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The Terrible Secret That Led To A Beloved Child Star's Murder

Lighting Their Way Home

It’s hard to imagine that a child’s life could be filled with anything but love and affection, but for young Judith Barsi, her childhood was anything but ordinary. Some may assume that becoming a Hollywood star would be the dream, but for Judith, her dream quickly turned into a nightmare.

How It All Started

Judith was discovered when she was only five years old. It was 1983, and the young girl was at a skating rink at the same time that a commercial was being shot. The crew members noticed her and helped her land her first commercial for Donald Duck Orange Juice.

She would go on to star in over 50 commercials in her short career. Her parents were thrilled with their child’s success, at least at first. Her parents, Joszef and Maria Barsi, were both from Hungary. They met in California where they were married and had their daughter. It was well known that Maria had always wanted their daughter to become a star.

But she didn’t know that it was that drive that would create a situation that would lead to her daughter’s death.

Judith’s Career

Judith and her mother got along great. They were close and spent all of their time together. Between commercial shoots and her new television roles, Judith got to spend a lot of time with her mom, reading books and telling jokes. Maria even taught her daughter Hungarian so they would have their own secret language to speak when they were out in public.

Judith missed out on a lot of schooling because of her busy shooting schedule. Even though she was a happy little girl, she missed her friends. However, her hard work was paying off. The young actress became the go-to girl for commercials and voice-over roles after becoming the most memorable part of The Land Before Time when she voiced Ducky. Her “Yep, yep, yep,” is still remembered to this day by everyone who watched that movie when they were a kid.

By the time she was 7 years old, she was making $100,000 per year. Her earnings were enough to purchase a home for her family and help them come off of welfare. The problem was that her father was not the man everyone thought he was.

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Behind the smiles, Judith was hiding a dark secret. The young child had been going through a horrible time at home. Her father, Jozsef, was not what he appeared to be. While Maria was doing her best to give her daughter the life she wanted, Jozsef was becoming increasingly abusive.

Traumatic Childhood

As his daughter’s fame grew, so did his rage. He seemed to become jealous of his child’s ability to provide for their family as he had been having no luck. He became paranoid and angry, blaming Judith for anything and everything.

When they were outside of the house, he would act as though everything was fine, calling her “Little One” in a loving way. But when they returned home, he would scream at her and her mother, threatening their lives regularly.

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Their neighbors started to notice the issues, with one reporting that they saw Maria hand Judith a new kite to play with, but then Jozsef grabbed it from her hands, yelling “you’re going to break it!” at her. He allegedly looked at the neighbors and said “look at her! She’s such a spoiled brat and doesn’t want to share her new toy!” But instead of giving it back to her or just putting it away, he broke the kite into pieces in front of his daughter.

Jozsef’s behavior continued to grow more and more erratic and aggressive. By 1986, Maria finally called the police, reporting that Jozsef hit her and choked her, but the police could not find any evidence of physical abuse so she dropped the charges.

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Apparently this incident didn’t stop him at all. When Judith was cast in Jaws: The Revenge in the Bahamas, Maria was scheduled to go with her to the shoot. Before they left, Jozsef held a knife to his daughter’s throat and said “if you decide not to come back, I will cut your throat.”

She came back, but her stress levels rose. According to her agent, when she came back he ended up pulling out all of her eyelashes as a coping mechanism. The threats continued, and Jozsef even, according to his friend Peter Kivlen “told me 500 times he was going to kill his wife. I’d try to calm him down. I’d tell him, ‘If you kill her, what will happen to your little one?’” But Jozsef would just say “I got to kill her too.”

It didn’t take long after this incident for everything to come crashing down.

The Escape Plan

It wasn’t until Judith, now 10 years old, broke down at an audition for All Dogs Go To Heaven that anyone thought to call child services. Maria brought her daughter to a child psychologist who was able to identify signs of severe physical and emotional abuse, and an investigation was launched.

Maria was able to convince the case worker to drop the investigation after assuring them that she would be filing for divorce and moving to an apartment with Judith that she had already rented. But apparently, she didn’t want to leave her home, and instead tried to force Jozsef out. Maria told her neighbors that she planned on cashing the tax rebate that Judith was supposed to receive, and that $12,000 would be a good start for their new life. But they never got the chance.

The Murder of Judith Barsi

The anger and jealousy he felt for his child and wife erupted on Monday, July 25th, 1988, just one week after Maria had told the neighbors she was about to leave. Judith was seen riding her bike on the street earlier in the day, but that night Jozsef walked into his daughter’s room and shot her in her head. When Maria ran to the room to see what had happened, he shot her as well, leaving her body in the hallway.

Universal

He was said to spend the next two days wandering around his home while the bodies of his wife and child lay there. After a few days, Judith’s agent called, and when asked about her, Jozef replied that he just needed “to say goodbye to my little girl.” After speaking with the agent, he poured gasoline over the bodies, and lit them on fire. He then went into the garage and shot himself in the head.

Eunice Daly, their neighbor, remembered hearing the sound of the final gunshot and, seeing the smoke rising from the house, said “he’s done it. He’s killed them and set a fire in the house.” Firefighters were called to the gruesome scene, and it leaves you wondering how this could happen.

As it turns out, this abusive history started long before his daughter was even born, with his first wife and their children.

Jozsef’s Controversial Past

These allegations weren’t the only ones against Jozsef. Maria was actually his second wife. When he was 19, he fled Hungary and settled in France where he met a woman named Klara. The two were married and had two children, Barna and Agi. Shortly after the wedding, the abuse began.

It started with his wife, but extended to the children as time went on. Five years later, Klara tried to flee, but when he found her he threw a cast iron skillet at her head. She managed to get a divorce and get the kids away from him, but obviously it didn’t stop him from hurting others.

Controversy Surrounding the Investigation

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The LA Times revealed that there were questions raised against Child Protective Services, because the investigation should have never been called off. The commission was asked to review their client file for the first time and they were “not pleased” with how the department handled the case.

Helen Kleinerg a member of the watchdog Commission for Children’s Services was upset that the CPS closed the case, as it wasn’t solved yet. "From my point of view, the child was the client," not the mother.” She believed that even though the mother claimed to be making the effort to fix it, they should have been monitoring them more closely to prevent this from happening.

Their Final Resting Place

Judith and her mother were both buried together in unmarked graves shortly after their deaths. Jozsef was buried in an unknown location, likely away from his family. It was 16 years after their passing that the public decided to donate to get them each a proper headstone, giving Judith and Maria the burial they deserved. Judith’s headstone features the quote from her favorite movie she ever made, Land Before Time, that her character Ducky was known for.

Judith Barsi’s story is one that is filled with heartbreak and loss, but it does provide a valuable lesson to people now. If you suspect that someone is hurting their child, you should do something. Don’t just try to calm them down, notify the proper authorities before it’s too late.

Sources: Lighting Their Way Home; Real Life Villains; LA Times

Tanya has been writing for Shared for two years. She spends too much time thinking about dogs, Marvel movies, and ice cream. You can reach me at tanya@shared.com