Jury suggests life sentence in slayings

It took almost two years to bring Samuel E. Sallee to trial.

It took about two hours for a Bartholomew Circuit Court jury to find the Columbus man guilty of four counts of murder Wednesday afternoon.

The jury also recommended that Sallee, 57, be sentenced to life without parole for the May 11, 2013 killings of Katheryn M. Burton, 53; Thomas W. Smith, 39; Aaron T. Cross, 41; and Shawn L. Burton, 40.

The four had been shot, and Katheryn Burton also had been stabbed at 2634 E. Main Cross St., Waynesville, where she and Smith lived, and where Cross and Shawn Burton were visiting.

Judge Stephen Heimann set Sallee’s sentencing hearing for April 2.

Sallee, who has been in jail since two days after the bodies were discovered, initially showed no reaction to the verdict. But as defense attorney David Nowak polled individual jury members on their verdict, Sallee looked down and slowly shook his head.

As Heimann requested, there was no vocal reaction to the verdict as it was read to nearly 50 people in the courtroom — about twice the average daily attendance during the eight-day trial.

Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Kathleen Burns told the jurors each of the four lives taken represents “aggravating circumstances” that call for a sentence of life without parole.

Members of the jury agreed with Burns, saying they could not see any significant mitigating circumstances that might suggest a lesser sentence was in order.

In her initial 34-minute closing argument, Burns brought up a note found at the crime scene that, according to defense attorney David Nowak, said had only been mentioned in passing during testimony.

The note, reportedly in Thomas Smith’s handwriting, was to Katheryn Burton. It stated that Smith, Cross and Shawn Burton were planning on going fishing the evening of May 11 at a site called The Ridge, Burns said.

Sallee claimed that he had gone to the Burton house in hopes of selling a rifle to Smith, but the prosecution described a different reason.

After stating that Sallee was waiting for Cross and Shawn Burton to leave in order to rob Smith and Katheryn Burton, the deputy prosecutor suggested that Sallee’s learning of the fishing trip may have triggered the killings.

“At first, the defendant was waiting for two of them to leave, but then he finds out that they all are going to leave at the same time,” Burns told the jurors. “He had to act then, or not act at all — so he decided to kill everyone.”

During most of her closing arguments, Burns focused on Sallee’s frame of mind the day of the killings.

At his former residence, Donetta Sallee — the defendant’s wife of 19 years — informed her husband that morning she was dating someone else, adding: “You’d better not be here unless you are returning our property,” Burns said.

Noting that two of his children — Michael and Amber Sallee — were both killed in a 2006 fatal vehicle accident, the defendant’s only surviving child, Nathaniel, had told his father he also didn’t want anything to do with him.

A short time earlier, Samuel Sallee was told he was no longer welcome at the home of his sister and brother-in-law in Brown County, where he had lived the previous year, the deputy prosecutor said.

After leaving his wife’s home, Sallee called a former employer seeking work, but the ex-boss was ignoring his phone calls.

“He had no job, no family, no money,” Burns told the jury. “The one thing he did have was a strong, overwhelming desire for methamphetamine.”

Daniel Burton testified that drugs were commonly sold at the Burton home.

In his closing remarks, defense attorney Nowak suggested the entire investigation was exclusively focused on his client from the start, adding that investigators were ignoring any facts that did not point toward Sallee.

But in rebuttal, Burns reminded the jury that Daniel Burton — who discovered the murder scene — had told investigators he saw a man named Sam who was holding a .22-caliber rifle as he left for work just a few hours before the killings.

“Who else should they be looking for?” Burns asked.

Nowak’s assertion that Sallee was there as a self-appointed narcotics informant for the Columbus Police Department also was disputed by Burns.

“In his first interview, Sam told police there was no discussion about drugs with Tommy (Smith),” Burns said. “How is he going to give information as a police informant if neither of them are talking about drugs?”

Burns also said that if Sallee were innocent and acting as a police informant, he gladly would have stepped forward to inform investigators he was at the scene of a quadruple murder hours before it happened.

Throughout the trial, Nowak questioned how the state contended Sallee was “an evil genius,” smart enough to erase all traces of DNA, fingerprints and the murder weapon itself, but “stupid enough to bring items of evidence into his home.”

“Shooting people and taking their stuff doesn’t take great intelligence,” Burns said. “And neither does covering your tracks.”

In her final comments to the jurors before they began deliberating, Burns pointed to what she considered the strongest evidence produced by the state.

It was a cardboard box filled with spray-in foam seen at a Columbus residence where Sallee was staying at the time of the murders — the 380 Parkside Drive home of Malcolm England. Inside the foam, investigators found the wallets of all three male victims.

“The wallets cannot be explained away,” were Burns’ final words to the jury.

Since the jury recommended life without parole, Indiana statute requires Heimann to follow the jury recommendation.

However, a pre-sentence report will be prepared that will suggest what type of prison Sallee should be sent to, as well as any drug-addiction treatment or other considerations he should receive within the Indiana Department of Correction.

What's next

Samuel E. Sallee will be sentenced at 2:30 p.m. April 2, the date set by Bartholomew Circuit Court Judge Stephen Heimann.

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.