COVID conspiracy believer gets 6 months for fleeing with kids

Richard John Burke drove to New Mexico with his three young boys, citing fears about masks and vaccines.

Richard John Burke

Richard John Burke

ARLINGTON — A Snohomish County man who fled as far as New Mexico with his three sons this year because of COVID-19 conspiracy theories was sentenced to six months in jail Tuesday.

Richard John Burke, 54, pleaded guilty in late August to three counts of first-degree custodial interference. He has already spent over 130 days in custody and is not expected to serve any more time.

Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Edirin Okoloko called Burke’s actions “selfish.”

“I truly do hope that you’ve now had an epiphany in realizing that your actions did not help anyone,” Okoloko said to Burke at the Tuesday afternoon hearing in Everett.

The judge added: “You hurt everyone involved in this case, most especially the kids, their mother and yourself. If I had come up on the bench and the recommendation had been for 12 months, I would give you 12 months. It had been for 24 months, I would give you 24 months, ‘cause I would think that is appropriate in light of what the children were put through.”

Burke was supposed to return his three sons — then aged 6, 7 and 10 — on March 24 as part of a court-ordered parenting plan. He told their mother in an email he was going to keep them until March 28. He didn’t return them then either.

The mother said in court Friday that the day the boys were taken was the scariest of her life. She choked up as she recalled those memories.

The kids’ school called the mother March 29, saying Burke had emailed them. He said the children would no longer be going to the school and to unenroll them immediately.

“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.”

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.”

He went on to write that the school’s masking policy to protect against COVID-19 “is an absolute crime.” He said one of his sons “as long as I’m alive, will never be vaccinated again.” Burke further pushed conspiracy theories about masks and the vaccine.

Okoloko twice asked Burke to put his surgical mask over his nose during the 40-minute hearing Tuesday.

At the time Burke fled with the kids, the 7-year-old boy had a broken arm, according to the mother. He was scheduled for a doctor’s appointment April 5. The mother told police Burke knew about this appointment, but didn’t bring their son.

Police believed Burke was on his way to Tennessee with the boys. After a judge authorized a $500,000 warrant for his arrest, Burke was taken into custody in Santa Rosa, New Mexico.

After Burke was found, the mother said she got a call from the oldest son. The boy was crying, she reported. The other boys got on the phone.

“They told me they loved me, they missed me and when was I going to come pick them up,” she said in court, adding that Burke has “traumatized those boys.”

The mother picked them up the next day in New Mexico. They ran to her with open arms, she said. It was the best day of her life.

Burke said in court he was “mortified.”

“I’m not trying to excuse my actions,” he added. “I know that I broke the law and I am so sorry to have put my boys through this. And I can only imagine what they’ve been through. And I just want to jump through the hoops to work my way back into their lives.”

The mother said the kids are doing “so wonderful.” They’re back in school, making new friends.

Jake Goldstein-Street: 425-339-3439; Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.

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