By Ed Runyan
For Stephanie Sample, it was “a big weight off my shoulders” when Judge Andrew Logan read guilty verdicts late Friday for Austin T. Burke in the murder of her son, Brandon Sample, on June 12 in the Grand River wildlife area in Bristol Township.
“I felt he can rest in peace right now, and justice is done,” she said of her 22-year-old son.
Burke, 19, of Miller South Road in Bristolville, didn’t show much reaction as he heard the jury’s verdict in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court. Burke will be sentenced at 11 a.m. March 27. He could get life in prison without any chance at parole or another type of life sentence.
Chris Becker, the assistant county prosecutor who handled the case, acknowledged it makes a prosecutor nervous when he or she doesn’t have DNA or a bullet matching the suspect to the victim, but investigators used another forensic tool – cellphone data.
“They couldn’t get enough DNA. We didn’t have ballistics because of the unfortunate situation that the coroner couldn’t get the bullet fragments from the deceased, but this case really was won by electronics and cellphone movements,” Becker said.
“The BCI [Bureau of Criminal Investigation], the attorney general’s office did an outstanding job of being able to retrieve those text messages, including deleted text messages, which clearly implicated the defendant in this case as being involved and connected to the deceased,” Becker added.
Investigators also used cellphone-tower records analyzed by BCI to identify where Burke was on June 12 to support statements by teenage witnesses that Burke told them he shot Sample to death and left his body on Hatchet Man Road, a dirt path off Peck Leach Road in Bristol Township.
Burke was found guilty on all counts – the aggravated robbery and aggravated murder of Sample, the June 20 aggravated robbery of the Cortland Pizza Joe’s restaurant, tampering with evidence and two counts of being a felon in illegal possession of a firearm.
Burke was not allowed to have a firearm because he was convicted as a juvenile of a Girard aggravated robbery. Burke actually met Sample while Burke was serving a lengthy detention in an Ohio Department of Youth Services facility where Sample worked until last year.
Becker said he was grateful to Detective John Greaver of the Warren Police Department for following leads to find Sample’s decomposed body on a road Greaver never knew existed.
The case was made more difficult by the four days between Sample’s death and his body being found.
County Coroner Dr. Humphrey Germaniuk ruled Sample’s death a homicide as a result of a gunshot wound to the head, but no bullet was recovered.
Dr. Germaniuk apparently washed a bullet fragment or two “down the drain as he [was] trying to clean” Sample’s decomposed and damaged body in the morgue, Becker told jurors earlier Friday during closing arguments to the jury of seven men and five women.
Becker asked jurors to use their “reason and common sense” in finding Burke guilty by considering the text messages between Burke and Sample that Burke deleted.
Becker also said jurors should consider why Burke would tell Greaver he was home June 12, despite phone records to the contrary.
Becker said to consider Burke took two friends to Hatchet Man Road a few weeks before Sample’s death.
“That’s the exact location where Rickey Roupe, Haley Roupe, Diedre Keener, Jessica Sims and Nathan Moats all testified that the defendant told them he killed [Sample] there,” Becker said.
Keener, 19, testified that Burke arrived at a house on Mason Street in Niles about 3 or 4 a.m. June 12 and told her he was “going to rob someone for heroin.” She said a male who she later identified as Sample, was in a white car close by.
Burke’s cellphone records showed that his phone was in Niles at 2:08 a.m. June 12, then “at 3:46 a.m. his phone starts to move through Warren, and eventually near Hatchet Man Road, where the body was found,” Becker said of evidence in the trial.
The last message anyone got from Sample’s phone was at 4:40 a.m. when he told his father he was on his way home, according to testimony.
Other records showed Burke’s phone moving back through central Trumbull County and into Niles after that.
Bradley Olson Jr., one of Burke’s attorneys, said during his summation the teens who testified that Burke told them he killed Sample were “completely inconsistent,” and Olson suggested shoddy work by Greaver and Dr. Germaniuk.
“There is nothing that links [Burke] to the crime but the testimony of five kids,” Olson said.
Olson added that police should have investigated one of Sample’s best friends, who spent much of the evening with Sample late June 11.
“Why didn’t police check into whether the friend went home just after midnight June 12 and check his phone records?” Olson asked.
Olson also asked why police never obtained sophisticated cellphone information for Sample’s phone. Greaver testified he sought those records but the cellphone company refused to turn them over.