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Accused Killer of Wife Failed to Report Her Missing, Court Is Told

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A man accused of killing his estranged wife and dumping her body over the side of a cliff near Borrego Springs showed little concern over his wife’s safety when she was missing, the victim’s sister testified Tuesday.

June Edwards, who lived in an apartment unit adjoining her sister’s, testified at a preliminary hearing that, while family and friends searched for Grace Burrus, the victim’s husband, John Burrus, went shopping for clothes so he could fly to Alaska to check on apartments he owns there.

Russell Fritz, a caretaker for apartments that John Burrus owns at Salton City, testified that, when he asked his boss whether he had called authorities about his wife’s disappearance, John Burrus said he hadn’t.

The San Diego County district attorney’s office alleges that John Burrus, now 69, killed his 75-year-old wife on the night of June 26, 1990, or early the next morning at her apartment in Oceanside, then put her body in her car, drove it toward Borrego Springs, and pushed it over the side of county highway S-22 on the Montezuma Grade.

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The couple were within nine days of a divorce hearing, and prosecutors allege that the property settlement was the motive for the killing.

The defense claims that Grace and John Burrus had happily spent the night together, reconciled their differences, had drinks, and that each left Oceanside the next morning in separate cars for Salton City. Once there, John Burrus was going to leave his car and be driven back by his wife to the airport so he could fly to Anchorage to check on his apartments.

Grace Burrus either was killed when her car crashed over the side of the highway or was slain, defense attorney Herb Weston said.

According to testimony Tuesday, John Burrus drove to the Salton City apartments the morning of June 27 and asked Fritz, his caretaker, if he had seen Grace, because she had an hour or so head start on her husband. He hadn’t, Fritz said, and John Burrus returned to Oceanside.

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The next morning, Fritz testified, he called John Burrus to see what he had learned about his wife.

“I asked him if he called the authorities,” Fritz said. “He said it wouldn’t do any good to call because it hadn’t been 24 hours.”

Edwards said she first learned of her sister’s disappearance the night of June 27, 1990, when Burrus returned from Salton City to Oceanside. She, not Burrus, called relatives to figure out what to do about Grace’s disappearance, she said, “because I wanted to see some action. . . . He said he wasn’t going to call anybody until after 8 o’clock the next morning because she had to be missing more than 24 hours before they’d do anything.”

On the morning of June 28--at about the time Grace Burrus’ nephew and niece had found her body--John Burrus asked Edwards to stay near the phone for news so he could go shopping, she said.

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“He said he didn’t have any luggage because it was all either in Alaska or at Salton City,” she said.

Edwards testified that, although she normally heard her sister’s voice or television in the evening in the adjoining apartment, it was quiet the night of June 26.

Overnight, she said, she heard more than one male voice--including one she assumed to be John Burrus'--coming from the adjacent apartment but didn’t hear Grace’s voice. Nor did she hear or see Grace the next morning, as she typically would, she said.

Much of Tuesday’s testimony was focused on the clothing Grace Burrus normally would wear, including a bra and running shoes. When her body was found, she was braless and had on clog-type shoes.

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Weston suggested outside the courtroom that Grace Burrus was somewhat drunk when she left her apartment that morning and didn’t dress herself as she customarily would have.

Grace Burrus’ nephew, Bill Edwards, said that, when he talked to John Burrus within hours of having found her body, Burrus had scratches that appeared fresh on the back of his neck and on his leg.

Weston criticized the prosecution for what he said was a lack of evidence against his client, and said a county grand jury last summer had refused to indict John Burrus on the same charge.

The preliminary hearing before Vista Municipal Judge Michael Harris is expected to conclude today.

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