Beating death case full of grisly facts
David A. Burke II – once among three suspects in the brutal beating death of James Vannberg – was painted as a ruthless aggressor during his preliminary hearing Tuesday in Nevada County Superior Court.
“He said that he killed James,” said Heather Gereau, who is awaiting sentencing for her role in the July 9 killing of Vannberg near South Yuba Campground by Edwards Crossing.
Gereau admitted to being an accomplice after the fact, and her plea deal calls for no more than six months in jail.
The third defendant, David Leffingwell, appeared during a break in the hearing and pleaded no-contest to voluntary manslaughter.
That leaves the 24-year-old Burke, accused of murder and whose case, according to Assistant District Attorney Ron Wolfson, is likely headed to trial. Burke’s hearing, held to decide if there’s evidence to support the charges, resumes today.
Gereau, formerly Gereau-Baer, provided most of Tuesday’s testimony and claimed Burke killed Vannberg with a crowbar because Vannberg allegedly stole food and food stamps from another camper.
Gereau testified that Burke said he silenced Vannberg by striking him in the vocal chords. She said Burke also remarked on Vannberg’s strength before dying.
Vannberg’s partially buried body was found a few days later alongside a nameless dirt road, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
The attack on Vannberg started at the campground, Gereau said. She was sitting at a campsite shared by Burke and Leffingwell when she heard “some thunking and a shuffling noise.”
She testified that she walked away and saw the 26-year-old Vannberg: “He was just trying to get up, off the ground.”
Family members of the defendants and victim attended the hearing, and some sobbed when the testimony turned gruesome. Burke looked on without expression, and sometimes took notes.
Walking toward the campground exit, Gereau said, she saw Vannberg’s Jeep Cherokee and Leffingwell’s truck pass her from behind. She kept walking, and several minutes later she hid as the vehicles approached her.
Later, still walking, Leffingwell picked her up, and with Burke in the Jeep, she said, both vehicles headed toward the Greenhorn Creek bed.
Once there, she said, Burke poured gas into the Jeep’s tank and Gereau provided a lighter. “The next thing I saw was a big explosion and the Jeep was on fire,” Gereau said.
The three returned to the campground, she testified, and she and Leffingwell, following Burke’s orders, cleaned up evidence. Gereau said she took dish soap and a towel to a blood-stained trash can, and dirt was kicked over a few puddles of blood.
A couple of days later, she and Leffingwell, allegedly fearing Burke, gave their accounts to a sheriff’s detective at Wayne Brown Correctional Facility.
Questioned by Glenn Kottcamp, Burke’s lawyer, Gereau admitted that she made no effort to help Vannberg, and that she and Leffingwell initially lied to deputies about Vannberg’s whereabouts.
Kottcamp also scrutinized her claim that Burke sat around while Gereau and Leffingwell busily removed blood stains.
The defense attorney also questioned John Casci, district attorney investigator, who said an autopsy report showed no vocal chord damage.
Casci also said the report showed Vannberg’s injuries weren’t consistent with being run over by a vehicle, which was part of an earlier Sheriff’s Office report.
Tuesday’s hearing ended with testimony from Steve Tripp, sheriff’s detective, who returns to the stand today.
Tripp said Leffingwell loaned Burke a crowbar, thinking he would strike Vannberg on the leg and get him to leave the campground. When Burke allegedly began striking Vannberg’s head, Tripp said, “it’s not what (Leffingwell) expected.”
Later, Vannberg was driven in his vehicle by Burke to the dirt road, despite promises that he was being taken to a hospital. Burke then struck Vannberg for several more minutes, Tripp said, reciting Leffingwell’s statement.
Occasionally, the detective said, Leffingwell broke into tears while giving his account.
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