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HOLMBERG: Virginia serial killers have been mad geniuses, hard to catch

Posted at 1:39 AM, Oct 03, 2014
and last updated 2014-10-03 09:38:51-04

As police investigators - and legions of armchair sleuths - measure up UVa. abduction suspect Jesse Matthew for other missing girl cases across the state, it would be nice to picture a tidy, quick conclusion.

But that's typically not the case with these types of crimes.

Some of these missing-young-women cases already go back a decade. Countess investigators have been involved. Tens of thousands of hours of searching, testing, questioning and re-questioning.

Parts of this current case remind me of some of the twists and turns involving the eventual arrests of the worst serial killers in recent Virginia history.
Those perpetrators had some things in common.

They were failures in just about everything else they did in life, except for killing. They'd get busted for something like a break-in, but somehow get away with torturing and murdering multiple people. It's like they're mad geniuses at it.

The other thing is, once they were caught, it's like, duh, why didn't everyone figure it out before? They were right there in full view.

Case in point: Leslie Leon Burchart, a homeless schizophrenic believed to be the most prolific serial killer in Virginia history, beating and strangling at least seven people to death, four of them elderly women living alone in their West End homes - the so-called Golden Years slayings in 1996.

He was hiding in plain view.

"He was in plain sight," said retired Richmond detective Louis "Boo" Quick, who got a confession of of Burchart. "He was walking the streets. That's how he got around. He didn't have a vehicle. He walked the streets constantly."

Burchart was a regular at the main city library. Most days he sat on a low wall near the corner of W. Brand Street and the Boulevard, seen but not noticed by thousands every day.

When I talked with him in prison after his convictions, he admitted everything else in his life went wrong.

"There was so much negativity in my life," he said, "When I had a choice, I chose the negative one."

He worked menial jobs when he wasn't in mental hospitals or group homes.

And yet he beat and strangled seven people to death, some of them in the most gruesome fashion, without leaving a trace of evidence. He got tripped up when one of the street-type men he had beaten horribly and left for dead - 36 skull fractures - survived.

But man, everybody was trying to solve the rash of Golden Years murders. The city was really worried. A task force was set up, made up of city and county detectives, state police and FBI agents. For almost four years they tried to crack the cases.

By then, the killing had stopped.

RPD detective "Boo" Quick, a crackerjack bank robbery investigator and former homicide detective, was given the cases to see if a lone pair of fresh eyes could see something new.

"They gave me this little room to use as an office about the size of a closet," Quick recalled. "By the time I got all the files in there, I barely had enough room to turn around."

Thanks to all the work the previous investigators had done, Quick settled on three suspects, discarded two and then painstakingly gathered the threads for a tightly woven case that would snare Burchart. It as all about prepping for the questioning, knowing what to ask and how.

Watch my video interview with Boo here. And below is a column I wrote for the Times-Dispatch about my interview with Burchart. (He died in prison of health problems in August of 2002.)

Tomorrow we look at serial killer Timothy Spencer - the "Southside Strangler" - whose arrest and conviction was very much the work of one detective bucking conventional wisdom. It was also the first big DNA case in the nation.

When you look at this current case in then context of these old ones, it may help you understand how hard to is to solve these horrible mysteries.

Richmond Times-Dispatch - Sunday, November 5, 2000

Author: Mark Holmberg
Richmond's worst serial killer would love to have a pair of scissors.

"To trim my beard," Leslie Leon Burchart said recently during the first of two visits with him at the Sussex I State Prison.

That's where he's serving five life terms plus 105 years for beating and strangling seven men and women during six incredibly violent months in 1996.

This infamous psychopath has cleaned himself up. He's doing push-ups and sit-ups in his cell to tone up. Gone is the ghostly Charles Manson look - the long, greasy hair and matted Rip Van Winkle beard.

His eyes are bright and focused, instead of dull and maniacal. He's courteous and gentle, not at all like the freak who poked his own lawyer in the eyes after being arrested for murder.

This new Burchart is tailored to his new claim: He didn't beat and strangle the four older women living alone in early 1996, even though he confessed and pleaded guilty to these "Golden Years" crimes just nine months ago.

"If I absolutely had to Error: Break shortcode syntax invalid, I would as a last resort," he said. "But I wouldn't kill her."

If you read Monday's front-page story, you know Burchart, 51, is now saying he decided to confess to the Golden Years murders because "at the time, I thought I could be a celebrity killer" and because he had grown tired of repeated questioning about the cases that spanned almost four years.

There's no question that the Golden Years murders never would have been pinned on Burchart if he hadn't confessed to them. No physical evidence ties him to any of the crimes - not a fingerprint, footprint, hair, flake of skin or drop of saliva, semen or blood. No one saw him enter of leave the victims' homes.

Which is a stunning fact, given that, at the time, he was a seedy looking homeless schizophrenic who had stopped taking his antipsychotic medicine because the voices he heard in his head seemed like friends. He was a guy who had failed at virtually everything he had ever tried, including petty larceny.

And yet he succeeded as a serial killer, able to elude dozens of detectives working around the clock to find a mysterious murderer who terrified Richmonders for months.

It hardly makes sense.

But it's dangerous playing armchair detective with a guy like Burchart.

"He's a textbook psychopath," said Jan McTernan, a seasoned Richmond homicide detective. "They're so manipulative. They will spin you around and suck you in."

She felt strongly that Burchart was the Golden Years killer back in 1996, when he was arrested for killing three men in the same West Richmond area where the women died. She interviewed him then in the hope of tying him to Golden Years and was fascinated and frustrated by the mind games he played.

"I spent hours with Burchart," McTernan said. "I would do it again tomorrow if I could get into his brain. He has a tremendous amount to offer" in terms of understanding the inner workings of a psychopath.

I had requested an interview with Burchart for the same reason.

"It's sort of hard to explain," he said when asked why he killed at least three men and maimed another that June and July. "I guess I had too much to drink. I went crazy, I'm sure, at the time."

Later he added: "It was the combination of the heat and the frustration of being homeless."

If he was frustrated about being homeless, why didn't he try harder to get along with John Wade Pleasants, who took Burchart into his home that June?

"He said I looked kind of bad, like I needed to come off the street for a while," Burchart said.

Nice guy?

"Yeah, a pretty nice guy."

So why did you get in a fight with him and beat him to death?

"We were both drinking. He wanted to turn the TV off and go to sleep. I told him I wasn't sleepy."

Burchart didn't volunteer a single statement for most of the two interviews, which totaled more than three hours. He only answered questions, and he did so calmly, quietly, thoughtfully. He became slightly more animated when talking about how he killed the men.

Burchart said no one comes to visit him. He has only a sister, in Florida.

How do you spend your time?

"Mainly, I just lay around and do my impersonation of a couch potato, look back on the past and think how nice it would be to be out, to enjoy life on the outside."

To do what?

"Watching TV, reading, going to musical events .*.*."

Favorite TV shows?

"Oh, I think I would have to say shows like 'Columbo,' 'Matlock,' 'Perry Mason.'*"

He admitted there's no chance that he'll ever get out to see those shows.

"I guess I made a mistake by not trying to fight those [Golden Years] cases. I guess I just wanted to get it over with."

What could he have done to keep from becoming a loser, a killer?

"I could've learned a trade. I could've made more money."

During the second interview, I asked a question that finally got him talking excitedly, without prompting:

If the true story about Les Burchart was written, what would it say?

"He was a man who, at an early age in life, had some bad luck, got some bad breaks. Bad luck and misfortune somehow continued for the rest of his life. Somehow there was so much bad luck and misfortune in this one man's life [that] he began seeing himself as a loser. And when decisions had to be made in his life, he chose the wrong decision deliberately.

"People were constantly doing him wrong in his life. So he decided one day to treat other people wrong.

"It would say he wanted to be a good guy. He went to church and prayed. For decades, he tried to be a Christian."

He switched back to the first person. "There was so much negativity in my life, when I had a choice, I chose the negative one. .*.*. I have to think about it every hour of every day, how I made the wrong decisions."

Burchart said his confessions to the Golden Years crimes are among those bad decisions.

"I sure would like to get another chance."

It isn't going to happen. Reversing those guilty pleas is impossible, unless by some fluke Burchart is telling the truth and another killer surfaces.

But according to interviews with detectives, Burchart not only killed those four women, he may have killed another in her home on North Boulevard, plus at least one other man.

He was telling the truth when he confessed earlier this year, McTernan said.

"He did it," she said. "Absolutely. He's trying to draw you in. He's a master manipulator, and he has no one to manipulate. Now he's the one being manipulated. Someone is telling him when to turn the lights off, when to eat."

And when his beard will be trimmed.