Family struggles with loss in woman's unsolved hit-and-run death

mtheriault@adn.comNovember 10, 2012 

In the dark of a snowless October night in 2011, a driver hit Geraldine Burns hard enough to leave traces of paint in her hair and scatter fragments of a Jeep Grand Cherokee around her body.

The 25-year-old mother of two from Northwest Alaska was found sprawled on Penland Parkway, between the Northway Mall and the trailer park where she lived with relatives. Medics declared her dead at the scene. It isn't clear how long she'd been laying in the street.

Today, 13 months later, her case is the only unsolved fatal hit-and-run in Anchorage since 2004.

Her family is still adjusting to the shape of her loss. Her younger sister can't sleep in the room they once shared and gets off the bus blocks early to avoid the place where she died. Her father in Noatak talks of an emptiness that goes on and on.

They wonder: Who killed Burns and drove away?

Anchorage Police traffic investigators say without new information, the chances of ever finding out diminish with each passing day.

 

'THE ONLY CONSTANT'

Burns and her younger sister Lottie Carter grew up hopscotching between relatives' homes and foster care in places like Noorvik, Kotzebue and Willow.

Carter, a 22-year-old Houston High School graduate with the same high cheekbones and long, shiny hair as Burns, felt her sister was more like a mother.

"She was the only constant I had," she said.

As a little girl Burns was a tomboy but once she had a taste of Anchorage life there was no getting her back to any village to live, Carter said.

As a teenager and adult she promised excitement, adventure and possibly trouble, her sister said.

Burns was beautiful and knew it. She was a little wild, scared of nothing and seemed to have hundreds of friends, Carter said.

She stood less than 5 feet tall and her homies in Anchorage, as she called her friends, knew her as Lil' G. She could look tough in a sideways Yankee cap and braids but had a softness to her face that belied her act.

The two often shared a room and sometimes a bed. Burns would sling an arm over Carter to help her fall asleep.

Late in her teenage years, Burns had two chubby-cheeked babies, Delilah and Joseph Jr., with her longtime boyfriend from the Matanuska Valley.

She was crazy about them, Carter said. But things went sour with her babies' father and Burns moved into an uncle's home in the Penland Mobile Home Park, with mattresses on the living room floor and baleen hung on the wall. Carter lived there too.

Then Burns started drinking too much. When she started it seemed like she couldn't stop, Carter said.

On the night that she died, they had gone out to watch a pool tournament at a bar downtown, her sister said. They came back to the trailer. There was some fighting and the two took off to go to a friend's house.

Carter made a run to the Carrs grocery store to get cigarettes for her sister.

At some point in the night they were separated.

No one knows exactly what happened between then and when a driver called 911 to report a body in the road on Penland Parkway at 3:18 a.m.

Burns' father, Whittier Burns, happened to be in town from Noatak. He got the call from police the next morning.

"Losing a child is just an empty feeling," he said by phone from Noatak. "It doesn't go away."

Carter said at first she didn't believe the news. Her sister had always been with her.

"For months after I blamed her death on me," she said. "She was supposed to come home with me, but she didn't."

'No witnesses. No tire marks.'

The successful prosecution of hit-and-run cases often depends on the speed with which investigators can find the car -- and the suspect, says veteran traffic investigator Michael Busey.

Every day after a hit-and-run represents a chance for telltale damage to be repaired. When there are no witnesses to an accident it becomes even more difficult to prove who was driving, even if police are certain they've found the right vehicle.

The last fatal hit-and-run with no arrest or charges happened in February 2004, when 53-year-old Joseph Okakok of Barrow was hit and killed on the Old Seward Highway south of Tudor Road.

Police later said tire marks on Okakok's body could only have come from a specialty off-road tire with a distinct V-shaped pattern of parallel treads.

Police found and seized the vehicle they thought hit Okakok. They didn't have enough evidence to put their suspect in the driver's seat at the time of the crash.

Prosecutors couldn't build a case and no charges were ever filed.

"We don't have the evidence to say, this was the person that was driving," said Busey. "To this day, and this case is about eight years old now, the vehicle is still sitting in an evidence lot."

Hit-and-run crimes happen in all areas of town to all types of people, Busey said.

There's no profile of a hit-and-run driver.

Some are remorseless when confronted. Others are relieved to be caught.

In Burns' case, there are few clues.

Investigators believe the person who hit her was driving a 2002-2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee, possibly of a light color.

Damage to the front end of the car and left headlight has almost certainly been fixed by now, they say.

Despite hundreds of tips that poured in after the collision, they know little more than that.

"That's what has made it so difficult," said investigator Rick Steiding. "No witnesses. No tire marks."

A sheaf of papers inches thick represents all the vehicles that match that description registered in the state.

Investigators looked at hundreds of matching cars and photographed ones that could have fit the description.

Still, nothing has turned up.

"It eats away at you," Busey said.

 

'A DIFFERENT PERSON'

Lottie Carter wants to know who hit her sister and left her in the road.

"I hope they rot in hell," she said. "And I don't say that about nobody in the world."

Time has passed slowly and strangely since the death.

Burns's kids are in second grade and kindergarten now. They look just like her, Carter says.

For months after Burns's death her cellphone still worked.

Carter called it every day just to listen to her voice on the voicemail message.

She got a tattoo of a cross with a blooming rose and her sister's name on it and stopped drinking altogether, then went on a binge around the time of the anniversary of the death.

"After my sister died I'm like a different person," she said.

Now Carter is staying at the same trailer where the two last lived together. When she's thinking too much about Burns she cleans.

The floors are spotless.

The family buried her body at a spot called Blueberry Hill in Noorvik, but Carter believes Burns is still hanging around the trailer in spirit form.

In quiet moments, she says she sometimes feels the familiar arm that used to help her sleep.

 

 


Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344

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