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Sep 1, 2008 11:08 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Police question daughter in murder case

Sep 1, 2008 11:08 AM

A 100-year-old woman was found shot to death in her North Haven home on Sunday, and while police have questioned the victim’s 76-year-old daughter, with whom she lived, they have not yet made any arrests.

The Suffolk County Police Department Homicide Squad said the body of Jessie Burke was found in her home at 36 Payne Avenue at approximately 12:45 p.m. by her daughter, Margaret Jean Burke, who owns the house and lived with her mother. There was no evidence of a break-in and nothing was stolen, police said. Suicide has been ruled out, police said.

On Tuesday, criminal defense attorney Colin Astarita of Southampton, who is representing Margaret Jean Burke, said his client emphatically denies involvement with the crime and is cooperating fully with police. Mr. Astarita said police had taken a rifle that belongs to his client from the house, and were testing it. Officers also took the clothes she was wearing Sunday, swabbed her hands to determine if there was gunpowder residue on them, and took her car for examination. The attorney said Ms. Burke gave police permission to search the house, and that she and her family—a sister lives in Sag Harbor, and brothers live in California and Florida—are “terribly upset.”

Ms. Burke told police that she had returned home after shopping and running errands for an hour on Sunday afternoon when she found her mother’s body, according to Detective Lieutenant Jack Fitzpatrick, commanding officer of the Suffolk County Police Homicide Squad, at a press conference at Suffolk County Police headquarters in Yaphank on Monday. Her mother had been shot in the back of the head as she sat in a chair, working on a crossword puzzle in the den, according to police.

Det. Lt. Fitzpatrick said the time of death was in keeping with the time Ms. Burke said she had discovered the body and reported it to police.

The younger Ms. Burke was taken in for questioning Sunday evening and then taken to her sister’s home, according to authorities.

Det. Lt. Fitzpatrick would not comment on what type of gun had been used or if it had been recovered. On Monday, he maintained that police so far had no evidence to indicate Ms. Burke was the shooter. “I’m leaving my options open,” he added.

Mr. Astarita said on Wednesday that homicide detectives should have already received ballistics results and would have made an immediate arrest if evidence pointed to Ms. Burke. “As a resident of the town, I’m concerned,” the attorney said, explaining that if his client hasn’t been arrested, there could be a killer at large.

The detective downplayed any possibility that the incident was a random crime, saying that North Haven residents should not be concerned about a killer in their midst because there was no forced entry or property stolen from the scene. On Tuesday, he said his department does not update cases after an initial report is made to the press.

On Monday morning, a neighbor said that Ms. Burke, a former corrections officer who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of North Haven in 1994, was not in handcuffs when she was taken into police custody on Sunday. “She looked pretty shook up,” said the neighbor, Robbie Vorhaus, who lives several houses down the street.

Mr. Vorhaus said police had placed Ms. Burke in an unmarked police cruiser at about 8 p.m. on Sunday. When a detective became momentarily distracted, she stepped from the car and told onlookers that she was “in a daze.” Moments afterward, she was returned to the car and was driven away.

Mr. Vorhaus said he did not know the Burkes well and that they kept to themselves. “I don’t think anyone can remember anything like this in North Haven,” he added.

Det. Lt. Fitzpatrick said the murder is “out of character” for the area and on Tuesday he added that he could not recall another murder in North Haven in recent history. He said the victim turned 100 on August 7 and was not known to be ill. She did the New York Times crossword puzzle every day and could get around well on her own, Det. Lt. Fitzpatrick said. “Ms. Burke was quite spry for her age,” he added.

Her daughter has been described as a “tough” woman by community members and officials in the case, including Mr. Astarita. Recalling Ms. Burke’s opposition to a village plan to thin the deer herd through a special hunt in the 1990s, former North Haven Mayor Bob Ratcliffe said she was “one of the most difficult people I’ve dealt with in my life.”

Mr. Ratcliffe said that she was part of an animal-rights coalition and was ejected from village meetings for rude behavior. “She didn’t respect our authority,” he said. “No one was free of Jean’s wrath.”

Since her crusade to stop the hunt, Mr. Ratcliffe said Ms. Burke “kind of like dropped out of sight” and he had heard and seen little from her over the last decade.

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