‘A combination of ambition, drive and a heart bigger than you can imagine’

LOWELL — It has been almost two weeks since 32-year-old Elizabeth Barnes died in a single-engine plane crash in western New York and her father still has hundreds of sympathy cards to go through.

Aside from Elizabeth Barnes — a former assistant district attorney in the Middlesex DA’s Office — Richard Barnes also lost his brother in the crash.

Brother Stephen Barnes was piloting the plane that went down in a western New York town on Oct. 2. He was flying his niece Elizabeth Barnes to Buffalo for a family get together in honor of his mother’s 90th birthday.

“We were all awaiting their arrival and then we heard this horrific news,” Richard Barnes said. “This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me in my 65 years of life.”

Elizabeth Barnes grew up in Orchard Park, N.Y., a suburb of Buffalo. Richard Barnes recalls his daughter knew early on in high school that she wanted to follow in the career footsteps of several of her family members.

Richard Barnes was an attorney at the Buffalo-based personal injury law firm Cellino & Barnes, which was co-founded by Stephen Barnes. Most people living in New York state have driven by billboards brandishing the firm’s name or have found themselves humming the firm’s catchy commercial jingle.

Elizabeth Barnes’ mother, Deborah Sorbini-Barnes — who she idolized — served as an assistant U.S. attorney in Buffalo. In 2006, when Elizabeth Barnes was 16 years old, her mother died from cancer. She was 51.

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Sorbini-Barnes’ death was traumatic for Elizabeth Barnes and her younger brother Brian Barnes. Richard said he thinks the tragedy also inspired his daughter.

After graduating from Orchard Park High School, she was set to go to the University of Rochester, where she had received a scholarship.

“I asked her if she wanted to take some time off, and she said, ‘No. Mom would want me to go,’” Richard Barnes said. “And she did. And she excelled.

“She was a combination of ambition, drive and a heart bigger than you can imagine,” he added.

Elizabeth Barnes later received a scholarship to attend George Washington University Law School, in Washington D.C. From there, she was admitted to the bar in Massachusetts in 2013. That same year, she started to work at the Middlesex DA’s Office.

Middlesex DA Marian Ryan points out Elizabeth Barnes spent time in Lowell and Ayer District courts. She also became involved with the office’s Juvenile and Young Adult Diversion Program, designed to work with eligible young offenders as an alternative to prosecution.

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“Liz was somebody who made a great contribution to the office,” Ryan said. “She was a very good lawyer and she was somebody who was very committed to helping the community.”

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Ryan recalls feeling stunned when she heard about the crash. It was just a few days prior when Ryan said her and others in the office were laughing about a notorious T-shirt that Elizabeth Barnes — a die-hard Buffalo Bills fan — would wear to poke-fun at the local New England Patriots fanbase.

“She was famous for wearing her ‘I hate Tom Brady’ shirt whenever the Patriots were playing,” Ryan said. “So we were all laughing about that as the Patriots were getting ready to play.”

Since her death, Ryan said the DA’s Office is planning a remembrance event in honor of Elizabeth Barnes, as is the area defense bar.

“She was somebody who emboied what we hoped for in a young lawyer and she was really an exceptionally nice person,” Ryan said. “A gentle spirit. She made a connection with a lot people in our office and the defense bar.”

Elizabeth Barnes left the Middlesex DA’s Office in 2019 and took a job as an assistant regional counsel at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Boston.

During her life, Elizabeth Barnes had offers at big law firms but she was drawn to public service instead of the big payday, just like her mother, according to her father.

“Money wasn’t a driving factor in her life,” Richard Barnes said. “I think enjoying her life was.”

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According to an Associated Press article, the single-engine Socata TBM-700 that carried Elizabeth and Stephen Barnes crashed about 11:45 a.m. Oct. 2 in a wooded area near Pembroke, N.Y. The plane took off from Manchester, N.H. and was about 30 miles west of its destination in Buffalo when it crashed.

Neighbors described the plane making a loud, whining noise, then dropping into a wooded area and exploding, Genesee County Sheriff William Sheron said in the AP article.

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The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the cause of the crash.

“Of course, knowing the answer won’t change the result, but my family firmly believes that given my brother’s skills, training and expertise with this plane, mechanical error is the cause,” Richard Barnes said.

Follow Aaron Curtis on Twitter @aselahcurtis

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