As a reporter I have covered many murders over the years, though my current beat generally deals with more pleasing matters. But when I read about the tragic shooting of two people at an Edmonton car dealership over the weekend, I recognized the name of the killer. Dave Burns had worked there and killed himself. Could it be the same Dave Burns I went to high school with back in Winnipeg in the 1970s? The one who stabbed another teen to death at a social in 1974?
On Sunday, I found out that, yes, it was the same Dave Burns.
I did not know Dave well. He was in my Chemistry class in Grade 11 at Grant Park High School. He was not a bright student, even worse in chemistry than I was. At some point he had had been put back a year because he was a year or so older than the rest of the kids. He was a scary guy, brooding, angry, with eyes that made the rest of us wary. Tales were told about him, about how he beat up other kids. I did not know if any of those stories were true but I kept my distance.
Then one day in class my desk mate started acting up as usual when the teacher headed out for a smoke and Dave got a tad annoyed. He told the guy to simmer down and this fellow simply sneered and said "Shut up, Burns". The teacher returned, class ended, and Dave waited at the door. As soon as my desk mate got near, Burns punched him right in the face. "Don't tell me to shut up!" The other kid fell to the floor. The teacher took Dave to the principal's office and that was the last time we saw him in Chemistry class. He was expelled - or quit school.
In Grade 12, the school was abuzz one Monday about a house party when Dave apparently pulled out a .22 calibre gun and started shooting. Nobody was hurt. A few weeks or months later, a kid came by and said Dave had stabbed to death another former student, Dale Inglis, at a social. It was a confused tale. Inglis spilled beer on Burns, Dave got mad, they fought a bit and Burn's shirt got ripped. Burns wanted money for his ripped shirt and they took the fight outside. Inglis was winning that fight, had Dave down on the ground and Burns pulled out a knife stabbed Dale twice in the back, once through the heart. That was the story I heard. Winnipeg socials were big drunken affairs, but I never heard if either of them were drunk. I figured they were and Dave later pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Newspaper reports suggested Inglis was looking for a fight. No doubt the prosecutor accepted the plea bargain, figuring a 'too drunk to know what I was doing' defence might sway a jury into a not guilty verdict.
That would have ended the story. But I went on to University the next year and my Sociology professor took the class on a field trip to Stony Mountain Penitentiary. During the tour, I suddenly saw Dave Burns a few feet away. He came over and I asked him how he was doing. "The judge should spend some time in here," he said. It was a terrible place. He could not wait to get out. He still had nine months to go before he had served one third of his four and a half year sentence. I resisted the urge to point out that the judge had not killed anybody, but he had. With release so close I did not want to get in Dave Burns' bad books.
I never heard from him again, or anything about him. He was the only killer I ever knew personally and I thought about him every time I covered a murder, which was more than I cared to. I thought about that brief conversation too. He was 19 years old then and as tough as he was at Grant Park, Stony Mountain was alot tougher. I cannot help but think that he came out of there even worse than he went in. But who knows? Perhaps the experience made him try to lead a better life that for years seemed to be working.
I've read several comments that suggest Dave Burns got off too lightly in 1974. Maybe so, but I am not sure a longer prison sentence would have stopped him snapping 35 years later. He made headlines in the early 90s when he claimed someone had stolen his gun collection, and several people have commented that killers should not be allowed to own guns. That might be a good point but, practically speaking, if someone wants to get firearms in this country, they can find them.
Every high school has its thugs, though not many turn out to be killers and those that do almost never end up killing again. In his case, whatever made Dave Burns the angry scary teenager I feared decades ago was still there. Fortunately, there are not many like him.