Was Tommy Burkett’s death made to look like a suicide as a cover-up for murder?
On December 1st, 1991, Tommy Burkett was visiting home after the Thanksgiving holiday. Tommy was a junior at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia, and his parents lived about twenty miles from the campus. His parents had been out for much of that afternoon, but returned to the house at 6:10 PM. Inside Tommy’s bedroom, they discovered the unimaginable.
Tommy was upright on the sofa in his bedroom. He had been shot once through the mouth. A revolver rested in his hands.
Tommy’s mother, Beth, recalled the horrific scene inside Tommy’s bedroom:
From the moment police arrived on the scene that night, they have insisted that Tommy Burkett committed suicide. But Tommy’s parents, Beth and Tom Burkett, believed their son was murdered. Beth’s suspicions began immediately:
In the emotion of the moment, Tom picked up the revolver. He was surprised to find its cylinder unlatched. The gun could not have been fired in that condition.
Police arrived to the scene shortly after 6:20 PM. The lead detective went up to Tommy’s room and soon emerged with an old bank deposit slip. On one side of the slip there was a note which said, “I want to be cremated.” Beth was convinced the handwriting was not her son’s.
To the police, the facts spoke for themselves. Tommy’s death was an open and shut case of suicide. But Beth and Tom were certain their son had been murdered. It wasn’t just the unlatched gun and the suspicious note. Tommy’s glasses, wallet, and driver’s license were missing.
Two days after Tommy’s death, his parents went to his dorm room to collect his belongings. It was there that they found Tommy’s driver’s license.
According to Tom and Beth, school administrators would not provide any information about the student who had turned it in. For Tommy’s parents, it was another unanswered question to add to a growing list.
Tommy’s parents decided to talk to their neighbors, to see if they had noticed anything unusual the day Tommy died. Beth was stunned by what people had seen the afternoon of her son’s death:
A few weeks after Tommy’s death, Beth noticed a spray of small reddish marks on the stairway in their home. She and her husband informed authorities, but no official investigation followed.
Tom and Beth hired Paul Kish, a bloodstain expert based in New York. He confirmed that the spots were blood:
Tom and Beth decided to have Tommy’s body exhumed for a second autopsy. The new findings added to their growing belief that Tommy had been murdered. The second autopsy revealed that Tommy had unexplained abrasions, bruising on his right ear, and a broken jaw.
To Tommy’s parents, a terrifying picture of his last hours had begun to emerge. Beth resolved to find out if her son had telephoned 911 for help on the day he died. She called the local dispatcher and asked if there was any record of her son making a complaint. The dispatcher informed Beth that Tommy had made two complaints—one in August and the other in October. But when Beth asked for the nature of the complaints the dispatcher changed her story and said Tommy never called 911:
If Tommy did call 911, were the official phone records innocently erased or deliberately purged? More importantly, if Tommy had called, why were his pleas for help ignored by the authorities?
Tommy’s parents began to re-examine a series of events that preceded their son’s death. It began with a phone call from Tommy around November 12th, less than three weeks before he died.
Tommy called home and told his mother that someone had broken into his mailbox and stole his paycheck. He sounded frantic on the phone.
According to Beth, Tommy was assaulted by a student a few days after the phone call:
His parents gathered more information. They concluded that Tommy was working as a DEA informant, and that a group of students dealing drugs on campus conspired to kill him.
Beth and Tom are convinced that their neighbors saw Tommy being chased by the killers, and that he got home in time to call 911 before the killers burst in.
An informant told Beth and Tom their son was beaten to death with a baseball bat. According to Beth, the phone books were used to minimize bruising and absorb blood spatters:
The Drug Enforcement Agency has officially denied any connection to Tommy Burkett. Police in Fairfax County, Virginia, still consider his death a suicide.