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Home / Articles / News / Features /  Who Killed Richard Burick?
02.15.12 Who Dunnit cover

Who Killed Richard Burick?

A simmering mystery raises questions about LANL’s past

February 15, 2012, 12:00 am

 
On a clear day in January 2003, Richard James Burick, the retired deputy director of operations at Los Alamos National Laboratory, drove his silver Dodge pickup into the Pajarito Mountain Ski Area parking lot, waved at two workers, circled around and parked the truck. The next time anyone saw him, he was dead from a gunshot wound to the head. A .44 caliber revolver lay a few feet from his body in a configuration that experts say couldn’t have happened unless someone other than Burick fired the shot that killed him. 


Nine years later, Burick’s death still has never been investigated as a possible homicide. Los Alamos Police Department, whose report on the death contains inaccurate and conflicting information, closed out the case as a suicide that same day—long before the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator had a chance to complete its autopsy report. Glenn Walp, the former head of LANL’s Office of Security Inquiries, is now demanding that the Federal Bureau of Investigation reopen the case.


So far, the FBI hasn’t agreed.

Glenn Walp arrived at LANL in January 2002, in the wake of the scandal involving alleged spy Wen Ho Lee. Under a mandate from the US Department of Energy, the University of California, which at the time held the contract to operate the lab, conducted a nationwide search and chose Walp to plug LANL’s national security leaks and weed out corruption within the lab—or, as Walp soon discovered, perhaps only to create that appearance.


Lee was a Taiwanese-American LANL scientist who specialized in hydrodynamics. Specifically, Lee’s expertise lay in writing software code to simulate what happens when metals are subjected to intense pressure, such as in the explosion of a nuclear weapon. Lee attracted the attention of the FBI when he contacted an FBI-targeted California employee of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, another lab under the National Nuclear Security Administration. The Livermore man’s phone had been wiretapped, but instead of implicating him, the conversations raised suspicions about Lee. Lee bragged of having contact with Chinese weapons scientists. When the US later discovered that China had warheads similar to some of the US’ most advanced, the FBI fingered Lee as the source of the alleged security breach.


Walp, a tough-talking former Pennsylvania State Police commissioner who now runs a criminal justice consulting company in central Arizona, had no idea what he was getting himself into when he signed on to overhaul the lab’s security. In the course of creating standardized procedures for investigating and reporting theft and security breaches at the lab, Walp discovered that a woman in the Engineering Science Application division took a travel check for $600, doctored it to read $1,800, and put it in her personal checking account. On the scale of other crimes Walp and others uncovered, it was a relatively minor amount of money—but under federal law, an entity that receives federal dollars, like LANL, has to report such incidents to the FBI. To do otherwise is a felony offense. 

Former LANL Deputy Director Richard James Burick died before he could realize his dream of opening a working cattle ranch.

 
But lab officials didn’t report it to the feds. They just fired the woman and moved on. When Walp found out, he told his supervisor that everyone involved in failing to report the embezzlement was, by law, part of a cover-up conspiracy. 


“I told him, ‘Look, either you do the right thing—or I will,’” Walp says.


Walp’s supervisor, whom he declines to name, chastised him and told him to “go along with the corporate philosophy.”


“I said, ‘What, in your opinion, is the corporate philosophy?’ He said, ‘Your main job is to protect the lab—its contract, its image.’”


That was the beginning of the end of Walp’s assignment at LANL, which lasted just 11 months. While he was still at the lab, Walp began to investigate two characters who would eventually be convicted of embezzling $300,000 worth of goods from LANL: facilities manager Peter Bussolini and purchaser Scott Alexander. The two hid items ranging from water tanks to ATVs inside Cold War-era Quonset hut bunkers at LANL before spiriting them off the hill. Walp’s work, along with that of Steve Doran, a former Michigan state trooper whom Walp brought on board as a security investigator, led to a dramatic raid on Bussolini’s and Alexander’s residences on Halloween of 2002—and ultimately to their imprisonment on federal charges. 


Walp and Doran were fired a few weeks after the raid, on Nov. 25, 2002. Doran is now a law enforcement expert who appears on national TV. In the course of their investigations, Walp and Doran found that the way LANL handled the $1,800 embezzlement was more the rule than the exception: When lab officials discovered employee theft or embezzlement, they looked the other way. The situation was so egregious that at one company meeting, Walp recalls staff members laughing about one employee’s habitual theft. 


Chuck Montaño, a former LANL auditor, says it’s “dumbfounding” that the FBI has so far declined to give the circumstances surrounding Burick’s death a second look.

 When Walp submitted a report identifying $3 million lost from lab coffers due to employee theft, “the place went crazy,” he said. The lab’s operators knew that if the Department of Energy discovered the magnitude of the situation—and the fact that they had been looking the other way—they could lose their multi-billion dollar contract to run the facility. The DOE Inspector General interviewed Walp and Doran in November about their discoveries; they were then fired and told they “didn’t fit,” despite glowing performance reviews (which are included in his Walp’s 2010 book, Implosion at Los Alamos). Walp says the real reason for the termination was so that he and Doran wouldn’t disclose anything else to DOE that could lead to termination of the contract. LANL also forbade Walp and Doran from communicating with the FBI at all. The University of California rehired Walp and Doran in January 2003; they each later received more than a million dollars in settlements. Walp’s supervisor was later fired for doing what Walp warned him was against the law. 


When Walp and Doran left LANL in November 2002, they were onto something big—even bigger than the Bussolini and Alexander scandal. Former deputy director Richard Burick, 63, had retired earlier that year after a 25-year career at the lab and had returned as a part-time employee. A LANL newsletter announced the balding, bespectacled engineer’s retirement under the headline “Conehead to Cowboy” in honor of his plan to turn his 20,000-acre Rocking Sigma Ranch into a working cattle ranch—the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. His partner in this venture would be Peter Bussolini, who at that time had not been charged in the scandal. Many of the goods Bussolini and Alexander stole were camping and hunting equipment—Coleman lanterns, sleeping bags, water tanks for livestock. Before they were taken off the Bussolini and Alexander case, Walp and Doran were looking for the ranch where some of Bussolini’s ill-gotten goods were said to be stored. They were fired before they got a chance.

Walp and Doran found that the way LANL handled the $1,800 embezzlement was more the rule than the exception: When lab officials discovered employee theft or embezzlement, they looked the other way.


Two other LANL employees, auditors named Charles “Chuck” Montaño and Tommy Ray Hook, also testified to DOE about the fraud occurring at the lab. They too endured retaliation by lab management and consequently received settlements. In the course of his lawsuit against the University of California and five lab employees, Montaño hired Doran in August 2010 to help prove that LANL covered up some of his audit findings. That led Doran back to the question of Burick’s involvement in the Bussolini and Alexander crimes—and also to the investigation of a possible cold case murder: Burick’s death.


Don Brooks of Jemez Springs runs his own company leasing space on a telecommunications tower on Pajarito Mountain in Los Alamos. Brooks, a suntanned, bearded man with a twangy accent, also provides services to movie and TV producers; the day SFR caught up with him at a Bernalillo Denny’s, he had come from the set of the Lone Ranger, an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle shooting in Albuquerque. Brooks’ crane will appear in the movie, picking up a minivan with a giant magnet and putting it on top of Albuquerque City Hall. But in 2003, Brooks was the operations manager at Pajarito Mountain Ski Resort. He remembers the day of Burick’s death well.


That morning, Brooks and two other employees were getting the lifts ready to open for skiing over the upcoming weekend. Brooks was near the ski lift up the hill from one of the site’s parking lots when the Dodge pickup pulled in. Burick waved at Brooks and another employee, José Pacheco, and circled the parking lot before parking alongside the road, perpendicular to the chair lifts, about 600 yards from where Brooks was working. Within about a minute, Brooks says, he heard a “pow!” and then another, immediate noise. He got on his ATV and drove down from the lift area to the parking lot to see what happened.


Brooks knew he’d heard a gunshot but had no idea the truck’s driver had been hit. As he pulled up, he saw that Burick was partly under the front of the truck, so he thought maybe the stranger was working on his car—looking at its radiator, perhaps.


“I started to ask him, ‘Did you hear anything?’ And then something slapped me in the face,” Brooks says. “Do you want me to get graphic? He was laying under his truck, and I see the top of his head is laying on the ground and his gun and little pieces of brain all over the ground and all over the truck, so I backed away.”
Brooks called 911.


“I told them, ‘There’s no need to hurry; the guy is dead,’” Brooks says. He didn’t notice anything strange about the scene, and when he heard later that Burick had prostate cancer, the incident made sense to him—a suicide motivated by a medical issue.


“We were shocked when we learned he was director or assistant director,” Brooks says. “It made sense when we learned of the cancer, though.”

Don Brooks, who was working at Pajarito Mountain on the day of Burick’s death, says he doesn’t think Burick was murdered, but that it’s possible.

 
In Los Alamos Police Department’s report on the death, Brooks is sometimes referred to by his correct name and sometimes as Don Woods. The report variously refers to the time Brooks called 911 as 10:02 am and 9:15 am. The number of unfired rounds that fell out of the cylinder is variously recorded as one or two; Doran’s investigation recorded two as the correct number. 


Brooks says he stayed with the body until police arrived, and he noticed the position of the gun—several feet past Burick’s feet—and the fact that its cylinder was open. He didn’t think anything of it, but Doran found the gun’s position extremely strange.


Doran interviewed two experts who said it was “absolutely impossible” for a functioning Smith and Wesson .44 caliber Magnum to somehow open its cylinder and discharge two unspent rounds after being fired. One was David Williams, a former FBI special agent who testified in the Oklahoma City bombing trials, and the other Michael Stamm, a retired Michigan State Police officer and certified weapons expert who testifies at court hearings. (Doran recounted those interviews to SFR, and they are also recorded in the investigative report he created in 2010.)


Doran believes a second person hid on the floorboards of the truck, instructed Burick to act normal—hence the waving to ski hill staff—and then shot him.


“I said, ‘Is there any way possible with a Smith and Wesson .44 Magnum, other than the fact that it would be unserviceable—being it would blow apart—that the gun could fall on the ground after the gun was fired, laying at the direction and the angle it was laying at…[Williams] said, ‘No, it’s absolutely impossible…There would be no way to recreate that in the laboratory.’”


Stamm told Doran the same thing, but LAPD Det. Dewayne Williams, who investigated the case, says it is possible that Burick’s hand released the cylinder latch after he fired the shot. Williams tells SFR that he has investigated “a couple” homicides in his career. He says he’s never seen a revolver in that condition at a suicide scene, nor read about such a thing happening in any other case. “But I can certainly imagine that is a possibility,” Williams says. “It is possible, if that firearm is angled in the right direction and [Burick’s] thumb is resting on that cylinder release, that the recoil could cause it to push backwards with enough force for his thumb to actually operate that cylinder release,” Williams says.


The location of the gun is also not consistent with a suicide, Doran says. After shooting himself behind the right ear, Burick would have lost all muscle control instantaneously and simply dropped the gun, not lobbed it several feet from where he was standing. 


“Go buy a cap gun or just take a stapler, some heavy item that you have. Put it up to the back of your head and drop it; it isn’t going to fall three feet in front of you,” Doran says. “Even though it’s New Mexico—the land of enchantment—to my knowledge, gravity works the same there.”


In addition, the recoil from the gun would have injured Burick’s hand when he lost muscle control and his hand went limp.


“It’s a very violent shot—it will literally sting the crap out of your hand,” Doran says.


The autopsy report shows no such marking on Burick’s hand.


Because of the problems Doran found with the suicide scenario, he believes a second person hid on the floorboards of the truck, instructed Burick to act normal—hence the waving to ski hill staff—and then shot him. Doran’s theory fits with something each of the two witnesses reported hearing, according to the police report: a ricochet. Doran believes it was actually a second shot, since there was no damage to the truck that would correspond with a ricochet, nor anything else nearby the bullet could have struck to make that noise. But Brooks, who doesn’t believe Burick was murdered (although he says it’s possible), no longer describes what he heard as a ricochet. 


“I heard a gunshot, a large caliber gunshot…the bullet tumbled,” Brooks says. “When it’s going straight it doesn’t make a sound, but when it hits something and starts tumbling it makes a whistling sound, and we heard the shot and the whistle.”


Doran says that description is completely preposterous. 


“There’s no way for [Brooks’] hearing to be that keen…,” Doran says. “If I fire one shot in a wooded area like that, there’s no way you could even say, ‘The shot came from over there,’ and you damn sure cannot go, ‘Oh, and the bullet is tumbling now.’ There’s no way!”


But Williams maintains that Burick’s death was a suicide.


“These guys that used to work for the lab are trying to create this conspiracy theory—that’s what I’ve gathered—about this being a homicide,” Williams tells SFR. Statements made at the scene prove Burick’s death was a suicide, he adds, because the witnesses reported seeing only one person in the car. 


“I really don’t care what [Walp and Doran] have to say...I investigated that case,” Williams says. “It was a suicide; there’s no doubt in my mind, and the administration of this department backs me up.”


But the police report states that Burick’s wife, his coworker, Kevin Leifheit, and his physician, Philip Hertzman, were surprised that Burick would kill himself. Leifheit told the LAPD that Burick seemed happy at work and, when he left, “told everyone he would see them on Friday.” Hertzman said he “had never seen any indication [Burick] may commit suicide.”


When reached by phone at her Los Alamos residence, Burick’s wife Karron was shocked to learn that questions remain about the circumstances of her husband’s death. Karron Burick, who has previously told media she doesn’t doubt the official word on her husband’s death, doesn’t waver from that opinion.


“It was very well documented at the time, and I have every faith what was said was correct,” she says.

Burick died in this parking area at Pajarito Mountain, shortly after promising coworkers he’d see them the following week.

 
Richard Burick died after the University of California determined Walp and Doran’s findings about corruption at the lab were correct and re-hired them as consultants, based in California, to help clean up the problem. At the time they were fired, Walp and Doran were going after the Bussolini case—including the ties to Burick’s ranch—“hot and heavy,” Doran says. 


“Congress forces the lab to reinstate us; we begin consulting to the president of the University of California; the heat gets turned…up a little bit—and all of a sudden [Burick] quote-unquote commits suicide,” Doran says. “I mean, I don’t know about you, but it seems kind of strange: Right after he told his wife that things were getting better, he was happy, he felt like a new man—after all of this he goes and kills himself?” 


Burick would have had a lot of information about corruption at the lab that its higher-ups were eager to suppress—or face losing their contract, Doran says. In Walp’s opinion, many more lab employees beyond Bussolini and Alexander should have been prosecuted. Before he and Doran were fired, Walp had an employee pull all of the lab’s purchases over a period of time and highlight the questionable ones. There were so many orange highlighter marks, he says, that the report “looked like a Bengal tiger.” A woman told Walp years later that after 99 computers were discovered to be missing from the lab’s administration building alone, higher-ups told her, “You bury it. You do the paperwork. We do not have 99 computers missing; we have every one.”


Had Walp and Doran been able to continue investigating, “There’s no question in my mind: It would have been a long investigation, but there would have been a lot of heads that would have rolled up there,” Walp says. 


“The lab wastes multi-billions of taxpayer dollars, and nobody seems to care,” Doran says. “They flush money like it’s toilet paper. I wish I had what they waste in an hour—I could buy my own island in Tahiti.”

Former LANL investigator Steve Doran says a variety of factors point to Burick’s death as a homicide.

Another possible motive for murder: Burick’s own potential involvement in fraud and corruption at the lab. His death—and the sale of his ranch—put the kibosh on an investigation that would have posed a much bigger threat to the contract than the Bussolini and Alexander scandal, Walp says.


“It’s one thing for the lab to send peons to prison, ie Bussolini and Alexander,” Walp says. “They didn’t want to lose that contract. If Burick was involved in the theft, and it came out that a former deputy director of this lab was involved up to his eyeballs in this theft, that may have been what it would have taken for Congress to say, ‘That’s it. You’re telling me—OK, Joe Peon down here, maybe, but not this guy that runs the lab. Your contract is dead.’”


The University of California’s concerns about losing the contract were justified. Under the UC’s management, the lab had endured a series of controversies, including Walp and Doran’s firings, the Wen Ho Lee debacle and the widely reported disappearance of two hard drives containing nuclear weapons secrets in 2000. As a result, in 2003, the DOE changed its contract awarding process to force the university to compete with other bidders. (Before then, UC had landed the contract to manage LANL through a noncompetitive bidding process.) But the university found a way to win the contract again. In 2005, the UC created a private company with Bechtel Corporation and others to form the lab’s current operator, Los Alamos National Security LLC.


The autopsy report states that Burick was under investigation by the laboratory, but LANL spokesman Kevin Roark says Burick was “not the subject of any lab inquiries.” When Doran subpoenaed information from the lab about the nature of the investigation, lab officials simply ignored him—and have to this day. 


“The lab wastes multi-billions of taxpayer dollars, and nobody seems to care,” Doran says. “They flush money like it’s toilet paper. I wish I had what they waste in an hour—I could buy my own island in Tahiti.”


Doran and Walp have been trying to get the FBI to reopen the case of Burick’s death since Doran’s investigation in 2010. If it is possible for the weapon to have landed the way it did after a suicide, the FBI could demonstrate that in the weapons lab.


“There’s such a concrete way of determining just this weapon issue; it’s so easy,” Walp says. “I’ve dealt with the [FBI] crime lab, and it’s so easy that they could just say, ‘It can happen’ [or] ‘it can’t happen.’”


Montaño says part of the FBI’s reluctance to reopen the Burick case may stem from the Wen Ho Lee disaster. In 2000, when the FBI was polygraphing lab employees as part of its investigation of Lee, a lab employee acknowledged an FBI agent with a Nazi salute. 


“There was a lot of animosity directed at the FBI,” Montaño says.

Former Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Glenn Walp says he found rampant corruption at LANL.

The US Department of Justice ended up dropping 58 of 59 charges against Lee, and a federal judge apologized to him. The FBI had effectively pursued a spy who wasn’t, stirring up both hatred and ridicule toward the US’ highest-level law enforcement entity. The FBI hasn’t forgotten. But at the same time, evidence suggests that LANL security hasn’t improved. Just one example is the 2006 case in which LANL contractor Jessica Quintana brought a thumb drive containing classified information home from the lab. It was discovered incidentally in the investigation of a domestic disturbance.


“She wasn’t a spy,” Walp says. “But the point was, if a young lady who doesn’t have spying on her mind can do that, just think what somebody can do who’s really serious.”


A former lab employee who had daily access to classified material at the lab told Walp that, over a 30-year career, he was checked just once to make sure he wasn’t removing classified information.


“I had access to all sorts of stuff,” Walp says. “No one checked me.”


As of press time, Walp is still waiting for the FBI and the US Attorney’s office in Albuquerque to agree to a meeting and discuss looking into Burick’s death. He’s been waiting for over a year, but FBI spokesman Frank Fisher says the FBI has no knowledge of the situation. 


“I have tried multiple sources through the federal level to get a meeting…just to present the evidence as we have it. As of this date, I have never heard from anyone,” Walp says. “I’ve got a sneaking feeling I’m not going to get it.”


Montaño, who created the first LANL workers’ rights group and helped land a $2.8 million settlement for 102 wrongly terminated workers, considers bringing attention to this lapse to be his most important legacy.


“Richard Burick had access to information with national security signficance. You have to ask the question, ‘Was there more to his death?’” Montaño says. “What’s so dumbfounding is, nobody seems to want to know.”  SFR

 

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