The Killing Of A Killer: Did North Carolina Police Respond Properly?

Confessions of a female serial killer


There has been lots of speculation floating around the internet regarding the so-called South Carolina serial killer and his recent death at the hands of police officers. The largest flurry of words, ideas, and theories have come from writers, especially mystery writers. The story is simply too odd to let pass, by the folks who make up tales like this for a living.

AP Photo Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office

Patrick Burris, a recently released prison inmate, has been identified as the South Carolina serial killer. Burris was shot to death by police officers who were investigating a breaking and entering complaint (B&E) on June 27. One of the responding officers was shot by Burris. Fortunately, he survived the wound.

The scenario began to unfold when a citizen called to report a suspicious vehicle matching the killer’s SUV in their neighborhood. They told police that one of the three people in the vehicle resembled the mysterious South Carolina serial killer. The citizen also reported that the suspect and two other individuals parked the SUV and went inside a neighboring house.

The potential for danger in this particular situation was extremely high. Why? Because Burris was a career criminal with a history of pre-disposed violence, especially toward family members. He was last convicted of being a habitual felon, with crimes such as blackmail, B&E, and theft contributing to his conviction and 2001 10 year prison sentence.

How do police respond to a citizen’s call such as this one? Well, they SHOULD treat each call as a potentially dangerous situation, especially one that came in with this much detail. And they KNEW this guy had already killed several people. He was a murderer for goodness sake.

But the truth is, after four of five dozen false alarms – panicked citizens flood police stations with possible sightings – it’s easy to let your guard down. I’ve done it, and it almost cost me my life, just as it almost cost one of the Gaston County, N.C. police officers, his.

I wasn’t there when the officers engaged in the shootout with Burris last Saturday, but I have been in a shootout, and I have answered many, many B&E complaints. Now, I’m NOT second-guessing the actions of the officers involved in this case. Not at all. Wouldn’t dream of it. But I do have questions, such as:

What should/could the officers have done differently to prevent one of their own from being shot? This is top priority, folks. Every officer must go home safe and sound. Protect the officers and safeguard the public. They must survive! Remember, only fools rush in.

Could the officers have avoided killing the suspect? I know, some would say “who cares” to that question. But it’s not an officer’s duty to dish out revenge.

Well, only the people who were there can know the answers to those questions. However, based on what we’ve read in the papers and seen on the TV news here in the Carolinas (if you can believe the media) – the caller stated that the suspect resembled the serial killer. Surrounding the house to prevent anyone from leaving and then calling for SWAT or more backup would have been a much safer approach than merely going inside the house. I don’t know of that option was available to these officers. Sometimes it isn’t.

I learned the “going in without waiting for backup” lesson the hard way when I and another officer began searching a house for a suspect in an armed robbery. We didn’t wait for backup because we knew the guy. In fact, we’d each arrested the man a few times in the past. He was a career criminal with a history of occasional violence. He’d served time for B&E, blackmail, and theft. Sound familiar? Yep, the exact same background as Burris.

Once inside the house we split up, searching and clearing each room. We’d give a shout of “Clear!” when the search of a room and closet came up empty. I entered the last bedroom on my side of the house and my gaze immediately went to the underside of the bed. It was the last place left where our suspect could conceal himself. I moved slowly toward the obvious hiding place with my Beretta pointed toward the target. Suddenly I heard a commotion behind me. I turned just in time to see my partner grab the suspect and yell, “Drop the knife!”

The suspect had been hiding behind the door and was about to stab me in the back when, fortunately, my co-worker had finished searching his half of the house and decided to help search mine. I made a foolish move that night. We knew the suspect was somewhere in the house, yet we went in when there was plenty of backup available. We could have surrounded the house, sent in our dogs, fired tear gas into the house…well, you get the idea. The same was possibly true for the North Carolina officers.

But make no mistake about it, the shooting was justified.

After answering so many calls that turn out to be nothing, some officers eventually do let down their guard. Officers are not trained that way, but they’re are human. And what do humans do? They make mistakes. And mistakes in law enforcement can be deadly.


* It seems this post has offended some police officers. Believe me, I am not second-guessing the actions taken by the officers involved in this case. I applaud each of them for their heroism. They did what they had to do, when they had to do it.

The questions posted above were posed to me by people from all over the country. I chose to post the ones relating to officer safety, something I taught for years at the police academy. I’m sorry if this blog offended anyone, but it is what it is, my honest attempt to help writers with their work. I am not a journalist.

Make no mistake about it. I am 100% on the side of law enforcement officers.

A few FYI’s…

A North Carolina sheriff expressed his concern that Burris had learned to become a better and more violent criminal during his latest prison sentence.

Bounty Hunter Paul Raymond remembers having to track down Burris years ago when he skipped bail on other charges. However, Raymond did express his surprise at the allegations of murder involving Burris.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Mildred May, a North Carolina resident who had once hired Burris to do some odd jobs around her property. She thought Burris was a very nice man.

Less than 1% of all murders are committed by serial killers.

North Carolina police are now digging into their unsolved case files to see if Burris could be a suspect in those crimes..

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Author Terry Odell is giving away a copy of this fine book. Please visit Terry’s website for details.

6 replies
  1. D. Swords
    D. Swords says:

    Hi, Lee.

    I would agree with one thing for certain. We certainly can’t draw any judgements until all the info. is in.

    I’m sure the local department, along with investigators from the state and possibly federal govts. are going over this with a fine toothed comb. I’ll leave it with them.

    I, like you, empathize with the officers and am glad none were killed. Whether they knew or believed this was the serial killer (probably one of many such calls of sightings they had responded to) they had to make their decisions in a very short time. They may well have been concerned that if this was the killer, someone in the house may be in imminent peril.

    As is the purpose of this blog, it points out the nearly impossible job that officers all across this country do every day. Showing writers what the policeman’s job is all about is what you try to do. This story is a perfect example of what we have both experienced in our years on the street. A few seconds to make a life and death decision followed by weeks of people investigating your every step.

    “The policeman’s lot is not a happy one.”

  2. uboser
    uboser says:

    Many thanks for the details, Lee. I now have my answer about the number of burglary calls and the Gaston County Police Department. As you point out in your original post, it’s hard to refrain from wondering in a case like this. Hopefully, we will soon have more answers from the people on the ground.

  3. Elena
    Elena says:

    Sadly these things do happen, and even more sadly there are elements of the public who think the police should operate like the tooth fairy, wait for the bad dude to fall out.

    I am glad to know that a variety of forms of backup were available if the officers had wanted it. And I’m further glad to know that the officer will be fine.

    However, in the first photo you might want to mention to the officer on the right that it is prudent to have one’s feet and body planted during an operation. This will allow him to move smartly when he realizes the officer on the left is about to shot his foot.

  4. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    The Gaston County Police Department is no back woods department. Gaston County, N.C. is the only county in North Carolina where the sheriff’s office is not responsible for law enforcement. There, the sheriff’s office maintains the jails, serves civil papers (divorce papers, lien notices, jury summons, etc.), and provides security for the courts. They do not do policing.

    The Gaston County Police Department is the agency that provides police services to the 85,000 county residents. The county is 270 square miles, quite a distance for the 137 sworn officers to cover (the department also employs 90 civilians).

    The Gaston PD operates four zones, similar to precincts, throughout the county, consisting of patrol divisions, investigative divisions, K9 units, marine patrol, Crime Scene Search Units, a Special Investigative Unit (vice and narcotics), Special Support Service Unit, School Resource Officers, a Hazardous Device Team, and an Emergency Response Team.

    The Emergency Response Team is available 24 hours a day to handle high-risk incidents, such as a search of a building containing a highly dangerous murderer.

    In 2008, the GCPD answered 617 burglary calls, second only to narcotics offenses.

  5. uboser
    uboser says:

    I also wonder about how many B&E calls the sheriffs office usually receives. It sounds like a very rural area, which would not receive many such calls–and all the more reason to be suspicious. I blogged about the incident on my site as well

    I was surprised at how little information that the local police gave out online.

  6. Terry
    Terry says:

    Interesting statistic about serial killers. Judging from the novels out there, you’d think they were commonplace. Sort of like someone figuring out that there were more books featuring Navy SEALS than there were actual SEALS.

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