For 30 years, he had somehow managed to forget the unforgettable.
But when Fort Wayne Police Sgt. Brian Burton saw me on TV recently discussing the anniversary of one of Fort Wayne's most brutally macabre murders, the submerged images he had witnessed as a raw 26-year-old rookie reasserted themselves – compelling him to profess an uncomfortable truth too many would rather not acknowledge.
“Some people blame crime on lack of a job, drugs, gangs or the fact that his daddy didn't love him. But what I saw was evil, absolute evil,” said Burton, who had been on the force less than three months when he was called to a home on South Harrison Street on Sept. 19, 1983, after dispatchers received a report of a possible homicide. Invited inside by his training officer for an experience the academy could never provide, he saw the battered body of Jane Osborne. Upstairs were the bodies of her husband Dan, The News-Sentinel's deputy editorial page editor, and their 11-year-old son Ben. The couple's 2-year-old daughter Caroline, who had wondered through the house for two days before her family's murder was discovered, had already been taken away.
Burton never made it past the ground floor, but still recalls graphic details about Jane Osborne's body and the area surrounding it. Even so, he said, he largely suppressed the memory of his first homicide investigation until coverage of the triple murder's 30th anniversary brought it all back.
“I just put it away. I didn't even realize it had been 30 years until I saw you on TV,” he said.
As one of the few people still at The News-Sentinel to have worked with Dan Osborne, I had been happy – if that's the right word – to share my memories of that horrible day with WANE-TV. But I didn't know Osborne well, and what few insights I could offer were those of a relative outsider. Burton had been there, on the inside, and had seen more carnage than any human being should be forced to endure.
And the sudden reawakening of those dim but horrific memories compelled him to contact me, in the hope that his insight might help people understand the true nature of the violence that has, if anything, increased since 1983.
Burton still can't bring himself to utter the name of the 18-year-old miscreant who was arrested for the murders but hanged himself in his Allen County Jail cell before going to trial. At the time, Calvin Perry denied any involvement and some supporters doubted both his guilt and his apparent suicide. Twenty years later, a pastor who was later convicted of sexual battery even named a civil-rights award in Perry's honor. But Burton has no doubt as to what happened, even if theology, not logic or sociology, is needed to comprehend Perry's actions.
“How do you say you're going to go out and murder a family? I just can't grasp how someone could do that,” said Burton, who noted that there was no evidence that the Osbornes were bludgeoned because they posed a threat to the intruder. It was a choice.
There no way short of heaven to know for sure whether the devil made Perry do it. But I'm always amused when otherwise intelligent people refuse to acknowledge the existence of evil or desperately seek socioeconomic explanations for deranged behavior. Not everyone born to poverty or cruelty breaks the law, just as affluence is no guarantee of virtue. If there's a God, salvation and heaven, there must by definition also be a devil, damnation and hell. That doesn't justify or even completely explain abhorrent acts, but it should caution against the Utopian notion that human behavior can be perfected by the removal of external hardships.
In the past 30 years Burton has handled too many murders to count, but none that came close to matching the vision of hell on earth he witnessed just a few months into the job and a few weeks after being married. He was relieved to spend most of that horrible day outside controlling the crowds, and was there when the bodies were removed. And even though he later bought a home nearby, Burton seldom drove past the house that had put Fort Wayne on the nation's map – for all the wrong reasons.
At the time, officers subjected to on-the-job trauma received little if any professional psychiatric help. “It was, 'Strap your gun on and get back out there,' ” said Burton, one of only a handful of active FWPD officers who were on the force 30 years ago.
And so he did, dealing with what he had seen the only way he knew how -- until the media did his remembering for him. But if the anniversary also brought back painful images, Burton insists it also exorcised them.
“I'm done,” he said.
I hope so, for his sake. But evil endures nevertheless, and as British statesman Edmund Burke wrote three centuries ago, will triumph if good men can't identify it, refuse to confront it or pretend it doesn't exist.