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Sep 4, 2008 3:15 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Neighbors worry after murder of elderly woman

Sep 4, 2008 3:15 PM

Concerned residents of the quiet neighborhood in North Haven where a 100-year-old woman was found shot to death on Sunday 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 may 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.”

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 76-year-old daughter, Margaret Jean Burke, who owns the house and lived with her mother. There was no evidence of a break-in, nothing was stolen and suicide has been ruled out, police said. While police have questioned the victim’s daughter, Ms. Burke, they have made no arrests and have declined to comment on the case.

On Tuesday, criminal defense attorney Colin Astarita of Southampton, who is representing Ms. 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. Mr. Astarita said his client was not placed under any restrictions by police.

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, but community members say they rarely lock their doors. On Wednesday, Det. Lt. Fitzpatrick said that his department does not update cases after an initial report is made to the press. The detective refuted Mr. Astarita’s claims that an arrest should be made by now if evidence pointed to Ms. Burke, but would not comment further. “It’s pointless on our end,” to share more information, Det. Lt. Fitzpatrick said, explaining that he did not intend to compromise the case, whatever direction it may lead.

He continued minimizing the community’s cause for concern on Thursday, but added, “Taking precautions is always a wise thing to do.”

A neighbor on a nearby street, Missie Mahoney said on Thursday 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. on Wednesday afternoon monitoring Payne Avenue, which adds to his fears that the case is not building the way it should for police. “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.”

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In regards to North Haven residents worried, I think the SCPD Homicide statement in the media right after the murder, that area residents should not be too concerned about their safety, indicates who they are focusing on as a suspect. The daughter leaves the house for an hour and returns to find her 100 year old mother murdered? It does not make sense. There has to be a motive. Also I read that the Sag Harbor dump was closed on Labor Day for a search by police after the daughter stated she stopped ...more
By BruceB (142), Sag Harbor on Sep 5, 08 10:20 PM