‘Rachel’s Army’ forged by trials

“Rachel’s Army” occupies a reserved second row in the courtroom.

There’s her father, his fiance, and his brothers and sisters. There’s her mother, and her mother’s friends.

Absorbing what happened to Rachel Burkheimer is a labor of love and endurance. Those closest to her have pulled Iron-man duty through countless court hearings and hours of testimony, much of it heartbreaking.

“It’s my total means of survival through this process,” said Bill Burkheimer, her father. “I honestly don’t know how I would do it if I was alone.”

He calls it Rachel’s Army. They come to Snohomish County Superior Court to give him support and seek justice for Rachel.

Rachel’s Army marches out of the courtroom only when the medical examiner takes the witness stand to give details on how the 18-year-old was shot and killed.

They also come for themselves.

“I have to come and witness,” said Robin Popich of Gig Harbor, one of Bill Burkheimer’s siblings. “I keep thinking she was so brave, so I have to be brave. I want the jury to see her through the family’s eyes.”

Brave or not, Popich and the others – Rachel’s uncles Don and Tom Burkheimer and aunt Barbara Hard – often dab away tears.

The family has sacrificed time and fortune to be in court on most days during the 20 months since Rachel was shot to death near Gold Bar. They’ve witnessed five people plead guilty to her abduction and death. Now they’re on the final murder trial.

Don Burkheimer has taken a leave of absence from his job. Tom Burkheimer has switched jobs to give him more time for court. Hard has flown from Buffalo, N.Y., for some parts of each trial.

“It’s been an incredibly huge financial hit for most of the family just to be able to spend the time as we are,” said Tom Burkheimer of Camano Island.

None wuld have it any other way.

“There’s absolutely no way I was not going to be there every single day, or as much as I could, for Rachel,” he said.

Don Burkheimer of Kingston, the youngest, always looked up to his bother Bill.

“Bill’s been a man from a very early age. He put his arms around me, helped me through some rough spots. We’ve been there for each other,” Don Burkheimer said.

Each of the trials has had a different effect on Rachel’s Army. The first was the trauma of hearing details of the killing for the first time. Then came anger when the shooter faced justice. Now there’s exhaustion, said Lori Pursley, Bill Burkheimer’s fiance and constant court companion.

Everyone in Rachel’s Army is looking to the end of the trials, wondering what then will happen to their energy and emotions. They don’t know what to expect.

Bill Burkheimer dreams constantly about court, and about his slain daughter. On Friday morning, he awoke with the memory of a dream that he was told to stay away from the trial for two days. He needed to rest. In his dream, Rachel’s Army wore disguises and tried to sneak into the courtroom.

He also dreamed he was composing “perfect” letters of appreciation to deputy prosecutor Michael Downs and the sheriff’s detectives who cracked the case.

His dreams about Rachel overlapped, as they often do.

“In one, Michael was saying to me, ‘Bill, it’s over,’” he said.

Reporter Jim Haley: 425-339-3447 or haley@heraldnet.com.

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