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Burton Abbott Trial: 1955 - Emotion Over Evidence, Amused Defendant

stephanie charged murder police

Defendant: Burton W. Abbott
Crimes Charged: Murder and kidnapping
Chief Defense Lawyer: Stanley D. Whitney
Chief Prosecutors: Frank Coakley and Folger Emerson
Judge: Wade Snook
Place: Oakland, California
Dates of Trial: November 7, 1955-January 25, 1956
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Death

SIGNIFICANCE: Shrewd advocacy and the marshaling of highly charged emotions overcame evidential limitations in one of California's most sensational murder trials.

On April 28, 1955, 14-year-old Stephanie Bryan failed to return home after school in Oakland, California. Apart from finding a school textbook, the police had little to go on. A statewide search proved fruitless until July 15, when Georgia Abbott reported that she had found some of Stephanie's personal effects—a purse and ID card—in the basement of her Alameda home. When police searched the basement more thoroughly the next day, they dug up yet more books belonging to Stephanie, also her spectacles and a brassiere. Neither Georgia Abbott nor her 27-year-old husband, Burton, an accounting student, could explain how the effects came to be there. Burton Abbott told police that at the time Stephanie disappeared, he was en route to the family's vacation cabin, 285 miles away in the Trinity County mountains. On July 20, the battered body of Stephanie Bryan was found lying in a shallow grave, just 335 feet from Abbott's cabin. Soon afterwards he was charged with murder and rape.

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almost 3 years ago

In April of '54 I spent weekends and the summer on my dad's gold claim on Hayfork Greek about 4-5 miles downstream from the Abbot cabin , which was where Chanchelulla Gulch bisected the creek. The night of the abduction we pulled off Wildwood Road and slept next to the care and continued on in daylight so we could see; there was no road. It haunted me as a kid to think that they likely drove past us that night. There were almost no cars on that road at night. Heard some local men tell my dad that they'd torched the cabin after the trial. I believe that Harold Jackson's dogs discovered another body very close to the same cabin a generation before. Have no details on that except the locals said that was also a murder. Harold died in 2007 at 95 years of age.

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over 3 years ago

here it is 7/10/11 and still bothered by this case. Can't help wonder how the children(Stephanie's siblings) and Burton's son, Chris are doing.It has been mentioned that Chris changed his name(understandable) and had a career in the armed forces.The fact that is was based entirely on circumstantial evidence and so long ago, also still goes to the fact that the execution was before the 90 days was up on the writ.Also, again, why won't the State of CA do a familial DNA test to put this to rest ???

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over 4 years ago

My mother named me for Stephanie Bryant. I was born during the search for her. I was told that I was named for a young girl that disappeared and was eventually found murdered. I decided to google the topic to try and learn more of my namesake.

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over 4 years ago

Well, today is 4/14/10 and it's approaching the 28th once again and I still can't shake that day in 1955 when it all started. It has been mentioned in one of the e-mails that the State of CA is fighting using any familial DNA against any on file to see if there is any evidence that truly exonerates Burton of the henious crime he was executed for.It would put to rest the lingering thoughts we all have had for years. Not sure why is still haunts so many of us but I for one would like to know one way or another the results.Remember, he was tried and convicted on circumstantial evidence and why would he have buried evidence in his own basement only to know that it would have likely been found ? I remember from the Tribunes own reportings that Chris told his parents one night that he had seen someone in the basement and that his parents thought he was making it up and didn't believe him because of his age. There are still too many unanswered questions here. I, for one, would like to see it "reopened"/"reconstructed",for lack of a better words from start to finish with the technology we now have and see what conclusions a neutral person(s) comes up with.And if the right person was tried and convicted of the crime, then it can be put to rest,once and for all. I seem to recall that this particular case was a career boost for the DA at the time.Perhaps, with the haste that this case took from trial to execution, vital information was left out.It does happen. Again, I can't help but wonder why the hesitation on the part of the State of Ca to conduct tests if it will give us what they have stated for so long OR are they afraid that maybe an agregious miscarriage of justice took place. What do they have to lose at this point ? Except possibly the truth.Remember, there was a last minute reprieve but recd too late.

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almost 5 years ago

I can't stop thinking about DNA evidence, for instance, the hairs found in Abbott's car. I realized most everyone associated with this case is long gone, but I can't stop thinking about it. Would the physical evidence still exist and what would it take to have it tested?

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over 5 years ago

Thanks guys; I thought I was the only one who continues to remember.

I was 7 when Stephanie was kidnapped. Once her effects were discovered and Abbott became a suspect, the story was a nightly topic at our dinner table in San Leandro. I suppose having two sisters close to Stephanie's age has something to do with my memories.

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over 5 years ago

Okay, today is Mother's Day and yes, when April 28th came and went this year, it wasn't without thinking about all that happened in 1955...I still have reservations about the outcome. I also cna't help but wonder what the motive would have been at the time..I hope Chris(I understand he changed his name) is doing all right and able to have had a half-way decent life..My heart also goes out to Stephanies's siblings and hope all is well with them also... 5/10/09

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over 6 years ago

I read all of your comments with interest, because I also was eight years old when Stephanie was kidnapped and it has left a lasting impression on me. I lived in Berkely, not far from the Claremont Hotel and my best friend's father was a teacher at the Jr High where Stephanie attended school. I remember being terribly upset by this incident, which I feel was life changing as a child and as an adult. As a mother, I would never allow my daughter to travel to a friend's home alone, etc. I think the most heart felt thing that I remember as a child, was praying every night for Stephanie's safe return and the terrible saddness day after day when she did not return. I cannot imagine the pain uffered by her or her family.

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over 7 years ago

All of you who think that Burton Abbott was railroaded, please banish the thought. Burton Abbott was a weak, pathetic, little man who inwardly hated women. His true disdain was for both is wife and his mother, both of whom ironically stood by him to the very end. The tragedy was that he chose a gentle little soul like Stephanie Bryan to inflict his cruel and brutal rage upon. This little worm of a man destroyed the Bryan family as well as his own. Stephanie's father, Dr. Charles Bryan died three years after Stephanie's murder of a massive heart attack. This was due to the stress of his daughter's murder, he left behind a widow and four surviving orphans. His wife Mary Bryan had to return to the work force to support her family. The Bryan children still bear the emotional scars of this ordeal to this day as do some of Stephanie's friends. It all could have been avoided if this self centered little atheistic psychopath had let Stephanie walk home in peace and respected her human rights. Sadly, this tragedy has been repeated countless times throughout the United States only the victims and perpetrators are different.

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over 3 years ago

I knew the cabin had been demolished and prob a good thin BUT I still believe to this day he was innocent.The artifacts found in the basemtn were planted there as mentioned in one of the many articles in the Oakland Tribune stated his son went into his parents bedroom one night and tried to tell his parents that someone wa sin the basement and they dismissed it as coming from a young child he must have made it up.Besides, what motive did abbot have ?

I was about 8 going on 30 when it happened and followed it closely on a daily basis and it still haunts me to this day as something happening so close to home. I am in OR now and worked in law enforcement as a civilian.Too many facts that he couldn't have done it were overlooked and to be tried and convicted on circumstancial evidence was ludicrious. By the time it went to trial, he had been convicted in the court of public opinion. Is there anything left in the way of evidence that could be tested now ?



mandysmom1946@yahoo.com

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almost 4 years ago

The Abbott cabin is no longer there.
You can't even find a trace of it. I'm a retired deputy sheriff from the Bay Area. I visited the area with another retired deputy and we couldn't find anything. We stopped at the Wildwood Inn and had coffee with the owner. He came to Wildwood long after the original owner of the Inn sold it. Kind of creepy visiting the site where Burton Abbott went after he buried Stephanie. Abbott got roaring drunk here most likely in an effort to deaden his guilt over what he had done. Wildwood is indeed a very remote place, even in 2010. I can imagine it was the ends of the Earth in 1955.

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over 4 years ago

I was eight and lived about a mile from the grave site. A friend of mine and I were walking home from swimming when we smelled the body. My dog dug in the grave and smelled awful. I told my mother when I got home and she thougt it was just a dead animal. I don't recall all the events, but Stephanis's body was discovered shortly after. There was talk about Burton being at the Wildwood Inn a week or so previously, acting nervous, making frequent trips to his car. I remember the day they found Stephanie. I was there when they placed her in our wood shop to wait for proper transportation. My vivid memory was seeing her under a sheet and her dark hair hanging down. She has stuck in my memory all these years. I personally believe Burton did it. I am going to order the books, if I can find them.

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over 6 years ago

I was 15 when this happened and my sister was 14. This murder had a frightening emotional impact on both of us. My mother feared that Abbott had been framed and the guilty party went free but my sister and I feel he was guilty and his punishment was just.

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over 7 years ago

Are you kidding me? You think Burton Abbott was innocent? Do you also think Scott Peterson was innocent? Burton actually admitted to the head psychiatrist 23 days before he was put to death that he couldn't admit to his guilt because it would ruin his mom. Read the book "A Shallow Grave in Trinity County" dummy!

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almost 5 years ago

I can't believe that there are people who believe Abbot was innocent. It's ridiculous to say that he was framed. Why would a killer who had gotten away with murder frame someone?! There wouldn't be any reason to do so! The evidence presented in the book is incredibly overwhelming. There is no doubt in my mind that Abbot was indeed the killer & rightfully put to death.

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over 7 years ago

This case has been a haunting one all my life as I was a grown up 8 year when it happened with a penchant for mystery and followed it every day in the Oakland Tribune from day one till the end. It happened so close to home and nothing like that had ever happened till then.. I had to read it when my parents weren't around as they didn't think it was fitting to be reading about a homicide at my age.....not sure why I keep thinking about it but I still believe that Abbott was innocent... I know most of the key players are gone now except for Burton and Georgia's son and Stephanies siblings...

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over 3 years ago

7/16/2011- I think that I read about this crime in a book by Jay Robert Nash, and I wonder what the hell compelled Abbott (who was described by one newspaper article as sickly & tubercular) to commit this crime!

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over 3 years ago

I am interested in this case because my grandfather (Harry Whitehead) was the jury foreman of and he spoke of it often. Bud Abbott did have part of one of his lungs removed; however he could carry a dead deer over his shoulders and demonstrated this to the jury. Also, his wife did not marry his brother.

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over 4 years ago

Does anyone know the location of the Abbott cabin? I assume it is no loger there. Was it north of wildwood on Hayfork creek?

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over 5 years ago

I think Abbott's son Chris changed his name to...Sydney Carton.

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about 6 years ago

Okay, I have just one question for those of you that think he was framed...why would the person framing him bury Stephanie's personal items in the corner of his basement under 12 inches of sand?? Why not just leave it out in the open? If you wanted to frame someone, you wouldn't hide the evidence; you would leave it out in the open so the authorities would find it easily. Who feels comfortable enough to hang out in someone's basement for how ever long it takes to dig items as deep as they can get them. Or, if you're going to try to frame them, why not just under a few inches of sand. Why bury them a whole foot under the sand? We all know how heavy sand is and what a pain it is to uncover a whole foot of it. Got it?! Plus, although the author of "A Trail of Corn" expresses that he doesn't think Burton is guilty (the author just happened to be a close friends with Burton's mother, Elsie), he discloses many things in the book that points to Burton's guilt.

For instance, Burton told his uncle (2 times before Stephanie's disappearance) that his cabin in Wildwood "was so remote that you could kill someone and bury them up there and no one would know." Also, Burton's brother Mark (who was very upset and crying about finding "the murder weapon") found a bloody hammer in his sleeping bag from that weekend trip and gave it to Burton's attorney, who said, "We've made sure it dissapeared." Now, I want that guy for my lawyer if I'm ever guilty of anything. Then again, maybe not.



Another thing, when Mark and Burton were returning home that weekend and caravanning together, they stopped to get gas. Burton finished pumping gas and went ahead on his trip down the road. At the same spot that Stephanie's French book was found the next day behind a short fence by passer-byers, Mark saw Burton's car pulled over and Burton looking in the bushes for something. I surmise that Burton started throwing Stephanie's items out the car window and then realized his fingerprints could be on her items. "Hmmm, I better pull over and pick them back up...Gee, I can't find that one book I threw...uh oh, here comes Mark. I'll come back and look for it tomorrow." Which he did. He told police he went back the next day to "shop for tires"... "Yeah, the police will believe me, I couldn't hurt a fly."

However, he didn't find the book the next day because the passer-byers had already found the book the morning he went looking for it.



The nicked shovel that was used to bury Stephanie was the same exact damaged shovel that was in Burton's cabin. Read the book ("A Shallow Grave in Trinity County"), a very good read. And then, there's the little 5 year old girl who Burton tried to get to go in his car with him but her brother made her stop. Makes you wonder how anyone could think this guy is innocent.

I rest my case.

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over 6 years ago

you think you are affected?? she was my best friend. abbott didn't get what he deserved...we all died that day.

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over 6 years ago

I was 8 years old in SF when this happened. My mother didn't want me to know about it, but I would sneak the newspaper at night to read the day's story. As an adult I've read the two books "A Trail of Corn" and "Shallow Grave in Trinity County." I do believe Abbott did it, but I don't understand why there was not more blood, etc. found. It still haunts me to this day. I've had thoughts of retracing the route up to Wildwood but have never quite gotten the courage.

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over 6 years ago

Well, its now been 53 years since the disapperance of Stephanie and not a day goes by without thinking about it..I live in a state north of CA and have since age 13 but ironically Burton was born in the city nearby where I live...there is still something very haunting about this case and I still can't help think that he was framed by a member of his own family, now deceased. It also appears that Elsie outlived many of those involved, living to age 100...



I also wonder if DNA could be used in this case now that it is available..



ALH 4/30/08

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almost 7 years ago

I wonder if they could solidify the links now with DNA. Like ALH, I was about 8 years old when this hit the papers, and I've remembered it all this time - probably because it was so close to home and because it was the first time I had heard of anything like it. I don't know enough about the case itself to question the verdict, but I do remember that the journalistic style was very sensational - more like a pulp magazine.

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almost 3 years ago

In answer to the last correspondent.Yes,I have read the psychologist's statement and I have also read the statement of the priest who confessed Abbott immediately prior to his death.While the priest was not allowed to reveal the contents of Burton's last statement,he clearly stated what he could:that he had no reason whatsoever to believe that Burton Abbott killed Stephanie.
The book which you cite was written by a reporter who believed Abbott guilty from day one.He has stated his position in the most eloquent language possible.It is quite obvious that this was not the only reasonable perspective to the story.
There were three possibly innocent people executed at about this time: Barbara Graham,Caryl Chessman,and Burton Abbott.The last two died while legal writs had been
issued stopping the execution on the grounds of reasonable doubt.
In the furor that followed the state tried desperately to find people who would swear the executed
defendants had confessed.(After all they were in no position to contradict any such perjured testimony)The doctor you mentioned very belatedly appeared at this time.
Many(most?) people would consider the priest's evidence more credible that a doctor who owed his living to the people who staged the executions.

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about 2 years ago

I have commented many times on this venue and continue to be haunted by this case.Unlike Laci Peterson's case, which was cut & dry, this one is still a puzzle. Not to take away from what has happend to the deceased's family and the son of Burton, I still believe he was innocent and still have to wonder why the state of CA won't pursue the DNA.Yes, politics played a role but the state has a chance to put this to rest and should the evidence point in another direction,it's never too late. There is no statute on murder and this case deserves another looking into. It was controversial at the time.Has anyone else noticed, in reading these comments, that many of us were youngsters at the time but taken in by the mystery of what happened at such a young age ? remember, this was something that just didn't happen back then,unlike now when it's all too common place unfortunately.

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about 4 years ago

I'm in the process of reading "Shallow Grave in Trinity County" and have no doubt at all about Abbott's guilt from the evidence that was uncovered. Not only were Stephanie's bra and other items found buried in his basement and Stephanie's purse found in the basement as well, but her body was discovered in a shallow grave just 339 feet from the rural cabin where Abbott traveled the very same weekend of Stephanie's disaappearance. The cabin is located 250 miles away from where Abbott lived and from where Stephanie was abducted. Abbott was a regular customer at a coffee shop located near whene Stephanie was abducted and where students from Stephanie's school frequently stopped. Given the evidence, what other possible explanation is there if Abbott didn't do it?

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almost 5 years ago

OK, Then if "A Trail of Corn" is right on the money please explain what happened to Burton Abbott's camp hatchet? Mark Abbott gave it to Whitney and Hove who deliberately withheld and/or destroyed the evidence. I have a similar camp hatchet too. I took the blunt, non-blade end and twice smashed it into a watermelon...guess what happened? Two keyhole sized holes measuring the SAME as what was in Stephanie Bryan's skull! Yes WHERE is the hatchet with the bloodstains on it? Let's DNA match that with a sample from Miss Bryan's siblings and pass final judgment on this little creep who enjoyed S & M porn and who admitted to the shrink at San Quentin that he wouldn't come clean on the crime because of his mama.

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over 5 years ago

Having followed the case(and many similar cases off and on for some fifty years I am not really surprised at the amount of ignorance and (of course)vituperatiion displayed by a number of correspondents on this board.

The few who give evidence of having read anything about the case rely on highly selective passages from the bitter4ly prejudiced "A Shallow Grave"(written by a man who admits he condemned Abbott the first before he had any evidence whatsoever) and less than a single paragraph compiled in toto from minute, widely separated, passages from the seven hundred (excellentlly reasoned) pages of "A Field of Corn".The author never fails to report a fact when he finds it going against Abbott,but the ovrwhelming balance of evidence was that he was hundreds of miles away when Stephanie died.

Abbott never varied an iota from his original account of how he spent the day of the murder and he was supported by many witnesses only one of whom(the local mayor) and ever seen him befoere or ever saw him afterwards.Two separate time-clocked receipts vouched for by two independent witnesses of unimpeached character placed abbott hundreds of miles away at the exact minute the State claimed Abbott was strangling Stephanie.

The wife of a US admiral(if my recollection does not desert me after half a century)offered her evidence that Abbott was not in LA at the places the State claimed him to be.And there were lots of similar witnesses.

If Abbott is so plainly guilty why is the State still bitterly fighting DNA analysis of the surviving exhibits.That could still settle it one way or the other.The will not be settled by the disgusting hysteria so blataantly exhibited in these "contributions".

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over 6 years ago

I was living in Oakland and was 13 years old when this went down.Abbot was the scum of the earth and he inflicted a life sentence on the surviving members of the Bryan family.Death was too easy a way out for Abbot

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over 6 years ago

Of course he is guilty! How many people do you know that claim they were "set up" when they have been caught? 100 % of criminals thats who! How does this girls personal belongings end up at HIS house and then her poor body discovered at HIS cabin? He is a sick little worm, and he got less than what he really deserved...he should have been forced to experience all the pain and suffering that Stephaine and her family did!

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over 3 years ago

I am currently reading the book by Harry Farrell, one of the reporters who covered this case. I had never heard of the case before I picked up the book~a true-crime buff here. I'll wait 'til I finish the book to pass judgement, but with all those items buried in the basement, a few in an ALL laundry detergent box, it doesn't look good...

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almost 4 years ago

During the trial, Mr. Burton's doctor provided evidence that the defendant was missing part, if not all, of a lung and was physically incapable of carrying the body from a car to where it was discovered. It was a family cabin and his entire family had access to it. As a matter of interest, not long after the execution (if my memory serves me right), his wife married his brother. Strange?

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over 4 years ago

Here it is May of 2010, and I've never forgotten this story. As an 8 year old, it became imprinted on my brain. It was probably my first notice of what goes on in the real world besides the Mouseketeers or cartoons. It happened on a street we passed several times a week going to my grandmothers. To this day I can't drive the 13 highway without thinking of Stephanie Bryan or Abbott. My parents had told me there were no real monsters. They were wrong. They existed, and one lived down the street from my grandpa in Alameda. Burton W. Abbott. At 10 years of age I sat in a classroom, not listening to the teacher, but watching the clock, knowing the evil dragon was about to be slain in San Quentin.

Today, I watched John Gardner sentenced to 3+ life terms for killing Chelsea King and Amber Dubois, knowing MY little girl was sitting in the courtroom seeing yet another Monster go to prison. She is a reporter and has become a friend of Amber's mother. Mr. King, as hard as it was for him, did the right thing by allowing a plea bargain to take death penalty off the table. He gave closure to another family and brought their daughter home. By this unselfish act, he put Gardner in to the general prison population, instead of a safe cell on death row. He won't live long. He knows it. He will suffer. He knows it. His tears today were for himself, not the girls he took away. HIs mother could have stopped this, and turned him in long ago, but a part of me knows that no matter what your child does, you still love them. I understand, but have no sympathy for her.

Now that I am 63, I know these monsters are everywhere. I wish Abbott had been the last, but it just gets worse. As I said, my parents were wrong. THERE ARE MONSTERS OUT THERE. I'm just sorry my daughter has had to see so many in her career. They come in all shapes and sizes, all races, and hide their terrible secrets away in their minds. We spot them to late. This year when I return to the bay area, I will be driving past there again, and remembering a young girl who never got home to tell her mom about her day. Kiss your kids and hug them. Don't let the monsters get them.

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over 4 years ago

Sharon Olds wrote a poem on this case called "1954".


Then dirt scared me, because of the dirt
he had put on her face. And her training bra
scared me—the newspapers, morning and evening,
kept saying it, training bra,
as if the cups of it had been calling
the breasts up—he buried her in it,
perhaps he had never bothered to take it
off. They found her underpants
in a garbage can. And I feared the word
eczema, like my acne and like
the X in the paper which marked her body,
as if he had killed her for not being flawless.
I feared his name, Burton Abbott,
the first name that was a last name,
as if he were not someone specific.
It was nothing one could learn from his face.
His face was dull and ordinary,
it took away what I’d thought I could count on
about evil. He looked thin and lonely,
it was horrifying, he looked almost humble.
I felt awe that dirt was so impersonal,
and pity for the training bra,
pity and terror of eczema.
And I could not sit on my mother’s electric
blanket anymore, I began to have a
fear of electricity—
the good people, the parents, were going to
fry him to death. This was what
his parents had been telling us:
Burton Abbott, Burton Abbott,
death to the person, death to the home planet.
The worst thing was to think of her,
of what it had been to be her, alive,
to be walked, alive, into that cabin,
to look into those eyes, and see the human.

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6 months ago

ColdCaseCameron.com, pushing his book, "It’s me, Edwin Wayne Edwards, the Serial Killer you never heard of," claims Edwards did this and many other murders over a period of 66 years.
And apparently, Cameron alleges Edwards wuz the Zodiak killer, and killed Jon Bonet Ramsey dressed up by Santa Claus.

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almost 6 years ago

I was eleven years old, riding my bike in El Cerrito, CA when I noticed a man who was at many stop signs right next to me. I did not pay much attention until I took a deserted road to a shot cut through quarry tailings. This is when this man ran me off the dirt road, got out of his car an headed toward me. I picked up my bike to face the direction I had been, jumped on and got away to an area where there were other children outside. A few minutes later, this man's car slowed down and stared at me. Anyway, when his picture appeared on the top fold of a Bay Area paper I was shocked....It was this very man.