Neighbors grieve loss of woman

Pat Burley's body discovered in trash can after 4-day search

Pat Burley was as much a part of her neighborhood as Laney Walker Elementary School and the United House of Prayer.

 

Living with Down syndrome made her simple but sincere, and everyone who lived on her stretch of Wrightsboro Road kept an eye out for her. There was a time when no one could figure out why she was gaining weight until neighbors pieced together that she was going from house to house eating meals.

Mary Williams was one of many neighbors who watched out for Burley, so she was concerned late Sunday afternoon when she saw Burley talking with a strange man. Williams, 86, made her way inside to call the woman Burley lived with.

By the time Williams got back onto her front porch, Burley and the man were gone.

"I don't know how they could have left so quickly," Williams said Thursday.

Early Monday morning, friends, family and deputies fanned out into the neighborhood searching abandoned homes and alleys for the 54-year-old Burley. As the search stretched into Tuesday, investigators brought in a 29-year-old homeless man named Corey Smith for questioning. He was the last person seen talking to Burley and was the suspect in a trash can theft from Monday morning, Peebles said.

Late Wednesday night, a man searching for scrap metal at a vacant lot on the 600 block of Hall Street found Burley's body.

Authorities say Burley was killed in a different location, then transported to the wooded area in a trash can with wheels.

On Thursday, Smith was charged with murder.

"The area is overgrown," Richmond County sheriff's Capt. Scott Peebles said of the vacant lot. "We flew over the area briefly yesterday, but we would not have found her without going on that specific property and searching for her."

Fingerprint and dental records still have to be checked before the body is officially declared as Burley's, but investigators say they are confident it is her.

Investigators say strangling was the likely cause of death. Peebles said there is evidence of a sexual assault.

In March 2009, Smith was arrested after he was accused of attacking his girlfriend with a socket wrench during an argument. Peebles said the couple were staying in the same abandoned building at the time.

Judge Sheryl Jolly sentenced him to one year in jail, for which he received credit for time served, and four years probation.

Burley lived within sight of the United House of Prayer, where she sang in the choir and had her own special seat. She regularly volunteered in the church's restaurant, sorting silverware and helping people carry food to tables.

Her presence was keenly missed the past couple of days. Restaurant regulars were crying Thursday as word spread that Burley was probably dead, said Assistant Pastor George Young.

"She was already missed," Young said.