József Istvan "Arizona Joe" Barsi (November 26, 1932 - July 27th, 1988) was a Hungarian-American plumbing contractor and banjo/fiddle musician who was best known as the father of child actress Judith Barsi. Burdened by low self-esteem, stemming from mockery over his Hungarian accent and the social rejection he suffered in Hungary, József developed a drinking problem and a paranoid personality which was to torment him throughout his life, culminating in him murdering his wife and daughter before taking his own life.
József was born on November 26, 1932, in a "[rough] industrial" area of Hungary, during the reign of Admiral Horthy. His surname indicates that his ancestors probably came from Bars, modern day Tekov in Slovakia. An illegitimate child, József never knew his father and suffered from social rejection and bullying by other children and from his own school teachers. His first daughter, Ági, later speculated that József resented his mother for allowing his father to abandon him, and consequently viewed all women as "whores".
At age 19, József fled his now Communist-ruled homeland after the 1956 Soviet occupation. He initially settled in France and married a fellow Hungarian refugee named Klara, with whom he had two children, a son named Barna (1957-1995), and a daughter named Ági (1958-2008). József soon developed a drinking problem and began to physically abuse his wife.
After the family moved to New York in 1964, József extended his abuse to his son Barna, prompting Klara to escape with the children to Arizona five years later. Although József attempted to reconcile himself with his family, Klara filed for divorce after he threw a cast iron skillet at her in a drunken rage. Shortly after the divorce, József moved to California, where he worked as a plumbing contractor. There, he met Maria Virovacz, a waitress in a Los Angeles restaurant known as a meeting place for immigrants.
Maria, herself a Hungarian immigrant escaping the Soviet occupation, was born in rural southern Hungary, and suffered psychological and physical abuse from her father. The two married, and Judith's birth quickly followed in Los Angeles, California, where Judith was raised.
Maria Barsi soon began grooming her daughter to become an actress. At the age of five, Judith was discovered at a skating rink. She went on to appear in more than 70 commercials and guest-starring roles on television.
As Judith's career success increased, József became increasingly abusive, jealous, and paranoid, and would routinely threaten to kill himself, his wife, and daughter. His alcoholism worsened and resulted in him getting arrested three times for drunk driving. In December 1986, Maria reported his threats to the police and also reported that József had hit her in the face and choked her. After police found no physical signs of abuse, Maria eventually decided not to press charges against József.
After the incident, József reportedly stopped drinking but continued to threaten and abuse his wife and daughter. Before Judith left to shoot Jaws: The Revenge in the Bahamas, József threatened Judith with a knife, telling her, "If you decide not to come back, I will cut your throat." Maria stated that József showed her where he kept his gasoline and warned her that he intended to burn the house down if she and Judith left. He reportedly hid a telegram informing Maria that a relative in Hungary had died, in an attempt to prevent her and Judith from leaving America. Judith told her best friend that József, in a fit of rage, once threw pots and pans at her in the kitchen, giving her a nosebleed. Due to her father's abuse, Judith began putting on weight and plucking out her eyelashes and pulling out her cat's whiskers. After breaking down in front of her agent during a singing audition for All Dogs Go to Heaven, Judith was taken by Maria to a child psychologist, who identified severe physical and emotional abuse and reported her findings to Child Protective Services.
The investigation was dropped after Maria assured the case worker that she intended to start divorce proceedings against József and that she and Judith were going to move into a Panorama City apartment she had recently rented as a daytime haven away from József. Friends urged Maria to follow through with the plan, but she resisted reportedly because she did not want to lose the family home and belongings. As József was obsessed with cleanliness, Maria stopped cleaning the family home in a bid to drive him out. Judith's half-sister Ági visited the house and later described it as a "living pigpen". A week before the murder-suicide, Maria told a next-door neighbor that she intended to cash her daughter's $12,000 federal tax refund check before József could get it.
Judith was last seen on the morning of Monday, July 25, 1988, while she was riding her bike on her street. On that same night, József shot Judith in the head while she was asleep in her room. Maria, hearing the gunshot, ran down the hall, where József met her and shot her as well. József spent the next two days wandering around the house, and said during a phone call with Judith's agent on Tuesday night that he intended to move out for good, and just needed time to "say goodbye to [my] little girl." Then, he poured gasoline on the bodies and set the two of them on fire. Later, he went into the garage and shot himself in the head with a .32 caliber pistol.
While Judith and Maria were buried together in an unmarked grave on August 9, 1988, the location of József's grave is a mystery, and so is whether he was even buried or cremated, or simply decomposed on the ground.
Jozsef's son from his first marriage, Barna, became a chronic alcoholic and committed suicide by throwing himself off a bridge in Scottsdale, Arizona in 1995. His first daughter, Ági, developed breast cancer in 1997 and became a radio talk show host and an author of self-help books. She succumbed to her cancer in 2008.
- Johnson, J. A Script of Fear : Repeated Threats by Father of Child Actress Carried to Tragic End, LA Times (August 7, 1988)
- Judith Barsi in Memoriam
- DEATH OF A FAMILY - Judith Barsi's story, Arnold Shapiro Productions (1989)
- Barsi, Ági (1999), What will you do?, A Better Life, ISBN 0967169399
- Local News in Brief : Child-Abuse Files Ordered Opened, LA Times (August 23, 1988)
- Girl who appeared on 'Growing Pains' told show's star: My dad says he's going to kill me! The National Enquirer, (September 9, 1988)
- A Lesson Learned From Family Tragedy, LA Times (September 18, 1988)
- Inquiry in Barsi Case Dropped Too Soon, Panel Says, LA Times (September 7, 1988)
- Three Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide, LA Times (July 28, 1988)
- Local News in Brief : Bodies Identified as Child Actress, Mother, LA Times (July 29, 1988)
- Child Actress Is Slain, Apparently by Father, NY Times (July 30, 1988)