His was a cop’s life, and a cop’s family – his father, father-in-law, brother-in-law, all of them wearing badges. Don Burt couldn’t wait for his turn.
And 15 months after his proud father pinned the badge of the California Highway Patrol on the Second generation of Burts to wear the CHP shield, Don Burt, 25-years-old, died a cop’s death.
On Saturday evening, July 13, in a brightly lit parking lot, within sight of the Mexican restaurant where he had had dinner with his pregnant wife Kristin just a few hours before, and where his niece and nephews had teased him and called him “Onky Donkey” instead of “Uncle Donnie,” he was shot to death, allegedly by a motorist who was carrying a suspended driver’s license – and a 9 mm handgun.
As they so often do, things got out of hand fast. Dozens of late diners at Coco’s Family Restaurant saw it happen: the traffic stop, the call for the tow truck, Burt waving off a fellow cop who happened by and asked whether he needed help, Burt turning up some bogus travelers checks – and then the pushing and shoving, and the gun.
Burt was shot seven times. “The suspect had a 9 mm pistol,” CHP Capt. Chuck Lynd said. “The first six shots knocked him down on his side. The suspect stood over him and fired a round into the left side of his head. That was the fatal round.”
Arrested for Burt’s murder, 25-year-old Hung Thanh Mai, was captured two days later in Houston, Texas. Mai, an Orange County resident, has a reputation for violence and ruthlessness. Identified as being a very, very dangerous man, Mai is a member of one of Southern California’s fiercest gangs, the Tiny Rascals.
With his own baby on the way, he had asked for Saturday, July 13, off, to entertain his young niece and nephews, whose father had been killed in a traffic accident in Arkansas last October. But they were short-handed, Kristin said, so he went to work.
It was about 8:30 p.m., on the Orange Freeway, when Burt pulled over the leased white BMW. The driver left the freeway at Nutwood Ave. and drove into the large parking lot shared by a restaurant, gas station and motel.
A few minutes later, Burt called in a license check on the driver, Lynd said. At that point, it looked to be a routine traffic stop. The computer reported the driver had a suspended license and Burt, following procedure, called a tow truck to impound the car.
Burt waved off the Fullerton police officer who had signaled an offer of help. And then, waiting for the tow truck, he searched the trunk and turned up “forged or counterfeit” travelers’ checks. The driver grappled with him, pulled the gun.
One witness saw the man fire over and over, saw Burt crumple. Then the gunman bent down and took Burt’s service pistol. He got behind the wheel of the patrol car, whose lights were still flashing, and drove off.
“We wondered why he just didn’t take his own car,” said Anaheim Police Lt. Tom O’Donnell. The patrol car, its lights still whirling, was abandoned seven miles away, at a car dealership in Anaheim.
A witness, Jerry Noyes, reported that when he ran to Burt’s aid following the shooting, the officer was holding an ID in one hand and a bunch of traveler’s checks in the other. Noyes stated “There were hundreds of these checks, just littering the parking lot. They were $100 checks.”
Police experts later reported the traveler’s checks were bogus. They provided a link between Mai and a web of Asian gangs that specialize in sophisticated and lucrative white-collar crimes.
More than 4,500 police officers and other mourners crammed church services to pay tribute to the rookie CHP officer. Officers came from as far away as Maryland and New Jersey.
Burt’s wife, Kristin, and his parents, Don and Jeannie Burt, listened as Gov. Pete Wilson and other speakers remembered Burt as a dedicated officer with an infectious sense of humor that endeared him to friends, colleagues and his superiors.
Burt, an avid soccer player and water skier, was remembered as a loving man who wanted to help people. At Perris High School, where he had been student body president and a 12-letter man – varsity in soccer, swimming and water polo, for all four years – Burt had planned on being a high school history teacher.
But There was his father’s example – the elder Don Burt had been a CHP officer since 1969, and with not so much as a traffic accident And then there was his wife and her family.
Kristin Burt’s father had retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and her brother is still a deputy. That influence, and his father’s work, changed Burt’s mind about teaching. In April 1995 he graduated from the CHP academy, and was soon teaching computers and showing the ropes to other rookies.
“He was the perfect son,” said his father, Don, choking on his words during an interview from his Perris home. “He respected others and he loved people. He loved to help people. That was his goal in life.”
Burt’s father, a Riverside CHP patrol sergeant, said he was apprehensive when his son decided to follow in his footsteps. “Times have changed. There’s too many crazy people out there. There’s no value of life. They shoot you for rims, tires. It’s a terrible society we live in now,” he said.
Catching drunk drivers was his special mission, and “doing something to protect others,” as his mother, Jeannie, put it, “people who get in trouble on the road.”
“He was just really aggressive about doing his job,” said his beat partner Ari Wolfe. “When some guys might go get a cup of coffee, he’d go write that extra ticket, or go help five more cars on the freeway.”
His parents worried, though, about the boy they still called “Baby Donnie”‘ “He wasn’t as big as I was,” his father fretted, “and he was a lot nicer than me.”
And his mother-in-law, Judy Muravez, the mother and wife of cops, said “It’s kind of different when your husband’s been an officer because they’re an adult, but it’s really hard when you raise a child and see them vulnerable. I loved Don like a son.”
Don Burt is believed to be the first CHP officer to be shot to death in Orange County since the 1960s.
A memorial fund has been established to help Burt’s widow, Kristin, who gave birth to the couple’s baby on Sept. 22. Donations may be sent to the Officer Don Burt Memorial Fund, c/o CHP, 2031 E. Santa Clara Ave., Santa Ana, CA 92705.
TV SHOW FEATURES CHP OFFICER DON BURT JR.
“Arrest and Trial” aired a reenactment of the murder of California Highway Patrol Officer Don Burt, Jr., on November 8, 2000, on UPN Network. Officer Burt was killed on July 13, 1996, by Hung Thah Mai, a gang leader, who from his jail cell is calling for the murder of other law enforcement officers. Don and Jeannie Burt, said they were glad people had the opportunity to see how much effort went into the arrest and prosecution of Mai for their son’s murder.