Jury Hears Taped Confession in Boarding School Slaying

St. Louis Post-Dispatch/October 1, 1997
By Tim O'Neil

A former student at a rural boarding school for troubled youths admitted that he repeatedly slit a fellow student's throat with a pocket knife to protect a plan to take over the school, according to testimony Tuesday.

Joseph S. Burris, 17, of Los Angeles, sat hunched and staring downward in the Pulaski County courtroom while prosecutors played a videotaped confession he gave shortly after the slaying of William A. Futrelle II, 16, on March 25, 1996.

On the tape, Burris told how he and two other students at the Mountain Park Baptist Boarding Academy agreed to kill Futrelle because, "We assumed he would go against us."

So, Burris said, they took Futrelle down a trail on the wooded, 180-acre grounds to get firewood. Burris said he grabbed Futrelle and began choking him.

"It was taking too long . . . ," Burris said on the tape. "I took the knife and cut his throat. He started wheezing and moving around so I reached down and cut his throat open wider."

The victim's 20-year-old sister, Staci, sobbed while those words were played. Their mother, Billie Futrelle of Boca Raton, Fla., held her daughter and wept quietly. Until then, they had gripped each other's hands and listened grimly.

Burris sat almost motionless throughout the day, never looking at the jury and rarely raising his eyes to the witnesses.

Mountain Park Academy is on the St. Francis River east of Piedmont, Mo., 110 miles south of St. Louis. The case was moved to Waynesville, 25 miles west of Rolla, Mo., on a change of venue. Testimony began Tuesday.

Burris is charged with first-degree murder and armed criminal action. He pleaded not guilty by reason of mental defect. Dr. Edwin Wolf gram, a psychiatrist at the Washington University School of Medicine, is to testify Thursday on his behalf.

Mountain Park is an independent Baptist school that the Rev. Bobby Wills and his wife, Betty, founded in 1987. Earlier that year, they had closed a school near Hattiesburg, Miss., after losing a lengthy court battle over state regulation.

The Willses and their staff employ a mixture of fundamentalist Christianity, strict rules and routines and, on occasion, paddling, in their efforts to turn around teen-agers with serious behavioral problems. Parents voluntarily enroll their children.

The school had assigned Burris to be the "orientation guide" for Futrelle, who arrived at the school in January 1996. Burris had been there since the previous October.

19-Year-Old Found Guilty

Burris' primary co-defendant, Anthony G. Rutherford, 19, of Siloam Springs, Ark., was found guilty in

May in a nonjury trial in Waynesville and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. A third student was ordered to remain in juvenile custody until 1999.

Wayne County Prosecutor Jon Kiser cannot seek the death penalty against Burris because he was 15 when the killing occurred. The mandatory penalty he faces if convicted is life without parole.

In separate confessions, Burris and Rutherford said they hatched their plan at lunchtime the day of the killing. They said they wanted to take over the school, "have our way" with some of the female students and get national attention.

"We would get a gun, go into the girls' dorm, mess around and wait for the authorities to come," Burris said in his taped statement, "then be taken to jail or commit suicide."

Burris said they surrendered after they entered several staff members' homes and couldn't find a gun. One teacher testified Tuesday that when he asked the three what they had done, Burris said, "You'll read about it in the morning papers."

School principal Sam Gerhardt testified Tuesday that Burris had been considered a good student. During a break, he spoke for about 15 minutes with Burris at the defense table.

"The boy has been through a lot of fires in his life," Gerhardt said later. "I told him there are consequences for what he did, but that the Lord still loves him."

The matter of "fires" is central to the defense. His mother, Patrice Burris-Costales of Los Angeles, is to testify today that her son's behavior changed after the deaths of his father in 1993 and stepfather in 1995.

Gerhardt said the school's current enrollment is 115 girls and 30 boys, down from the 200 girls and 30 boys enrolled when Futrelle was slain. Gerhardt called the difference a normal fluctuation.

In August 1996, Futrelle's parents sued Mountain Park in U.S. District Court in Cape Girardeau, Mo., alleging that the school failed to adequately protect their son. The school seeks dismissal on grounds of religious immunity.

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