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Apr 29, 2009 3:39 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

North Haven murder: One suspect, no arrest

Apr 29, 2009 3:39 PM

In the eight months since her elderly mother was murdered, shot in the back of the head while sitting in a chair working on a crossword puzzle on a sunny Sunday afternoon in the quiet village of North Haven, Margaret Jean Burke has, by all accounts—including her own—been at the top of the police’s list of suspects.

In fact, hers is likely the only name on the list.

But in the first and only interviews she has given to anyone, including police, since she was questioned by detectives in the hours after she reported finding her mother’s body covered in blood in the den, Ms. Burke, 76, adamantly denied having anything to do with 100-year-old Jessie Burke’s death.

“There is no way in the world that I murdered my mother,” Ms. Burke said. “In fact, for me to just say that now, I feel like somebody has taken a razor and ripped my insides to shreds.”

In a series of conversations over the last week, Ms. Burke spoke about the unsolved case and voiced frustration at the police’s lack of progress in cracking it. She also described the day her 100-year-old mother was killed; her own interrogation by police, which she likened to torture; and widespread speculation in the North Haven community that she was behind the killing.

In a separate series of interviews with the Suffolk County homicide detectives working the case, little new information about the investigation was uncovered.

Lead investigator Detective Sergeant Edward Fandrey did confirm that he and other detectives assigned to the case have questioned dozens of Jessie Burke’s family members, friends and acquaintances in the months following her murder. They’ve even interviewed six people whom Jean Burke’s attorney, Colin Patrick Astarita, identified as having been at the Burke house in the days, weeks and months leading up to the murder—people the lawyer said might be suspects.

Sgt. Fandrey, admittedly keeping his cards close to the vest, would make only one comment regarding the interviews.

“The only person we haven’t reached a comfort level with is Jean Burke,” he said.

According to her account of the day of the murder, Ms. Burke made breakfast for her mother and helped bathe her on the morning of August 31, the Sunday before Labor Day, then left their Payne Avenue house, unlocked, shortly before 11 a.m. to go grocery shopping at King Kullen in Bridgehampton and run some other errands. While she was out, she told police, she stopped at the town dump in Sag Harbor.

Ms. Burke returned home about an hour and a half later to find her mother, drenched in blood, sitting in the chair she left her in. Nothing was missing from the house, Ms. Burke said. Nothing even looked disturbed.

In the hours that followed, Ms. Burke was interviewed at length by Suffolk County Police homicide detectives, without a lawyer present, she said this week. She was questioned by three detectives in a small room in a Southampton Town Police mobile command trailer parked in her driveway.

“The one said, ‘I’ve been working 18 years at this, and I think you murdered your mother.’ My blood turned to ice. Every inch of breath came out of my lungs,” she said. “I was so stunned. I thought they were there to help. I thought, this man is accusing me of murdering my mother—whom I loved. My mother was a very good mother.”

Ms. Burke says detectives accused her, point-blank, of committing a “mercy killing”—hoping to save her three siblings the burden of caring for their mother if “something were to happen to me.” This week she strongly denied the accusation, saying that caring for her mother would not have been a burden on the rest of her family. Jessie Burke had become less mobile in her late 90s but was not suffering from any serious illness and led a comfortable and enjoyable life, according to her daughter.

Since that day, Ms. Burke has refused numerous requests from the detectives to speak with her further. “I’ve been afraid of the police because of what they put me through,” she said.

Jessie Burke’s murder was the first in the history of the small residential adjunct to Sag Harbor. The day after it happened, at a press conference, homicide bureau chief Detective Lieutenant Jack Fitzpatrick said the crime did not appear to be a random killing, and he told North Haven residents they shouldn’t be fearful that a killer was roaming their streets.

Among the items Ms. Burke said the police confiscated were some paperwork and a box of latex surgical gloves they found in the trunk of her car—gloves she said she always had handy to keep her hands clean when she would check the engine oil or tire pressure of the car. She admitted that having a box of latex gloves in her trunk might seem suspicious, but insisted it was innocent.

“I don’t know whether they think I wear surgical gloves to commit murders so I don’t leave fingerprints,” she said of the police confiscating the gloves. “I guess people don’t keep surgical gloves in their cars. I do.”

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