Woman Died Before Wreck, Doctor Says : Murder Hearing: Estranged husband is accused of killing woman found in car that plunged over cliff.


When Grace Burrus’ car plummeted over a cliff along Montezuma Grade, the 75-year-old woman was already dead, her skull fractured by at least four or five heavy blows to the head with a blunt object--maybe a tire iron, a deputy San Diego County medical examiner testified Wednesday.

The fractures ran the entire left side of Burrus’ skull, and three blows were so strong that they left depressions, Dr. Christopher Swalwell said during a preliminary hearing.

The San Diego County district attorney’s office alleges that Burrus’ estranged husband, John Burrus, murdered the woman at her Oceanside apartment in June, 1990, then put her body in her car, drove it toward Borrego Springs and sent it over the side of a mountain along County Highway S-22. Her body was discovered the following day.

At one point Wednesday, Burrus broke down in tears, complaining that he was “cold and freezing.” His defense attorney, Herb Weston, said later that the emotions of the trial had caught up to his 69-year-old client.


Swalwell said Grace Burrus suffered 11 broken ribs, apparently as a result of being ejected from the car as it tumbled 300 feet down the side of the mountain. But there was absolutely no bleeding from those broken bones, meaning she had been dead for at least 30 minutes or longer before the bones broke, Swalwell testified.

Through incessant questioning, Weston tried to get Swalwell to acknowledge that Grace Burrus could have suffered the blows to her skull--perhaps by banging her head against the gear shift or emergency brake handle--as the car crashed down the mountainside.

The passenger seat of the car then was saturated with her blood from those injuries, Weston suggested in his questioning.

But Swalwell said he couldn’t figure how the left side of Burrus’ head could have crashed against the gear shift and emergency brake handle, since they were situated on the floor to her right. Moreover, he said, since the car was tumbling down the hill, it would be hard to explain how just the one seat became so saturated with blood so quickly before her body was ejected.


Another prosecution witness, California Highway Patrol accident reconstruction expert Edward Sarinas, said evidence at the scene--including how it rolled over versus flipped--indicated that Grace Burrus’ vehicle wasn’t traveling more than 10 m.p.h. when it fell off the side of a roadway pull-out area.

Both Sarinas and Swalwell said they couldn’t explain how the crash would have left Burrus dressed as she was--with a blouse over only one shoulder and slacks that were up only to her thighs. Neither garment was torn or ripped, suggesting that the clothes were not snagged by brush or rocks.

The prosecution contends that John Burrus tried to dress the woman before driving her to the crash scene.

The day’s last witness, forensics expert Walter Fung with the San Diego County Sheriff’s crime lab, said a detection device showed that two walls in Grace Burrus’ bedroom had been wiped clean of blood.


The preliminary hearing, which is lasting longer than expected, is now expected to conclude today in Vista Municipal Judge Michael Harris’ courtroom.