Parole hearing could lead to killer's release after 30 years

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

A man convicted of killing a Rochester Hills Realtor in a Detroit apartment building in 1987 faces a parole board hearing Tuesday that could lead to his release after 30 years in prison.

Johnnie Burton Jr.

Johnnie Burton Jr., now 73, was managing an apartment building on Littlefield in Detroit for Realtor William O. Ross of Rochester Hills when Ross fired him Oct. 15, 1987. During the discussion, an angry Burton killed Ross, 40, in the basement of the apartment building, dismembered him in a bathtub with a small hand saw and knife, and disposed of the bagged remains in area landfills.

In October 1989, following a two-week trial and testimony from more than 40 witnesses, Burton was convicted of second-degree murder and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony by a jury in Detroit Recorder's Court. Judge Edward M. Thomas, now retired, sentenced Burton to life in prison.

But unlike defendants convicted of first-degree, premeditated murder, which mandates no parole, Burton is now eligible for parole consideration.

“We can’t believe it — we thought he was in for life,” said Derrick Ross, one of the victim’s sons. “Where’s the justice in this? We’re scratching our heads and no one is giving us any answers. I think he should stay in prison for the rest of his life. I don’t think that’s unreasonable.”

Derrick Ross said he only learned of the parole hearing from an aunt “who has stayed on top of this.”

Derrick Ross was 14 on Oct. 15, 1987, when his father uncharacteristically failed to show up for his football game at Troy Athens High School. His brother Bill, now living in California, was a freshman at Michigan State University. Their mother was 39.

“Going through high school is hard enough with all the changes and milestones and events,” said Derrick Ross. “I went from 14 to 30 in a matter of months.”

His father’s truck was found at a Bloomfield Township Holiday Inn on Oct. 22. Burton was arrested on Oct. 27

“It’s hard enough when your father disappears, but then to later learn he was murdered and how he died, certainly has an effect on you,” he said. “I don’t think any of us have ever fully recovered from what happened.

“This isn’t about analytics, it's more about consequences — consequences for what you have done.”

William O. Ross was killed in 1987.

The case against Burton — which included his confession to police and information provided by his estranged wife — revealed Ross had gone to the apartment building on complaints from tenants that Burton, the building’s live-in manager, had been acting erratically, including shooting at dogs and cats in the alley.

Ross fired him and Burton grabbed his wallet in an effort to learn Ross’s address. During that struggle, Burton said he pulled a handgun, pointed it at Ross and shot him twice in the head.

Burton told a homicide detective he felt he was protecting himself against Ross.

Burton’s wife told investigators she went to the apartment and saw Ross in the bathtub and helped Burton carry out bags of the victim’s remains, which were later dropped off at trash dumps in Detroit and Birmingham.

During Burton's trial, a tenant testified about seeing him enter the apartment with Ross, hearing gunshots and seeing only Burton leave.

Ross’s necklace, wedding ring and unregistered handgun were later found in the backyard of Burton’s mother-in-law. The victim’s wife, Paula, said she received a Christmas card from Burton two months after he was arrested in which he wrote that he “liked Bill and was seeking help.”

Burton’s attorney requested a psychiatric evaluation for his client, who was found fit to stand trial. The lawyer is hospitalized and unable to speak about the case, according to the attorney's wife.

At 11 a.m. Tuesday, Burton will be brought into a small room in the Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia. Also there will be a representative from the state Attorney General’s Office and a lone parole board member, who will report back to the full 10-person board in the next couple months on what transpired and her  recommendations.

If space allows, members of Ross’s family and perhaps some Burton supporters will be present as well.

Hearings generally last at least an hour. Burton will be questioned, and stakeholders will be able to express their view on whether he should be considered for parole.

Some who won’t appear, like Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a high school classmate of Ross, have written letters or made phone calls asking Burton not be released. Another, Oakland County Undersheriff Michael McCabe, who was a detective at the sheriff’s Rochester Hills substation at the time of Ross’s disappearance, participated in the investigation.

“We chased down leads out here including landfills and locating his vehicle with the help of Bloomfield Township police,” said McCabe, who testified in the case. “There is no doubt in my mind that Burton is right where he belongs and should not be released. Ever.”

In a letter to the parole board, McCabe wrote: “There are certain cases in which you never forget the details. This case involving the violent crimes committed by Burton  has stayed with me for the last 30 years … it has left a mark on the Ross family permanently and they still grieve the loss of him today."

Burton is one of 38,000 inmates in Michigan prisons, of whom about 10,000 are up for parole consideration in any given year, according to Chris Gautz, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections. In 2018, 12,664 parole hearings resulted in 9,193 inmates being released.

To qualify for parole, an inmate has had to serve 100% of the minimum sentence, usually a lengthy term for a lifer. Those who are denied parole can appeal and sometimes have a new hearing. Those who oppose a granted parole also can appeal.

A person serving a life sentence who is paroled has strict reporting and other requirements for four years, Gautz said. Statistics were not available on the average time served for second-degree murder, he said.

Derrick Ross said he believes paroled convicts deserve much more than minimal monitoring on the outside.

“I’ve heard about how people get consideration because they have been trouble-free behind bars,” said Ross. “I’ve heard the arguments about rehabilitation and deserving another chance.

“You know, like the guy that got out in Detroit recently and killed a cop — he sure was rehabilitated, wasn’t he?”

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