The tip that would lead to Ronald F. Burke in the disappearance of a pregnant nurse last April failed to inspire the lead investigator at first, he testified Thursday.
The 24/7 investigation launched when Tamara Dunstan was apparently abducted from her mother's Kipling Drive home April 15 had already included several unsuccessful tips about strange vehicles that proved to have nothing to do with the crime, Sgt. Scott Peebles explained. The prospect of hunting down the driver of a small, light-colored pickup with a plywood tailgate didn't seem promising.
"I thought it probably won't have anything to do with it," Sgt. Peebles testified at a pre-trial hearing for Mr. Burke in Richmond County Superior Court.
Mr. Burke, 26, has pleaded innocent to multiple charges in the death of the 29-year-old pediatric oncology nurse. If convicted of murder, he faces a possible sentence of life in prison with or without parole, or death.
Thursday's hearing concerned the defense's motion to suppress statements Mr. Burke made to investigators. The hearing continues Monday.
Susan Hewson called the sheriff's department near 11 p.m. April 17. She had a small truck with a plywood tailgate and her boyfriend, Mr. Burke, had been driving it. By midnight, Sgt. Peebles was knocking on the door where Mr. Burke was staying at Ms. Hewson's Bourne Place home.
At that point, Mr. Burke wasn't a suspect but someone who had to be checked out, especially after officers learned Mr. Burke knew Mrs. Dunstan's family. Then a "small amount" of blood on the truck's passenger-side door was found, Sgt. Peebles testified.
"The defendant had already been caught in a few lies," the detective testified. He would become ensnared in more and officers confronted Mr. Burke with each new contradiction, Sgt. Peebles testified.
Just before 4 a.m., the lead investigator said, a scrap of charred mail addressed to Mrs. Dunstan was found at Mr. Burke's home.
Until that point, Mr. Burke could have walked out of the sheriff's department at any time, ending an intensive and, at times, argumentative discussion with two sheriff's detectives and an FBI agent, Sgt. Peebles insisted when cross-examined by defense attorney Peter Johnson.
"The minute I had enough evidence for an arrest, I went and told him. I wanted to arrest him," Sgt. Peebles testified.
Though a tape recorder captured the discussions between Mr. Burke and the officers from about 12:30 a.m. to 3:40 a.m. April 18, the following two-hour discussion was not taped, officers testified.
Sgt. Richard Roundtree, who continued to question Mr. Burke after he was placed under arrest, testified that he wasn't thinking about fetching his recorder to permanently secure the conversation. He was in a rush to learn whether Mrs. Dunstan might be held someplace.
"We still maintained hope she was alive," Sgt. Roundtree testified.
When Sheriff Ronnie Strength arrived at 5:30 a.m., Sgt. Peebles suggested he should try to talk with Mr. Burke. He thought having a new officer confront Mr. Burke might help the investigation.
Within minutes, the sheriff came out of the interview room, Sgt. Peebles testified. Mr. Burke was going to show them where Mrs. Dunstan's body was.
She was found in a shallow grave in Edgefield County.
Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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