Muscogee School Superintendent Jim Burns was still alive, but barely breathing as he lay on the floor in the front hallway of his 620 Broadway home, bleeding to death.
His frantic wife was on the telephone to Columbus 911, pleading for help.
“He’s still alive. Please hurry,” Stella Burns said on the call recorded at 12:23 a.m. Oct. 19, 1992.
“Is he breathing?” the 911 dispatcher asked.
“Just barely,” replied the wife, who at first wasn’t sure where Burns was injured. “There is just blood all on the hall. There is blood everywhere,” she said before finding the knife wound in his back.
“Please, please tell them to hurry, please,” she repeated before hearing sirens wailing outside.
Prosecutors played the 911 recording for jurors Monday, the first day of testimony in Kareem Lane’s murder retrial in the controversial school superintendent’s homicide. Arrested in the cold-case slaying May 4, 2010, he first was tried in September 2012, but the jury deadlocked, causing a mistrial.
So for a second time Stella Burns Butler, who remarried after the superintendent’s death, was called to the witness stand to testify about the night she awoke to hear her husband shouting at an intruder he chased from the second-floor bedroom of their Victorian home . She was startled awake when the bed shook violently, she said, and heard her husband yell, “Get out of here, you son of a bitch!” She saw her husband run out of the bedroom, but the figure he pursued was only a blur to her, she said.
“Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy, come back!” she called to him. She donned a robe and left the bedroom, reaching the top of the stairs in time to see Burns standing at the open front door on the first floor, looking to his left, south on Broadway. His left hand was on the door frame, and it slowly slid away as he collapsed, she said.
He died where he fell.
Assistant District Attorney George Lipscomb said the puncture in Burns’ back cut his aorta. In the bedroom police found spots of blood on the floor and in the bed, but as Burns ran from the room, the blood began to spray, Lipscomb said.
Investigators found a key in the front door lock, and discovered the phone in Burns’ bedroom was unplugged. Butler said she did not know who unplugged the phone, nor why Burns’ 8-year-old poodle Gidget didn’t bark at the intruder. The dog was under the bed when she retired that night, Butler said. It could be heard barking loudly on her 911 recording.
The key had been left under the front door mat for Burns’ parents, who were visiting from Mobile, Ala. They had arrived in Columbus on Oct. 15, 1992, a Thursday, but did not need the key then because Burns’ wife was home when they got here.
The key was forgotten as the two couples left the next day for Burns’ vacation property near Cashiers, N.C., where they spent the weekend, returning about 9:30 p.m. the following Sunday.
That Sunday night Burns and his parents watched a World Series game pitting the Atlanta Braves against the Toronto Blue Jays as his wife watched the movie “When Harry Met Sally” in another room. They went to bed about 11 p.m. or a little after, she said.
She was sound asleep when the ruckus started, she said.
As the Burnses were going to bed, a neighbor on Front Avenue two blocks away was worrying about a Ford Ranger pickup truck parked facing south on the one-way, northbound street. She knew another resident there was not home, and feared a burglar might be about, so she called 911 around 11:45 p.m. to report the suspicious vehicle. No police officer responded.
At 12:31 a.m., she called 911 again, this time to report she and her son had seen a man in a mask jog to the gray pickup, get in and drive south toward Fifth Street, where he turned east. She told a 911 dispatcher the truck had departed six minutes earlier.
“He had on a jogging suit and a whole head-mask thing. All you could see was his eyes, and it’s a gray Ford Ranger truck that he was driving,” the witness said on the 911 recording.
She described the mask as a beige, cloth hood with eye holes cut out.
As she called 911, she could hear the sirens headed toward Burns’ home.
An officer came to question her, then left and returned minutes later to take the woman and her son out Macon Road to Rigdon Road, where police acting on her description had stopped Lane’s gray Ford Ranger pickup truck. The witnesses said it was the one they’d seen on Front Avenue.
Inside the truck, officers found black “riding gloves,” a black jacket, a pellet gun that looked like a .45-caliber pistol, and a knife sheath, Lipscomb told the jury in his opening statement. Lane had a small, square flashlight in his pocket, the prosecutor said.
Contrary to previous Ledger-Enquirer reports, police did not find a hockey mask in the vehicle, Lipscomb said. Lane had a hockey mask at his Bertcliff Avenue home he later turned over to police, but it apparently has no bearing on the case, Lipscomb said.
Lane that night told police he’d got off work about 10:30 p.m. at a Hardee’s restaurant on Victory Drive near Spencer High School. He changed out of his work uniform and drove to the L&J game room on Victory Drive, where he listened to the radio in the parking lot for two hours before heading home, he said.
He was on his way home when the officers stopped him, he told them.
Lane’s attorney, Stacey Jackson, said one thing police did not find in Lane’s truck was the hooded mask the witness saw the lone runner wearing on Front Avenue. Though the runner was described as wearing a “jogging suit,” no such clothing was found in Lane’s truck, the attorney said.
Despite the bloody crime scene, investigators found no blood on Lane, who was wearing a white T-shirt, said Jackson, who also spoke of evidence police failed to collect or thoroughly examine: Investigators found a human hair in a mix of blood, but did not have it DNA-tested, Jackson said.
Though an apparent shoe print was kicked into a Sheetrock wall, detectives never cut the wall out to preserve that evidence, Jackson said.
Though authorities claimed Lane to be a burglar, no burglary tools were found, and nothing was taken from Burns’ home, where his wife’s purse was right by the front door, the attorney said.
A DNA test on the knife found by Burns’ body did not exclude Lane as a possible contributor to cells found on it, but the test results were so inconclusive that millions of other people also could not be ruled out, Jackson said.
Jackson also pointed to other possible suspects, including a pedestrian Butler thought was about to enter her home the Wednesday before the homicide, when she had awakened early and sat sipping coffee on her front porch about 4 a.m.
A man who’d done work for Burns had come by the house the next day and returned Sunday night, Butler said. She did not know what he wanted, but overheard her husband tell him, “I’m sorry. I can’t do that.”
Also she recalled getting up early Thursday before the weekend trip and getting a phone call about 4 a.m. The caller first asked if the school superintendent lived there, and then asked, “When will he be home today?”
When she asked who was calling, the male voice replied in a sing-song tone, “Just a friend,” she said.
Though police questioned Lane for hours after he was detained that morning, they finally released him without charge, and let him take the pickup truck. When detectives went back for it later, it had been thoroughly cleaned, Lipscomb said.
Testimony resumes at 9 a.m. Tuesday in Judge Bobby Peters’ ninth-floor Government Center courtroom. Lane remains free on $30,000 bond as he awaits the outcome of his second trial.