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Cold Case Files: The mysterious death of a Lackawanna woman 'who wouldn't hurt a fly'

Once or twice each month, the emotions that burn deep inside Brian Burke compel him to drive to Holy Cross Cemetery in Lackawanna, where he visits the grave of his younger sister, Sheila.

He can't stop thinking about the shy, gentle woman who disappeared and died under mysterious circumstances during winter 1989.

"Sometimes I think about the life she might have if she was still around today – happy, maybe with a couple of kids," said Burke, 57. "I think about what a beautiful, gentle, trusting person she was. One of those people who wouldn’t know how to hurt a fly. … I think about the old days, when we were a big, happy family."

The death of Sheila A. Burke didn’t draw much public attention when she disappeared and died more than 28 years ago. There were a couple of short stories in The Buffalo News and at least one on TV news.

Sheila was 25, an unemployed factory worker who had been treated for a bipolar disorder. She disappeared from her Lackawanna home in late January 1989.

"I was working as a bank teller," recalled Cathy Burke, Sheila's older sister. "My father called and said, 'We can't find Sheila anywhere.'

"Instantly, I had this really bad feeling."

Sheila Burke.

Her frantic parents, two sisters and brother printed up fliers seeking information about her.  They organized search parties to look for her in neighborhoods, fields and wooded areas of Lackawanna. They conducted their own investigation, talking to everyone they could find who ever knew Sheila.

No luck. They didn’t find a trace. If anyone knew where Sheila had gone, they weren't saying.

Months later, on April 18, 1989, a man walking his dog found the nude body of a woman in a desolate section of the Town of Hamburg, near the spot where Smokes Creek enters Lake Erie. She had sneakers on. Her clothes were never found.

Because of a mix-up with dental records and because of the extreme decomposition of the body, Sheila was not positively identified until Aug. 18, 1989 – almost seven months after she disappeared.

Sheila's body bore numerous cuts and scrape wounds, including a severe head wound, according to an autopsy. But the Erie County medical examiner who conducted the autopsy could not be certain whether the wounds occurred before or after death. The cause of death was listed as "undetermined."

For police and medical examiners, the Sheila Burke case lost most of its steam after that determination.

Her family remains convinced that she was murdered.

"Why else would a very timid young woman end up naked and dead near a creek in the middle of nowhere, in the winter, with all kinds of cuts and bruises?" asked her mother, Mary Burke.

Mary Burke said her daughter left no note and gave no indication that she was suicidal.

But nearly three decades later, Mary Burke struggles with the agonizing mystery. An 83-year-old retired nurse who suffers from chronic lung disease, she spends part of every day grieving and wondering what happened to her daughter.

Sitting in the kitchen of her small, neatly kept Lackawanna home, Mary Burke talked about the uncertainty that has haunted her since the day Sheila disappeared.

She recently contacted The Buffalo News to offer a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in connection with her daughter's death. She desperately wants to find answers that her husband, steelworker Raymond Burke, never got. He died in 2000.

"After we lost her, my husband cried about Sheila every day for the rest of his life," Mary Burke said. "I know how he felt … I feel like there is something incomplete, something unfinished in my life. If I can find out what happened before I'm gone, it'll be worth every penny of that $10,000."

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Her family has spent many hours talking with police and medical examiners about the case. They have had Sheila's body exhumed – not once, but twice – trying to find out exactly how she died.

They pursued several leads, including their belief that Sheila may have been involved with a man who is now in prison for murdering another local woman. But so far, they haven't uncovered any solid evidence.

Years ago, a local criminal raised false hopes when he called Mary Burke late one night, telling her he knew something that could break the case. He never came through with any helpful information.

Family members expressed their frustrations with police, saying detectives have acted like they were convinced that Sheila's death was a suicide.

Lackawanna Police Chief James L. Michel Jr. said he understands the family's frustrations. He called the case an unsolved mystery and said he wishes someone would come forward with solid information his department could pursue.

"I've known this family since I was a kid. My mother was friends with Mrs. Burke. I've been to their home," Michel said. "I've always had an interest in this case. I would absolutely like to know what happened to this young woman."

The badly decomposed state of Sheila Burke's body made it impossible to determine whether she was murdered, which makes the case especially tough to solve, Michel said. He said his department still considers it an open investigation.

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He asked that anyone with information about the woman's disappearance or death contact Capt. Joseph Leo at 827-6410 in the Lackawanna Police Detective Bureau. Police would begin a full-fledged cold case investigation – and ask other police agencies to help them — if they had something solid to work with, Michel said.

With Sheila's cause of death officially classified as "undetermined," her disappearance is not officially considered a crime by law enforcement officials. Records show hundreds of families in New York State wind up in the same predicament every year.

In the years 2010 through 2015, autopsies were conducted in a total of 86,258 violent, unexplained or suspicious deaths in New York, according to the State Health Department. In 2,187 of those cases – an average of 364 each year – no cause of death could be found, and the deaths are listed as "undetermined."

"I've always felt this case got less attention because it is classified as undetermined, rather than a homicide," Mary Burke said. "The police have told us they have questioned people, but I believe more would have been done if it was officially called a murder."

Police have kept an open mind while investigating the case, Michel said.

"Not every case gets solved, unfortunately," he said.

Mary Burke said she is convinced that there is someone in Western New York who knows what happened – someone who has been holding a dark secret for decades.

"If there is such a person, I just hope they decide to come forward, for the sake of my family," she said. "We've had this hanging over our heads for a long time."

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