When Olympia resident William “Cougar” Burleigh died last October, Portland police said there was no sign of assault and that they believed his death was an accident.
But for the 38-year-old’s friends and family, the story just didn’t add up. His stepmother, Nancy Shadley, said the case raised several red flags: Why were her stepson’s personal belongings missing? And why was he found wearing only a T shirt and underwear?
Nearly four months later, her instincts proved correct. The Portland Police Bureau arrested 42-year-old Robert L. Browne in connection to Burleigh’s death, which has since been ruled a homicide.
Browne pleaded not guilty to second-degree manslaughter and second-degree assault in Multnomah County Court on Wednesday morning. The charges came as the result of a Multnomah County Grand Jury indictment.
Shadley said she received news of the indictment this week. She rushed to tell her husband, Burleigh’s father Bill Burleigh.
“We were ecstatic,” Shadley said. “My heart was pounding a hundred miles an hour. I ran down to Walmart where my husband works, and I told him, they got him, they got him, they got him!”
The couple, residents of Nevada, never gave up hope that Burleigh’s death would be explained. Shadley said she called the Portland Police Bureau every two weeks to ask about investigators’ progress.
“We all know it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease,” Shadley said. “We weren’t going to let them forget Cougar.”
Shadley said she and her husband were hurt when police asked if Burleigh was homeless. He wasn’t. In fact, he had recently been promoted in his job as a claims manager for the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries.
Portland police Sgt. Peter Simpson said that initially, investigators didn’t have much information to go on.
“Initially there was no information and no witnesses to suggest that it was something other than a fall, possibly due to intoxication,” Simpson said. “Detectives located some very reluctant witnesses who described the altercation which changed it from a death investigation to a homicide investigation.”
He declined to say whether police know the cause of the altercation, or how Browne is believed to have killed Burleigh.
Burleigh was discovered Oct. 12 near the Burnside Bridge wearing only a T-shirt and underwear, according to Portland police; he was missing his pants, wallet and phone. He was taken to a local hospital, where he died two days later.
The Oregon State Medical Examiner later reported that Burleigh’s injuries were caused by a fall and that there was no evidence of assault. Police also report that his blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit.
Ken Dunbar, one of Burleigh’s friends, explained that Burleigh had been in Portland visiting friends. Dunbar said Burleigh had dozens of friends in cities all over the country, and he loved to visit them.
He described Burleigh as a brilliant man with a level head.
“Cougar was just always smiling and always happy,” Dunbar said. “Even when he was having a bad day, he was always pleasant. He was just one of the sweetest men I’ve ever known.”