Safeguards failed, so evil got another chance
There were many chances to stop John Burbine, accused of abusing 13 children — decades after he devastated a couple and their 3 little boys
Even after a quarter-century, it does not take much for Kevin to summon the rage that consumed him in April 1989 after learning his 5-year-old son had been molested by a baby sitter.
Kevin’s first impulse that day was to track down and kill the man who cared for the Woburn family’s three boys, the oldest of whom was 7 years old. But before he could get out the door, his wife, Gail, persuaded him to instead call the police. Within hours, John Burbine was taken into custody.
Gail and Kevin — who asked that their last name be withheld to protect the family’s privacy — said their middle son described to them how Burbine had repeatedly fondled him. Investigators came to believe all three boys were similarly violated. Burbine, then 25, was eventually convicted of three counts of indecent assault and battery.
The boys’ parents desperately wanted Burbine to serve jail time, but the Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office told them that was unlikely to happen. They said prosecutors cited Burbine’s lack of a prior criminal record and the problems associated with putting young children on the witness stand. Burbine received a six-month suspended sentence, plus two years probation.
The punishment was a letdown for Gail and Kevin, but they say the disappointment was tempered by assurances from Middlesex prosecutors that he no longer posed a threat. The couple was told he had to undergo counseling and avoid being around children, or risk landing in a prison cell. In retrospect, it appears they misunderstood the terms of Burbine’s sentence — those restrictions applied only until the probation period expired.
After the case was resolved, Gail and Kevin went about trying to reconstruct a normal family life. It wasn’t easy. They often worried about how the attacks might affect their boys’ development, and there were soon signs they had reason to be concerned. But over time, the parents managed to distance themselves from the darkest memories.
That changed in shocking fashion late last year when the couple, now separated, found out that their now 49-year-old former baby sitter stood accused of new — and more horrible — crimes. Prosecutors said the Wakefield man videotaped himself raping and sexually abusing 13 children in his wife Marian’s unlicensed day-care business between 2010 and 2012. The youngest victim was 8 days old.
Marian Burbine was charged with recklessly endangering children by recommending her husband to parents seeking child care, and with operating an unlicensed child-care business.
Both have pleaded not guilty.
“I can’t believe he got away with this. He did it again,’’ said Kevin, 57, who now lives in Florida. “I’m heartbroken.”
At her home in North Easton, Gail, 56, finds it hard to comprehend how a convicted pedophile was allowed unfettered access to children for so long.
“They promised me this would never happen again,” she said. “How did this happen?”
A lot of people are asking similar questions as John Burbine sits in isolation at Middlesex Jail in Cambridge awaiting trial and Marian remains under house arrest in Wakefield.
Over the years, various agencies received information about Burbine — including separate reports in 2005 and 2009 that he had again abused boys. The system’s failure involved many agencies, among them the Department of Children and Families, the Department of Early Education and Care, the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office, and the Sex Offender Registry Board. Despite the warnings, none intervened.
Laurie Myers, founder of Community Voices, a Chelmsford-based advocacy group for child victims, said Burbine’s case represents a “perfect storm” of government errors and inaction.
Since Burbine’s arrest last year, lawmakers and child advocates have started to pick apart the missteps made in his case, searching for ways to keep better tabs on known sex offenders and pedophiles. Some laws have already been changed.
“It showed us we need to close the loopholes and do better when it comes to protecting kids,’’ Myers said. “Everybody did their little thing, but it was never enough.”
Gaining trust, and betraying it
Gail met John Burbine in the late 1980s when he was an early-education student at a local community college. She was a young mother working in financial services, seeking full-time child care for her boys. Burbine answered a newspaper advertisement Gail posted, and he made a good impression in an interview. But Kevin was wary of hiring a male caretaker. To ease her husband’s concerns, Gail vigorously scrubbed Burbine’s history, contacting references, local police, and even a contact she had at the FBI to make sure he didn’t have a criminal record. After her investigation, she reported to Kevin that Burbine came well-recommended. And his father was a Wakefield police officer. With that kind of a family foundation, she argued, surely he could be trusted.
Kevin, who worked as a plumber, finally agreed to give Burbine a chance, and the young man quickly became an integral part of the family’s daily routines. He was a dependable caretaker who arrived promptly in the morning and stayed through the afternoon on most weekdays. He regularly took the boys to a nearby park and library, read to them, and played children’s games such as hide-and-seek. The children grew attached to their energetic and attentive baby sitter. Or so it seemed.
Looking back, Gail said, there were signals of trouble she didn’t fully recognize. For instance, one day her oldest son abruptly decided he no longer wanted to spend time with his baby sitter, but wouldn’t give a reason. Whatever issue the boy had, it seemed to quickly fade. Gail decided the matter could not have been serious and let it drop.
Not long after that unsettling episode, Gail and Kevin’s middle son told them about being groped by Burbine. The frantic parents tried in vain to pry more information from their children. They also took them to a pediatrician, who confirmed their fears — the three of them had been sexually violated.
Detective Michael Pandolph, a Woburn police officer who investigated the case, said Burbine used cunning to gain the family’s trust, “like any good pedophile.” The abuse, it was determined, took place at nap time.
As part of the 1989 investigation, Pandolph visited Burbine’s home in Wakefield. During a search of the house — the same three-bedroom Cape on a dead-end street where the Burbines lived together until their arrests last year — police found a collection of homemade videos showing children in public places. The material wasn’t criminal, Pandolph said, just odd.
Pandolph said Burbine was emotionless and displayed no remorse during the police interview.
“He didn’t think it was bad what he did,” he said. “I remember he had that blank stare.”
The Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted the 1989 case and filed the most recent charges, declined to answer questions for this story. But in a prepared statement last week, District Attorney Marian Ryan, who was named by Governor Deval Patrick to replace Gerald T. Leone Jr. in April, said she is “committed to doing all that I can to protect children, engage in prevention efforts, and punish those who abuse or exploit children.”
The Burbines also refused repeated requests for an interview. John Burbine’s attorney, William Barabino, said his client is struggling to cope.
“John is reflecting on what took place and what also is going to happen to him, which is potentially a life sentence,” he said.
Gail said prosecutors told them in 1989 that under terms of the suspended sentence, Burbine would receive psychological counseling and be sent to jail if he harmed another child. Court records also show he was forbidden from going near children until his suspended prison term and probation lapsed. But three years after the arrest, the case was closed and he, like any offender reaching the end of his sentence, was relieved of his court-mandated obligations.
Today, Gail says she and Kevin were naive about would happen after Burbine’s conviction.
“I trusted the judicial system,” she said.
Those who study pedophiles like Burbine say it is essential for them to steer clear of children, no matter how far in the past a prior crime may be. Otherwise, the chances of reoffending are high. Michael Bourke, chief psychologist for the US Marshals Service in Arlington, Va., said sex offenders are like drug addicts or alcoholics: At best, their disorders can be kept in check.
“This is a sexual drive. It’s like the rapids of a stream, you just don’t change it or convert it or stop it,’’ said Bourke, who heads the Behavioral Analysis Unit at the service’s National Sex Offender Targeting Center, which tracks down fugitive sex offenders. “For many of these men, one of the ways we help them manage their deviance is make sure they don’t have situations to offend against a child.”
That didn’t happen with Burbine, who was apparently not deterred by his earlier conviction or by the court order.
This March, prosecutors filed new charges against him in Essex Superior Court. They said he molested and raped a boy in Saugus between 1990 and 1994. Some of the alleged crimes took place while he was still facing charges in the case involving Gail and Kevin’s children. The Saugus case is also pending.
Settling down in Wakefield
On a warm May day 20 years ago, John Burbine and Wakefield native Marian Jean Dangora married in the town’s First Parish Congregational Church. Burbine had completed his probation in the Woburn case a year earlier and was now free from scrutiny. Pastor Rick Weisenbach said the couple appeared to be like most of the newlyweds he saw — “starry-eyed kids.”
According to court records, Marian would later tell Department of Children and Families officials — investigating whether she was neglectful in referring her husband as a baby sitter — that she only found about her husband’s sex offender status and criminal history in 2009. That was more than 15 years after they exchanged vows.
After their wedding, the couple paid $120,000 to buy the home on Second Street in Wakefield from John Burbine’s parents, public records show. The house is at the end of short street in a residential neighborhood. Then, like today, the area is full of families with children.
John and Marian were well-educated. He earned a master’s of science in management from Lesley University in 2007. She holds a master’s in business administration from Bentley University, according to Burbine’s attorney.
John worked for about 10 years as an IT specialist at TMP Worldwide Advertising and Communications — a recruitment advertising company based in New York with a branch office in Maynard — before he was laid off about 10 years ago, his attorney said.
Some of his TMP colleagues considered him off-putting, maybe a bit strange. Several remember him bringing a live rat to work and carrying it on his shoulder. That, combined with a prickly demeanor, made Burbine appear slightly sinister to some.
Among other jobs, he was hired in 1998 as an adjunct professor teaching a weekend computer class at North Shore Community College in Danvers. He was also baby-sitting young children again.
When Burbine was convicted of molesting the three Woburn brothers, sex offenders were not tracked by the state. It wasn’t until 1996 that the Massachusetts Sex Offender Registry Board was created to keep tabs on residents — mostly men — convicted of rape, possession of child pornography, sex trafficking, and other sex-related offenses.
With legal challenges, another five years passed before a seven-member panel began sifting through details of thousands of cases to determine the probability of each sex offender breaking the law again. Today, about 11,000 are registered statewide.
Sex criminals are divided into three categories based on the chances of them reoffending, not necessarily the severity of the crimes already committed. Details about Level 1 offenders, those deemed least dangerous, are not made available to the public.
Until recently, information about Level 2 offenders — considered a moderate risk to reoffend — could only be obtained in person at local police stations.
Following a change in state law — prompted by the 2012 Burbine case — names, addresses, and other personal data about Level 2 offenders classified after July will now be posted by the registry at http://sorb.chs.state.ma.us.
Data about Level 3 convicts — considered most likely to reoffend — have always been publicly accessible.
Because Burbine was classified Level 1, the registry cannot discuss his status, or even say whether he is on the list. The registry itself does not impose restrictions on sex offenders, but schools, child-care facilities, camps, and other institutions use a database operated by the state’s Criminal Offender Record Information Support Services Unit to check prospective employees’ backgrounds.
After Burbine’s arrest last year, many critics of the state’s classification system said his case showed how ineffective the classification system can be. If Burbine had been listed as a higher-level offender, parents of children in his wife’s care could have found out about his past and police might have paid more attention to him, said Laurie Guidry, a clinical and forensic psychologist.
Many observers now wonder why a man convicted of molesting three boys could ever be considered a low risk to reoffend.
Legislation signed into law by Patrick during the summer calls for the classification system to be reexamined.
“In hindsight, we can say that clearly something went wrong,’’ said Guidry, who is also president of the nonprofit Massachusetts Association for Treatment of Sexual Abusers. “This awful incident gives us an opportunity to examine if we are doing the very best we can to protect the Commonwealth and its children from sexual offender recidivists. I believe the answer is: no, we are not.”
Currently, a single board member reviews individual cases and determines which risk level to assign. The decision only goes to a hearing if the offender questions the designation.
In Burbine’s case, a board member would have reviewed his 1989 offenses and weighed them against a list of 24 risk factors used to determine whether he might commit more sex crimes. Those factors include the number of victims and their ages, and the frequency of the predatory behavior.
An offender’s likelihood of remaining out of trouble also matters. Studies show the risk of re-offending drops off five to 10 years following incarceration.
Saundra Edwards, chair of the registry board, said she could not talk about Burbine specifically, but that classification is partly based on “current information” about an offender, including where and how they are living. “Historical information is never enough,’’ she said.
Burbine’s case has prompted several state lawmakers to file legislation aimed at increasing public access to information about sex offenders and reexamining the evaluation process.
Some lawmakers argue that anyone convicted of molesting children should automatically be considered at a higher risk to commit another sex crime. About 65 percent, or 1,750, of Level 1 sex offenders in Massachusetts committed some kind of crime against children, according to the registry.
But some civil rights advocates argue that posting information about abusers who have already served their sentences would unfairly penalize them while giving the public a false sense of security. Because most abuse goes unreported and criminals generally victimize people they know, families are better off, the advocates say, being wary of people who are frequently in their children’s company rather than relying on a sex offender list.
State representative Shaunna O’Connell, a Taunton Republican, said Burbine’s case illustrates why more information needs to be made public. O’Connell supports legislation requiring the state to publish information online about all sex offenders, but the more broad-based approach has not gained traction in the Legislature.
“Massachusetts does not do a good enough job at protecting our children and has weak laws,” she said. “These awful crimes could be prevented.”
Allegations, but no arrests
The cases filed last year in Middlesex Superior Court against the Burbines revealed not only disturbing details of recent alleged child abuse, but also that the state had long been aware of earlier alleged offenses.
In 2005 — 16 years after the Woburn family first made allegations against John Burbine — the Department of Children and Families received a complaint that the Wakefield sex offender may have struck again.
This time, the state agency learned that a 7-year-old boy said Burbine — still working as a baby sitter — had “rubbed the child’s genitals over his clothes while masturbating, and ejaculated,” according to a brief description of the complaint filed in court last year.
In 2009, the same agency was told a 5-year-old boy claimed Burbine, also his baby sitter, “fondled his genitals on more than one occasion while being cared for at his home,” court records state.
The agency substantiated both allegations and reported them to the Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office, as well as state and local police. Because they were allegations, not convictions, the complaints were not referred to the Massachusetts Sex Offender Registry Board.
The district attorney’s office declined to file charges in either case, first under the leadership of Martha Coakley and later with Leone in charge.
Officials now say they didn’t have enough evidence to move forward with criminal prosecution. In the 2005 case, the family of the child proved a major obstacle, according to a government official familiar with the investigation who did not want to be named. The official said the family refused to let police interview their son.
Geline Williams, a former executive director of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, said prosecuting pedophiles is practically impossible if children do not testify or their parents won’t cooperate.
“You either have the evidence or you don’t,” said Williams. “It is demoralizing and heartbreaking for seasoned professionals to know what the truth is, but they simply don’t have the evidence to prove it.”
That explanation doesn’t sit well with Wendy Murphy, a professor of sexual violence law at New England Law, Boston. She believes prosecutors should pressure families to have their children testify, even if that requires a subpoena.
“Prosecutors are quick to rely on a mom’s or a dad’s jitters to give them reason why a case can’t proceed,” she said. “This was the government’s job to stop crime.”
Coakley referred questions about Burbine to the Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office. Leone declined to comment for this story.
Cayenne Isaksen, a spokeswoman for the Department of Children and Families, said the agency did not have “statutory authority” to refer the 2005 and 2009 complaints to the registry board.
Prompted by the more recent allegations against Burbine, the governor signed legislation designed to improve the sharing of information between law enforcement agencies, the Sex Offender Registry Board, and the Department of Children and Families. The new law also clarifies the registry’s ability to reclassify an offender based on new information, even without a conviction.
State Senator Katherine Clark, a Democrat from Melrose, pushed for the changes, which she believes will help prevent similar tragedies.
Burbine’s case, she said, “was so disturbing on so many levels. Clearly we need to do better.”
But notification alone does not guarantee action. For instance, even agencies that were informed of the newer complaints against Burbine did not stand in his way.
In 2009, when the state Department of Children and Families followed up on the allegations that Burbine had abused a 5-year-old boy, questions were raised about whether his wife’s day-care business was properly licensed, court records show.
The Department of Early Education and Care, the agency responsible for licensing and regulating child-care facilities in Massachusetts, was called in to investigate. But in the course of that inquiry, nobody from the agency ever entered the Burbines’ home. Instead, a staffer spoke by phone with Marian, who said she had recently baby-sat for one child but no longer did so. Based on that brief explanation — and information that Marian had taken another job outside of the home — the state dropped its inquiry.
But her statements turned out to be false. Marian wasn’t finished working with children. In 2009, she filed paperwork with the secretary of state’s Corporations Division to open Waterfall Education Center LLC on Lincoln Street in Wakefield. The business, she said, would offer tutoring and other educational services to school-age children. Currently, the secretary of state’s office is not required to notify the Department of Early Education and Care when someone applies to run such an operation.
Myers, of the Community Voices group, said the opening of Waterfall Education Center could have raised suspicions that John Burbine was, once again, in the company of children.
“If the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, we end up in situations where kids fall through the cracks,” she said.
In harm’s way
Even as she went about building her new business, Marian appeared to be bothered by her knowledge of John’s past.
Months after the Department of Children and Families wrapped up its 2009 investigation, she went to the agency’s Malden office and asked to speak with investigators, court records show. Marian told them she had only recently found out about her husband’s prior convictions in the case involving Gail and Kevin’s boys, as well as the 2005 and 2009 complaints.
“She desperately wanted to have children with her husband, but had reservations in light of the most recent allegations,’’ court records state.
Around that time, Marian filed for divorce in Middlesex Probate and Family Court, citing the marriage’s “irretrievable breakdown.” Her resolve to end the relationship did not last long. Two months later, in February 2010, she filed a court motion to dismiss the request.
By that summer, the Burbines’ child-care operation was expanding and John was actively involved in it. Marian created a website to promote Waterfall Education Center’s services including “in-home” child care, “overnight newborn care,” and a “summer camp alternative,” court records show. She did not have a license to provide such services, as required by law.
Marian made arrangements to watch two siblings, ages 3 and 5, but then referred the parents to her husband because she was busy, according to court documents.
When another family called seeking overnight care for their newborn twin girls, Marian also recommended John for the job. She told the parents her husband “was an experienced child-care provider,’’ according to prosecutors. John was often alone with the children at that family’s home, taking them on outings and sometimes staying overnight. Generally, such extended care is intended to allow exhausted parents a stretch of uninterrupted sleep.
In all, Marian referred the parents of at least a dozen children — mostly infants too young to talk — to John for care, prosecutors say. But inexplicably, she also warned some neighbors about him, according to an investigation by the state Department of Early Education and Care. “Don’t let my husband watch kids,” Marian is said to have told one. “If John asks [to take care of your child], say, ‘No, thank you,’ ’’ she said to another.
In July 2012, the Department of Children and Families learned of yet another instance of a child who showed signs of abuse at the hands of John Burbine. This time, the agency was notified that a 2-year-old girl began to exhibit “sexualized behavior” within weeks of receiving care from the Burbines, according to court records.
Anne Conners, a Department of Early Education and Care investigator, was deployed to the Wakefield house and visited several times before Marian finally invited her in. She reported the interior was cluttered with boxes, bags, clothing, and trash, according to a state report. In some places, the piles were more than 3 feet high. Dirty dishes filled a kitchen sink and spilled onto the counter, Conners said, and only a narrow path remained to navigate between rooms.
Conners wrote that the house was so crowded she and Marian had to retreat to the front stoop to talk. During the conversation, Marian told her, “John does baby-sitting.”
Apparently realizing those three words could spell trouble for her fledgling business, she quickly tried to retract the statement. “I didn’t say that,” Marian told Conners.
In September 2012, State Police searched the Burbine home, concerned the couple had provided child care without a license. What they found was far worse. Cameras and computers contained evidence of horrific sex crimes: Videos and pictures allegedly depicted naked children — newborns to 44 months old — being sexually abused by Burbine. In some scenes, he calls them by name and makes explicit sexual comments while facing the camera, records show.
One video apparently shows him assaulting a child in a health club changing room. When someone knocks on the door, Burbine says, “Wait a minute,” and then continues with the molestation.
In another, two girls seated in high chairs are allegedly made to watch adult pornography on a laptop.
Burbine was arrested by State Police and later charged with 100 counts related to sex abuse of children. Prosecutors claim he created the images between 2010 and 2012 in Boston-area communities, including Lexington, Newton, Medford, Melrose, Reading, Stoneham, Wakefield, Waltham, and Woburn.
In detailing the charges last year, Leone, the former district attorney, called it one of the “most troubling and disturbing cases of child abuse ever prosecuted in Middlesex County.”
‘It didn’t have to happen’
Other than Gail and Kevin, the families of Burbine’s alleged victims declined to comment for this story. But abuse specialists say coping with what happened to their children and to them may be an endless challenge. It has been that way for Gail and her family. In 1989, she said, a pediatrician told the couple the best option was to downplay what their three children endured and hope time would lessen their suffering. They followed that advice, telling their boys the baby sitter who did bad things had gone away forever. They did not seek counseling for themselves or their children. But Gail was wracked with guilt and began drinking heavily in an effort to cope. She was finally able to wean herself off alcohol seven years ago.
The couple’s two oldest — ages 29 and 31 — struggle with substance abuse, their mother said, and have been in and out of treatment programs.
Today, Gail is attempting to steel herself for the gut-churning revelations that will be part of Burbine’s upcoming trial, tentatively scheduled for December. She often dwells on the government’s failure to intervene over so many years, and she can’t stop thinking about what the family’s life might have been like if John Burbine had not eviscerated it.
Gail says she is speaking out now partly because it might bring the bright light of scrutiny to an issue often relegated to the shadows. She hopes her words can spare others from the agony she, Kevin, and — especially — their boys have endured all this time.
“It didn’t have to happen to the other children,’’ she said. “I just want healing for the victims and their families.”