Law enforcement officials said the murder suspect who escaped from a Pennsylvania jail by using tied bedsheets to descend from the roof has survivalist and military skills that pose significant challenges in their effort to capture him.
Michael Burham, 34, is a suspect in the May 11 fatal shooting of a Jamestown mother, but he was being held in the Warren County Jail on kidnapping and burglary charges. Law enforcement in Charleston, South Carolina, also charged Burham with fleeing to avoid prosecution.
Burham hasn’t been on the lam for a full week yet, but his escape and the ensuing manhunt are already being compared to the five-month search in 2006 for one of New York’s most notorious jailbreakers: Ralph “Bucky” Phillips.
Phillips is serving a life sentence for shooting three New York State Police troopers, one fatally, in one of the largest manhunts in state history. He escaped from the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden on April 2, 2006, and eluded hundreds of state troopers, federal agents, and local police for five months.
But anyone comparing him to Burham should stop, Phillips said during a phone interview.
He said he never physically harmed “civilians” during his five-month crime spree.
“I heard something about he kidnapped an old couple and held them?” Phillips said, referring to the allegations by police that Burham kidnapped an elderly couple and stole their car. “When people start comparing notes, me to people who do things like that, that’s not my character whatsoever. … And people should already know by the fact that I was out there for five months and I never harmed any civilians whatsoever. Yeah, that ain’t cool.”
Phillips, who was a seasoned outdoorsman, explained the mindset of a survivalist and gave advice on how police might capture Burham.
First, Phillips said police “foot soldiers out of the city” are unlikely to catch someone with survivalist skills believed to be hiding in the vast wilderness.
“It’s not going to happen,” Phillips said.
“They have to meet the demand with exactly the type of mentality that they’re searching for, and that’s the only way they’re going to catch him — like that,” he said.
Phillips said there is plenty of food in the forests of New York and Pennsylvania to feed Burham through the summer. And the longer Burham remains on the lam, it does not necessarily increase the odds that police nab him.
“If he stays in the woods the chances of being apprehended are slim,” Phillips said. “Like I said, as long as he stays away from people … by the way he sounds, if he sees someone, he’s probably going to end up making sure that they don’t say nothing.”
Reporters asked Pennsylvania Lt. Col. George Bivens at a recent news conference if any lessons were learned from Phillip’s escape in neighboring New York that might help them find Burham.
“What I would tell you is that the technology is consistently changing. Much like your cell phone changes over a period of a few years, so does the technology available to law enforcement. We try to stay ahead at the cutting edge of that technology.”
Burham’s crime spree
Federal court records state that on May 11, Jamestown police found 34-year-old Kala Hodgkin unresponsive in her home with gunshot wounds. Her death was ruled a homicide, and Burham already had an active arrest warrant charging him with raping Hodgkins, according to court records.
That same day, Jamestown police spoke with one of Burham’s former girlfriends, who said Burham tried to break into her home, and then set her car on fire, which was recorded on a Ring surveillance camera.
Court records also state Burham rented a hotel room in Warren, Pennsylvania, on May 9 with his identification and a credit card in his name, with a check-out day of May 11. A vehicle associated with Burham was recovered at the hotel on his scheduled check-out day.
Police believe Burham then kidnapped at gunpoint an elderly couple from Sheffield, Pennsylvania, and drove them to South Carolina, before letting them go unharmed in a South Carolina cemetery. The couple, reached by phone Wednesday, declined to comment.
Police said the couple’s vehicle discovered near the cemetery on May 21 had a note inside that appears written by Burham to his father.
“Hey Dad, I’m safe for Now. Just left the area. Sorry for all the problems I caused the family. I quit drinking since May 10th. I’m not sorry for what I Did, however I do feel Terrible about the children,” the note read.
Police captured Burham on May 24 in South Carolina, after a resident reported seeing him in his backyard.
Now, federal, state, and local law enforcement are searching for Burham again.
Police believe others are helping him avoid being captured, and he may still be in the Warren, Pennsylvania, area.
Bivens said Sunday they found stockpiles of supplies and campsites on nearby wooded property.
Warren County Sheriff Brian Zeybel urged residents to lock all vehicles and buildings, including sheds, to limit places in which Burham could use to hide. Zeybel also doubted Durham’s survivalist skills are good enough to sustain the discomfort he will face on the run.
Life on the run
Phillips, 61, said he is familiar with the Warren County area and even hid out there to fish during his five months on the run. He said the terrain benefits Burham.
“That’s a big area, but that’s also a tourist trap,” Phillips said. “A lot of people go there. When I was there, I didn’t do too much traveling in the daytime. I was there just to rest up. I spent my days pretty much low profile, you know not moving around too much, because when you start moving around in the daytime, there’s like I said a lot of people, somebody’s going to see you.”
Happening simultaneously with the search of Burham is an effort to determine how he escaped from the jail.
Warren County Commissioner Jeff Eggleston said Wednesday Burham likely escaped through a hole in a section above the 40×40 exercise pen. He said Burham climbed on top of a piece of exercise equipment and lifted himself onto the roof, where he used bedsheets tied together to descend to the ground.
Both the Warren County Prison Board and Board of Commissioners ordered repairs to the roof and removal of the piece of exercise equipment they believe Burham used in the escape. The board is working with the Pennsylvania State Department of Corrections to investigate the incident and conduct an annual inspection of the jail.
“Warren County is conducting a rigorous internal investigation,” said the vice president of the Warren County Board of Commissioners, Ben Kafferlin. “We’re reviewing every second of video surveillance, taking statements, reviewing time stamps, tag out sheets, and interviewing every individual who may have information, whether they’re inside or outside the jail.”
Latest news on the Michael Burham Manhunt
- Warren County inmate charged with helping Michael Burham escape from jail
- Warren County prison board to meet following Burham capture
- PA prison escapee, Jamestown homicide suspect facing more charges
- ‘There’s absolutely zero chance that he’s going to be able to escape:’ Burham is now held in prison in Erie, Pa
- Dog fetches reward for helping capture escaped inmate Michael Burham
Luke Moretti is an award-winning investigative reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2002. See more of his work here.