Long after Rachel Burkheimer’s murder, anguish lingers

MARYSVILLE — A few weeks ago, Bill Burkheimer’s brother handed him a notebook filled with memories the Marysville man tries hard to keep at bay.

The notebook sat on Burkheimer’s kitchen table, untouched. He admits that he’s afraid to delve too deep into its contents. He knows that inside are dozens of news stories written about his daughter, Rachel Rose Burkheimer.

The notebook was compiled years ago as part of a school project done by students in Yakima. The teens were touched by Rachel’s life, and by her death. They collected the stories and eventually wrote letters about how Rachel’s story affected them.

The students, many facing their own struggles, wrote that knowing about Rachel will help them make better decisions in their lives.

The letters are heartwarming, but they, too, are reminders.

“I know what hurts and I know how to cope, even if that means not going there,” Bill Burkheimer said last week.

Sunday marks 10 years since Rachel, 18, was kidnapped and murdered by a band of young thugs. The senseless crime touched off strong reactions in people here and around the country.

Rachel’s family last heard from her Sept. 23, 2002. They reported her missing a few days later.

Her parents and older sister later would learn that Rachel was lured to a south Everett duplex, then beaten by members of a local gang that usually divided their time between playing video games and ripping off drug dealers.

They brutalized and taunted her in the garage for hours. Eventually, Rachel was stuffed into a hockey bag and driven to a wooded hillside in east Snohomish County. She was forced to watch as the men dug her grave.

Gunfire lit up the night sky and Rachel was dead.

A couple weeks later, one of the men led Snohomish County sheriff’s detectives to her body. Rachel’s hands were clasped together. Some of those involved told detectives she was praying during the final moments.

The shooter, John “Diggy” Anderson, was her ex-boyfriend. Police eventually arrested Anderson, then 20, and seven others for the assault, kidnapping and murder.

Prosecutors contended that Anderson killed Rachel out of jealousy or a mistaken belief that she was feeding a rival gang information. A couple of the defendants told police they were simply too afraid to help her escape.

In the years following, the family was forced to sit through three separate murder trials.

Rachel’s mother, Denise Webber, endured physical pain in the courtroom. The muscles in her back and chest would knot up as she repeatedly listened to the details of her daughter’s death, and struggled to contain her grief.

It is a pain that will never go away, Webber said last week.

That doesn’t mean life stops.

She’s since remarried and no longer lives in Snohomish County. As part of the effort to build a life with her new husband, the couple opted for a September wedding date — an acknowledgment that the month always brings with it the anniversary of Rachel’s murder.

“I wanted to have something good to look forward to,” Webber said.

The trials ended in convictions and life sentences for two men and a 37-year term for a third. The other five defendants pleaded guilty to various crimes.

Five of the eight defendants remain behind bars. Some have adjusted to prison better than others.

Anderson, 30, is serving a life sentence. He is locked up at Clallam Bay Corrections Center. Since entering prison in 2004, he has racked up 31 serious infractions, including sanctions for fighting with other inmates.

John Alan Whitaker, 30, is serving a life sentence at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe. Whitaker recently launched a new attack on his conviction. He contends that the courtroom was improperly closed to the public during parts of jury selection. The state Supreme Court last year heard an appeal on a similar issue from a Skagit County case. Whitaker’s appeal is on hold until the court issues a decision in that case.

Jeffrey Barth was sentenced to about 10 years after pleading guilty to first-degree kidnapping. He racked up 27 infractions while in prison, including testing positive for drugs. Now 29, he was released to community custody last year. He continues to cycle in and out of jail.

While it was gut-wrenching to hear the details of his daughter’s death, some of the darkest hours came after the killers were convicted, Burkheimer said last week.

“During the trials, when the news trucks are all there and everyone’s talking about her, it’s almost like she’s alive,” he said. “Then all of a sudden it stops. There’s a silence and a sudden vacuum.”

And the passage of time doesn’t alleviate the ache of losing a child, both of Rachel’s parents say.

Burkheimer says some memories can be his undoing. So, he’s tried to keep hurt at arm’s length the best he can.

That doesn’t mean the people who loved Rachel don’t think about her; just the opposite. They speak about her often. Her smile, her spunk, the animated way she told stories. Her list making and the way she loved her niece.

Burkheimer revels at how his 11-year-old granddaughter shares her auntie’s spark and spirit. The girl was just a toddler when Rachel was killed, but they have a connection, Burkheimer said. His two grandsons, one born during the trials, didn’t get to meet their aunt, but they, too, hear the stories about the 4-foot-11 firecracker with bright blue eyes and a smile that could win over just about anyone.

Someday, maybe, it won’t hurt as much to tell her story.

“If it can help one kid or one parent, that’d be great,” Burkheimer said.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.

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