Beverly Ann Burr, of Tacoma, has died. To many she will be remembered as the mother of Ann Marie, who was 8 years old when she was abducted from their Tacoma house on Aug. 31, 1961.
Beverly Ann Burr died Sept. 13 of congestive heart failure at her Tacoma home. She was 80. To many she will be remembered as the mother of Ann Marie, who was 8 years old when she was abducted from their Tacoma house early on the morning of Aug. 31, 1961. No trace of her was ever found. It is one of the most puzzling unsolved crimes in the Pacific Northwest, made all the more sensational by a connection to Ted Bundy.
But Bev also was the mother of Julie, Greg, Mary and Laura. She was a friend to many in Tacoma, a passionate gardener, a Girl Scout leader, editor of the Church of St. Patrick’s senior newsletter, maker of prom dresses, a writer and collector of recipes.
She is remembered as a mother who put aside her own grief, and her own aspirations, for the sake of her children.
From that first day, Bev suspected that Ann would not be found. “It came to me, just like that,” she told me several times over the last few months. “It was a strong feeling. When they were searching, I thought, ‘What’s the point?’ “
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So even as they held out hope, Bev and husband Don focused on the other children. As daughter Julie said at the memorial service they held for Ann in 1999, “You probably wanted to crawl into bed and bury your head as each day and year passed with no answer. But instead you gathered strength and provided us with a wonderful childhood.”
Getting to know Bev
I first wrote about Bev Burr for The Seattle Times in an October 2007 article about how families live with unresolved grief.
After the article was published, I asked if I could continue to visit her cozy house on Proctor Street. I was intrigued by the unsolved crime and entranced by Bev’s intellect and quick wit. She spent hundreds of hours with me over the past 11 months.
Bev was born Beverly Ann Leach on Jan. 4, 1928. Her father owned a series of small grocery stores in Tacoma, and Bev was born in the apartment above one on Alder Street. She taught grade school after graduating from Pacific Lutheran University (she also attended Washington State University and the University of Washington), but what she really wanted to be was a journalist or, as she stated candidly, a “famous writer.”
When she told me of her dream, she pantomimed being in the trenches and holding a rifle. She wanted to go where the action was.
She wanted it so much, she tried to call off her wedding to Don Burr. Her parents were horrified, so she got married. Her husband, who spent his life as a civilian employee at Camp Murray, died in 2003 at age 77. The couple had been married more than 50 years.
A need to save
Bev gave me access to dozens of scrapbooks she had filled with family photos and clippings about the kidnapping. I attributed her record-keeping to the part of her that wanted to be a reporter. Where others might want no reminder of such a tragic event, Bev saved everything. The first few years, the family was the frequent subject of newspaper articles in hopes Ann’s disappearance might yet be solved. There were stories when Bev and Don adopted Laura two years later; when the family left the house on North 14th six years after Ann was abducted; as Florida prepared to execute Ted Bundy in the 1980s; and in 1999, when Bev and Don decided it was time to hold a memorial service for Ann.
In between, decades passed as the Burrs focused on their children and grandchildren.
Although Bev was an active member of St. Patrick’s in Tacoma, her Catholic faith was not resolute. “When she was first taken, I thought it was God’s will,” Bev told me. “Later I said, ‘That was a stupid thing to say.’ “
“Ann was so trusting”
She often second-guessed herself, most of all her decision to keep Ann home that night. Ann had been invited to spend the night at a friend’s house, but school was starting soon, and Bev wanted the children to begin to wind down from the summer.
During the night, Ann brought Mary downstairs to their parents’ room; Mary was just 3 and crying because a cast on her arm itched. Bev spoke to them and sent them back to their rooms. Bev awoke about 5 a.m., feeling uneasy. She went to check on the girls and found Ann’s bed empty, the living-room door unlocked and standing open, a window in the living room raised and a step stool outside under the window.
Bev feels she didn’t prepare the children for evil in the world. “Ann was so trusting,” Bev said. “It was a big mistake. We taught her everyone was good. We didn’t teach them that people could be bad. I still think it was probably someone she knew.”
Speculation on suspects
By the end of her life, Bev didn’t want to know what had happened to Ann, afraid the details would be too horrible.
But we debated the various suspects: Was it Ted Bundy, just 14 at the time but already reportedly known to police for breaking and entering? As a child, the infamous serial killer lived around the corner from the Burrs; as a teenager, he was a couple of miles away. He became a suspect in the disappearance of Ann only after police, who spent years searching for a good-looking serial killer called “Ted,” learned Bundy had grown up in Tacoma.
Or was it the teenage boy next door who flunked a polygraph test? He eventually passed a second one, but remained a suspect in the minds of the detectives, according to police reports.
What about the prisoner in Oklahoma who said he buried Ann in an Oregon field after a friend abducted her? Police dug, but found nothing. Was the abductor really after the young daughter of Tacoma’s other Donald Burr?
Before Bundy was executed in Florida in 1989, Bev wrote to him, asking whether he was responsible for Ann’s disappearance. In a letter back, Bundy wrote: “Again, and finally, I did not abduct your daughter. I had nothing to do with her disappearance.” He hinted to others that he may have been responsible for many more deaths than the 35 he eventually admitted to — and that he may have started very young.
Haunted by questions
Once summer 2008 arrived, we sat in Bev’s garden and talked. She missed gardening more than anything but was too weak to work in her yard. She gave me updates on her children, who called and visited regularly, and we would watch her favorite TV show, “Judge Judy.”
Bev’s memory began to fade. I acquired a copy of the 1961 police report, all 479 smudged microfilm pages. Then I could answer questions that had haunted Bev. She thought their dog Barney hadn’t barked the night that Ann was taken, but the police report says Bev and Don did hear Barney.
Bev feared that the police might have bungled things the first few days of the investigation. “I always thought they should have set up a roadblock instead of asking questions, so many questions,” she said. I told her about the hundreds of homes that were searched, attic to basement; the dozens of men who were given lie-detector tests; and the hundreds of leads pursued over the years.
In June, I was visiting when a hospice doctor stopped by her house, examined her, talked with her a bit and told her she had about two months to live. While his back was turned, she looked at me and rolled her eyes as she often did to indicate just how seriously (or not) she took things.
Then she told the doctor her heart had been through a lot. It was the only time I heard her admit to heartache.
“I don’t let myself dwell on things, because where does it get you?” she said to me. “I never cry because I’ll never quit.”
A strong wit, and spirit
She grew weaker, but she never lost her acerbic sense of humor. Her children paid a neighbor to check on Bev twice a day, “in order to see if I’m dead,” she would deadpan. Her house was littered with notes forbidding family and friends to call an ambulance, and if she was found dead, not to forget to take her cat, Thomas.
Recently, Bev told me she had written her obituary. She said she didn’t want a lot of fuss. These are the words she handed me: “Thank you, God, for letting me live in this beautiful world you created. Thank you for five precious children and dear relatives and friends.”
Her daughter Laura Henkel said of her mother: “She was determined and strong … and this carried through to the very end. My mom never felt that life was unfair.”
A memorial service was held for Beverly Burr in Tacoma. She is survived by four children: Julie Burr Spani of Burien; Greg Burr of Fox Island; Mary Geomans of Albany, Ore.; and Laura Henkel of Bellingham; seven grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Rebecca Morris has been a print and broadcast journalist for 34 years and teaches journalism at Bellevue Community College. She is writing a book about the Ann Burr case.