The evening before Jeff Burleson’s trial, he sat in the courtroom with his lawyer, a bailiff, and San Diego deputy district attorney Brock Arstill. As the three talked, Arstill raised the question of how the shotgun could be presented to the jury. According to Burleson, Arstill suddenly stood up and began a pantomime, spreading his legs and contorting his face, as he pretended to whip out a shotgun and aim it at the empty jury box.
In a final flourish, Burleson tells me, the prosecutor snarled that famous line from the movie Scarface: “Say hello to my little friend.”
“It wasn’t funny to me,” says Burleson. “I was facing 14 years in state prison. Do you know how much trouble you can get in with a shotgun?”
At about 8:00 p.m. on March 29, 2011, Burleson was in the back bathroom of his Encinitas home, bathing two of his children, ages three and five. A half hour later, his hands were cuffed behind his back and he was riding to jail in a sheriff’s car.
I learn Burleson’s story at a Fashion Valley restaurant. For the first few words of his order, his voice rings forth loud and strong, as if he’s not sure the waiter is paying attention. But then he trails off. I later conclude that this is a vocal tic, one I will notice in his voicemail greeting and messages: even while announcing his name, “Jeff” comes right out with force, followed by syllables said more softly.
Burleson’s skirmish with the law began when he heard a loud pounding on his front door. Not expecting anyone, he went on with the children’s bath, hoping that whoever was at the door would go away. The knocking stopped, then started up again. Burleson’s two dogs barked madly. He thought a friend might be out front. “At the time,” he says, “my kids liked to take long baths. That was a big part of their routine.” Burleson was in charge because, the previous day, his wife Erin, having begun to hemorrhage, had been taken to an emergency room; she’d given birth just three weeks earlier. Now she was nursing the newborn. Not wanting to leave the two older kids alone in water, Burleson continued to bathe them, even as the noise out front grew progressively louder.
Finally finished with their bath, he handed the kids over to his wife. He asked her to keep all of them in the back of the house. Burleson entered the living room and approached the front door. The commotion seemed to have lasted 15 minutes by now. “It was frightening, but not yet terrifying,” he says.
He looked through the peephole. “I didn’t know the guy, so I asked him through the door who he was. But he wouldn’t identify himself. And it seemed he wasn’t going to leave. He was a big guy, looked to be 300 pounds or thereabouts. I thought, He’s going to kick the door down. That was the physical demeanor he had.
“I tried to call 911, but my iPhone locked up. The service was terrible during that time. When the phone locked, you had to go through a recycle procedure that took several minutes. The day before, I’d had to do the same thing when I called 911 for my wife — it took three minutes to recycle the phone before I could call the ambulance. I didn’t have a landline. I figured, This guy [at the door] isn’t going to wait three minutes. Something’s going to happen now.”
Burleson returned to the back of the house and told his wife not to leave the room where she had the children. He then took his Remington 870 shotgun out of a cabinet above the closet in the master bedroom.
“I put five or six shells [he kept them separate from the gun] in my back pocket and went out to confront the guy. I asked him again who he was, and he still didn’t answer. So I racked the shotgun to try to scare him away. I racked it empty, but he didn’t know it was empty.”
Then Burleson took a step that would lead to a felony charge of “assault with a deadly weapon.” He opened the front door and brought the shotgun outside. The man was walking toward the sidewalk, intent, it seemed, on surveying the house. But at Burleson’s appearance, he started back toward the front door.
Later, it was revealed that the man’s name was William Gruytch, but at the time Burleson shouted, “‘I don’t know who you are, but you better leave or I’ll have you arrested for trespassing.’ The guy said, ‘You don’t understand who you’re dealing with. You can’t have me arrested.’ And he starts coming toward me. I told him not to get closer to me, but he kept coming.
“He said, ‘I want to see Erin Rostow’ [not her real maiden name]. I said I didn’t know who ‘he’ was.” Burleson was pretending that Gruytch had asked for an “Aaron” Rostow. “I was trying to protect my wife.”
The two men argued further about whether an arrest was possible. “How about disturbing the peace?” Burleson asked.
“Then the guy reached behind him for something, as though it were tucked between his back and his belt. Here I am, standing there with an empty gun in my hands, and suddenly feeling like I’m in a very bad spot. I’m trying to scare somebody, and [it looks like] this guy wants me to kill him. I asked myself, Did I do the right thing, coming out here with a weapon? I don’t know what would have happened had it been loaded. I’m afraid to guess.
“Of course, I was afraid he was pulling out his own gun. And he was so close he could have taken my gun out of my hands. This was now the most terrifying thing I’d ever been involved in. The thing that scared me the most was that he didn’t know the gun was unloaded, and he still didn’t care.”