Christmas Eve Chaos: Mom murdered, daughters attacked by enraged estranged husband
09/14/2017 2:06 pm PDT
A masked intruder busts through the door of an apartment as a mother and her two daughters prepare for the holidays after receiving a cryptic text message.
Lake Luzerne in upstate New York is a camper's heaven: Plenty of water, woods and beaches to attract New Yorkers looking to escape the city in the summer.
It was also home for Patricia Burns, a beloved hospice nurse. She was a fireball of energy, but was plagued with one big problem. When it came to men, she couldn't seem to find a good one.
One boyfriend, Ted Backus, was arrested after cops say he hit Patricia, then fired off a gun. The case made headlines since Backus was the brother of two local sheriff's deputies.
And then there was Patricia's rocky marriage to Clifford Burns.
"My mom worked at Dunkin' Donuts, and she was one of the drive-thru ladies, and he would come through every day and eventually asked her for her number," said Patricia's daughter Megan Jenkins.
At first, Clifford seemed like a great catch. He owned his own business. He was an avid fisherman and a diehard Mets fan. But in between trips to Times Square and rides on his custom motorcycle, this blended family filled with smiles was hiding a darkness behind closed doors.
"Right after they got married he just started, what, pushing her and slapping her," said Megan Jenkins.
Megan was only 5 when Cliff became her new dad.
"She tried to fix -- she was a fixer," said Megan.
The couple eventually had two girls together, Harley and Autumn.
"I guess my childhood was good and bad, 'cause we were fortunate enough to have like awesome Christmases and stuff, and nice family vacations, but other times our family was just so not normal," said Harley Burns.
Cliff was deeply scarred from a childhood that could only be described as Hell.
"I know that his mom suffered a lot of abuse from his dad and she stayed for whatever reason, for the kids, and it got so bad to the point where his dad shot my grandma Edith in the arm, and she ended up surviving," Harley said.
Sadly, Clifford Burns would go from watching domestic violence as a kid to committing it as an adult.
"I remember my dad beating my mom's face in, on top of her, us standing there and being helpless," said Harley.
"He just had a lot of rage," said Megan Jenkins.
Victims of domestic violence will often say the same thing, that the years and years of fighting just become normal.
"My mom has given my dad so many chances, so many chances," said Harley. "He'll come back into the house for two weeks and be the best dad ever. Buy us gifts, give us money, bribe us. Two weeks later he's back to the same old abusive dad."
Then out of nowhere, this family already on the edge was rocked by tragedy. One of Patricia's daughters -- Cliff's stepdaughter -- Christalin went to sleep one night and never woke up.
"No drugs, no alcohol in her system. She was like the perfect 15-year-old girl," said Harley Burns.
To this day Christalin's death still remains a mystery. But one thing that is clear: In her moment of blinding sadness, Patricia finally saw what she had to do. She needed to get out.
"I think Chris passing really gave her the strength to want to leave Cliff," said Megan. "This is your life, this is all you have, you know, you've got to make the best of it."
Patricia told Cliff she wanted a divorce, and she moved into an apartment above a hardware store.
"I just always hoped for the best. I was like 'Mom and dad are going to be OK this time.' Like, I just always hoped things would be different," said Harley.
In a decision she now calls weird, Harley decided not go with her mom, but to stay with her dad.
"I didn't really like schooling up there, so I was like 'I'm gonna be with my friends and be with my dad and visit my mom on the weekends,'" said Harley.
At first, Harley says she felt safe because not matter how bad things got, Cliff would never raise a hand to his daughters. But Harley soon learned that without Patricia around to feel the brunt of his anger, she became his target.
"He would be a great dad," said Harley. "He'll give me some money to go shopping. But something, like, triggered in him and once he'd start talking about my mom he would take it out on me, call me these nasty, nasty names."
After several months Harley claims the verbal abuse became too much. So she decided to move back in with her mom and younger sister Autumn.
"She was always there for me, and it just makes me sad 'cause I took that for granted," said Harley Burns.
Unfortunately, Harley's attempt at a normal life back at her mom's place was temporarily derailed. That's because while she was living with her dad, Patricia had started up another ill-fated relationship, dating another man with a bad temper.
Patricia's new boyfriend, Ted Backus, was arrested after assaulting Patricia, firing a gun into the ceiling and then having a standoff with police. Backus eventually pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of discharging a firearm and received probation, and was slapped with a court order to not see Patricia Burns for three years.
Months passed. The summer turned to the winter, and as the snow fell the Burns women were preparing for a peaceful Christmas, something they hadn't had in years.
Then a text message arrived.
"'I have a special gift for all of you, I hope that you're all there to see it,'" said Megan Jenkins.
The Burns women had started to put the abusive past behind them. Harley and her sister Autumn did not talk to their father, Clifford Burns.
"He told me, he was like, 'Never talk to me again,'" said Harley Burns. "I was like, 'If that's what you want, that's how it's going to be.'"
It had been nearly eight months since Cliff Burns had communicated with his girls. But as the holidays approached, 14-year-old Autumn extended an olive branch via text message, writing: "I just wanted to tell you I love you and Merry Christmas."
His response was downright creepy.
"He said 'I have a special gift coming soon, something for everyone to talk about, and it will be hand-delivered on foot, not by car,'" said Times Union reporter Claire Hughes. "'A very special gift I hope all your friends are there to see, especially Harley.'"
So did Harley's stepsister Megan, who immediately showed it their mother.
"My mom was actually taking out the ham to defrost it for Christmas and I was like, 'Is he going to come up here and kill us?' And she goes, 'No Megan, he's mean, he's evil, but he's not that evil,'" said Megan Jenkins.
Little sister Autumn responds to her dad: "Get it together, I know what you think you want to do and believe me that won't end well. The only reason you feel so bad is because of what happened to your parents, you haven't ever got the time to grieve."
"I think that everybody assumed he was going to come up there and beat up mom," said Megan.
Two days pass. It's now the evening of Dec. 24th, Christmas Eve 2013. Harley leaves to do some last-minute shopping with friends.
Patricia was in the kitchen preparing Christmas dinner when the devil arrives at her doorstep.
"He knocked on the door and swung it open, and she was backing into the wall, and I was like, 'Oh my God,' and all of the sudden I see somebody in full camo, even a mask, pushing mom up against the wall," said Megan.
Megan tried to help.
"I was punching him, trying to get him off of her," said Megan. "I didn't even see the knife."
She managed to pull down the attacker's mask. It's her stepfather, Clifford Burns.
"Autumn was standing there and she was just screaming, she didn't know what to do, and I was like 'Call the cops, call the cops!'" said Megan.
"My mom's bleeding out on the floor. My dad just came in and he stabbed her in the stomach, and she's bleeding out," Autumn Burns tells the 911 dispatcher on the call.
"I saw that she was kicking him, and she was like, 'Cliff, please, don't, I love you, you don't have to do this.' She was like pleading," said Megan.
But Cliff, blind with rage and armed with a giant hunting knife, continued his violent assault.
"I didn't even know I was cut at first, I was still trying to help my mom, and I looked down and my whole arm is open, and that's when I realized I was stabbed," said Megan.
"Megan, oh my God, my sister's bleeding too!" Autumn says on the 911 call.
"I heard my mom in my head go, 'Megan, run and go get help, go get help,'" Megan said. "So I ran outside. I was so in shock that I tried to hop over a snow bank because there was no room between the car and the snow bank, that I was stuck in there."
Inside the house the vicious attack was finally over.
Autumn Burns: "He's on foot. He ran. I don't know if he dropped a vehicle off."
911: "What is he wearing?"
Autumn: "He's like five-nine, five-10. He's bald. He's wearing camouflage right now, and I think he's going to go out into the mountains."
Megan, still stuck in the snow bank, was frozen with fear when Cliff made his way outside to find her.
"He was walking towards me and I was like, 'Cliff, why? Cliff, why?'" said Megan. "I was getting ready to be stabbed in the back. I was like, he's coming for me."
Fortunately Megan's screams for help were heard by people at a nearby restaurant who came out to see what was going on, spooking Cliff.
"If those people didn't run out, he probably would have finished me off too," said Megan.
Dripping blood everywhere, Megan managed to free herself and stagger back up the stairs into the apartment. It wasn't good.
Autumn: "Oh my God! My mom's dying! There's pools of blood on the floor. My sister's gonna die. You need to get people here."
"I knew," said Megan. "Once I saw blood coming from my mom's mouth I knew that she wasn't going to make it. I was like, 'Autumn, tell her how much you love her,' and she goes, 'Why? Mom's strong, mom's strong. She's going to live,' and I go 'Tell her how much you love her, Autumn.'"
Autumn: "Mom, stay with us. You're stronger. You can do this, mom. I know can. She's dying. She's on her way out please. Help."
911: "Ma'am. I know. I'm trying to get people."
Autumn: "No, you don't understand, she's the last thing I have."
Miles away, their sister Harley was eating McDonald's with friends laughing and having a good time when she started noticing some strange posts on her sister's Facebook page.
"They were like 'Autumn, where are you? What's going on? Why are there cops at your house?'" said Harley.
"I called the house, Megan picked up the phone, Megan's screaming, crying, frantic," said Harley.
"I tried to save her. I tried to save her," said Megan Jenkins. "He ran, he chased after me, I ran, I tried to help her. He came all the way up here to kill us."
Harley races to Glens Falls Hospital, still not knowing just how bad things really are.
"Autumn comes busting through this door with blood on her," said Harley Burns. "She's like 'Harley, I couldn't do anything, I couldn't do anything.' I'm still like, What is going on? Like, 'Why, why is there blood on you? Where is everybody?'"
Doctors were feverishly working on stepsister Megan's badly slashed arm. The wound was so deep it reached the bone, narrowly missing an artery. But for their mother Patricia, there wasn't anything they could do.
"The nurse was like 'She's in there, you don't want to see her like this,' I was like, 'I don't care, I want to feel my mom's hand. I want to feel her warmth,'" said Harley Burns.
It was too late. Her multiple chest wounds were too severe.
Just after the incident, Burns got into his car and went on a high-speed chase with authorities. He led them right to a parking lot at the Warren County Sheriff's Office in Lake George, N.Y.
Warren County Undersheriff Shawn Lamouree had just been called in to duty.
"I said 'What are you doing?' He says, 'I've done a bad thing and I need to go to jail,'" said Lamouree.
On Christmas Eve 2013, Patricia Burns's estranged husband Clifford Burns pulled into the sheriff's department parking lot after a short high-speed chase, took off his camo jacket and calmly waited. Warren County Undersheriff Shawn Lamouree was the first person to spot him.
"When I brought him into the room he was cooperative with me," said Lamouree.
"I have things to talk about and I wanna talk to somebody I can trust, and you seem like the guy. Can you talk to me?" Clifford Burns says to Shawn Lamouree in a recorded interrogation.
What transpires in the next five hours inside this interrogation room is a Jekyll-and-Hyde tale.
"I just wanted to see my babies at Christmas," Burns says.
And then aggressive.
"Anybody who has watched the video in its entirety, Clifford Burns was on an emotional roller-coaster that night," said Lamouree.
"I could only stomach a certain amount of [the interrogation video], because it really made me mad that he wasn't talking about my mom at all," said Megan Jenkins.
Instead, Burns starts by pointing the finger at the system.
"Do you understand what a man goes through, officer? I spend $250 a week on child support and couldn't see my kids 'cause [she] put a court order against me," Burns says on the video. "Today I get a call from my lawyer saying they're coming with a warrant for my arrest for missing two child-support payments.
"I wanna say something to you too," Burns continues during the interrogation. "I love that woman and I love my kids with all my heart, and she f---ing took everything from me. It was like the devil took my body over today. I just had it. I couldn't do it no more."
Burns certainly knew he was going to jail when he left his home that night, leaving behind a note about who should get his assets. But he claims he didn't want to kill anyone.
"When somebody snitches, they cut you from the f---ing, I was gonna just cut her from the ear up, chop her f---ing hair off," Burns says in the video. "That's what I wanted to do to her face -- right up with a f---ing knife."
As for what happened when he arrived at the apartment, he claims he blacked out. In fact, several hours into the interview he first hears his estranged wife is dead.
"What? Blow my f---ing head off right now. Take your 9 out and put one in me. Just f---ing end it. I don't wanna live no more," Burns says on the tape.
The majority of Burns's fury is not pointed at Patricia, but rather her ex, Ted Backus.
"Beat my old lady up, put her in the f---ing hospital. My kid was home," Burns says in the video. "What the f---! Die!"
Ten months before the murder, Backus, the brother of two local sheriff's deputies, was arrested after authorities say he assaulted Patricia and then fired a gun into the ceiling. He eventually pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor gun charge, getting probation, and was ordered to stay away from Patricia Burns.
Clifford Burns was convinced Ted Backus got special treatment. During his interrogation, Burns finds out the detective he's talking to worked that other case as well.
"You were involved with it? You [expletive]," Burns says in a violent outburst in the interrogation room.
And the threats go deeper.
"I had AK-47s, AR-15s at my disposal. I could have made this a war," Burns says in the interrogation room. "You're lucky you're in my right mind, 'cause I was gonna have a shootout with you, but I did it the right way. I handled it like a man, so thank you."
Burns makes a final disgusting insult as he's hauled off to jail.
"When you go get married, what do they say?" says Burns. "What are the last words? This is a very intelligent man here. 'Till death do us part,' baby doll. Get me the f--- out of here."
And with that, Clifford Burns is charged with second-degree murder.
"The motive is anger. The motive is control," said Warren County Sheriff Bud York.
Harley and younger sister Autumn would get one more chance to confront their dad.
"Autumn's sitting next to me, crying, like, 'Why, dad? Why? Why do you do this? Who are you?'" said Harley Burns.
Riddled with guilt, Clifford Burns accepts a plea deal -- although he would later try to go back on that agreement, saying his daughters coerced him into signing it.
"He was not apologetic for anything that he had done that night, and he was not apologetic when he got sentenced," said Undersheriff Shawn Lamouree.
Did Cliff Burns have anything to say at his sentencing?
"He couldn't. He just sat there and cried," said Harley.
Clifford Burns was sentenced to 23 years to life in prison.
"It's something that these young girls have to live with the rest of their lives. Although they survived, they're still victims," said Lamouree.
"Well, he is my dad," said Harley Burns. "And I'll always have those special, like, loving memories with him. But then I look at him, at like, other people look at him, and he's a monster, he's just a monster."
Does she think at some point she'll forgive him?
"I don't think I'd necessarily forgive him. I need to see my dad before he dies, I know that," said Harley. "It's important to me. I need to have my own closure."
Until then, Harley is attending college, studying psychology. She wants to be an art therapist.
As for Megan, she will always carry around a permanent reminder of that horrible night.
"I am a survivor," said Megan. "I mean, I got hurt in the process trying to save my mom, but I go to bed every night knowing I tried my best."
The hardest part for both girls is helping their younger sister who made that 911 call heal. It hasn't been easy.
"If I could take it away I would, for sure, for her," said Megan. "If I could take it all away -- I wish mom was still here. I miss her dearly."
What would Patricia Burns think about her daughters?
"She would be proud that we didn't let the situation break us, but we let it make us," said Megan.
As part of his sentence, Clifford Burns is barred from ever contacting his two daughters with Patricia. However, the girls could apply to have the orders modified when they are both 18, a decision they tell us they are currently not ready to make.