barnard disposed of his body. She faces charges of tampering with evidence and being an accessory after the fact and is being held along with Barnard at the St. Lucie County Jail while her case is pending.
Pollow maintained his law practice at his house, where Barnard and Lochridge assisted him, according to sheriff's and court records. The reason Barnard gave for killing Pollow was that Pollow had planned to report Lochridge to authorities for stealing from him. Barnard also stated the couple wanted to take over Pollow's business.
Here's what authorities say happened:
Barnard spent the evening of Nov. 26 with Pollow, having dinner and drinks. Barnard said Pollow was too impaired to drive home, so he drove Pollow's vehicle and dropped Pollow at his home south of Midway Road. Barnard said that on Nov. 27 he returned Pollow's vehicle about noon and hung out and smoked some marijuana and had some drinks.
Barnard said Pollow called him Nov. 28 and wanted him to buy crack cocaine. Barnard said he usually would get it for Pollow, but was working on his relationship with Lochridge and didn't want to leave home.
Barnard and Lochridge initially told investigators they went to work Nov. 29, but Pollow wasn't there so they locked the home and left. Sheriff's officials learned that on Dec. 3 Lochridge tried to cash a $1,250 check at a SunTrust Bank, but the bank wouldn't cash it because the signature wasn't consistent with Pollow's signature card.
In a Jan. 23 interview, Lochridge said Barnard admitted to killing Pollow on Nov. 28, saying he choked Pollow in the front office at his home. She said she went to Pollow's home on Nov. 29 and saw his body in a bedroom closet wrapped in a blanket with a plastic bag covering his face. She told Barnard they needed to call for help, but he told her no. Barnard, she said, told her that because she had a past criminal record, she would be blamed for Pollow's death and that somebody else did this.
The next day, she said Barnard moved Pollow's body to the storm shelter and poured drain cleaner on the face hands and neck "to erase evidence of the attack."
Pollow, a native of Memphis, was divorced and had four children living in Florida, family members have told Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers. He also had a couple of run-ins
with the law.
In 1999, he was arrested on suspicion of third-degree murder but the charge was later dropped by prosecutors who had accused him of shoving an elderly man into a wall at a Boca Raton restaurant. The man died two months later.
He was arrested again in January 2010 on charges including dealing in stolen property and grand theft following allegations he traded another person's Bobcat construction equipment to pay a $29,000 debt. Those charges were dismissed five months before his death.