A Richland heroin dealer who knew that people were dying from his drugs, but kept delivering to feed his own addiction, is facing five years in prison for the overdose deaths of two Tri-Citians.
Brian Haney Burt, 35, pleaded guilty Wednesday in Benton County Superior Court to the death of a 44-year-old grandmother, and is expected to admit in Franklin County later this month that he had a role in a 21-year-old man's death.
Yet prosecutors pointed out that Burt and his "high-quality" heroin were responsible for killing five people, even though on paper the negotiated plea reached in both counties only applies to Shirley E. Sanders and Derek Scott Bradley.
"This has been a difficult process for all of the families who lost a loved one due to taking heroin delivered to them by Mr. Burt," Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller told the Herald. "Today's plea agreement was intended to achieve justice for all of the families, not just the families whose loved one's death was included in a guilty plea."
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Burt's plea was for one count of controlled substance homicide -- a rarely used law that says a person can be charged for unlawfully delivering a controlled substance that kills someone.
"In essence, you're not a pharmacist or a doctor. You had no legal authority (when) you delivered a controlled substance," Judge Robert Swisher explained to Burt.
As part of the deal, a second count of the same charge was dismissed.
Also, Deputy Prosecutor Art Bieker said, "We are indicating to the court and to the defendant that there will be no other charges out of these transactions." He told the court that Burt was linked to five homicides -- three in Benton County and two in Franklin, including one where a woman got into a friend's heroin stash and ended up dying.
Bieker said it was a difficult agreement for the prosecution and defense to make, but called it "a fair resolution."
He will recommend a five-year sentence, which if ordered by the judge, will be served at the same time as the Franklin County case. The standard range for the crime is four years and three months to five years and eight months.
Burt has a hearing Sept. 20 in Franklin County Superior Court. Defense lawyer Gary Metro said his client will plead guilty then to one count of controlled substance homicide as charged.
Burt will return to Benton County the next day to be sentenced on this case. He remains in the Benton County jail on $250,000 bail.
Burt was arrested April 26 after officers with Richland's Proactive Anti-Crime Team initially saw him toss a cigarette out a car window. He was a passenger in the car when it was stopped in the Walmart parking lot.
The driver did not have a driver's license and, after identifying Burt, officers learned he had arrest warrants. Burt also had two prescription pills with him but did not have a prescription.
During his interview at the police station, Burt said he was addicted to heroin and had sold the drug for years to support his habit, court documents said. He then identified a number of people in recent years who had overdosed from heroin he had either provided or sold, describing the circumstances leading up to each death, Bieker said.
Investigators already knew the details of the suspicious deaths and, through Burt's admission, were able to make connections and pursue a criminal case.
Metro recently filed a motion to suppress his client's statement to police, challenging Burt's initial capture in the parking lot for littering and alleging his rights were violated. A hearing on that matter was set for Wednesday, but instead Burt accepted the plea deal.
Miller told the Herald, "The case originated with excellent work by the Richland Police Department," for stopping Burt on an unrelated matter and eventually getting information that tied him to the different drug deliveries.
He said he believed the original contact and later interview were appropriate and legal, but acknowledged the defense motion presented a legitimate issue on appeal. That could have led to an adverse ruling by the state Court of Appeals and dismissal of all cases, so the guilty pleas made Wednesday ensure accountability for Burt's actions, Miller said.
The prosecutor said there also have been issues in presenting a controlled substance homicide case before jurors because some believe that when a person voluntarily takes illegal drugs, that person is responsible for later consequences such as an overdose death. Miller said had this case gone to trial, they would have countered that argument with the fact that Burt continued to deliver his drugs even though he knew people were dying.
Sanders of Kennewick was a homemaker and grandmother. Burt was present whenshe died and was seen leaving the home by a police officer, Bieker said.
"Sometime on or before May 21, 2010, you sold heroin to Shirley Sanders, which resulted in her death. Is that what happened in this case, Mr. Burt?" Swisher asked on Wednesday.
Burt briefly closed his eyes and shook his head, then answered, "Yes."
Sanders died on May 22, 2010, according to her Herald obituary.
The dismissed charge was for the Nov. 8, 2009, death of Liam D. Hermsen. The 29-year-old Richland man was a writer and artist.
Investigators learned that Burt was a drug source for Hermsen.
Jason Brickey, 34, died Oct. 30, 2007, at his father's Kennewick home from an overdose, documents said. However, prosecutors were barred by the statute of limitations from pursuing his death because it was more than three years old.
In Franklin County, he is accused of failing to get help for Bradley after the two men used heroin together.
Burt brought heroin to Bradley's home sometime between June 30 and July 2, 2010. They injected the drug, and a short time later, Burt found Bradley nodding off on the couch and believed he was very high at the time, court documents said.
Burt took a shower and got dressed, and that's when he allegedly found Bradley on the floor in front of the couch, "cool to the touch and getting stiff." He reportedly panicked and left the house without contacting authorities.
Court documents also suggested that he may have been connected to the May 2009 death of Natasha Eubanks, 29, of Pasco.
"Not only were all of the deaths equally tragic but the evidence in the cases were equally strong. There was no reason for a guilty plea on one count as opposed to another," Miller explained. "An arbitrary decision had to be made as to which counts would result in a guilty plea and which counts would result in a dismissal. The purpose was to obtain accountability and justice for all of the families in this difficult situation."
-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; firstname.lastname@example.org