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California and the West

Fugitive's Past Confronts Him at 70

Crime: Driver in slaying of officer pleaded guilty in 1964 but was freed by Oregon governor after turning his life around. Now California wants him to do his time.


EUGENE, Ore. — It was so long ago, it's almost like it didn't happen. Or like it happened to somebody else. There was a getaway car, a bag of cash, a gun, and the flashing lights of a police car in the rear view mirror.

The officer ended up dead. And although Robert Lee Burns was the driver, not the gunman, he pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced by a California court in 1964 to life in prison, serving the first part in Oregon for an earlier parole violation.

Fast forward 37 years. Burns is 70, in failing health, a soft-spoken grandfather doted on by his daughters. He had only served nine years before the Oregon governor, convinced that Burns had become a changed man, released him and refused to send him back to prison in California. Burns went on to earn a good living as a house painter, raise five children as a single father and keep his promise to the governor not to get into any more trouble.

Not long ago, nobody knows exactly how, Burns' name showed up on a computer database as a fugitive cop killer. California authorities tracked him down to the small Eugene apartment where he has lived all these years, under his own name, not hiding from anybody.

Now, whether Burns lives out the two years the doctors say he has left with his family or gets handed over to a California prison depends on the Oregon state court of appeals, which is scheduled to rule next week on Burns' bid to stay in Oregon.

The case has raised complex questions of extradition law and set up a discomfiting conflict between the two states at the top levels. Gov. Gray Davis believes that bank robbers who kill police officers should do their time. Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber has asked Davis to consider Burns' poor health and good life.

"He has kept faith with Oregon and Gov. [Bob] Straub [who granted him sanctuary in 1974] for many years," Kitzhaber wrote to Davis. "That should count for something."

The issue reached surreal proportions last week when California authorities, acting the moment after an Oregon court ruled they had jurisdiction to take him, placed Burns in a van in Eugene and headed south on Interstate 5. Just 18 miles from the border, they were pulled over by the Oregon State Patrol, armed with an emergency stay from an appeals court.

Now, Burns is back at home with his family, awaiting the next roll of the dice.

"If I go down there, there's not a doubt in my mind, I'll be dead," said Burns, who recently had a stroke and suffers from advanced prostate cancer, anemia and a heart malfunction. "It's going to be a bloody battle to the end, in the courtroom."

The story of how Burns started out a bank robber with a string of assaults and general bad behavior under his belt and ended up a quiet, almost courtly grandfather adored by even his ex-wife's relatives, is a study in the transitory nature of the human heart.

Burns figures he started out bad when his father, an abusive alcoholic, left him to fend for himself, his mother and his 11 siblings in Oklahoma during the Depression. He got his first job at a chicken farm at the age of 5, earning 30 cents a day.

"We'd scrounge everything we could. We'd hunt and fish and scrounge the garbage cans to feed ourselves. . . . I had never in my life known that you could eat enough food that you weren't hungry. But the Army taught me that. For the first time in my life, I wasn't hungry."

But he was quickly in trouble, first for stabbing a fork into the hand of a sergeant who tried to take an extra piece of roast beef in the mess hall, then for shooting a master sergeant who drove through his guard post without authorization. Burns was handed only minimal punishment and was honorably discharged.

Heading for California, Burns got arrested for taking gas out of an old tractor, sawed his way out of jail and--figuring he didn't have much to lose--moved to Bakersfield and started holding up convenience stores with his brother.

When they finally got arrested in San Francisco, "Eight states wanted us. Seven of 'em dropped the charges and disappeared. Oregon wouldn't drop the attempted robbery charge. . . . I got 20 years."

Nine years later, when he was paroled, "I was no longer the soldier who got out of the Army with an honorable discharge. I was a man filled with hatred to the point of insanity."

He and two cohorts robbed a bank in Sacramento in 1963, driving away in a stolen Cadillac with nearly $45,000. California Highway Patrol Officer Glenn Carlson pulled them over near Truckee, and Roger Mealman got out of the car with his gun.

"He [the officer] looked at Roger and screamed, 'Get back in that car, you scumbag!' He brought his pistol up and the officer brought up his pistol. I saw the officer run across the road and fall down." Burns stepped on the gas.

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