Troubled romance with 'bad boys' leads to teen's abduction, murder
11/07/2016 12:08 pm PST
In the woods of Washington state, an 18-year-old girl is forced to watch her own grave being dug by the very people she trusted. How did it get to this point? Crime Watch Daily Special Correspondent Kim Goldman reports.
Beautiful Rachel Burkheimer suffered tragic loss in her life that sent to her to a very dark place. But just as she was ready to rekindle her family ties, her faith and her future, she fell into one of the most horrific traps the community of Everett, Washington can remember.
While still a student in high school, Rachel would become devastated by the loss of six of her good friends, each of them victims of unfathomable tragedy, from suicide to drowning to accidental shooting.
One of those losses would crush her beyond words: Her closest friend, Cory Haynes, died in a horrific car crash
"They were classic soul mates," said Bill Burkheimer, Rachel's father. "It was a brother-sister relationship. He was an amazing young man."
The flame of happiness that once burned so brightly in Rachel's life was now snuffed out.
"It was truly like a transformation happening before our eyes," said Meghan Hoang, Rachel's sister. "The Rachel that I knew was very much changing in her priorities and in her level of joy, that really marked her character and who she was."
Rachel had shut down and closed herself off from her family. Rachel now navigated through life in a haze of despair. She left school, began dabbling in drugs and found herself immersed in a circle of trouble-making new friends. One in particular would profoundly impact her life.
John Anderson, local police say, was a small-time criminal, in and out of jail, and part of a ragtag street gang.
"It was kind of in the infant stages, and it was a real stupid name: They called themselves the 'Northwest Mafia,'" said Snohomish County Sheriff's Detective Brad Pince. "They would steal drugs, sell some of them and use most of it. They had no other ambition in life. They would sit around and play video games, smoke dope and did cocaine and meth and partied."
Bill Burkheimer would discover Anderson's presence in his daughter's life through phone calls to Rachel from prison.
"I got a phone bill one day for $640," said Burkheimer. "I look at this bill and I'm in shock: it says Correctional Facility, Shelton, Washington."
And from behind prison walls, John Anderson was penning hauntingly obsessive letters to Rachel.
Bill was shaken with worry, and confronted his wayward daughter.
"She kept talking about how she saw the good in him, and he wasn't what people think he is," said Burkheimer.
If loving Rachel saw the good in everything, including John Anderson, she'd soon be shaken into brutal reality. Police say Anderson was dangerously jealous and possessive -- Reportedly so jealous he sniffed rachel's clothing and hair for the scent of other men. Sister Meghan saw bruises on Rachel, and suspected Anderson had beaten her.
As friends would describe it, Rachel found herself trapped on a love-hate roller-coaster with Anderson. She had finally had enough.
"She sat on the end of my bed and she was talking to me until 2 a.m. about her fears, about her concerns about John Anderson, and the different threats he had been giving her," said Meghan.
Much to the joy of the Burkheimer family, Rachel reclaimed her senses and cut it off with Anderson, and re-established family ties.
And she made a new friend with whom she forged a seemingly unbreakable pact.
"One morning, a beautiful Sunday morning, she's sitting on our porch and she has this radiance again that I have not seen for a few months, and she looked up and said 'I have met an incredible friend, Maurice,'" said Bill Burkheimer.
Maurice Rivas, also a member of John Anderson's hapless Northwest Mafia, looking to better his life.
"Maurice Rivas was 18 years old, he also grew up in a troubled home," said Bill. "I think his closest relative was a grandmother. He was in the foster-kid system for several years."
But Maurice and Rachel had bonded in their desire to escape the empty, aimless lives of the gang.
"She said we decided we're gonna go back to school and we're gonna graduate," said Bill. "We're gonna walk with our class and we're gonna do it right."
Rachel Burkheimer was ready to get her life back on track. But before she would have the chance, the 18-year-old went missing. As police mount a massive search to find her, they soon would discover a trail filled with tragedy, jealousy and intimidation.
"I'm thinking 'Oh my gosh, I've never met this young man. I'm glad he inspired her. This is a friendship I really would like to nourish,'" said Bill.
But Rachel's goals for a new beginning were much easier said than done. Hard as she tried, Rachel seemed obsessed with Anderson. She rekindled an on-again/off-again romance with the petty criminal.
In fact, Rachel, during an "off" period with Anderson, she dated one of his best friends. Rachel naively saw no harm in her actions.
Anderson wasn't laughing. And adding fuel to his ire, Anderson and his cohorts become convinced Rachel was passing gang secrets to her friends, including some rivals of Anderson's. Rachel was in danger.
"There is information in the case that Rachel had been warned there was a hit on her," said Det. Pince.
Rachel was scared, and went to her older sister Meghan for advice.
"I told her 'Look, you need to be aware, you need to be cautious. Stay away from him for sure,'" said Meghan. "But I just thought he was some dumb young punk."
Dumb, young punk, perhaps. But a murderer?
"When she left my room that night, I will never forget, she closed the door and for a split-second, something went off in my head and it just said 'But what if?' No," said Meghan.
On a crisp September 2002 evening, Rachel Burkheimer attended a party at an Everett, Wash. duplex with seven members of the Northwest Mafia. She felt safe in the company of her friend Maurice Rivas, who had not yet pried himself away from the gang either. Rachel wanted to prove to her pals she had not betrayed them.
"They were all sitting around the couch, tickling, giggling, they were smoking a little marijuana," said Det. Pince.
John Anderson has just arrived and doesn't like what he sees.
"Anderson comes in from the outside of the duplex and he's angry because everybody is having such a good time," said Pince. "He smacks a couple of the kids in the face."
The confrontation escalates, and guns are drawn.
"Rachel got scared and tried to get up and leave," said Pince.
Rachel would never make it to the door. She has unwittingly fallen into a calculated trap set by John Anderson and his crew. And the horror has only just begun.
"He grabs her by the hair, hits her in the face, knocks her down on the floor and a couple of the other guys start helping," said Pince.
Rachel is repeatedly kicked in the head. Someone orders the stereo be turned up to drown out her screams.
"They scooped up Rachel, took her out to the garage. They gagged her and taped her so she couldn't scream anymore," said Det. Brad Pince.
Rachel is left in the garage while her attackers discuss what to do next. They talk about a gang rape. They talk about ransom.
The hapless team of wannabe crime bosses couldn't make up their minds. Instead they ate pizza, played video games and got high while Rachel lay on the garage floor in terror.
Suddenly there's a glimmer of hope for Rachel when the owner of the home, Trissa Conner shows up. She's the girlfriend of one of gang leaders.
"Trissa walked into the garage, saw Rachel beat up, tied, laying on the floor, and she went back to the kitchen to get a knife to try to cut her hands and feet loose," said Pince.
But Anderson, in a rage, stops Trissa from freeing Rachel.
"Trissa started screaming at everybody she was going to call the cops and to get Rachel out of her garage," said Pince.
Trissa never calls police, but the flustered gangsters stuff Rachel's tiny 4-foot-11-inch frame in a duffel bag and into the back of a Jeep.
"I know at one point they claimed they talked about getting a hotel room and letting her heal up and letting her go," said Pince.
But so much for mercy. Four of them, including John Anderson and Rachel's good friend Maurice Rivas, the friend who had once vowed to protect her, drove 30 miles into the mountains.
"As the version went, they decided it was John Anderson's mess and he was going to have to deal with it," said Pince.
Rachel's fate had been sealed. The plan was to kill her.
Anderson and two others leave to go get shovels and other supplies. Stunningly, Maurice was ordered to stay behind and keep watch over Rachel, who is now a hostage destined for death.
Was she about to die or was this just a threat gone too far?
In a Crime Watch Daily exclusive, Maurice Rivas breaks his silence about what he says really happened in the woods of Washington.
Rachel Burkheimer is bound, gagged and destined to die in the mountains outside Seattle. While some of her abductors leave to get supplies, she's left alone with the one man she thought would help her, Maurice Rivas.
"She told him she knew she was going to die and that she begged him that if that was the case that she didn't want to be drowned," said Pince. "Maurice told her he didn't think it was going to go that far."
If Maurice Rivas had the desire or means to save Rachel, sadly, he didn't take it. When the others returned, Rachel's torturous odyssey would continue.
"They get out there and they unload the shovels from the Jeep. Rachel is making noise," said Pince. "John Anderson takes the shovel and he hits the side of the duffel bag as hard as he can."
Then Rachel's own grave is dug. The gang of thugs drag her out of the duffel bag and begin to take her clothes off -- but defiant and dignified to the end, Rachel insists she'll do it herself.
"They removed all of her rings and her necklace," said Pince. "She begged them to let her keep one ring given to her by a friend of hers killed in a car wreck. Anderson told her no.
"They told Rachel to get down in the grave, face-down," said Pince. "She got down on her knees and started to pray. Anderson told her not to worry about it. She would be up there with him soon."
Soon, her living hell would be over, at the hands of this maniacal killer and on-again/off-again boyfriend, John Anderson.
"He started shooting her in the back and the back of the head," said Pince. "At one point the gun jammed, so he had to clear it and he emptied out the clip into her."
The community of Everett would know none of this horror story in the mountains. Outside of the murderous gang, all anyone knew was that beautiful, popular Rachel Burkheimer was missing.
"We had a network of people out looking for her," said Bill Burkheimer. "Her mother Denise had put up posters all over King County."
Police are on a dogged mission. A break comes when they get a valuable tip from the mother of one the eight thugs, Jeffrey Barth, involved in Rachel's abduction and murder. That tip leads Detective Scot Fenter to a red Jeep registered to one Matthew Durham.
"Matthew Durham's vehicle was used to transport Rachel and some of the other defendants up into the mountains, where she was ultimately killed and buried," said Fenter.
At first Matthew Durham clams up. But it wasn't long before Detective Fenter would shake his resistant suspect loose.
"I confronted him with the fact that I believed he knew where Rachel was, and that he would be the one that could bring her home," said Fenter. "He said he did some things didn't want to be involved in."
Durham agrees to lead Fenter to the area of Rachel's murder. Search teams and cadaver dogs scour the remote region for two days. But it was Fenter who would make the dismal discovery.
"I just took a shovel, took one big scoop of dirt, we just found what was human flesh," said Fenter.
After 10 days lying dead in a makeshift grave, Rachel's body is finally found.
With Rachel's body recovered, it's now a relentless pursuit of justice, beginning with Matthew Durham, who discloses to police who else was with him that night at Rachel's grave. That would lead police, search warrant in hand, back to the Everett duplex where Rachel's nightmare first began.
"Bullets at home match bullets at the scene," said Fenter.
The gun was discovered in a pond, with duct-tape; jewelry, including the beloved ring Rachel begged to keep; clothing that the killers tried to burn; and the shovel used to dig her grave.
One by one police round up eight suspects, many turning on each other to save their own hides.
"They were really buffoons. That's the best way to describe them," said Det. Pince. "There was a lot of planning that went into this but it was very poor planning and it didn't turn out well for them."
Five of the suspects would take plea deals and lesser sentences in exchange for trial testimony against John Anderson, the shooter; John Whitaker, who helped dig Rachel's grave; and Yusef Jihad, who helped mastermind the murder plot.
Painful as it was, the Burkheimers endured every horrifying detail of each criminal case, forced to come eye to eye with her killers.
"Most of them were smug, and John Anderson was by far the worst. He was definitely mocking," said Meghan Hoang, Rachel's sister. "He would turn around and wink at us."
"It's not fulfilling, it's not satisfying, it's not victory, it's not a win, it's just the end of a process," said Bill Burkheimer, Rachel's father.
"Every person involved in that case had an opportunity to help Rachel, and they let her down," said Det. Pince.
John Anderson declined Crime Watch Daily's request for a prison interview, saying in an email: "You may think that I am the average self-absorbed criminal who thinks only about self and that you can play off of that to get me to say whatever."
Maurice Rivas spoke to Crime Watch Daily by phone from behind bars.
"It was really senseless and it didn't need to happen, and it was just a horrible, horrible thing," Rivas said. "A lot of it was fear that just kept gripping me, that I was like, man, I was just really scared in a couple of points. I know that's like cowardice, and I failed on an epic scale."
Failure, betrayal and eight seemingly soulless individuals, who in a fog of menace and mindless vengeance, snuffed out an innocent life and sentenced a family to eternal grief.
"I'll never forget, I did see a photo of the gravesite after they had removed her body and in the dirt there was an imprint of her hands in the praying position, perfectly preserved, and that gives me some piece," said Bill Burkheimer.
And adding to this family's pain, John Whitaker, one of the men convicted of the murder in 2002, was recently granted a new trial. The family was forced to sit through the details of the crime once again. Just a few weeks ago he was found guilty once again and sentenced to life in prison.