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A cold case to remember

Posted on Dec. 14, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.

burns

With my eyes still half-closed from a quick nap, I tried to focus on what Maureen McFadden was saying on WNDU behind a graphic that said 'Breaking News.'

I heard McFadden say an arrest had been made in a 26-year-old murder case - that alone will get your attention.

Then the picture of the victim came up. It was Theresa Burns.

That quickly, I was wide awake.

Twenty-six years ago, I was a young reporter in the South Bend Tribune's Mishawaka office, with part of my beat being the police and fire departments - the same way so many young pups start out.

The dispatchers at the police department had my home phone number and I received a call around 6 p.m. telling me there had been a murder on Mishawaka's east side - a quiet neighborhood near Twin Branch School.

Back in January of 1988, Mishawaka was a much more intimate city then it is today. Yes, University Park Mall was open and thriving, but the restaurants, car dealers and strip malls of Grape Road and Main Street were still years away.

So the thought of a murder in such a quiet neighborhood, not far from where Mayor Bob Beutter called home, was shocking.

When I arrived at the scene, you could tell by the faces of the officers and detectives that this was something that was hard for them to comprehend. It wasn't a drug deal gone bad or a fight in a bar, this was real life coming to Mishawaka,

I found a detective I trusted and he pulled me aside and explained that 16-year-old Theresa Burns had been found dead of multiple gunshot wounds just inside the front door of her home.

Burns, a Mishawaka High School sophomore, had gone home to change clothes earlier in the day and had not returned to school. Her brother had found her dead on the floor when he returned home with a .22 caliber handgun nearby.

It was shocking to the city, the police department and a young reporter less than 10 years older than the victim.

From all accounts, Burns had been a popular student with many friends at Mishawaka. HIgh, No one could fathom why someone would kill her. I later learned that she had been on the phone with her boyfriend when she hung up to answer a knock on the door. Neighbors say they heard gunshots shortly after the phone call ended.

I had worked the police beat for three years when Burns was killed, so I had a good relationship with the detective bureau. I trusted them and I had earned their trust by keeping things off the record that they told me in confidence.

From the day after the murder until I left the beat later that year, I spoke often with detectives about the case. There were many rumors of course, and detectives even had a strong suspect at one time, but his alibi would hold up.

Weeks turned into months, years and finally decades and no one was arrested for the murder. It looked like Theresa Burns' murderer would never be found.

On Friday, Dec. 13, police arrested Phillip Geans in South Bend and he is being charged him with Burns' murder.

To be honest, I listened to the reports on the news and even saw one of Burns' former classmates holding a story I had written about the case in 1988. And yet it all seemed totally surreal. Was I still asleep and dreaming? Or had this really happened.

Then I saw a familiar face.

Craig Whitfield was by far the youngest dective in the Mishawaka Police Department in 1988 and he was a great source for a number of stories I had worked on. I could read him well and knew which questions to ask and which ones to avoid.

I remembered Craig telling me once, "I've told you everything you know about this case, but I can't tell you everything I know.''

In other words, there are things we just don't want the public to know. We want the person that committed the crime to be the only person that knows what happened.

Whitfield now works with the St. Joseph County Cold Case Department and I have little doubt that he worked his tail off to find Theresa's killer.

And as the interview went on Friday, there was Craig Whitfield, looking tired, but with a true sense of accomplishment on his face. I could also tell he was uncomfortable in front of the cameras, since it was never his style to be a "media star."

Then Whitfield mentioned something that made me smile.

Police were first alerted to Geans when his parents brought a .22 caliber gun to the Mishawaka Police Department not long after Burns' murder. They said they had found the gun in Geans' bed and were afraid of having a gun in the house.

Detectives quickly noticed that the gun was missing it's ejector rod. An ejector rod to a .22 had been found near Burns' body.

There it was - the one fact that Craig Whitfield had kept out of the media 26 years earlier.

"I've told you everything you know, but I can't tell you everything I know.''

Smart guy and a good cop.

It will likely come out in the next few days why the police were unable to arrest Geans until all these years later and hopefully, a motive will be found for the killing of a 16-year-old girl.

But until then, remember this.

In the era of social media, 24-hour news cycles and bloggers with no journalistic background, where getting the story first doesn't alway mean getting it right, there are often reasons why the police don't give you everything you want to know.

Just ask Craig Whitfield.

(The photo in this blog post of Burns is from WNDU.)


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