July 7, 2009

Gaffney killer slain, ending 5-murder spree

GAFFNEY | Authorities have identified a man killed by North Carolina police as the killer they think shot five people to death over six days last week in this mostly rural Cherokee County community.

Law enforcement officials identified the suspect Monday night as 41-year-old Patrick Tracy Burris. They said he was a felon with a lengthy record who was paroled in April after serving more than eight years for felony breaking and entering and larceny.

Authorities said bullets in the gun found on Burris after he was killed by police early Monday near Gastonia, N.C., matched those used to kill residents in and around Gaffney, some 40 miles away.

Investigators did not have an address for Burris. While evidence left no doubt he was the killer, they still had no idea why he did it.

“He was unpredictable. He was scary. He was weird,” said Neil Dolan, deputy director of the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division.

Police for several days had blanketed Gaffney and surrounding Cherokee County, fearful the killer would strike again.

“We were of the belief he was not going to stop until he was caught,” said SLED Chief Reggie Lloyd.

Burris was caught when, in the early morning hours Monday, N.C. police shot and killed the man who matched the description of the suspected serial killer. South Carolina authorities were on the scene quickly to determine whether the man was the same person.

A Ford sport utility vehicle similar to the one police think the serial killer might have been driving was at the scene of the N.C. shooting. And police said ballistic tests done at SLED headquarters in Columbia showed the man’s gun matched the weapon used in the killings.

Authorities said they found some items related to the Gaffney killings in the SUV, but they declined to be specific or to release the caliber of the pistol.

Burris originally was from Maryland, authorities said. He had a lengthy record across the Southeast — in Florida, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, officials said, and was wanted on a North Carolina parole violation.

All, or almost all, of Burris’ North Carolina convictions — some violent, some not — were in Rockingham County, north of Greensboro. Police were still sorting through details late Monday.

Lloyd said he wants to find out what Burris had been doing since he got out of prison in April.

Cherokee County Sheriff Bill Blanton said investigators would trace Burris’ recent activities to see if he had killed elsewhere.

“We feel the victims’ pain,” Blanton said. “This isn’t over. We’re just changing gears.”

For days, fear had stalked Gaffney, a town of about 13,000.

More than 100 people attended the news conference authorities held just after 8:30 p.m. Monday at the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department to announce the news of the suspect’s death.

Sandy Rhinehart, 42, brought her three daughters.

“We just want to make sure he’s gone,” Rhinehart said.

In 1968, a 14-year-old girl who was Rhinehart’s aunt, was killed by the Gaffney Strangler, who stalked lone women and then strangled them.

Rhinehart said she was probably the only person in Cherokee County who didn’t have a gun. Even though the suspect had been caught and killed, she said she was going to buy a gun today.


In North Carolina, SLED towed a Ford Explorer from an abandoned Gaston County home at about 6:30 p.m. to search it for evidence. Police had believed the killer drove an Explorer.

Just after 2:30 a.m. Monday, a man on Dallas Spencer Mountain Road northeast of Gastonia called local police after he saw a Ford Explorer pull into the driveway across the street from his house.

The man, Mike Valentine, saw the SUV and was concerned the vehicle might be connected to the killer. Gastonia is about 40 miles north of Gaffney — just off Interstate 85 — and Valentine knew what kind of vehicle police were searching for.

Three police officers arrived and found three people in the older-model Ford Explorer outside the home. Two were identified by Charlotte’s NewsChannel 36 as Mark Stamey, 35, and his sister, Sharon Stamey, 31. The Stameys told the officers they had lived in the house.

Valentine said the Stameys got out of the car, along with a second man.

“He was a large man,” Valentine said. “He was stumbling around like he was really drunk.”

Valentine said the Stameys told the police it was their house, and they had come to collect some things. Valentine said he walked across the street and told the police officer there was no electricity at the house and questioned why the three were there.

The Stameys and the man went into the house, Valentine said, and the police followed.

Police said they had asked the three people in the Ford Explorer for identification, and one of them gave false identification initially. Gaston County police said they eventually got the third person’s correct name, and when they ran a check, discovered he was wanted by authorities in a neighboring county.

When they tried to take him into custody, police said, the man now believed to be Burris fired, hitting officer J.K. Shaw in the leg. Police said they fired back, killing the man.

The officer was treated at Gaston Memorial Hospital and released.

On Tuesday, authorities said the Stameys didn't know about the killing spree and had met Burris at a hotel about two weeks ago. Police described the siblings as transients who had a drug and criminal past.

The Stameys were not charged and police were not sure of their whereabouts since questioning them after the shooting in Gastonia.

"They were not actively living there," Ramey said. "There's no power. Sometimes they squat there -- sneak in and stay at night."

Police said they think Burris acted alone in committing the Gaffney crimes.


Early Monday evening in Gaffney, folks at Daddy Joe’s, a popular downtown barbecue spot, were glad to hear the news the killer had been killed.

Gene Wyatt, 35, a housing contractor, said he’s “really glad this guy got killed” because he hasn’t been able to go to people’s houses to do estimates.

“People don’t want me there,” he said.

With a killer on the loose, people, wondering if they might be next, changed their behavior.

“Everybody I know — 75 percent of all my friends — we’re all carrying weapons now, everywhere we go,” Cody Sossaman, 57, publisher of the Gaffney Ledger, said early Monday before police announced they had shot and killed the alleged assailant.

Sossaman lifted a black .38 Special out of his office desk drawer and said he was in the process of sending his wife and daughter out of town.

“When I went golfing over the weekend, a friend of mine carried a gun in his golf cart,” said Sossaman, who for the first time in its 115 years bolted his newspaper’s front doors Monday during daylight hours and put this sign up: “Due to Current Circumstances, The Front Door is Locked. Knock for Service.”

Such fears were reasonable.

Police behavior science experts said the killer’s profile had indicated he might kill again, SLED director Reggie Lloyd said early Monday. SLED had more than 40 agents on the case, Lloyd said.

“We don’t believe he is going to stop on his own,” Lloyd said. “This one is scary.”

By late Monday afternoon, there was a sense Gaffney’s widespread fears might be lifted with news that a man shot to death before dawn in Gastonia might have been the Gaffney assassin who had been striking seemingly at random.

“Ohhhhhhhhh!” gasped a crowd of more than a dozen Gaffney area folks at Daddy Joe’s shortly after 5 p.m. A Spartanburg news show had just flashed a shot of the dead man’s brown-gray Ford Explorer on a wall-mounted television screen.

Daddy Joe’s bar patrons included women who were packing pistols in their purses for the first time in their lives.

“I’m telling you what — people are just scared to death!” said Kim Blanton, 49, a fourth-grade teacher who had a loaded .32-caliber pistol in her purse. No, she said, she doesn’t have a permit to carry a concealed weapon — and she doesn’t care.

Blanton said she lives alone, but recently she either has been spending the night with friends or having a girlfriend over to her house to sleep. “My friend, she had a gun, too,” Blanton said.

The dread of being the next victim had caused the staff at Daddy Joe’s to change a lot of things they do, said general manager Rea Smiley, 44.

“Everyone is just kind of sticking together and being safe,” said Smiley, describing how her employees have not walked out to their cars alone at night. “We all walk out together. We don’t want to, but we’re not being stupid.”

Yes, Smiley said, she keeps a gun close these days. “I haven’t even gone to the bathroom without it.”

Cherokee County had been saturated with more than 200 law enforcement officers. They came from more than 20 S.C. sheriffs offices as well as the S.C. Highway Patrol and various South Carolina and North Carolina agencies.

Forty years ago, the Gaffney Strangler terrorized Gaffney, said the Gaffney Ledger’s Sossaman. But the recent killings have inspired far more dread, he said.

For one thing, the murdered women in the late 1960s weren’t all widely known.

But the victims in the current killings have all been well-known not only throughout Gaffney but all of Cherokee County, Sossaman said.

“If you didn’t know at least one of them, you know someone who knew them,” he said.

It’s bad enough when someone you know is killed, but it is “very, very bad” when more and more people you know keep getting killed, Sossaman said.

-- The Charlotte Observer, Charlotte’s NewsChannel 36 and The Associated Press contributed.

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