Centenarian’s Murder Remembered a Year Later

Posted on 28 August 2009

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A year after 100-year-old Jessie Burke was shot to death in her quiet North Haven home while working on her crossword puzzle, police have yet to make an arrest in the case as neighbors in the sleepy community remain haunted by the incident.

Jessie Margaret Burke was found dead in her home at 36 Payne Avenue in North Haven on Sunday, August 31, 2008, just weeks after her 100th birthday. Burke, who was shot an undisclosed number of times in the back of the head, was found by her daughter Margaret Jean Burke, 77, who had left the home late that Sunday morning to run errands, leaving her mother in a chair in the den. When she returned, Burke found her mother in the same chair, shot to death.

At the time police described the elder Burke as ambulatory, able to move around, feed herself and lucid enough to tackle a New York Times crossword puzzle the morning of her death.

According to detectives with Suffolk County’s Homicide division, nothing appeared to be stolen from the house and no evidence led police to believe neighbors should be concerned a criminal was on the loose and they were in danger.

While police have never named a suspect in the case, they did question Margaret Jean Burke, a former corrections officer who ran an unsuccessful campaign for mayor of North Haven in 1994 against Robert Ratcliffe. At the time, she was opposed to a proposed deer hunt in North Haven.

Colin Astarita, a Southampton attorney who was hired by Burke, noted at the time that she was fully cooperative with the investigation and adamantly denied her involvement in her mother’s death.

At the time of the murder, a media firestorm erupted with reporters swarming North Haven waiting for the story to break open. However, since September 2008, police, who did not return calls for comment this week, have disclosed no new information regarding the case.

On Wednesday, Astarita said he has heard no new information from police at all, despite being in contact with the district attorney’s office and the homicide division of the Suffolk County Police Department. Astarita said he had just received communication from the district attorney’s office on Tuesday about returning the items taken from Burke’s home as evidence in August of 2008.

“We would like everything back,” said Astarita.

As to whether that meant the district attorney’s office was no longer pursuing the case, Astarita said he did not wish to speculate, but he did note that homicide investigations are kept open until they are solved and statute of limitations does not apply.

On Monday, at The Sag Harbor Express office, Burke spoke briefly about the impact the incident has left on her life.

“I have this cavernous hole,” said Burke when asked about the death of her mother. “I can’t talk about it. You didn’t see the things I’ve seen.”

Burke declined to speak further about the incident.

“Our conversations have been brief, but she, and the whole family are still confused,” said Astarita on Wednesday. “It still appears she is being looked at and has been the only target although we have provided them with a list of people who had access to the house.”

Astarita said it appeared no progress had been made in any of those leads.

Like Burke and her family, some neighbors in North Haven continue to be disturbed by the crime, even as they go about their daily lives a year later.

“I feel haunted by it and I feel haunted by her, knowing justice was never brought,” said writer Cheryl Mercer.

“I would say it is more a curiosity at this point,” said another North Haven neighbor of Burke’s who asked his name not be used in print. “I can’t say I feel I am in danger. I say frequently to people, I have lived in Philadelphia and Chicago and this is the closest I have ever lived to a murder.”

“I think in speaking about the topic people agree it is disturbing,” continued the resident later of the lack of closure in the case. “But after a certain amount of time, it is just the way it is. I will say I never locked my doors before that point; but because of what I have inside and the potential for what is outside, I lock my doors now.”

Robbie Vorhaus, a public relations consultant and father of two who lives down the street from the Burke residence expressed frustration at the lack of closure following such a brutal crime.

“I can’t speak for my neighbors – first of all we don’t have many neighbors, which may be why this was not made a priority by police,” said Vorhaus on Tuesday. “If we were in New York City or even East Hampton there would be enough pressure put on police to solve this case.”

“There is a cold-blooded murderer on the loose,” continued Vorhaus. “That is the absolute bottom line and everyone here is aware of that.”

While Vorhaus said life has returned to virtual normalcy, there is a lack of closure felt by many.

“It is not enough to paralyze us, but it hasn’t receded,” said Vorhaus. “There is a dull ache that there was a cold blooded murder yards from your home and the police, for whatever reason, have not been able to solve it. What is really upsetting is that from the beginning we were told we had nothing to worry about, to go back to our homes while they did their jobs.”


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