Crime

Piecing together the portrait of a serial killer

Tacoma police detective Gene Miller stands in his cold case room at police headquarters. He has solved two 1986 Tacoma-area slayings, identifying the killer as Timothy Ray Burkhart.
Tacoma police detective Gene Miller stands in his cold case room at police headquarters. He has solved two 1986 Tacoma-area slayings, identifying the killer as Timothy Ray Burkhart. The Olympian

In the end, the homicide investigations – separated by decades – always came back to Timothy Ray Burkhart.

Denise Sallee, 17, went out with a girlfriend to the Paradise Village Bowl in Parkland on Jan. 24, 1986. Her body was found two months later.

Burkhart, then 19, hung out at the bowling alley.

Kimberly Payne, 16, had a wide circle of friends at Spanaway High School and went to the Paradise Village Bowl on Oct. 5, 1986. Her body was found the next day in a gravel pit.

Burkhart, a Parkland native, knew some of those same friends and liked to party at the gravel pit.

Kathryn Coates, a 72-year-old grandmother, was killed by a burglar in her Summit home in June 2001.

Burkhart, then 35, had some of Coates’ stolen belongings and pawned one of her rings. Plus, her blood was found on his clothing.

Rebecca Nash, 48, was killed in her apartment by a burglar in June 2001.

Burkhart had Nash’s stolen television, and her car was parked near an apartment complex where he’d done maintenance work.

The killings of Sallee and Payne were never solved. But 15 years later, investigators were tipped that Burkhart might be the killer of Coates and Nash.

They were closing in on him when he committed suicide July 2, 2001.

Burkhart wasn’t suspected in the two girls’ deaths in 1986, but now Tacoma police detective Gene Miller says he has proof Burkhart is a serial killer who not only killed Coates and Nash but also Sallee and Payne.

“We know he killed these four women,” Miller said.

The detective relied on more than 300 hours of investigative work, advances in DNA technology, newer law enforcement tools and strong similarities between the slayings to link Sallee’s and Payne’s deaths to Burkhart.

“Serial killers do not stop killing,” said Pierce County sheriff’s detective Sgt. Tim Kobel, who investigates unsolved homicides. “He’s a serial killer.”

Though murder charges cannot be filed because of Burkhart’s death, prosecutors have reviewed the Sallee and Payne investigations and Miller’s analysis.

“We would charge it and we would get a conviction,” Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said of the 1986 slayings.

Prosecutors previously reviewed the investigations of the Coates and Nash slayings and agreed that Burkhart killed the women.

Fellow investigators and prosecutors praised Miller’s drive, determination and ability to follow the evidence.

“Gene has this talent and passion for solving puzzles,” Lindquist said. “He put together an absolutely solid case.”

For Miller, it’s about solving lingering cases and providing answers.

“The families deserve justice, and sometimes it just doesn’t come from a courtroom,” said Miller, who went to the Tacoma home of Sallee’s mother last week to deliver the news and called two of Payne’s sisters.

Nash’s father, Pat, hadn’t heard Burkhart’s name since 2001. Detectives had told the family Burkhart might be responsible for other deaths but gave no indication they went as far back as 1986.

“That’s crazy,” said Pat Nash, now 75. “(His daughter’s death) created a lot of havoc around here. We were obviously upset for a while.”

The News Tribune’s attempts to reach Payne’s family, Coates’ husband and Burkhart’s family were unsuccessful.

Judy Sallee said she had mixed emotions after talking with Miller.

Her daughter has been on her mind recently because her birthday is next month. When she thinks of Denise, she recalls the good memories, not the brutal end to her young life.

“There is no real closure, but at least I have answers, and that matters a lot,” she said.

Burkhart’s name didn’t mean anything to her, Sallee said, but the idea he hung around the same bowling alley as her daughter made some sense. She has long thought her daughter was not killed by a stranger.

“She just wouldn’t have gone with somebody she didn’t think she knew,” Sallee said.

Before last week, Sallee didn’t think her daughter’s slaying would be solved.

“I am just glad they took their own time to work on a cold case and put it together,” she said.

THE FIRST VICTIM

In the fall of 1985, Denise “Denny” Sallee returned to the Parkland area after living two years in Alaska with her grandparents.

She’d gotten straight A’s in Alaska and was getting close to graduating. But the curriculum was different in Washington, and she quit school after coming home.

With time on her hands, the teen worked at a Spanaway fast-food restaurant, did some baby-sitting and liked to go out with friends.

She always called her mother when she was going to be late.

On Jan. 24, 1986, she and a girlfriend went to Paradise Village Bowl on Pacific Avenue in Parkland. At the time, the bowling alley was a popular hangout for teens, Judy Sallee recalled.

Later that Friday, the friend headed home. Sallee stayed at the bowling alley. She never called her mother.

Judy Sallee didn’t start worrying until the next day when her daughter’s boss called to say she hadn’t come to work.

The Sheriff’s Department told her to check the hospitals. If her daughter wasn’t there, she could report her as a runaway.

Judy Sallee didn’t think that was the case, but she went through the motions. She reported her daughter missing the following Monday and distributed posters to businesses.

Initially, the teen was treated as a runaway.

On March 26, 1986, a man cleaning his vacant lot at East 123rd and A Streets found clothing stuffed under a log. He took the clothes home, washed them and intended to give them to his daughter.

Three days later, a 7-year-old boy found Sallee’s decomposing, nude body in a wooded area near his backyard. She’d been strangled and partially buried near the 12100 block of Pacific Avenue, about four blocks from the bowling alley and near the vacant lot were the clothing was found.

After news of Sallee’s death broke, the man who found the clothes realized the possible connection and turned the items over to detectives. The clothes were key to Judy Sallee identifying her daughter’s body.

Sheriff’s investigators talked to Sallee’s bowling buddy, who said she last saw her friend at the bowling alley with a young man named Tim. She described him as white, 5 feet 10 with a medium build. He had ash-brown hair, light-colored eyes and a light mustache.

The girl worked with a sketch artist to come up with a composite drawing of the man. The sketch and the name Tim were released to the media, and dozens of people called in tips.

Three tipsters gave Burkhart’s name, though none spelled his last name the same or correctly.

Sallee’s death was reviewed for a possible connection to the Green River Killer, who was active in King County at the time. Investigators didn’t think she was one of his victims.

Her case eventually stalled.

KIDS FIND BODY

Kimberly Ann Payne was the second-youngest of eight siblings. She liked to hang out with friends from Spanaway High School. She enjoyed painting and drawing.

Payne was an independent 16-year-old. She ran away from her family’s home and later from a foster home. A guardian at the foster home reported Payne as a runaway Sept. 30, 1986.

Payne was spotted at a Parkland bus stop Oct. 5, 1986, and later that day at the Paradise Village Bowl. There were reports she’d also stopped by a friend’s house in the Parkland area.

The next day, three kids playing at the Pierce County Gravel Pit near Waller Road and 170th Street East found Payne’s body. She was nude and had been strangled. Sheriff’s investigators didn’t think she’d been there long.

Again the death of a murdered teen was publicized. Again tips came in.

One reported seeing Payne in the late evening of Oct. 5 or early morning of Oct. 6 with a man he thought was named Kim Burkhard.

Evidence from the homicide was submitted to the state crime lab for analysis. Back then the technology wasn’t advanced enough to develop a DNA profile, so little came of the checks.

Again, investigators looked at whether Payne was a Green River Killer victim. Again the answer was no.

Like Sallee’s, her case eventually went nowhere.

MORE KILLINGS

Fifteen years later, two new names joined the list of homicide victims in Pierce County.

Kathryn Coates, a homemaker, mother and grandmother, was attacked in her Summit home June 13, 2001, during a burglary. The 72-year-old woman was beaten and strangled.

Her husband had run an errand at the hardware store. When he came home, he found his wife’s battered body in their backyard.

Neighbors told investigators they’d seen an unfamiliar man that day wandering through the area near the 11900 block of Bingham Avenue East.

Three days later, the Sheriff’s Department released a composite sketch of a person of interest in Coates’ death. The man was described as white, 5 feet 10 and having a thin to medium build.

Initially, the sketch didn’t generate any leads.

Two weeks after Coates was killed, a friend found Rebecca Nash dead June 27, 2001, in her apartment in the 2300 block of South 96th Street in Tacoma.

Nash, a 48-year-old mother of two grown children, had moved to the South Sound from Kennewick several months earlier and worked at a Kent water- delivery company. She was the quiet type who kept her windows and doors locked.

Investigators theorized she was killed after she opened her door to a stranger who strangled her and stole some of her belongings, including her 27-inch television and a VCR.

The attacker drove off in Nash’s 1990 Chevrolet Cavalier. Early the next day, a security guard spotted the car parked at Park Village Apartments, about a mile from Nash’s home, and called police.

The car was impounded and police made a public plea for anyone who’d spotted the car that week to call 911.

LINK TO BURKHART

As police and sheriff’s detectives looked into their separate homicides, a relative of Burkhart’s called Pierce County Crime Stoppers.

The relative had seen the composite sketch of the person of interest in Coates’ slaying and identified Burkhart as the man depicted.

The relative also said Burkhart had been in the area of Coates’ home around the time she was killed and near Nash’s apartment around the time she was killed.

Sheriff’s investigators looked into Burkhart, then a transient. They checked several places where he had lived but didn’t find him.

A search of Burkhart’s storage shed turned up blood-stained clothes, Nash’s television and VCR, and items taken from Coates’ home. Detectives also learned Burkhart had pawned a ring of Coates’, using his real name.

They interviewed his relatives and were preparing to get a warrant for his arrest. The morning of July 3, 2001, they released his name and photo to the media.

Hours later, a man went to check on the apartment of a relative who’d been out of town for a month. The man found Burkhart’s body in the apartment.

It was the same Parkland complex where Nash’s car had been found. Burkhart had done work there in prior years, but investigators were not sure how he got into the apartment where he died.

Burkhart had been dead for a day after a lethal overdose of drugs. He had left a note. Its contents were not released. Miller said it didn’t mention Coates or Nash.

Burkhart’s body was cremated, and investigators tied up loose ends. Among other things, they got the results of some lab tests that found traces of Coates’ blood on some of Burkhart’s clothing.

Satisfied they’d found their killer, detectives wrapped up the cases of Kathryn Coates and Rebecca Nash. They briefed prosecutors, who approved of the findings.

They also closed the file on Timothy Burkhart.

A NEW SET OF EYES

Gene Miller joined the Tacoma Police Department in 1985 after more than a year with Enumclaw police. After working as a patrol officer, he was promoted to detective in 1998.

He started investigating auto thefts, then moved into crime analysis. He spent two years investigating sexual assaults before moving to the homicide team in 2005.

Along the way, he received training in how to identify, recognize and evaluate serial cases.

In April 2009, he began a side project – compiling the department’s cold case homicides and missing persons investigations. He created a binder for each case and made sure they were as complete as possible, with crime scene photos and reports.

He entered Tacoma’s 185 to 190 unsolved slayings into a database. Then he added another 125 to 130 cold case homicide investigations from the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department.

The idea was to look at the cases from a wider perspective and hunt for patterns.

“There are all these possibilities,” Miller said. “We want to take a holistic approach, especially with (homicides) of a serial nature.”

Miller’s interest initially was in the unsolved killings of Michella Welch, 12, and Jennifer Bastian, 13. The girls were killed in 1986 and found in two city parks after they’d gone out for bicycle rides.

“Those are cases that have always been on my mind and everyone who’s been on the force since that time,” Miller said recently.

In 1986, Miller, a patrol officer, was on a task force investigating the girls’ deaths. He likely wouldn’t have been available had he not been on light duty after tearing ligaments in his ankles while chasing a robbery suspect.

Investigators suspected the same person killed both girls. Evidence was submitted to the state crime lab for analysis, but their killer has not yet been found.

Last year, when Miller returned to the Bastian and Welch cases, he looked for other similar, unsolved slayings of young girls in the area and in the same time frame.

Sallee and Payne were a bit older when they died but were killed in the same year in Pierce County.

“There was enough there to make me curious,” Miller said. “I couldn’t find anything in the files that they had formally been evaluated as a foursome.”

Miller contacted a counterpart at the Sheriff’s Department and got his blessing to delve further into the deaths of Sallee and Payne.

“I wanted to look at these cases not only to compare them to Bastian and Welch, but to see if I could identify a suspect,” Miller said.

He started digging into the case files, which comprise thousands of pages in a dozen 3-ring binders. He read every page of every document and studied every picture.

A CONNECTION

One name came up repeatedly in the Sallee and Payne investigations. The name as remembered by tipsters varied slightly, but Miller checked them all through a local records database.

He came up empty.

Then he ran the names through a software program that finds connections between similar-sounding names.

It came back with Timothy Ray Burkhart.

Burkhart hadn’t been contacted during the investigations into Sallee’s and Payne’s deaths. And his name didn’t come up in the Bastian and Welch homicides.

But Burkhart looked like a good suspect, so Miller started digging into his background. He learned Burkhart had a history of burglaries but initially didn’t turn up any information linking him to the 2001 deaths of Coates and Nash.

He did find an interesting police report of an attempted kidnapping in 1984.

An 18-year-old woman in Parkland was attacked from behind and a pillowcase thrown over her head. The masked attacker tried to drag her off, but she kicked and screamed and got away. She went home, got her brother and then drove around, trying to find her attacker

The woman spotted Burkhart, whom she knew from school, nearby minutes later. He was riding his bike and wearing similar clothing to the woman’s attacker.

Burkhart was listed in the police report as a suspect but never arrested or charged in the attack.

Miller next searched a national database for more information on Burkhart, his criminal past, whether his DNA had been taken and his current whereabouts.

The report listed him as deceased.

Miller learned Burkhart had died in Pierce County. He called the Medical Examiner’s Office and found out Burkhart had committed suicide. The file also noted he was a suspect in multiple homicides at the time.

Miller ran Burkhart’s name through a Pierce County records system and found the ties to the slayings of Coates and Nash.

DNA EVIDENCE

The Washington State Patrol maintains a statewide database that contains DNA samples of men and women convicted of felonies and lesser crimes, generally sexual.

Burkhart’s DNA profile had not been put into it because his previous convictions didn’t require that a DNA sample be taken from him.

After his suicide, some of his blood-stained clothes were tested during the Coates and Nash investigations deaths. The clothes were tested for the victims’ DNA, but not for Burkhart’s because investigators had no crime scene evidence they suspected had his DNA.

Under state law, investigators can’t take DNA samples of suspects merely in hope of possibly solving another crime. Samples are taken only when someone is convicted or under a court order.

Earlier this year, Miller gave the state crime lab evidence from the Payne slaying along with Burkhart’s blood-stained clothing. He hoped lab techs using newer DNA technology could develop a suspect DNA profile.

Evidence from the Bastian and Welch homicides previously had been submitted to the lab and a suspect DNA profile developed. If a profile could be worked up from the Sallee and Payne killings, Miller might get somewhere.

He wanted two questions answered:

• Were the homicides of Bastian, Welch, Sallee and Payne related?

• Was Burkhart responsible for any of the slayings?

Miller got his answers Tuesday.

The crime lab was able to develop a DNA profile for Burkhart analyzing skin cells left on the clothes he wore when Coates was killed. The lab also developed a suspect DNA profile from evidence in the Payne homicide.

The profile matched the suspect DNA profile in Payne’s slaying. It didn’t match the one from the Bastian and Welch killings.

There was no DNA evidence in Sallee’s killing to submit, but based on circumstantial evidence and interviews, Miller believes Burkhart was responsible for her death.

He bases his premise, in part, on Burkhart’s resemblance to the 1986 suspect sketch, the three tips naming him and the account of Sallee’s girlfriend, who reported last seeing the teen with a man named Tim.

He also found strong similarities between the Sallee and Payne homicides – similar victim profiles, causes of death, a sexual motivation in the slayings, the geographical proximity of the homicides and other elements of the crime scene he wouldn’t disclose because they might affect future cases.

‘NOT DONE’

The answers led to more questions. Why was there a 15-year gap between the two sets of murders? Could Burkhart be responsible for other unsolved slayings?

“We’re obviously not done,” said Miller, who has some ideas about the first question.

Burkhart met his future wife in 1986 or 1987. They had a son and married in 1993. The relationship may have kept him in control, Miller thinks.

Burkhart turned to drugs in 2000, and his marriage started to dissolve. He was accused of low-level crimes, and his wife filed for a protection order, alleging physical abuse.

Then came the slayings of Coates and Nash in 2001.

As for other killings, Miller has done a cursory search and found no direct link between Burkhart and any unsolved slayings since 1986. The suspect profile developed in Payne’s slaying – the one that matches Burkhart – has been compared against suspect DNA profiles in other unsolved cases in the state database, and no match was found. Miller also has no indications Burkhart left the state to live elsewhere during his 35 years.

But the detective wants to look deeper at any other earlier slayings similar to Sallee’s and Payne’s. He’ll review the investigations for evidence that might carry DNA evidence and can be tested.

“Just because we were not able to develop a profile back then doesn’t mean we can’t develop one now,” Miller said.

Burkhart’s DNA profile will be entered in the statewide database so it can be compared to unsolved cases. Miller also will work backward from 2001, looking for unsolved slayings similar to Coates’ and Nash’s.

Meanwhile, he continues to evaluate other cold cases when he has time between current homicide, aggravated assault and officer-involved shooting investigations.

He’s applied for a federal grant to create a full-time Cold Case Unit with Tacoma police and sheriff’s investigators and hopes to compare cases with investigators in King and Thurston counties.

“There are a number of cases out there that, given the opportunity and the time, I firmly believe can be solved given the advances in DNA technology,” Miller said.

“Law enforcement has recognized for a long time that these cases deserve everything we’ve got. There’s a lot more than can be done.”

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