Vet's widow balks at self-defense ruling
Suffering from stress disorder, husband was killed after jealously confronting N.C. man
THE ARTIFACTS of a rich and fulfilling life are scattered throughout every corner of Carlton Burgess' Burlington County, townhouse.
Inside glass cabinets, there are photographs of his beaming grandchildren, shiny medals he won in handicapped-veterans' games proudly displayed on shelves and dozens of potted plants the former pastor nurtured into veritable trees.
There's also his wife, Carolyn, pastor of a nearby nondenominational church the couple founded and a woman who still blushes when she talks about the high school sweetheart she married in 1967.
"He was funny and always kind," Carolyn Burgess, 60, said recently, clutching a picture of her husband in her Lumberton home. "He was the most handsome man I had ever met. He was all that I wanted."
But the anchors that tethered Carlton Burgess to reality often broke loose, and the God-fearing father of three sometimes saw enemies all around him, just as he had in the jungles of Vietnam or the stifling heat of the Middle East during his 27 years in the Army.
One of those perceived enemies lived in North Carolina.
Police in Halifax County, N.C., said Carlton Burgess' post-traumatic stress disorder came to a head on Oct. 2, when he knocked at the door of Marcel Alston's home at 7 a.m.
Police said Burgess, who grew up in North Carolina with Carolyn, was convinced that his wife and Alston had an affair in 1988 while the Burgesses were briefly separated. Despite Carolyn's adamant and constant denials, the perceived infidelity festered.
Alston and Burgess hadn't see one another for at least 15 years, said Lt. Bobby Martin, of the Halifax County Sheriff's Office.
When Alston opened the door that morning, police say, Burgess, 61, struck him in the head with a handgun, then shot him in the buttocks while Alston ran to an upstairs bedroom.
In the bedroom, Alston grabbed his own handgun and killed Burgess with multiple shots to the torso. Alston was treated and released for his injuries and the District Attorney's Office in Halifax County declined to press charges against him.
"We only have one surviving witness," said Maj. Bruce Temple, of the Halifax County Sheriff's Office. "We took his statement, the story was consistent, and the evidence at the scene corroborated that."
Carolyn Burgess, however, doesn't see anything consistent about her husband's death. She believes he could still be alive, getting treatment, if Alston had called 9-1-1.
Carolyn claims that Alston had seen her husband several times, even as recently early as this past spring, and was well-aware of the delusions he harbored. She believes that Alston should have called the police the moment he saw her husband.
"My husband was wrong for going there, absolutely, but Marcel had a decision to make right then and there," she said.
Repeated calls to Alston's home went unanswered and he did not have an answering machine. Carolyn Burgess did not see or speak to him during the three weeks she spent in North Carolina following her husband's death.
"I haven't seen Marcel in 21 years. The only time I want to see him again is in court. This whole thing could have been avoided," she said.
Carolyn also said she had a hard time believing that her husband, who was legally handicapped and often used a wheelchair, would have been able to force his way through Alston's front door.
"The man could barely walk," she said. "I still haven't found out the truth."
Maj. Temple said any handicap Burgess had was neutralized when he struck Alston with the gun. It may also be the reason why Alston had time to escape to his room.
"I can understand her frustration to a degree," Temple said. "I would say the person who is sitting at home minding their own business is the victim in this case."
Carlton Burgess' trip to North Carolina, Carolyn said, was supposed to be a visit to see his ill brother, not a confrontation with Alston. She claims she eventually lost contact with him during the trip, and pleaded with family members to track him down.
"I believe in my heart that he did not go down there to do any harm," she said.
Burgess' post-traumatic stress disorder was no secret to his friends and family, even those in North Carolina, Carolyn said. The combination of PTSD and a combat wound suffered in Desert Storm forced him to retire from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in 1998.
Burgess was under the care of multiple doctors in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and took ample medications, but Carolyn said her husband's problems were compounded by the constant pain of double knee surgery and recently discovered brain tumors.
Dolores Eleazer, a minister at Carolyn's church and a licensed therapist, said Carlton was a "man on the edge."
"He had a good heart. In the last year, he wasn't himself, though. He could go off at the drop of a hat and come back that quickly," she said.
More recently, Carlton had directed his paranoia toward his wife, physically, but she said police in Lumberton quickly learned that he belonged in a hospital and not a jail cell.
"There were a lot of things going on in my husband's mind," she said. "There were bad memories and it all got worse as he got older."
Before his death, Carlton and Carolyn Burgess had planned to buy a "bigger nest," where his children and their children could create new, happier memories.
"All of that ended for me on October 2. My life just ended," she said. "On Sundays now, it's hard for me to stand at that pulpit and not see him looking back at me."