Maria Benko came from Hungary fleeting the 1956 Soviet Occupation to Los Angeles, CA where she worked as a waitress. Maria wanted to settle down and desperately wanted a baby. She met Jozsef Barsi there when he came to one of her tables laying down 100-dollar bills. She was attracted to his he-man attitude.
Judith was born on the 6th of June in 1978. Maria, herself, aspired to be an actress but never made it. The odds that Judith would become an actress were 10,000 to 1 but she beat those odds when she was discovered at age 5 at a San Fernando Valley Skating Rink. She was mistaken for a three-year-old child. One of Ruth’s clients was doing a commercial and brought her in. Judith was cute, precocious, intelligent and a lot of fun to work with.
They signed her on immediately.
She would appear in 70 commercials, four made for television movies, and three big screen movies.
Denise Galik-Furey, a co-star from Eye of the Tiger, said of Judith:
“She seemed like such a sweet, down-to-earth kid. She was a happy, happy little girl that I could see with her mom. She had that look. We were impressed by that.”
Don Bluth, who directed her twice, agreed: Ducky was played by a 5 year old, Judith Barsi. She also was Ann Marie, the little girl in “All Dogs Go To Heaven.” She was absolutely astonishing. She understood verbal direction, even for the most sophisticated situations. We loved working with her.”
But, in 1985, Judith’s 7-year-old life became a sheer nightmare. Her $100,000 income bought them a four-bedroom house on West Hills on a quiet street. The first thing Jozsef did was have a fence with iron spikes built all the way around the house. A neighbor said of him that he would always keep the conversation to a minimum and was very secretive. To deal with the daily frustrations of his daughter’s career and income, he would reach for the bottle; he often became frustrated. Whenever he was drunk, he was violent and abusive. He would threaten to kill his wife and then beat her.
One night while having a party at their house, Jozsef was enraged by all the attention his daughter was getting from their guests. She had gone into the kitchen and her father followed her. Calling her a “damn little brat”, he seized her ponytail and thrust her onto the floor. Judith told no one about this incident with the exception of an elementary school friend.
Soon after, Judith landed a major role in Jaws: the Revenge, filmed in the Bahamas. The night before she left for shooting Jozsef grabbed a large kitchen knife and pulled her head back, placing the blade right on her throat. “If you don’t come back,” he hissed, “I will find you and kill you!” Judith was hysterical and told her mother. Everyday, it was getting worse. Judith did the only thing she knew to do: she went to adults around for help. But it couldn’t be stopped.
Ruth noticed that Judith had plucked her eyebrows out, had no eyelashes, and had plucked out all her cats’ whiskers in a mood of stress.
“When I asked why, [she did that] she said it was because of all the problems at home,” Ruth said.
Ruth referred Judith to a child psychologist. The psychologist said the verbal, mental, emotional and physical abuse was so bad that they must file a report as soon as possible. The psychologist explained to Maria she also must fill out a report and turn it in. She did, but no one followed up on it.
Friends and neighbors encouraged Maria to leave with Judith, but she was reluctant to do so. At first she would say that she worked too long and hard on her daughter’s career, but as time went on, she admitted, “I can’t because he’ll will find us and kill us!” Maria was sure that if CPS took Judith away that Jozsef would blame her and she’d be “a dead woman”–thus, Judith would have no one to look after her.
Maria later had the case be dropped because Jozsef had convinced her he would grant her a divorce and move out.
Wednesday, July 27, 1988: Judith Barsi was found in her bed on her left side, panties and nightgown on, apparently still asleep. Moving her elbow revealed that she had been shot clean through her head. She died instantly. She was 10 years old. When Maria heard the shot, she came running toward Judith’s room. Jozsef met her in the hall. She was found there, face down, nightgown also still on. She was 48 years old. Jozsef then proceeded to drench their bodies in gasoline and set them on fire. He then went into the garage, put the gun to his own temple, and pulled the trigger. He was 55 years old. The bullet passed through the garage door.