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Killer Admits He Strangled A North Carolina Mom Because He 'Wanted To Get High'
A North Carolina mother’s death was ruled as natural causes, but a rumor of murder, a fistfight and a "surreal" exhumation proved otherwise.
In the small town of St. Pauls, North Carolina, Patricia Diana Burrow was a beloved, church-going mother who was known for extending a helping hand to anyone in need. Tragically, her life would be cut short in an act of violence.
On March 11, 2011, Steve Burrow, her husband of nearly 40 years, returned home from an overnight shift and found Diana — as she was known — cold and lifeless on their living room couch.
Steve called 911 and tried to revive her to no avail. “I was in a panic mode,” he told “Exhumed," airing Sundays at 7/6c and 8/7c on Oxygen. He felt his world came “crashing down,” he added. “I felt like I’d lost a part of me.”
Steve and his children took some degree of solace, though, in thinking that Diana had died peacefully. That would have been a fitting end for a gentle person.
Brent Adkins, Captain of the Saint Pauls Police Department, knew Diana personally. He and Steve surveyed the home to see if anything looked out of the ordinary and found no signs of forced entrance or a struggle. The house was seemingly securely locked. However, one thing caught officials’ attention.
Diana had a small abrasion over an eye — but Steve explained his wife had health and balance issues that caused her to be “clumsy” and fall on occasion.
According to Adkins, investigators didn’t see a need to look further. It was “case closed,” he told producers. Joe Osman, Robeson County Assistant D.A., added that no physical evidence was collected at the Burrow home “because no one saw a reason” to do that. Diana’s cause of death was attributed to heart disease, and no autopsy was done because her family believed her death to be due to natural causes.
But that belief was shaken in short order. A local mail carrier called to report hearing the disquieting rumor that Diana had been smothered, said Adkins, although the source had no further information to share.
Then, two weeks after Diana was buried, Steve came home and was shocked to find that the place had been ransacked. Pieces of Diana’s jewelry and other belongings were missing. Steve called the police.
Looking around the house, investigators found a screen missing on a back window, where marks suggested that it was the way the robber got in. Police looked into whether there had been other break-ins in the neighborhood or if the Burrows were targeted.
Joined by Adrian Williams, Special Agent with the NC Bureau of Investigation, St. Pauls PD began to re-examine Diana’s death and the causes after this jarring series of events. Investigators were at a disadvantage, said Williams: “There was no autopsy and no crime scene.”
But the rumor about Diana being killed and the break-in made investigators look at everything — and everyone — with fresh eyes.
People closest to the victim were considered first. Steve and the couple’s children were questioned and cleared as suspects.
As investigators broadened their scope, they considered Diana’s reputation as a do-gooder and whether someone she helped may have taken advantage of her kindness. But who?
An answer came from a seemingly unrelated 911 call about a brawl between two brothers who lived in the same neighborhood as the Burrows. Two siblings in their 20s, Daniel and Jason Johnson, had gotten into a fistfight.
Adkins knew the young men. He described Daniel as “a career criminal” who specialized in break-ins. Police who responded to the call had Daniel empty his pockets, which contained a necklace and a ring and a prescription pill bottle with Diana’s name on it. Steve confirmed the recovered jewelry belonged to his wife and said Diana knew the brothers, who lived near the Burrows' home, and had helped them out in the past.
Daniel’s explanation for why he had Diana’s belongings didn’t add up, according to Osman, and Daniel “had a credibility issue,” he said. “He had a history of breaking and entering and stealing things." Meanwhile, Daniel's girlfriend claimed she bought the items from Jason, who also had a rap sheet.
The men’s mother turned up with her own chilling version of the events. She told authorities that Jason had killed Diana after he had broken into her house and was discovered there by her. Investigators now had more reason than ever to suspect Diana was murdered.
The decision to exhume Diana so they could finally do an autopsy to confirm those suspicions was made with the Burrow family’s blessing. In late October 2012, she was unearthed from the Gardens of Faith Cemetery.
Exhumations are often risky, as the bodies can decompose and take away all evidence. Luckily for investigators, “she was in pristine condition,” according to Adkins.
Chief Medical Examiner Michelle Aurelius told producers that she found bruising on Diana’s neck. Although it was noteworthy, the marks provided no definitive answers about the cause of death. But inside her body, they found that Diana’s hyoid bone, a small U-shaped bone situated in the larynx, was broken. The pathologist ruled Diana’s death as the result of asphyxiation: a homicide, not death by natural causes.
Evidence and testimony pointed toward Jason, whose roommate reported that Jason was “a nervous wreck” in the hours and days following Diana’s death.
Investigators hoped to get a confession from Jason, and enlisted Daniel to wear a wire and record their conversation. Daniel broached the subject of Diana’s death with him, but his brother never directly admitted responsibility.
On November 1, 2012, Adkins and Williams interrogated Jason, who offered no confession, so in a second round of questioning, they claimed they had enough evidence to go after his family members.
Jason finally crumbled.
“I wanted to get high” but had no money, he said in the taped interrogation obtained by “Exhumed.” “I was finding stuff to take out of the house. She heard a noise and she got up.”
He admitted that he suffocated her, and said he covered her with a blanket after he killed her.
Jason Johnson was arrested on the spot and charged with burglary and first-degree murder. His case never went to trial because it was preempted by a plea deal. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison.