Charges: Citing COVID conspiracies, man fled with his 3 sons

Richard Burke left the state. “The Burke boys will be living on our own,” he wrote his ex-wife. He is now in custody.

Richard John Burke

Richard John Burke

Update, 4/15: The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office on Thursday said that Richard John Burke was taken into custody by law enforcement in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, and that the three missing children have been located.

ARLINGTON — A Snohomish County man has disappeared with his three children, possibly leaving the state, because he believes in conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19, according to court papers.

Richard John Burke, 54, was charged Tuesday in Snohomish County Superior Court with three counts of custodial interference, for violating a court-ordered parenting plan. The court has authorized a nationwide $500,000 felony warrant for his arrest. He is believed to be driving a Chevrolet Express van.

The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office is asking for help in locating him. According to charging papers, Burke could be out of state and might be headed toward Tennessee. At this point, though, investigative leads have been exhausted. Anyone with information about his whereabouts is asked to call 911.

Burke was supposed to return the three boys — 10-year old Conner, 7-year-old Keegan and 6-year-old Rhys — to their mother’s Arlington home on March 24.

He never did, deputy prosecutor Martha Saracino wrote.

Instead, on March 29 he sent a “concerning” email to the children’s elementary school teachers, according to the charging papers.

“I appreciate all of your efforts and under different circumstances this could’ve been an ideal school for them,” Burke reportedly wrote. “Unfortunately, nothing about now is ideal and I am forced to make extraordinary decisions to protect my boys.”

In the email, Burke espouses inaccurate medical information, drawing on conspiracy theories surrounding the use of masks and vaccines. Upon seeing the push for vaccinations, Burke says, he came to the “scary realization” that he “couldn’t trust the children to the care of the school, their mother, or the system.”

Burke forwarded the email to the children’s mother the same day, with an additional paragraph.

“The Burke boys will be living on our own,” he wrote. “You have only yourself to blame.”

Rhys, Conner and Keegan Burke.

Rhys, Conner and Keegan Burke.

In an email to The Daily Herald, the children’s mother said Burke has been jobless and homeless, living in his car or motels. He bought a 15-passenger van around the time of their disappearance, she wrote.

Most recently, he stayed at the Extended Stay America in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Everett. A manager there told police that Burke emailed his intent to leave several days before checking out. The room was in disarray, as if Burke had left in a hurry, the manager reported.

The mother told authorities that Burke threatened to take the children and “go off the grid,” and she received several emails in which he wrote, “This is the end game.”

“I am terrified for their safety and lives,” the mother wrote.

One of the boys had a broken arm and was wearing a cast, according to the mother. He was due for a doctor’s appointment on April 5 to determine next steps. He missed that appointment.

A friend of Burke’s reported to police that they spoke as recently as April 10 and that Burke had the children with him.

Burke and the mother had an uncontested divorce in April 2018. During the past year, she and Burke fought over whether to home-school the children. In the fall, he was found in contempt of court for pulling the boys out of school without telling their mother and keeping the kids from her for more than 40 days.

According to their court-ordered custody plan, the parents are supposed to give each other ample notice if they plan to relocate the children.

In requesting the $500,000 arrest warrant, deputy prosecutor Saracino noted that Burke “has blatantly not complied with the parenting plan.”

“The defendant, by all appearances, has fled the State of Washington with the intent to live off the grid,” Saracino wrote.

Zachariah Bryan: 425-339-3431; Twitter: @zachariahtb.

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