It was 10 years ago today when her two sons, Andrew and Joseph Burch, were murdered alongside Douglas Neal and Austin Joplin at a Blockbuster video rental store in Anniston. It’s been nine years since the start of the trial of Donald Wheat, who would be convicted in the crime and sentenced to death. And it’s been more than 8 years since Wheat died while awaiting an appeal in 2004.
Those memories, Burch said, seem like only yesterday.
But then there are other moments, she said, that feel like they were lifetimes ago. Like talking to her two sons, and being able to put her arms around them and say "I love you."
“There’s that saying that time heals all. Well, it doesn’t,” Burch said Monday, planting new concrete crosses into the ground outside Dr. Keel and Associates Healthcare, which now occupies the former Blockbuster building. Each of the four crosses bears the name of someone who died a decade ago in one of Calhoun County’s most notorious crimes.
“If anything it’s worse now,” Burch said. “We think about what could have been. There were no weddings, no grandchildren.”
Tonight, a memorial service for the four victims in the Blockbuster murders will be held at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Jacksonville, where the Burch boys used to attend. The Rev. Michael Rich, who lived in Auburn at the time of the murders, said the church hosts the service every year, and it has become a healing process for those who remember the Burch brothers.
“I never had the chance to meet them, but I feel as if I knew the boys on some level,” Rich said. “They’re alive in this community.”
And the memories of the crime are still alive in the community. Anniston police Sgt. Curtis McCants, an investigator at the time of the murders, said in his 19 years in the department, the Blockbuster murders stood out as a singular moment.
“In my time working here, I’ve not had another case of that magnitude,” McCants said. “I never experienced anything like that before, with four people losing their lives in that fashion. I still think about it from time to time.”
The Burch brothers were renting a movie at the store that night while assistant manager Doug Neal and Blockbuster employee Austin Joplin were working. They were the only four in the store when Wheat came in around 6:30 p.m. and shot all four at close range.
“I remember everyone was charged emotionally,” said Stan Easton, a former deacon at St. Luke’s, recalling the community reaction in the days, months and even years that followed the murders. “They weren’t doing anything wrong. They weren’t hanging out where they weren’t supposed to be or doing stuff they shouldn’t have been doing. All four of them were innocent.”
For years, Jim Rowe, Douglas Neal’s best friend and roommate at the time of the murder, avoided driving by the former Blockbuster, making sure to take Noble Street through Saks to avoid driving north on McClellan Boulevard.
“Man, I really wish they had just bulldozed that place,” Rowe said.
But over time, Rowe realized there was no escaping the memories of his friend, no matter where he was.
“Doug was such a major part of my life,” Rowe recalled. The two had attended Jacksonville State University together and bonded over their love of sports and similar sense of humor.
“There’s not a restaurant or business or anything in the area that I don’t have some memory of him in,” he said.
Rowe was working as a corrections officer at the Calhoun County Jail the night of the murder, when a deputy told him he might want to go see what was going on at Blockbuster. Neal was rushed to Regional Medical Center, and Rowe was in the emergency room when Neal died of his wound from the attack.
Because Wheat left the murder weapon at the scene of the crime, investigators were quickly able to track the Ashland man down. After being charged in the Blockbuster crime, he received additional charges of killing a store owner in Carroll County, Ga., and a string of robberies in Heflin, Opelika and Talladega County.
“I processed that crime scene for 16 or 17 hours,” said Anniston police investigator Mark Osburn, who would later testify for two days in Wheat’s trial. “You never forget stuff like that. Just a senseless crime.”
Wheat pleaded guilty to the murders in 2003, and was sentenced to death. He died in 2004 of internal bleeding.
But none of that has helped to ease Cindy Burch’s mind or her grasp on the time that’s passed. May is an especially hard month for the Jacksonville woman. Besides Mother’s Day and the anniversary of her two sons’ murders, the May 9 would have been Andrew’s 29th birthday.
“It’s hard every year, but this year feels really tough,” she said.
In the years since their sons’ murders, Cindy and Joe Burch began a scholarship foundation in their memory which has raised more than $30,000. Charles McGathy, a friend of the brothers who would hang out at the local bowling alley, began a charity bowling tournament in their honor. After a hiatus for the last couple of years, McGathy said the bowling tournament will return to the Anniston Bowling Center later this year.
“I don’t know how anybody can go through what we did without the community we’ve had,” Joe Burch said.
And it’s their faith, Cindy said, which sometimes makes it easier to keep track of all that time.
“I know I’m going to see them again,” she said. “They’re waiting for us.”
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.