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Man gets 5 years in San Diego State student's death

John Steven Burgess, a convicted sex offender, pleaded guilty to killing student Donna Jou.

May 19, 2009|Paloma Esquivel

Just before he was sentenced for dumping the body of an Orange County woman in the ocean following a night of heavy drug use, John Steven Burgess swore to the victim's family that he didn't intentionally harm the college honor student.

"She overdosed," Burgess said in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Monday. "I panicked and I made a really, really regretful, stupid decision that I wish I could take back."

Burgess, a 36-year-old convicted sex offender, was sentenced to five years in state prison Monday after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter earlier this month in the death of 19-year-old Donna Jou, a San Diego State student whom Burgess met through Craigslist.org.

In exchange for his guilty plea, the court agreed to dismiss two charges for the sale or transportation of heroin and cocaine.

After the sentencing, Jou's parents called on Craigslist to bar sex offenders from placing ads on the site or to require them to disclose their convictions in their ads.

For nearly two years, the parents pleaded with Burgess to tell them what happened to their daughter, but he refused to speak about the case until earlier this year.

Burgess, who recently completed a term for failing to register as a sex offender, finally admitted Jou died after he gave her cocaine, heroin and alcohol at a party at his Palms home.

When he awoke the next morning, Burgess said, she was dead.

He said he panicked and used his sailboat to dump her body in the ocean.

Burgess sat with his head down during sentencing as Brieanna Bates recalled months of agonizing over what had happened to her friend.

"Burgess allowed all of Donna's friends and family to relive their suffering again and again for over a year and a half," she said.

"He tortured us, denied us closure, let us suffer."

Before hearing the judge's final decision, Burgess said he wanted to explain his actions.

He said his life had not been the same since a 2003 conviction for performing a lewd act on a child in which he claimed he had been falsely accused.

He said he looked to drugs and alcohol for relief, which led him to meet Jou in June 2007.

"We were both seeking the euphoric high of drugs and companionship," Burgess said.

Burgess said he was "deeply sorry" for Jou's death.

"I couldn't keep going on with it being on my conscience," he said. "I wanted her family to know the truth."

Jou's father, Reza Jou, said the family had little choice but to accept Burgess' version of their daughter's death, but that it had not brought them closure.

"He has killed my daughter," the father said. "He has tarnished her reputation."

The father said he wasn't satisfied with Burgess' contrition.

"An apology doesn't mean anything," he said. "He threw my daughter in the ocean."

Donna Jou's body has never been found.

The family also sent a letter, written by attorney Gloria Allred, to officials at Craigslist, asking for changes in the popular website's approach to sex offenders who might place ads.

"We believe that convicted sexual predators should not be permitted to place an ad on Craigslist," the letter read. If that wasn't possible, it continued, "they should be required to disclose their prior convictions for these crimes."

Craigslist did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

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paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

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