Thirty years ago this week the brutal murders of Edward and Hazel Burton became one of the most vicious killings investigated by retired Leavenworth County Detective Hank Spellman.
On a blistering, hot day, July, 22, 1983, Spellman was working a fatality accident in the southern part of the county when he got an emergency call to come quickly to Lowemont in the Kickapoo Township area of northern Leavenworth County.
"I knew it was bad by the way the deputy talked," Spellman remembered. "He said I needed to get up here right away, and bring help." Back then they didn't have cell phones , they used radios to communicate and those radio frequencies were open to anyone to listen in on. Spellman knew it was bad when the deputy didn't elaborate.
Spellman headed north on the former U.S. Highway 73, now Santa Fe Trail, and turned onto Millwood Road, a dead-end road. As he drew nearer to the scene, cars began to pull over to the side of the road.
The county's senior detective did not like the crowds beginning to gather and ordered everyone to stay on the main highway. He pulled up to the corner of Millwood and 199th Street and parked.
The partially nude body of Edward Burton had been discovered laying in the middle of the dirt road by a man who lived in Lowemount. According to this eyewitness, who would prefer to remain anonymous, he thought it was a bag of trash from a distance that someone had thrown out on the road.
The clothes of Mr. Burton, who was in his early seventies, were cast about all around his body. He went on to add that it was apparent that he had a bullet wound to his forehead.
The Burton's were spending their summer as was their habit in their bus parked on their five-acre property. Spellman was directed to the bus and Mrs. Burton's body, where it lay across a makeshift bed inside the bus.
Spellman noticed immediately she had suffered gunshot wounds and other injuries and was laying in a puddle of blood on the bed.
He headed outdoors and started walking east up the hilly road.
He walked about a half-mile to the top of the hill and as he came around the curve, he saw Mr. Burton's body lying in the middle of the dirt road. As he drew nearer, Spellman said he was struck by the footprints circling the body.
No rain had disturbed the site or the dirt on road.
He also failed to notice any tire tracks. Lying in a pool of blood, Mr. Burton suffered similar gunshot wounds and body mutilation similar to his wife, according to Spellman.
Page 2 of 2 - Despite the brutality of the crimes, the excessive blood and mystifying footprints, Spellman remains haunted by what he witnessed three decades ago
"This elderly couple didn't deserve this," Spellman said. "They didn't hurt anyone, lived alone and were well thought of by most people. They were just good country folks."
To solve the double homicide, Spellman said the sheriff's office received help from the Leavenworth Police Department, the Kansas Highway Patrol, Kansas Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Compiling a description of the potential perpetrators, a FBI profiler suggested the suspects knew the area well, was familiar with the victims, and suffered severe mental afflictions.
Spellman admits the case remains unsolved thirty years later. A host of potential suspects took lie detector tests and endured hours of questioning. An overseas trip to Germany netted no new results.
"That the hardest part about this case," he said. "There were times when I thought we were close and someone was going to confess. That just didn't work out. We couldn't get anyone to talk."
Spellman is convinced someone out there knows more about this case. He said the family was too well known and well liked for someone not to speak up.
Before they were killed, Spellman said he knew the couple well enough to stop by and visit. Mr. Burton had many stories of the Salt Creek Valley and he knew most of the families.
When Mr. Burton retired in the mid-70s, the couple split their time between Wyandotte and Leavenworth counties. In the winter, they stayed at their home in Kansas City, KS. For the summer, they refurbished a bus into a camper and constructed a few outbuildings.
Northern Leavenworth County was familiar territory for the Burton Family.
The 1870 Census indicated Edward Henry Burton left Tennessee as a freeman, heading to Kansas as an Exodusters, a large group of newly freed blacks escaping Southern Jim Crow laws.
The Kansas State Historical Society estimates 70,000 blacks moved from the South to Kansas between 1870 and 1900. The bulk settled in Leavenworth, Lawrence, Topeka, Kansas City, and many rural communities, including the all black town of Nicodemosis.
Mr. Burton was a fourth generation Kansan.
Besides a long history of farming, the Burton men also worked in the coal mines, porters in downtown Leavenworth hotels, and house painters.
The Burton property has changed ownership many times over the years from family to neighbors and back and forth.
In 2003 the property was purchased by Air Force Col. Bradley Hayworth, who was recently the Director of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance at Air Force Global Strike Command.