Was Tommy Burkett’s death made to look like a suicide as a cover-up for murder?

Smiling Tommy Burkett with curly brown hair

Tommy Burkett

A revolver resting in Tommy's hands

A revolver rested in Tommy’s hands

CASE DETAILS

A spent shell found in tommoy's

Spent shell found in Tommy’s room

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:

“I went over close to him and I knelt down beside and I touched his hands and they were stone cold.”

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:

Someone holding Tommy's drivers license

Tommy’s driver’s license was found

“After fire and rescue left, the uniformed officer entered the house immediately and he was in a hurry, which I thought was strange because my son was dead.”

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.

A car driving down the street of a suburban neighborhood

Neighbors witnessed Tommy being chased

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:

“Several neighbors reported seeing Tommy’s car being chased by a larger, darker car.  One neighbor saw the cars coming and he thought, this is serious.  It’s life or death. Another neighbor reported that one of the cars involved in the case at one point drove through someone’s lawn.  Tommy’s car was apparently run off the road and he was assaulted.  He got away from his attackers and made it back to our house.” 

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.

Grave stone that reads "Thomas C. Burkett June 9, 1970 - Dec 1, 1991"

Tommy’s parents still search for answers

Tom and Beth hired Paul Kish, a bloodstain expert based in New York.  He confirmed that the spots were blood:

“It’s not consistent with… committing suicide in a room, sitting on a sofa.  Some other violent altercation took place where blood was shed… with a lot of energy being exerted towards the bullet, like a gunshot.”

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:

“She said ‘Well on the computer screen it shows his name and the time that he called and then he made two consecutive calls, but the message has been deleted…’  So she was gone several minutes and said ‘I don’t know why his name is on the computer, but he didn’t call 911’. I know Tommy made the calls because the police department personnel told me.  I know this to be a fact. I’m angry every day of my life.  I wake up angry every morning that this police department did not respond to the 911 calls.”

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:

“We were later told by a student at the university that the young man who had Tommy’s driver’s license after he was dead was the same student who had beaten up Tommy.”

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 story fit in with everything we had noticed and could not account for on, during the previous months.  For example, we had noticed our phone books were missing the week after Tommy died.  Also there had been a ball bat in Tommy’s bedroom and the gripping tape had been stripped off the bat.”

The Drug Enforcement Agency has officially denied any connection to Tommy Burkett.  Police in Fairfax County, Virginia, still consider his death a suicide.


Watch this case now on Amazon Prime in season seven with Robert Stack and in season two with Dennis Farina. Also available on YouTube with Dennis Farina. Various seasons available now on Hulu.

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31 Comments

  1. Davin Peterson

    I wonder if the Fairfax police was trying to hide something. Notice they the detective seemed to be in a hurry and they quickly ruled it a suicide even though their were other evidence Tommy’s parents found such as the 9-1-1 records being erased.

    Reply

  2. Steve Phillip's

    Its sad to see how law in that community
    Was apparently corrupt
    They didn’t care to get to the truth rush to judgement was quick
    Seems like alot of holes in the case
    Too bad Tommy’s parents are not still alive

    Reply

  3. C.Wit

    I went to school w/ Tom & was in class with him. There was no was he gay, & even if he was it would have been fine. He was quiet, yet confident. Not the type to commit suicide.

    Reply

  4. Nick

    This is a typical Unsolved Mysteries trope, the suicide-that-might-be-a-murder-because-the-family-things-so. With what we know about suicide today, there are actually some notable. Psychology Today points out that some signs of suicidal ideation are “Social withdrawal often precedes a suicide attempt, perhaps reflecting the victim’s effort to cut himself off from potential aid. When accompanied by weight loss and mutism, this social withdrawal can be particularly dangerous.” Given how in the dark Tommy’s parents were about his activities leading up to his death and who he was involved with, suicide is not something you can immediately rule out. Given the time this happened and the perception of suicide and mental health at the time, it’s not really surprising that so many of these stories resulted in the parents of the deceased not believing the suicide idea.

    That said, I’m not saying he did commit suicide, I’m saying that it is still a plausible explanation. However, the autopsy and circumstantial evidence would suggest that there is something more at play.

    However, the fact that he was a narc for the DEA? Seriously? That’s a bit far-fetched. Especially by this point when that information could be easily found through an FOI request. Also, what purpose would the DEA have in disavowing that he was narcing for them? Doesn’t make any sense. You’d think that if one of their informants was murdered the DEA would be all over it, especially with something so tantalizing as drugs being circulated through a university. It was 1991, during the height of the “War on Drugs”, it doesn’t make any logical sense to try and disavow anything that Tommy Burkett would have been doing for them.

    Looking at this story, and yeah there is some lack of care or concern for solving the murder. However, I don’t think it was because he was a DEA agent. I think that is just a fanciful idea by his parents who thought their son could do no wrong. Certain things strike me as interesting. Tommy knew people were harassing him, he wouldn’t say why, but it was clear that they knew something about him that he didn’t want to get out. In addition, the alleged killers were reported as actively telling people that they were looking for him to beat him up. Then there was the fight in the hallway. There’s also the police’s lack of concern and quick conclusion of a suicide.

    Remember, again, this was 1991. Maybe the situation was not that Tommy was an informant for the DEA. Thinking about social attitudes at the time, I am left to wonder if Tommy was secretly homosexual? If you look at the case from this theory, it does make some sense. Keep in mind, this was 1991, homophobia was at its height thanks in part to the AIDS panic of the time. It could be that perhaps Tommy was gay, made it known to the wrong person and these guys went out and beat him to death. Given the attitudes of the day, it is entirely possible that the police didn’t care much for solving the case. Remember, gay people were on par with prostitutes and vulnerable segments of society. It wouldn’t be surprising if the stigma at the time clouded any sort of legitimate investigation.

    It would also make sense for their parents to have this DEA fantasy. The possibility that their son was gay was probably so upsetting to this family that they came up with this “DEA informant” angle to try make their son a hero in their minds and hopefully convince people to take his case seriously.

    Obviously, there was nothing in any of the material on this case that could confirm this theory, and with the parents now deceased we’ll never really know what was going on behind closed doors in that family.

    Reply

    • Serenity

      You have a point that some of these 1980s/90s cases that Unsolved featured had tropes of their time. My favorite is the “satanic cult” aspect which Unsolved randomly would try to shoehorn into some of their murder cases.

      However, I’d be really careful if I were you and try not to do the same with shoehorning a gay “angle” into cases where there’s absolutely no evidence for it. Whether a suicide or a homicide, this was a violent death and thinking “Oh this was 30 years ago, maybe the guy was secretly gay” is pretty unhelpful speculation!

      Reply

  5. Good grief

    This case, really, is solved, thanks to the work of the informants, witnesses and parents in never giving up. I found the names of the students/drug dealers who were harassing Tommy: an update found on fandom wiki). I’m so grateful karma has been proven by various laws of physics. It will be nice to see these guys get what’s coming to them – which will be way worse than what our deeply flawed criminal justice system would have every given them in the first place. What gets me is the terrible, terrible – so bad! – job in covering it up. Anyone with two cells in their brain knows it wasn’t suicide from the shoddy cover up. Did I mention how bad the cover up was?

    Reply

  6. Cindy

    I knew Tommy in high school. There was no way he killed himself. He talked one of our friends OUT of suicide several times. RIP Tommy. You did not deserve this.

    Reply

  7. Anonymous

    Sadly, Tommy’s parents have both passed away since. Beth George died in 2003 and Thomas Burkett died in 2006. Both died without knowing the truth about Tommy’s death.
    Oddly enough, no one carried the torch after their death.

    Reply

  8. CherryBomb

    This has reminded me of the Rachel Hoffman murder (she was essentially pressured by cops into working as a police informant and was killed during a “botched drug sting”) and the death of Andrew Sadek (again, pressured into working as a police informant and subsequently found dead in a river with a gunshot wound to the head and a backpack full of rocks).

    I hope friends and family can find peace and that karma quickly finds the perps.

    Reply

  9. Sherri Bcenti

    He might have been involved with drugs,had to get out of being charged with felonies so the police said he has to give people up. My son went to school at Central Washington and started dealing drugs and got caught. So, to make the story short, he had to give people up and he wouldnt so he took the wrap. Went to prison for his crime. The drug world is evil and cruel!

    Reply

  10. David Martin

    For more information on the case see “News Suppression in Action” at http://www.dcdave.com/article4/020704.htm. The Net archive version of the Burkett web site is at http://web.archive.org/web/20010202055900/http://www.thepacc.org/.

    Reply

  11. Kevin Birnbaum

    What gets me is killers are out there probably killing again and the cops and DEA don’t give a sh*t,

    Reply

  12. Chanita

    I really do believe that whoever was going after Tommy the culprit Had shot and killed him Tommy did not commit suicide and somebody had staged the whole thing! The young man had too much to live for It seemed like he was a very sweet young man he was in the wrong place at the wrong time rest in peace you are a gift from God and to your family you will always have your family with you and to your family I would like to say I apologize for your loss!

    Reply

    • Nobody

      My question is..
      If Tommy shot himself then how is it that the gun
      Lay perfect In his lap??? Why were the police so sure he committed suicide?? Did the experts check and see if there was gun residue on his hands?? If Tommy killed himself with in minutes of his parents arriving home, why then was his body stiff and cold???
      Where was his wallet?? How did his drivers license get in the hands of a student?? Why did the school not give information on the student who turned in the drivers license?? Why did the police lie about the 911 call from Tommy???
      What are they covering up??? Who were the students who wanted to beat up Tommy??? How did those blood splatters get on the wall by the stairs??? What was that fight all about with Tommy and the other student??
      There is way too many questions and things that don’t add up.. Too many pieces that don’t fit..
      This story belongs on cold case files as well because in those files somewhere lies the truth..
      Justice for Tommy…

      Reply

  13. Concreetlogic

    If he was a DEA informant it would be logic if his cover has been broken that the so called hit squad of the DEA as in many cases has been set in to tie up lose ends.
    Why would the police lie about recalling yet missing 911 calls and why would they with no moral value let the parents think it was a suicide without a propper investigation. It is easy to conclude in this case that it was indeed a cover up and by logical read of this case that the police had something to do with it either to cover up there own ends or to cover up for a higher entity.

    My personal thought is that i highly doubt that campus grade students have the guts to conspire at such a horrific level that they did in this case is rather hard to believe.

    Reply

  14. joey

    Is this solved yet

    Reply

  15. Spooky

    Of all suspicious death case’s, this one is the most disturbing. I felt appalled when I had read about this. Yet, I wondered if those cover up has any ties to the mena drug smuggling operation.

    Reply

  16. LUIS FREEH

    ADVOCATE! “IF” YOUR “TRYING” TOO COO! “U” GOT YOURSELF IN THE SAME TROUBLE AS SADAM & BIN LADEN! HAVE A “NICE DAY”.

    Reply

  17. Rose

    this is crazy..

    Reply

  18. Jen

    I was going to pipe in that the family should use the Freedom of Information Act request to demand whatever documents the DEA has about their son…but then I read the comments and I am so sorry that they passed away without ever knowing what happened and worse, there’s no one left to advocate for their child.

    Reply

  19. Josh

    it is Saturday past not knowing what happened to their son I think the key is and where was the paycheck from that they found out he was working for the DEA I think they should look into that morehe had to have deposited other checks from them that’s where the proof is rest in peace to Tommy his mother and father

    Reply

    • Phil

      You are partly right. From what I have read about this case. Tommy was working part time on the campus of Marymount University. It was his paycheck from Marymount that was stolen in the smashed mailbox. But something else coming from the DEA could have been there and discovered by those who were after him.

      Reply

  20. pete

    Read this case description of Tommy Burkett.

    http://unsolvedmysteries.wikia.com/wiki/Thomas_Burkett

    Reply

  21. Anonymous

    is there anyway to watch the unsolved mystery episode on this death? any suggestions?

    Reply

  22. Anonymous

    There is diffently some covering up going on. The police are hiding something. As far as the DEA goes well that is hear say. Maybe Tommy was an informant. Something was going on in his life that he was keeping secret. Eye witness saw him being chased. Computer records showed he called 911. Its sounds shady that the operator said yea he called then change her story and said it was a mistake. 911 calls are recorded and there are no mistakes made. If you make a call it shows up. They diffently know more then they let on. Plus that guy that had Tommy’s license and turned it in. The police don’t question him. Something smells fishy. This is horrific for the parents. They have been lied to.

    Reply

  23. dontworryaboutme

    This case bothers me so much that I think the Police Station and the DEA have some dirty deals going on. All the facts are there!!!! The parents had to be the freaking detectives for goodness sake!! I hope the parents find peace and whoever did this gets what they deserve.

    Reply

  24. Charles Hanners

    This case has has been bothering me for many years. The family used to have a website to help gather more information. DEA needs to give his family some answers after all these years.

    Reply

  25. vic

    Sounds like someone is definitely covering up something. .. I hope the family finds out what happened to there son so he can finally rest in peace and maybe they can live there lives a little…. I’m so sorry for your loss….

    Reply

  26. Dahlia

    He was obviously murdered. RIP Tommy.

    Reply