Friday, November 20, 2009
Page One Story
We pulled into the funeral home parking lot just after 8 pm, found a spot, and waited for the cops to show up.
It was June 1988. I had just started working as a reporter for the Pocono Record, moving to Pennsylvania from Brooklyn a month earlier, and on this night I was handling the police beat.
Frances Cox, one of our photographers, was sitting next to me in the passenger seat and we were waiting to get a picture of a man named Jerry Burgos, a New York transplant like myself, who was inside the attending his wife’s viewing.
Nilsa Burgos had been discovered in the couple’s burning home a few days earlier. Her death had been ruled a homicide after an autopsy found no trace of smoke in lungs, meaning she was dead before the fire started. She was seven months pregnant.
The paper had been running stories about the killing for days and then one of the reporters had gotten a tip that the state police would pick up Burgos at the funeral home and charge him with his wife’s murder. Frances and I were assigned to cover the arrest.
I was new to daily journalism, my only prior reporting experience being at a couple of weekly papers in Brooklyn. I had walked a beat with some cops in Sunset Park, covered some drug busts with Brooklyn South Narcotics, but I’d never witnessed a homicide bust.
We didn’t have to wait too long. It seemed like I was just putting my car into park when Burgos, a heavyset Hispanic man with glasses, walked out into the warm spring evening. We climbed out of my car and got closer as two state troopers, Clark Ritter and Mike Hartley, approached Burgos.
There was none of the “freeze, punk!” stuff you see on TV; no wrestling the perp to the ground and slapping on the cuffs. Looking at these guys huddled together you’d never think one of them was being charged with a horrible crime.
“Now, Jerry,” Ritter said in a low voice, “we’re going to get into the car…”
“…and you keep your hands were I can see them,” Hartley said, spreading out his fingers.
Burgos took one step toward the unmarked police car and---FOOSH!—the flash from Frances’s camera lit up the three men like a stray lightning bolt, creating the photo that would appear on page one the next morning.
People snarled and glared at us and one of the cops told Burgos “I had nothing to do with that.”
“That was uncalled for!” one man shouted and it struck me as such an odd choice of words; it was so formal, like he was going to challenge me to a duel.
The cops hustled their prisoner into the car and drove off, while Frances and I made the long march back to my old Toyota through a gauntlet of angry mourners who yelled and cursed at us.
“Why don’t you come to the funeral, assholes?” one man shouted.
“It’s the job,” I said, my eyes to the ground.
We got into the car and took off looking for the courthouse in a town called Mountainhome. As I drove around this unfamiliar territory, I started having serious thoughts about a career change.
“This isn’t for me!” I wailed. “I can’t handle the stress. It’s bad for my health.”
Going to Court
It was one of those nights where the whole world seemed to be spinning out of control. I stopped at a gas station on the way to the courthouse and instead of getting a normal attendant, I get some bearded Deliverance reject who apparently was engaged in a fierce argument with an imaginary friend.
I asked him for directions—just directions, that’s all—and this loon looks up to the sky and shouts “whaaaaaaaat?” at the top of his lungs. He did this about three more times in our short encounter before I got my change and floored the pedal.
We finally got to Mountainhome and I began looking for the courthouse. Being a New Yorker, “courthouse” to me meant a huge marble structure with massive columns and long, wide steps leading to giant iron doors.
But this wasn’t New York and here the district court was just a store front, so there was no place to hide from angry relatives.
I went inside while Frances waited by the front door to get another shot of our man. I got the affidavit from the judge—a very nice lady, by the way—and for some odd reason I took a seat in the waiting room.
The cops showed up just then and I saw a flash through the window, indicating that Frances had gotten another photo. A woman who was one of several people accompanying Burgos shouted “why don’t you write how hard he worked?”
And then they saw me.
One man complained to the state troopers, demanding that they throw me out of the courthouse.
“They’re harassing us!”
I’m harassing you? I thought. I’m about two seconds away from jumping into my car, tear-assing back to Brooklyn, and becoming a Sanitation man. What are you talking about?
The cop explained that the arraignment was open to the public and anyone could attend. Then the guy sat down and started on me.
“So there’s nothing else going on tonight, buddy?” he sneered.
The tension was so awful I don’t know why I didn’t go wait outside or sit in the courtroom. One of the cops looked away, probably embarrassed for me, while I just sat there.
“Look,” I said finally, “I will gladly take any comment you want to make, but I have to be here.”
“I’ve made all my comments,” he snapped.
The arraignment was brief and ended with the judge ordering Burgos to be held in the county prison. When it was over, I heard him mutter something about wanting to get a drink. I felt the same way.
We got back to the office and I went to my desk to write the story while Frances went to develop her pictures. The paper would hit newsstands in just a few hours.
That weekend I told my father about the insane things that had happened in one evening and he gave me a great pieces of advice.
“Sometimes,” he said, “you just have to put your head down and keep on going.”
Jerry Burgos was convicted of murdering his wife and sentenced to death. One of the most damaging witnesses for the prosecution was his own son, a young boy who innocently told police that he didn’t see any sign of a fire the night his mother died until after "Daddy carried me out to the car.”
Burgos appealed his sentence and managed to get a second trial, but he ended up being sentenced to life without parole.
I didn’t quit my job that night and race back to Brooklyn to work for the Sanitation Department. I became the full time police reporter, covering fires, car wrecks, arraignments, and the occasional murder for the next five years.
I learned to blend in, back off, and look inconspicuous. I got used to people hating my guts and cursing at me. When it got bad, I just put my head down and kept on going.
I worked with several of those cops—particularly Hartley, who loved to break my balls—and I had a lot of page one stories, but nothing as dramatic as that first crazy night.
Frances Cox, whom I would jokingly call “Frances the Talking Photographer,” was later diagnosed with cancer and died a few years after she took that picture.
The last I heard of Jerry Burgos, he was still in prison. I haven’t thought about him in years, but every now and then I look back on the night when I stood so close to a murderer.
And I wonder how much he’s changed since the day he made page one.