Friday, Dec. 7, 2012 | 5:21 p.m.
A preliminary hearing began Friday for Nathan Burkett, the man accused of three decades-old Las Vegas strangling deaths, one in 1978 and the other two in 1994.
Burkett, 62, has been charged with three counts of murder for each of the alleged victims, as well as one count of sexual assault, according to an amended criminal complaint. The third murder charge — related to the death of 32-year-old Althea Williams on May 14, 1994 — was added Oct. 19.
Metro Police arrested Burkett in July after DNA evidence allegedly tied him to the deaths of Barbara Ann Cox, 22, and Tina Mitchell, 27. Cox’s death on April 22, 1978, preceded the other alleged victims’ slayings by 16 years.
The evidentiary hearing got under way in Las Vegas Township Justice Court, where the prosecution questioned seven witnesses. Their collective testimony laid the groundwork for the prosecution’s attempt to illustrate similarities among the three killings.
Cox and Mitchell were strangled by hand, and Williams was killed by something pulled around her neck, according to testimony from the then-Clark County medical examiners who conducted the autopsies.
Cox’s body was found outside a Las Vegas apartment complex in the 200 block of West Bonanza Road, about a mile from where the bodies of the other victims were found.
Mitchell and Williams’ deaths occurred nearly three months apart in 1994 — on Feb. 20 and May 14, respectively — but their bodies ended up in the same spot: under a clothesline outside apartments near Washington Avenue and H Street.
Authorities arrived Feb. 20, 1994, to find Mitchell’s body covered with white towels snagged from an overhanging clothesline. Several months later, police were called to the same location, where they discovered Williams’ body, which was not covered by anything, underneath a bare clothesline.
“Other than that, the pictures are also identical,” testified Robert Leonard, a former Metro homicide detective, when describing the crime scene photographs. “Same spot, same everything.”
The similarities led Leonard and others to believe the same person was responsible for both killings, he said Friday in court.
During cross-examination by the defense, however, Leonard said “drag marks” were found on the ground between Williams’ body and the nearby apartment building — a piece of evidence not noted in crime scene reports for Mitchell’s death.
Burkett was not a stranger to at least one of these crime scenes, a former Metro officer testified.
Curtis Jacobson, who was working as a patrol officer in 1978, told the court he encountered Burkett at the scene the day Cox’s body was found.
Jacobson testified that Burkett was drinking a half-gallon jug of whiskey outside as authorities investigated Cox’s death, prompting a detective to ask him to go back to his residence.
“He was out of control,” Jacobson said, describing Burkett’s state of intoxication.
Burkett was not arrested in connection with Cox’s death until July, more than three decades later. Metro Police had classified the deaths of Cox, Mitchell and Williams as cold cases.
The mystery behind the deaths began unraveling, authorities say, began in November 2011 when forensic scientists reported a match between DNA evidence collected from Cox and Burkett. Evidence samples collected from Mitchell eventually were connected to Burkett also.
Authorities arrested Burkett in July at his sister’s home in Carriere, Miss. Burkett was extradited to Las Vegas in August and has been jailed without bail at the Clark County Detention Center.
His criminal history includes two manslaughter convictions — one in 1982 in Mississippi and another two decades later in Nevada.
Special public defenders David Schieck and Alzora Jackson are representing Burkett, who appeared in court in a wheelchair. Marc DiGiacomo and Pamela Weckerly, both chief deputy district attorneys, are prosecuting the case. Justice of the Peace Eric A. Goodman presided over the preliminary hearing Friday.
The start of Burkett’s preliminary hearing brought friends and family of Cox and Mitchell to the Las Vegas courtroom Friday. It was the first time Roxanne Neal, Cox’s best friend, saw Burkett in person.
Outside the courtroom, Neal spoke through tears when describing the night Cox was killed. The two friends had gone dancing at a nightclub in Henderson, Neal said.
Cox told Neal she was leaving but would be back in two hours.
“She never came back,” Neal said. “That was the last time I ever saw her.”
The hearing, which will determine if there is enough evidence against Burkett to forward the case to District Court, will continue Wednesday.