Son confronts convicted killer (Video)

By by Dianna Wray - DWRAY@VICAD.COM
Jan. 17, 2013 at 2:03 p.m.
Updated Jan. 16, 2013 at 7:17 p.m.

GOLIAD - For years, Sharon Burdette believed her sister was murdered, but she could not get anyone to investigate the death.

On Thursday, District Judge Stephen Williams found her sister's husband, Delbert Mills, guilty of murder.

Patricia Leigh Mills, 32, died of asphyxiation in a house fire at 127 S. San Patricio St. on June 25, 2003. Burdette said she believed Mills, 45, started the fire deliberately.

In December 2011, Mills was charged with murder in his wife's death.

The Defense

The state ended its case on Thursday morning and the defense presented its case.

Defense Attorney Keith Weiser called two witnesses to testify.

Richard Sparks, 58, of Goliad, owned a laundromat that the couple used in the months prior to the fire. He knew the couple for about a year and said they seemed happy when they came in to do laundry.

"To me, they acted like a high school couple in love, Sparks said.

Robert Lee Ludwick, 49, of Yorktown, was working alongside Mills manufacturing septic tanks when Mills learned of the fire. Mills raced across the parking lot, got into his vehicle and left in such a hurry he almost rolled his vehicle as he rounded a sharp corner.

Mills was talkative before the death but was quiet and withdrawn at work after his wife's death, Ludwick said.

The investigation

Texas Ranger Todd Reed testified for the state that when the case was re-opened he interviewed Mills.

Reed was sitting only a couple feet away, face to face with Mills during an interview on Nov. 30, 2011, he testified.

Mills had just told investigators that the fire probably started near the front door, how he might have dropped a cigarette in an ash tray with coal oil in it, igniting the blaze. On tape, Mills appeared to get suddenly emotional, Reed said.

"To think I might have been the one. To think I took that boy's momma," Mills said. While he appeared to be crying, Reed said he wasn't. The emotional display stopped as suddenly as it started.

Mills also told investigators he might have smelled something burning as he walked out of the house at about 6:45 that morning.

In summary

In his closing statement, Weiser argued the court could not convict Mills of murder because there wasn't any physical evidence proving he had started a fire that didn't become a full blaze until almost 100 minutes after Mills had left for work.

"What the state wants you to believe, without any evidence, is that Delbert was able to start a fire that burned very small for a very long time," Weiser said.

There wasn't any evidence of how the fire was started and the investigation failed to collect any samples that could be examined now, Weiser said.

District Attorney Michael Sheppard highlighted that Mills had talked about the murder and his ability to start a fire and not get caught to many different people in the weeks and years after his wife's death.

Weiser excused this saying Mills was "just being goofy" when he offered to start a fire to get rid of Keisha Ringland's husband in 2007.

He added his client was unwise to make such claims and threats after his wife died in a fire, but Weiser said that didn't prove he was guilty.

While Mills was recorded speculating about how the fire might have started in interviews with law enforcement and according to testimony of witnesses, no one has ever determined the actual cause of the fire, Weiser said.

"Can you convict someone when the cause of the fire is undetectable?" Weiser asked. "I say you can't."

Sheppard acknowledged they don't know the exact cause of the fire, but he argued that, in the face of his motives and the testimony of so many people, Mills could be convicted.

Sheppard argued Mills wanted to get out of his marriage without having to pay any money for a divorce or child support, and he was in love with Allison Salinas. His affair with Allison had been discovered, forcing the issue to be dealt with in some way, and there was a $15,000 life insurance policy on his wife.

"He is not just guilty of murdering his wife. He's also guilty of the attempted murder of his son. He needs to spend the rest of his life in prison," Sheppard said.

The Verdict

After the closing arguments ended, Williams looked down at his papers, briefly shuffling through them. In less than two minutes, he asked the defendant to rise for his verdict.

Mills, shoulders hunched, stood, dressed in his black and white inmate uniform, next to his attorneys.

"Based on the evidence, this court finds you guilty," Williams said.

Mills' face remained expressionless.

Across the room, Burdette clapped her hand over her mouth, eyes filling with tears.

Jo Wiley threw her arms around her sister, Burdette, tears rolling down both their faces.

"You did it!" she said, gripping Burdette tighter.

Their brother, Richard Wiley, sat quietly in the front row, his fist pressed against his mouth stifling sobs.

John Michael Burdette, now 16, stood alongside Burdette, his face not visible.

During the punishment hearing, Sheppard asked the judge to consider when deciding his sentence, Mills had been convicted of first-degree sexual assault of a 12-year-old girl in Arkansas, of failing to register as a sex offender in Dallas County and of assault in Victoria County.

"I do believe a long, long sentence in the penitentiary is appropriate," Sheppard said.

Weiser asked the judge to consider the full range of punishment for the charge, five to 99 years or life.

Williams sentenced Mills to life in prison.

Mills remained expressionless as he sat back down in his chair.

Long journey

The verdict was the culmination of a long journey for Burdette and her family.

With the approval of Goliad County Sheriff Kirby Brumby, Constable Mike Thompson re-opened the case in September 2010, agreeing with Burdette that something seemed off.

"There were just too many things starting to pop out in the case. It needed looking into," Thompson said after the trial.

He was in the courtroom every day listening as the state presented its case. When the verdict was announced, he nodded his head slightly. It was finally over, he said.

"There are no winners in this kind of case. The family got what they wanted, but ultimately they lose, too, because of what they lost," he said.

The family stood outside the courtroom, wiping at the tears in their eyes, thanking the officials who helped pursue this case and hugging each other.

"It feels good that he's being put away for life," John Michael said.

Mills' son legally changed his last name to Burdette, wanting nothing to do with his biological father. He calls Burdette "Mom," and he said she is the reason the case was re-opened.

"It just goes to show that you should never give up, because it can still happen," the teen said.

Mills has 30 days to begin the appeal process.

Patricia's family said they will keep track of this process.

"He took our sister away for life, and we can't appeal that," her brother said.

On the edge of the group Keisha Ringland and Allison Salinas stood talking with relief about how Mills would stay where he couldn't hurt anyone.

"For the first time in so long, I'm not scared anymore for myself or my family or my best friend," Ringland said. Burdette was still wiping away tears, but she smiled as she stood in the middle of her family.

"I'm happy. I'm thanking God right now," she said. "We did it."

At 6 years old, John Michael Burdette was too young when the fire happened to testify, but at the end of the trial he asked the judge if he could make a statement.

Dressed in black, he took the stand and began to read a statement. After so many years, he wanted to ask his father one question.

"You did not have the right to end her life nor attempt to take mine," he said. "Delbert, why did you murder the one person in the world who truly loved me with all her heart and soul - my mother. Why?"

"I didn't," Mill said, blank-faced, looking up at his son.

Those were the only words he spoke at the trial.



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