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Video: Home videos of John and Barbara

NBC Universal Anchors and Correspondents
By Dennis Murphy Correspondent
Dateline NBC
updated 6/7/2009 8:10:20 PM ET 2009-06-08T00:10:20
transcript

Just because John Wayne supposedly played a character based on your father in the movies - a World War II admiral hero who whipped into shape the Fighting Seabees -it doesn't mean you have to follow in his daunting footsteps.

But John Perry –Admiral John Perry – did just that. A Navy man whose badges of honor earned him an enviable kind of all access backstage pass to life that made doors open, sitting presidents salute and certain women--one in particular--glow to simply be in his company.

Barbara Bentley would be swept away by John's ease and command. But she'd also be swept into the swirling tide of his mysterious and secretive life ... and a world of subterfuge and intrigue it would take her decades to surface from. 

Who could have guessed that Barbara's fate would change so utterly with a friend's invitation to drinks and dinner?

Barbara: A friend calls me at work and says, "Oh, could you do me a favor?  Could you do me a favor?  Could you come for the dinner party tonight?  I need a fourth for dinner."

Barbara was thirty-five and recently separated from her husband. She'd been on her own for more than a year in California's Bay Area, and was growing more comfortably into the routines of a single woman.

Barbara:  I had a good job.  I was going to school.

Dennis Murphy,Dateline NBC:  So, you were really taking care of yourself--

Barbara: Right, right.

Dennis Murphy: And your life was in shape.

Barbara: Right, thinkin' I'm a very independent woman.

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So when her friend told her the other dinner guest would be a retired rear admiral from the Navy--even though Barbara was beat from analyzing samples at the chemical company lab where she worked--she decided to join her friend's dinner.  Her blind date introduced himself as John Perry. 

Dennis Murphy: So, what'd you think of this guy?

Barbara:  A lot of stories, I was fascinated by them.  He was very interesting. He said his father was Admiral Perry that started the Seabees in World War II, and that his great-grandfather on his mother's side was Admiral Perry that went to the North Pole. 

Perry dazzled Barbara and the other dinner guests with stories about being shot down in combat as a naval aviator....missions as a Navy Seal, flying with the Blue Angels, commanding the Swift Boats in Vietnam.

Barbara: So, here's this man with a lotta pedigrees, so to say.  And he was interested in me!

When the evening was over, John Perry walked her to her car.  Within weeks, they'd started dating ... after a few months, John moved in.   And as Barbara's new man blended into her social circle, he made quite the impression.

Donald: When he walked into the room, it's like everybody kind of stopped because you knew somebody had come in the door.

Toni: He had a charisma and a presence about him.

George: He came across as someone who knew what he was talking about.  He was very authoritative.

With such a special man beside her, Barbara's life became richer and more adventurous than she'd ever hoped for.  John Perry's work securing government contracts for clients often took him -- and now Barbara -- out of the country: to the Caribbean where they soaked up the sun, to Mexico City where they strolled the markets.  The distinguished retired officer was showing Barbara a new world, the good life of gourmet cuisine, vintage wines, fine art.  She was over the moon with it.

Toni: Here he comes along like he's Donald Trump.  You're going out to dinner, you're flying first-class.  I mean, anybody is going to be whisked off their feet. 

But--nagging problem, one getting worse--back in California the bills were piling up.  Their five-star lifestyle was being funded on plastic -- and John's commission checks for his consulting work only trickled in.  What's more, Barbara realized that her new companion wasn't just a big spender on the business trips. Fine crystal, rare whiskies, collectibles were everyday indulgences.

Barbara: I started to talk with him about it. "Well, you know, this isn't gonna do." And then he would get into his very defensive mode of, "Well, if you don't like it, I'll just pack my bags and leave." 

John's threats to split sent Barbara into a panic.  If he left, she'd have to shoulder their debt alone -- and admit she was a two-time loser in love. 

So she quickly smoothed things over with John just as he announced he'd come up with a plan to solve their money problems.  Barbara still owned half of a nice big house with a pool from her marriage.  Her ex was living in it temporarily, but John suggested they buy him out and move back in -- fix it up -- then put it back on the market for a tidy profit.

The mortgage payments would make their budget squeak, but in the end Barbara agreed.  The couple had barely unpacked their boxes when John Perry popped a cork -- and popped the question.

Dennis Murphy: How did you feel about becoming Mrs. Rear Admiral? 

Barbara: It had a nice ring to it.  (laugh) I was very, very proud to have him as my husband.

Barbara Bentley had told all her friends that someday her prince would come and he had, only he turned out to be a retired navy admiral and he was asking her to marry. 

Barbara: We talked about having maybe a church wedding at the base.  And having the swords crossed and walking out of the church under the swords.

But Barbara's fiancee, Rear Admiral John Perry, had another idea. He wanted to get married right away, down in Tijuana -- it would be cheaper, for one.  So Barbara changed mental scenery and envisioned a quaint Mexican chapel lit with candles but once they got down south-of-the-border she realized her groom had cooked up something else.

Barbara:  We start driving.  And all of a sudden now we're back into the poor part of town.  And pull up to this dilapidated storefront.  And it was a justice of the peace.

Dennis Murphy: What does the bride think about that?

Barbara: The bride was a little disappointed.  (laugh) You know, it was like, oh, my god.  What is going on here?

Dennis Murphy: You're getting married in shantytown, huh?

Barbara: Yeah. 

Dennis Murphy: Kiss the bride?

Barbara: Very stiffly.

There hadn't even been time to buy rings to slip on each other's fingers during the dismal, fluorescent-lit quickie service.  But Barbara tried to keep smiling through the ceremony and party afterwards. Later at their fancy hotel it got better, a gilded suite befitting a two-star admiral and his wife. The new Mrs. John Perry posed in a bride's white negligee.

But in the everyday reality of back home something was amiss, and it had to do with John's family, those talented and wealthy people he'd proudly described to Barbara: his astronaut son, his musician daughter, his sister, and most of all his reclusive grandmother, the matriarch and key to the Perry family fortune. 

Funny -- Barbara had always heard a lot about them - but never FROM them ....almost as if they were shunning her.  What kind of people would do that?  John's answer was like a slap.

Barbara: Because I was a gold digger.

Dennis Murphy: So what did you think about that?

Barbara: It hurt me that they wouldn't want to meet me.  Because i knew i was a nice person, and i wasn't a gold digger.

It didn't matter what they thought, John said, because neither of them would see the Perry millions any time soon because he was considered the black sheep of the family.  A black sheep, Barbara realized, who still spent like a wealthy heir.  There was their honeymoon trip to Hawaii, when they wandered into an art gallery featuring paintings by Barbara's childhood fave from TV, the comic Red Skelton.

Barbara: We get involved with one $75,000 painting and one--

DennisMurphy: How much?

Barbara: Seventy-five thousand dollars and one--

Dennis Murphy: I thought you were having trouble makin' the mortgage notes?

Barbara: Right, but, john had this story where the company that he was now consulting with, that they could lease these paintings until he would get the money from his grandmother.

The art purchase came with an invitation to meet the famous entertainer himself -- and to this day the experience was one of the highlights of Barbara's life.  But it wasn't long before the proverbial honeymoon was over.  For one, there'd been the slight issue of John's arrest for theft the month before their move.

Barbara: He says, "Well, I have some bad news.  I was arrested today, and I owe $4,000 for these four Remington Rand typewriters.

John said it was all a big misunderstanding, and that he'd worked out a deal with the authorities:  the whole matter could be disposed of for $8-thousand dollars.  But where would they get money like that?  Why from Barbara's big house. They'd tack an additional loan onto the mortgage.  John would co-sign the papers, eventually becoming co-owner of the property. 

The house turned out to be perfect for entertaining friends and family. Pool parties, barbecues.  A photo album full of rich memories, and John at the center, a model husband:

John: The puppy hopes your birthday will be fun!

Playing ball with Barbara's nephew, pampering their beloved dogs, making dinner, giving romantic backrubs in the hot tub.

But even the happy times could no longer sugarcoat the harsh reality: John and Barbara were up to their eyeballs in debt, the piles of bills, taller than ever.  And the Perrys -- and their fortune -- were sounding more and more to Barbara like make-believe.

Barbara: There was always this kind of a consternation and dangling.  "Okay, we're gonna meet the family--"

Dennis Murphy: "We're gonna meet them tomorrow for dinner," or "they're coming over for coffee."  And it never happened, huh?

Barbara: No, never happened.

Barbara could only hold out hope that John's inheritance would one day come through.  But she had no doubt about one thing: John was his father's son, top military brass through and through.

Through the years Barbara and her friends had grown accustomed to the perks that came with John Perry's rank ... the special luncheons, private tours and roped-off areas that his Navy status allowed them access to.  Like during Fleet Week in San Francisco, when - thanks to John - their group was whisked to the exclusive VIP seating area.

Toni: How we got to sit there, I do not know.  (laughter) But, I have never seen so much navy brass in all my life.

Time and time again, Barbara had seen doors open for her husband, thanks to his military I.D.  A document that, in typical John Perry fashion, was shrouded in mystery. 

Barbara: It was not his picture.  And it was not his name.  But he would open that, and flash it, and we would have immediate entrance into any naval facility.

Dennis Murphy: What did he say when you said, "what's this thing?  That's not your photo, it's not your name."

Barbara: He said, "that's something that's very-- it's like a C.I.A. thing, you know.  And just don't ask about it but you saw it works."

Dennis Murphy: Secret world, but it works! It works!

John always had a plausible answer for everything which made Barbara feel foolish for even asking.  But now five years into their relationship, her trust in him was slowly eroding.  They were at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, to visit Admiral Perry's grave.  Yet John seemed to be having trouble finding his father's headstone.

Barbara: I'm thinking to myself, "Is this another time when I'm not gonna see the family?"  And eventually he said, "I think that's it." And sure enough, there's the grave of Rear Admiral Perry.  I thought to myself, "Well, at least I met somebody in the family, he just happens to be dead."

And a year later Barbara gratefully took it as more proof when John Perry told her he had a big surprise.

Barbara: He says, "Oh, oh!  There's something that came in the mail today that I want to show you." He goes out and he comes back in with this bag and he dumps out all these little boxes onto the couch. 

Teary-eyed, John opened up each box and showed Barbara his war medals: the Navy Cross, the Purple Heart.  The Distinguished Service Medal.  And finally ...

Barbara: The last one that he opened up was the congressional medal of honor.  Very impressive.

Barbara would soon learn that those medals were part of a dangerous and secret game John Perry was playing and wives weren't invited.

John Perry's medals, framed in a handsome case, now hung on the family room wall, among all the other Navy memorabilia he'd taken to collecting.  For weddings and special events, John would press his full Navy dress uniform, and bring another gleaming medal out of the case to pin to his chest. 

And there was no grander reason to don his Congressional Medal of Honor than the VIP event John sprung on Barbara seven years into their relationship -- an invitation to George Bush the '41's inauguration.

Barbara: We sat in the congressional medal of honor stands.  And everbody, including the president, stopped and saluted.

Dennis Murphy: Your husband?

Barbara: Right.

Dennis Murphy: The incoming President of the United States is saluting John Perry for service to the country?

Barbara: Uh-huh, right.

Later at one of the packed inaugural Balls, the crowds parted to let John - and his medal - pass.  Barbara in her expensive gown and diamonds never looked happier or more in love than she was that night on the arm of her decorated war hero.

But John's medals would also become a kind of early warning trip-wire alarm for events that would place Barbara in acute peril.  She calls it her “crazy year” -- and it began with a knock.

Barbara: The most unsettling was that the FBI showed up at my door one day and John wasn't there.

She told the agents looking for John to come back later.  Closing the door behind them, she went into the family room and noticed a blank space on the wall -- John's medals were gone!

Barbara: When John came in, I told him about the FBI.  And he said, "Oh, well, that just has to do with that case that i've been subpoenaed for a grand jury.  So, that's, you know, that's no big deal." And then I mentioned the medals, and he looked over.  And he said, "Oh--" he says, "Well, something happened to the frame.  And I took it down to the frame shop."

But the medals stayed missing, and not long after, John's consulting work mysteriously dried up.  And whenever Barbara voiced her concerns, John would blow up -- or sulk -- or threaten to leave.  So she willed herself to believe things were fine, and put up a positive front to her friends, who'd started wondering amongst themselves about John Perry.  All those stories of his. 

Toni: He said he was a jet pilot, and he was in the blue angels.  And then my husband said, "No way. Timeline's all wrong."

George:  He said he was best man at Frank Sinatra's wedding.  "Well, I don't think so." He says, "Well, this was a prior, you know, pre-wedding.  And I was the best man at that."

Geoff: He speaks five languages!  Spanish, French, German, I don't know, Italian, maybe, okay.  Then he comes to Swahili.  "John, speak Swahili."  Like I know what I'm gonna hear.  (laughter) He spoke something that could've been Swahili.

John's bizarre behavior -- his evasive maneuvering and outright stonewalling -- left Barbara feeling as if the ground were falling away beneath her feet.  More off-balance than ever, Barbara struggled to pin her husband down. 

Dennis Murphy: Barbara, many years into your marriage, you turned to your husband one day and asked a question not heard very often in these kinds of relationships.  You say, "John, who are you?"

Barbara: Right.

Dennis Murphy: Where did that come from?

Barbara: It came from inside, deep inside.  It was a buildup of all these strange things happening. I just sensed something wasn't right. 

John didn't answer, which made Barbara more suspicious -- and bolder about asking more tough questions.  John dodged each confrontation -- each time becoming more brooding, more secretive.  And now Barbara's building wariness couldn't keep pace with how swiftly her crazy year was moving into overdrive, how stealthily John Perry began maneuvering her into the path of danger. 

John: Luck is coming your way...

In April, John invited himself along on a business trip of Barbara's.  When she told him she had an early call the next morning, he insisted she take a pill to help her sleep. 

Barbara: I didn't really wanna do it.  But, you know, was like, "Okay, okay, just to make you happy, I'll take a sleeping pill."

Dennis Murphy: So, here take some of these, huh?

Barbara: Yeah, and so then he finds that he hasn't mailed the taxes.  Now, all of the sudden, we've got to go mail the taxes 'cause it's the 15th. I get the keys, I'm ready to drive.  He said, "Well, you can't drive because you've had the sleeping pill." Okay, yeah, so, put on my coat and off we go.  It was raining and he was going too fast.  And i said, "slow down, john, slow down!  There's a 90-degree turn coming up ahead.  You're not gonna make it."  And just as I said that, all of the sudden, the car veers off to the right and missed the telephone pole and we ended up out in a field with broken glass.

Dennis Murphy: The car is really banged up.

Barbara: Really banged up.

Dennis Murphy: And the next day, you went back and looked at the skid marks?

Barbara: Yeah, and that's when it really was obvious that I had missed meeting my maker by about an inch or two.

But Barbara hardly had time to recuperate from the car wreck, much less process what it was about.  In August, John told her that he'd secured a $15,000 loan on a Perry family property in Florida -- all they had to do was go down there to pick up the check.

Dennis Murphy: You never did get the money that trip, did you?

Barbara: No.  No.

That's because on the way to the bank, John slumped over and clutched his chest: heart attack. 

Dennis Murphy: I mean, scary?

Barbara: Oh, scary, scary.  I rushed him to Mercy hospital.  He was in intensive care for three days, and then in a regular room for another three or four days. 

Back in the Florida hotel room, Barbara made a disturbing discovery.

Barbara: When I looked in his briefcase, I found a bunch of pill cases that were pills that john hadn't taken normally.  I also found this object wrapped in aluminum foil.  And I opened it up, and it was a gun.

Dennis Murphy: A gun?

Barbara: A gun!

John assured her that the gun was for their protection in Miami.  Barbara felt she had to believe him -- the alternative was unthinkable -- but that voice of self-preservation inside her was getting stronger.  

Two months later, John told Barbara he'd finally found work.  She knew he almost had his doctorate in psychology, and now the University of California was hiring him to teach while he finished his thesis. 

This time, Barbara demanded more proof than his psychology department contract. She wanted to see him lecture ...  but on the morning of his class, he woke up complaining.  

Barbara: John's going, "Oh, I don't feel good."  And I said, "Oh, what?" You know, "You're not gonna go teach today?"  "Well, I don't know."  I said, "You'll be fine." And we had steep stairs in the house.  And he says, "I can't go down the stairs."  And I said, "Just sit on your butt.  You can go down."  And then he goes, "Help me.  Help me." And so, against my better judgment, I let him lean on me.  And we both went down the stairs, all the way to the bottom. 

No broken bones for either, but Barbara was shaken -- and John cancelled his class.  In just a few months, she'd be pitched headlong into even greater chaos -- forced to wrestle her way out of the emotional and psychological stranglehold John Perry had held her in for almost a decade.  It would be the fight of her life, for her life.

It was now December of Barbara Bentley's Crazy Year.  And the close-call car wreck, the discovery that her husband John carried a gun and their tumble down the staircase -- bizarre episodes -- had pushed Barbara to the edge.  Nothing about life with John Perry was adding up anymore.  And a part of her sensed that if she didn't get to the bottom of it, it would be at her peril. 

Because this was the era before the Internet, Barbara started her hunt for answers at the local library. 

Dennis Murphy: So the question of your research was, "Who is this man I'm married to?"

Barbara: Yes.  Just trying to find some proof, something tangible that I could hold onto.

She found a biography of John's father -- Admiral John RICHARD Perry.  At least HE checked out.  The old photo even looked a bit like John.  But there was a glaring omission: "John" the son wasn't mentioned.  Not in Admiral Perry's obituary either.  Barbara made a beeline for the war history stacks: 

Barbara: And I went and found a book on the Congressional Medal Of Honor winners from Vietnam.  And John wasn't in the book.

Barbara then took her sleuthing to the streets, where she traced John to his teaching job at the university.  But his car wasn't there, and the school said the name "Perry" wasn't on their roster of professors.  Barbara then tried to track down his children -- but there was no astronaut son, no musician daughter.

One by one, John's stories weren't checking out.  Barbara now held some powerful cards against John Perry -- but she couldn't see how to play them.  Was John sick?  Was he a spy?  Barbara fervently wanted to believe a logical explanation could account for her husband's lies.  But before she could see her next move, john came home with good news. 

Barbara:  He comes home with this story that he's got another job with the government contract service.  And he was gonna go to Egypt to be part of a peace mission.  And it was a very good salary.  You know, we calculated it out.  We could be debt-free in the six months that he would be over there.

John may spin fishy stories about some topics, Barbara reasoned, but for years she and John had been socializing with his military contacts and overseas clients.  She decided the Egypt trip sounded legit -- and exciting.

But before the dream visit to the Pyramids Barbara had to squeeze in a quick business trip to Indianapolis.  That's when odd tilted toward ominous.  It started at the hotel restaurant, where after checking in, Barbara took a dinner table for one.

Barbara: I look up and here comes John Perry walking in. Carrying a little toiletry bag.  And I'm flabbergasted.

With a broad smile, John told Barbara he'd taken a break from preparations with his peace mission team to come surprise her.  And back in the hotel room, Barbara entered the bathroom where John was taking a shower -- and saw, carefully laid out on the counter, some surgical gloves -- and a strange amber bottle. 

Barbara: I said, "What is that?"  'Cause there's no label on it.  He says, "Oh, that's ether.  The doctor told me to put that on the owie I have on the back of my neck."  I said, "Ether?"  I said, "that stuff is lethal."

Dennis Murphy: It's only later you'd think about that trip differently, wouldn't you?

Barbara: Yes.

And there was yet another warning sign that Barbara didn't - perhaps couldn't - see.  On an outing to San Francisco's Japanese Tea Garden, John asked her to teach him how to use the video camera.

John: Luck is coming your way.

Barbara: Let's hope so!

He'd never expressed much interest in the gadget in the past, but now he was acting like Barbara wasn't going to be around for much longer to operate it. 

John: Here comes Barbara, she's walking too fast so I can't really pan on her...

The woman you see in this shaky footage has no idea that the person awkwardly manning the camera, her husband of more than eight years, would soon attempt to snuff out her life.

And now the Egyptian trip was finally underway -- or was it?  Once again, Barbara sensed John was up to something -- but what?  Dragging Barbara all over San Francisco, then onto a plane headed to Washington, John explained they needed to rendezvous with an elusive admiral who held their travel documents. 

Five days into the mind-numbingly confusing ordeal, they checked into a D.C.-area hotel.  Barbara, exhausted and with nerves frayed to the breaking point, had finally -- once and for all -- had enough. 

Barbara: I was just really crying.  And I said, "John, I can't take this anymore.  Either we're meeting with the admiral tomorrow morning or I'm going home.  That's it."  So I'm pushing John into a corner without realizing it.

Inside the hotel, down the end of the labyrinth of hallways set far away from everyone, Barbara made her way to their room.  John had already headed up. 

Barbara: Immediately, as I walked in, I smelled ether.  And, "what are you doing with the ether?"  I said, "John, come out of there."  And I got close enough to him that he could grab me.  And he tried to put a wash rag doused with ether on my face.  And I began a battle for my life. 

Barbara wrenched free and made it out of the room and into the deserted hallway to yell for help -- but John pulled her back in.

Barbara: He gets me on the ground.  And he pins me down. And iIcan see the jar above me (crying) with the last drop of ether coming out.  And now he throws it to the side and he has me pinned down.  And-- (sniffling) and out of the depths of my soul, I looked at him. I'm looking in these eyes.  I mean, these eyes are wild.  They're a beast.  And I looked at him and I say, "John, if there's a problem, we can talk about this." 

Barbara's words broke the spell of John's rage.  He rose off her chest and led her by the wrist to the bed.  Lying there, John Perry wearily explained to her that he had cancer, and had only wanted to knock Barbara out temporarily so he could end it all by jumping off a nearby bridge. 

Dennis Murphy: This is a moment where you buy the story or you don't, Barbara.

Barbara: I am so confused at this point, I don't know what the story is. I'm just kind of calming him down.  And I finally realized, "I need to leave this room or I won't leave this room alive."

So when it seemed that John had drifted off to sleep, Barbara, frantic, quietly tiptoed out of the room. 

Barbara: Ran as fast as I could to the main desk and told them "Please call the police.  My husband just tried to murder me with ether."

Toni: I get a phone call, like, 2:00 in the morning.  And it's Barbara in hysterics.  And the whole conversation I'm saying, "What?  What?  What?"

The story Barbara Bentley told Toni over the phone was jaw-dropping: That in a D.C.-area hotel bathroom, her husband John Perry had tried to smother her to death with ether.  John was now in jail, being investigated for attempted murder, while Barbara flew home to California.  Toni arrived at the airport to pick up a broken woman.

Toni: Her face was so scarred, and so scratched up.  And she looked like she was going to pass out.  And so she just came running to us, and we ran to her.  Everybody's in tears. 

Back home and with raw wounds in her heart that ached worse than her face, Barbara methodically dug through piles of paper, and each item she found tore down the false edifice of the life she thought she had, and the man she thought she'd married.  She found forged signatures - unauthorized withdrawals in the exact amount of John's supposed teaching salary - John's Department of Psychology contract, which he'd cobbled together from university stationery doctored with White-Out.

And -- something that put ice in her veins -- John's plane tickets from his surprise appearance on Barbara's Indianapolis business trip:

Dennis Murphy: What do you think was supposed to happen on that trip?

Barbara: I think he was going to try to kill me. He would kill me by ether asphyxiation. And he was always saying, "Now, if you died on a business trip, you'd get a lot more money from the company, right?"  And I said, "Yes, John.  Yeah."

Barbara saw clearly for the first time those other strange events of the past year -- that tumble down the stairs, the odd car crash, the gun stuffed into John's briefcase in Florida.

Dennis Murphy: Certainly three attempts, you believe, but maybe four, maybe five?

Barbara: Yes. 

There was no escaping it -- there'd never been a diplomatic mission to Egypt.  And that ether attack had nothing to do with John having cancer -- or wanting to commit suicide.  Barbara's husband of eight years, the man she stood by, supported and loved, had ruthlessly tried to murder her.  

And now with everything in question, Barbara needed to know: was her husband really a rear admiral with the Navy?  She placed a call to another admiral they once socialized with.

Barbara:  When I called him, he says, "Well, don't you know about the FBI?"  And I said, "What do you mean?"  "Well, they're investigating him for impersonating an officer.  He's not a retired rear admiral."

Dennis Murphy: So now this question, that you've asked periodically in your marriage, almost in a rhetorical kind of fashion, "John, who are you?"

Barbara: "John, who are you?"

Dennis Murphy: Becomes a very valid question.

Barbara: Right.

Dennis Murphy:  "Who are you, john perry?"

Barbara: Right.

Not only that, the detective investigating the ether attack told Barbara that her husband had used several aliases in the past, including Calliet Delvin, Guy D. Delvin, Daniel F. Malley, Robert Lee Stuart, and Thomas John Mudge.  He also told Barbara that John Perry -- whoever he was -- had been arrested in the past for auto theft, passport fraud, and multiple counts of credit card fraud.   

Dennis Murphy: Did you feel like you'd been an awful fool all these years?

Barbara: No.  No.  Why should I be a fool if the navy was fooled, if friends were fooled, if family was fooled?  Nobody ever came and said, "Hey, this guy is crooked.  This guy is evil. This guy is, you know, you shouldn't be with him, he's gonna try to murder you." Nobody said that.

In fact, Barbara's friends were as flabbergasted as she was. 

Pam: We were good friends.  And so how could he do this?  How could he do this to her? 

Don:  I just didn't think that he would be capable of something like that.  There was no indication. And all of a sudden it just totally came unraveled in a heartbeat.  And that's the shock.

Now Barbara knew who her husband of more than eight years wasn't ... but she had nothing concrete to fill the void.  And in typical fashion, the cipher once known as John Perry wasn't talking. But he had one last card to play, one his defense attorney to would use at his trial for attempted murder.  What would a jury believe?

Ten years after meeting John Perry, Barbara sat in court awaiting his trial for attempted murder on her life.  If he didn't get thrown behind bars, her life could once again be in danger. And now his defense attorney told the jury a sad tale of a man dying of cancer, who wanted to knock his wife unconscious with ether just long enough to kill himself.

The jury didn't buy it -- John Perry was found guilty.  But Barbara's victory was so short-lived that it only caused more anxiety.

Dennis Murphy: He was convicted of first-degree attempted murder?

Barbara: First-degree attempted murder. Sentenced to five years in jail, and made parole in less than one year.

Dennis Murphy: So, all of a sudden, he's out?

Barbara: Yeah.

Toni: She had a couple of panic attacks. She had nightmares, nightmares that he would come back and get her, whether there was a restraining order or not.

And Barbara knew better than anyone what this man was capable of because she'd lived it -- all those years he'd bamboozled so many -- for so long.  He'd rubbed shoulders with the country's top brass, traveled the world as a bon vivant... Why, he'd even been saluted by a president.  And no one seemed to wise up to his fabrications.

How did he do it?  With a lot of cunning and a lot of planning, decades spent spinning a life for himself. By the time he'd bought the war medals and uniforms, forged all those documents and credentials, memorized combat histories that he told as his own. He'd built himself an armor plated red, white and blue persona.  Most of all, he could sell his elaborate charade.

All lies, of course, but not the kind of things you'd want to call someone out on.  Few who met John Perry didn't feel privileged to pipe the admiral aboard into their lives.  And, funnily enough, at the heart of all those autobiographical whoppers, there was a kernel of truth.

Barbara: I found out he was the black sheep of the family. 

Still digging for answers, Barbara was able to track down Admiral John Richard Perry's widow, who revealed that John WAS in fact Admiral Perry's true son from a previous marriage.  The woman also told Barbara that unlike the father, John Jr. the son never made it past the enlisted ranks.  There'd been an accident ... John dove into a hotel swimming pool and hit his head.  Once discharged from the military, John started acting erratically and getting into trouble with the law.  He'd even spent time in a mental institution, without improvement.  His heartbroken father died prematurely, and the other Perrys never spoke much of John.

But what had happened now to John Perry, the black sheep son?  For years after the ether attack, Barbara felt she needed to keep tabs on him for her safety.  Here's what she says she was able to piece together to the best of her knowledge:

Once out of prison it appeared that John was soon at it again, impersonating variously an admiral, a navy captain, a doctor of psychology, a director of a hospital, and a former undersecretary of commerce.  And he quickly inserted himself into another woman's life, but things there soon turned sour.  Over a fight about money, he barricaded himself into a bedroom, telling the woman he was going to shoot himself.

Barbara: She had been warned through a friend that I had talked to, "Be careful. Because he is gonna try to murder you."

Perhaps heeding Barbara's warning, the woman didn't open the bedroom door. 

Barbara: I believe if she had gone and touched that door, that she would be dead today, that he would've shot through the door and said it was an accident cleaning the gun.  Because they had already changed their wills, and he was going to inherit all her money. 

The next morning, John was found dead on the kitchen floor.  The autopsy revealed he'd died of an overdose of drugs.  Barbara recognized the list of medications as some of the same ones she'd found in his briefcase in Florida -- which she now thinks he took to fake the symptoms of his heart attack. 

Barbara:  And this time either he was too old or took the wrong concoction.  But he died.

Dennis Murphy: What do you hear when the phone rings, and, "Barbara, John Perry's dead"?

Barbara:  I cried.  I cried again, because there was that part of him that seemed like a wonderful person beyond the evil part of him.

Dennis Murphy: And you were saying even with everything that's happened, you can look at his picture today, and still feel a little twinge, a little bit of affection.

Barbara: Well, because I was in love with the man. And for me, there's two people there.  There's this person that I loved, and then there's this evil person that lurked underneath.

Dennis Murphy: But how could he have his fingers in your brain, in your emotional being even after all that time and everything he'd done?

Barbara: We had had a lot of good times together.  And you don't throw out all the good times because you've had some bad times. 

Dennis Murphy: Maybe you do if it's attempted murder.

Barbara: He still was a human being.  You know?

Perry the conman is starting to recede from Barbara's life. She's now happily remarried, and speaks to groups about victims' rights and the painful lessons she learned from a man she now believes was a psychopath.  She's also set down a memoir of her ordeal. The book, out now, is aptly titled A Dance With The Devil. 

Dennis Murphy: Are you still back in that motel bathroom some nights in your sleep?

Barbara: There are dreams of him trying to take advantage of me again, or chasing me.  You know, unfortunately those will be with me until the day I die.  But, they're not that often.  And you know, I wake up and I've got a wonderful husband beside me.  And my little kitty cat snuggled and realized that you know, that's a ghost from the past.

Barbara successfully lobbied to change the divorce law in the state of California, which she believed punished the victims of domestic violence more than the perpetrators. 

The FBI gave Barbara back all of John's medals except for one, the Medal of Honor - which Barbara eventually found buried in the soil of an old planter.  But she could never find any connection between John and Robert Perry, who claimed to have discovered the North Pole.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive. Reprints

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