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Sep 9, 2008 4:33 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

North Haven murder remains unsolved

Sep 9, 2008 4:33 PM

Concerned residents of the quiet neighborhood in North Haven Village where a 100-year-old woman was found shot to death on Sunday, August 30, are locking their doors for the first time in years and criticizing police who have yet to make an arrest or allay fears that a killer might be on the loose.

“Is this a random killing? Do they know who did it?” asked neighbor Robbie Vorhaus, who lives just a few houses down from the scene of the murder on Payne Avenue. “Don’t tell us we’re safe.”

Mr. Vorhaus said that as the days go by and police remain quiet, concern is growing in the small community. “Police don’t seem to understand that we’re a quiet neighborhood where there’s never been a murder,” he said. “Either they don’t know who did it, they know who did it but don’t have the evidence, or somewhere in between.”

Last week, the Suffolk County Police Department Homicide Squad reported that the body of centenarian Jessie Burke was found in her home at 36 Payne Avenue at approximately 12:45 p.m. by her daughter, 76-year-old Margaret Jean Burke, who lived with her mother and owns the house. There was no evidence of a break-in, nothing was stolen, and suicide has been ruled out, police said.

Police have questioned Ms. Burke, but they have not identified her as a suspect. Meanwhile, no arrest has been made, and investigators have said they will not publicly update the case until an arrest is made.

The criminal defense attorney who is representing Ms. Burke, Colin Astarita of Southampton, said his client denies involvement with the crime and has cooperated fully with police. Mr. Astarita said police had taken a rifle that belongs to his client from the house and also took the clothes she was wearing the day of the crime, swabbed her hands to determine if there was gunpowder residue on them, and took her car for examination. The attorney said Ms. Burke willingly allowed police to search her house.

Detective Lieutenant Jack Fitzpatrick, commanding officer of the Suffolk County Police Homicide Squad and lead investigator in the case, said that Ms. Burke told investigators she had returned home after shopping and running errands for an hour that Sunday afternoon when she found her mother’s body. He would not comment on what type of gun had been used or if a potential murder weapon had been recovered, but police officers were seen searching the grounds for evidence following the murder.

Mr. Astarita said ballistics results on the rifle and the victim should be complete, and Ms. Burke would already be in custody if police could find evidence to connect her to the crime. He said he fears there could be a killer at large.

Det. Lt. Fitzpatrick has shown little concern that the incident was a random crime and said North Haven residents should not worry. He said there was no sign of forced entry or property stolen from the scene. He continued to minimize the community’s cause for concern this week, but reiterated that taking precautions is always wise.

The detective rejected Mr. Astarita’s claims that an arrest should be made by now if evidence pointed to Ms. Burke, but he refused further comment, explaining that he did not intend to compromise the case.

A neighbor on a nearby street, Missie Mahoney, said that she and her boyfriend, Jeremy Karl, are now locking their house for the first time and “checking everything” at night. “These are things we’ve never done before,” Ms. Mahoney said. “I close the windows on the first floor.”

Mr. Vorhaus said he’d seen an unmarked police car at 1 p.m. last Wednesday afternoon monitoring Payne Avenue, which adds to his fears that the case is not going the way police expected. “The bottom line is, we look to the Southampton Police for protection,” Mr. Vorhaus said, adding that people no longer feel safe in their homes. “It’s putting tremendous pressure on the neighborhood.”

On Tuesday, Southampton Town Police Detective Sergeant Randy Hintze said that Suffolk County Police are leading the investigation, and his department is assisting. He had no reassurances for North Haven residents, saying only, “I stand by the statements made by Detective Lieutenant Fitzpatrick.”

North Haven Village Mayor Laura M. Nolan refused to accept a phone call asking for a comment on the case on Tuesday, and her husband, John, said it would be unlikely that she would return calls. Other members of the North Haven Village Board did not answer or return calls this week.

By the end of last week, the police tape around the Burke home had been removed and the parade of media on Payne Avenue was gone, according to Mr. Vorhaus. “It’s like everything has gone back to normal, except there’s an unsolved murder,” he said, questioning whether an arrest would come at all. “There will be a dark haze that will forever shadow this neighborhood, of whether or not police allowed a murderer to go free,” Mr. Vorhaus added.

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