Sara Burke is gone, but not forgotten.
Burke’s grave at the Ivy Green Cemetery is surrounded by flowers, a few porcelain angels and other ornaments. Tom Cressman, a city parks employee who oversees the cemetery, said it’s always been that way.
“There’s always stuff around it because people keep coming to decorate it and remember her,” Cressman said. “We’ve got to remember her and the tragedy of what happened to her. I still remember talking to her parents and the sadness in their eyes and the pain of talking about it. It’s just so sad.”
Burke, a 19-year-old Bremerton woman, was stabbed in the neck on May 3, 2011. Neighbors reported hearing an argument and screams around 9:30 p.m. that night. The police later discovered Burke’s body on the sidewalk of Warren Avenue near Eighth Street.
The murder case remains open and active nearly three years later, but no arrests have been made.
The lead detective is not giving up and Burke’s father seems frustrated, but also believes an arrest will eventually be made.
“I’m kind of at a loss, really, about the investigation,” Chester Burke said. “I think we’re stuck in the same place we were when this first happened. They obviously are working on it, but they don’t have any real concrete evidence that they can relate to me as to what the investigation leads to other than that they have had a person of interest. I’m hopeful that they will eventually make an arrest. Obviously, they can’t release all of what they know, but I think they will make an arrest.”
Mr. Burke’s biggest hope is that anyone who has information about what happened to his daughter will call the police.
“Three years is a long time for somebody to walk free having done what they did,” he said. “I don’t wanna let it die until it’s resolved and I don’t think she would want me to. The main thing for me is keeping the story out there as much as possible until we come to a conclusion.”
Sara had two sisters and two brothers.
“They’re just like the rest of the family,” Mr. Burke said. “They want answers and they want some resolution to this. I think they’re moving on in their own way, as we all have to. More than anything, they’d like an answer as to how this happened and whose responsible. I and her mother feel the same way.”
Mr. Burke says his daughter was a bubbly person.
“She was always making friends,” he said. “She meant a lot to us and her friends. She would go out of her way to help anybody that needed a helping hand and we miss her terribly. We miss her very much. We miss her smile and her good nature. She obviously meant a lot to us as well as her friends.”
Bremerton Detective Rodney Harker responded to the scene of Burke’s murder and has been working the case ever since. He acknowledges that the more time that passes the more difficult it becomes to solve a murder case. When asked if he was still optimistic that he can close the Burke case, Detective Harker said, “You have to remain that way, yeah.”
There are still frustrations, though.
“I think the biggest thing would probably be lack of evidence,” Harker said. “In every case you have witnesses, people that you can talk to. But a witness might only have a very small piece of a puzzle, but for hard evidence, which is typically what is going to put a case over the top, we just have very little.”
Exactly nine months after Burke’s murder, Melody Brannon, 61, was stabbed and killed near a High Avenue home. The cases have always been considered to possibly be related. In between the two killings, a man named Kenneth Cobb was stabbed in the neck.
“Luckily, he survived,” Harker said. “It might be related, might not.”
After Brannon’s murder, the FBI came in with a special task force to assist Bremerton police. They set up a tip information line and a database management system called ORION that helps coordinate information and get it out to detectives and supervisors to track case work. No arrests have been made in any of the three cases. All the while, though, Harker has remained committed to solving Burke’s murder.
Captain James Burchett says there isn’t a lead Harker won’t follow.
“In any case you have people that are involved and then the fringe and the outer fringe,” Burchett said. “(Harker) always talks about the threads that weave out and intertwine. This person knows this person and that person knows that person. You find all of these relationships and they may not have an interest in talking to the police and they may not have close ties to the case itself, but you follow all of those threads until they absolutely go nowhere.”
Those leads have taken Harker far and wide.
“I’ve covered nearly the whole state going to some different prisons to talk to people,” Harker said, adding that he also interviewed someone in a jail outside of Washington state.
Harker is reluctant to talk about himself and what it’s like to work a homicide case for three years.
“I wanna focus on Sara,” he said. “It’s not about me. You do learn about your victim, like Sara. Obviously, nobody deserves to die. It’s something you think about every day. Might be on vacation at home thinking about it because you wanna get it solved. Not only for the victim, but for the victim’s family and what they have to go through because they don’t know either.”
Harker says there are about 350 reports in the case file and well over 300 interviews have been conducted. Several think binders take up the majority of shelf space in a BPD conference room.
The files are still growing.
“Just here recently I had a couple walk-ins about it and you have to look at all of them,” he said. “One guy, come to find out, he was a client of Kitsap Mental Health, but you gotta look at all of them.”