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Sep 30, 2008 3:39 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Expert offers theories on North Haven murder case delay

Sep 30, 2008 3:39 PM

More than a month after the investigation began, the August 31 murder of a 100-year-old North Haven woman remains unsolved, but police and one local criminologist say the wait for an arrest is not unusual and the community has little to fear.

The body of centenarian Jessie Burke was found in her home at 36 Payne Avenue at approximately 12:45 p.m. that Sunday by her 76-year-old daughter, Margaret Jean Burke, with whom she lived.

At a press conference shortly after the Suffolk County Police Department Homicide Squad was called to the murder scene, Detective Lieutenant Jack Fitzpatrick, commanding officer of the Homicide Squad, said suicide had been ruled out, but because there was no evidence of a break-in and nothing was stolen, North Haven residents should not be concerned that the act was a random killing.

Police immediately focused on the surviving Ms. Burke, swabbed her hands for gunpowder residue, took her clothes and car for examination, and even removed a rifle from the home, according to Southampton criminal defense attorney Colin Astarita, who is representing the victim’s daughter. Though Ms. Burke appeared to be a suspect in the case, Mr. Astarita said his client is free and he’s heard nothing from police in weeks.

The attorney said his client emphatically denies any involvement in the crime, but declined to allow Ms. Burke to be interviewed, noting, “That they haven’t charged her doesn’t mean they won’t.”

Shedding light on police procedure and offering theories on why no arrest has been made in the case, Dr. Joseph F. King, former Federal Bureau of Investigations official and now an associate professor in criminology and police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, explained on Monday that police could still be awaiting forensics test results. “They could be waiting for chemical tests to come back,” said Dr. King, a Hampton Bays resident, adding, “There’s a lot of reasons they’d go slow.”

Dr. King noted that the Suffolk County Homicide Squad has a high arrest rate, and when initial DNA and ballistics test results come back, there can be false positives or weak findings that can be bolstered by additional testing and laboratories.

“There’s a number of ‘what-ifs’ that could be dragging this out,” the professor said, pointing out that if Ms. Burke is still a suspect—police have not publicly identified her as such—she would not be considered a flight risk, and so investigators can take their time building the best possible case.

The same could be true for any other suspects police may have, Dr. King said, especially since Det. Lt. Fitzpatrick is “probably convinced the perp was known to the victim.”

Southampton Town Police Detective Sergeant Randy Hintz seemed to agree this week. He said his department is “cognizant of the situation” and maintained that North Haven residents should not be fearful that the murder was a random occurrence, noting, “I have not seen anything come across my desk for the people of North Haven to have additional concerns.”

Southampton Police continue regular sector patrols in North Haven and additional unmarked cars are keeping an eye on the neighborhood, according to Det. Sgt. Hintze, though he would not share further details.

On Monday, Det. Lt. Fitzpatrick would not identify Ms. Burke as a suspect, but he acknowledged Dr. King’s assessment of general police procedure. “We consult with the DA’s office about evidence and about the arrests we make and the potential for prosecution,” he said, adding that violent offenders and illegal aliens who could return to their home counties are usually arrested quickly to avoid further crimes or a costly and difficult manhunt.

Considering the case, Dr. King said the homicide squad’s investigation is most likely following a “routine handbook formula ... following multiple leads to get a tight conviction that won’t get kicked by a grand jury.” He said that while police could be awaiting test results, it’s doubtful that the rifle removed from the Burke home was used in the killing. If you recover a gun and haven’t made an arrest, “it’s probably not the murder weapon,” Dr. King said. He also noted that it’s important not to rush to arrest a suspect, because the sooner they’re charged, the more rights they have, and the district attorney has a limited time between an arrest and a trial.

Although he would not say what they were searching for, Det. Lt. Fitzpatrick acknowledged on Tuesday that Suffolk County Police had closed the Sag Harbor dump for a time after the murder. In her statement to police, Ms. Burke said she had visited the dump and ran errands before returning home to find her mother’s body that Sunday.

Det. Lt. Fitzpatrick said his squad is continuing to “vigorously investigate” the Burke murder, saying, “Here, we work cases until there’s nothing left to work.” He explained that murders in Suffolk County generally get more attention than those in more dangerous communities. “We’ve had a lot of success over the years, no question about it,” Det. Lt. Fitzpatrick said, noting that the quality police work is due in large part to the limited number of cases and their ability to spend the necessary time and resources to solve them.

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