By Dan Nienaber
---- — ST. PETER — Fewer than four hours after he was arrested while in the act of attempting to stab his mother to death, 49-year-old Burton James Ewing Jr. told investigators he was trying to finish a brutal job he had started 14 years and one day earlier.
It was May 7, 1998, when Ewing used a hammer to beat his younger sister to death at her home in Shoreview. He had planned to kill his mother, Marlys Olson, that day, but she wasn't home.
Ewing was found not guilty by reason of insanity and spent the next 14 years being treated at the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter.
On May 8, 2012, after what prosecutors called methodical planning, Ewing decided to try again.
Olson had traveled to St. Peter to visit him and offered to take him on a picnic to celebrate a staff recommendation that he be placed on supervised release from the hospital. They had enjoyed off-campus visits three or four times prior to that day, usually going out to eat and shopping in Mankato. Olson said she didn't have any reason to suspect that day would be different.
She thought the plan was to enjoy a couple of steaks at a park in St. Peter before driving to Mankato to buy a new bike seat. Olson didn't realize Ewing had other plans for the old, rusty seat he brought with him and kept in the front seat of her PT Cruiser. It also didn't seem odd he also brought a carefully packed duffel bag with him, even though he hadn't done that during earlier visits, she said. And Olson didn't know Ewing had attempted to close his bank account at the hospital but was only allowed to leave with the daily limit of $135.
Except for a quicker than usual walk to her car to leave the St. Peter Regional Treatment Center campus, Olson said she didn't realize anything was wrong with her son until he attacked her. He had asked her to stop at Seven Mile Creek County Park on the way to Mankato. He said he wanted to show her a boat landing hidden from Highway 169 by a thick stretch of willow trees.
Two witnesses stopped at the park to see if anyone was illegally hunting turkeys. They likely saved Olson's life by calling 911 just after 6 p.m. It also helped that a large number of law enforcement officers were already in the area looking for a man who had escaped from the treatment center's Minnesota Sex Offender Program earlier that day. Those officers reported Ewing was stabbing his mother with a steak knife when they arrived in the park.
“I took the bike seat and started hitting her in the head,” Ewing told Nicollet County sheriff's detective Marc Chadderdon that night, fewer than four hours after he was arrested.
A video of Ewing's confession was played for Nicollet County District Court Judge Allison Krehbiel Monday. She had already found Ewing guilty of first-degree attempted murder after a quick hearing earlier Monday morning. She is now in the process of hearing evidence to decide whether Ewing was legally insane and didn't understand what he was doing when he attacked his mother.
Ewing spoke calmly during the confession, occasionally sipping on a can of soda or resting his chin in his hand. At least twice he said his “mother is the devil, but I love her.”
“There was some forethought to this whole thing,” he told Chadderdon and Chief Deputy Karl Jensen. “It wasn't just spur of the moment.”
When asked what he meant, Ewing said it was part of his “delusional thinking.” Then he explained what he had expected to happen when he killed his sister. He said he thought the act was going to change the world for the better, ease his back pain and heal his mother's leg.
“There was supposed to be a bright light,” he said. “My back was supposed to be better. Her leg was supposed to be better. Today was a follow through to make that happen. I hadn't done it with the right person.”
He went on to admit the original plan to beat his mother with the bike seat didn't work. The seat was softer than the hammer he had used on his sister, Ewing said. So he grabbed barbecue tongs and attempted to force them through his mother's eyes. He said he had done something similar to a cat he had crushed at a cabin he was staying at near St. Cloud in 1998. By poking a pen through the cat's eye and moving it around, Ewing was able to put it out of it's misery, he said.
“The tongs weren't working,” he said, still speaking calmly. “They were dollar tongs and bending.”
His mother was too battered to escape, so he had time to walk to the back of the hatchback car and get the steak knife. Medical staff counted 23 stab wounds on Olson's body after she was airlifted from the park to Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. Ewing admitted to stabbing her “a couple times in the neck, more than a few times in the chest and a few times in the back.”
If he hadn't been stopped, he planned to cut a large enough hole in Olson's chest to be able to shove a tree limb through it, he told the deputies. They hadn't told him yet whether his mother was alive or dead.
“If she dies and the world doesn't change and I end up in St. Peter again, I probably just killed the sweetest person in the world,” he said. “If she lives, then I probably shouldn't see her again.”
Victim describes attack
Olson was called to testify Monday. She wore a neck pillow and was escorted to the witness stand by a bailiff who held her arm. Olson said she was in intensive care for 28 days and in the hospital for a total of more than three months while she was being treated for her injuries. She still has troubles breathing as a result of the attack.
Nicollet County Attorney Michelle Zehnder Fischer asked Olson questions about the 1998 murder of her daughter and the attack in May 2012. Olson talked about how she had received a Mother's Day card from Burton Ewing shortly after her daughter's death. It contained disturbing pictures and the shape of a hammer, along with other cut-outs, had been cut from the card and put inside it. She said she believes the card was sent before the murder.
Olson received both a birthday card and a Mother's Day card from Ewing during their picnic. That Mother's Day card brought back memories of her daughter, even though there was nothing disturbing about it, she said. Everything about the day was pleasant until she caught a glimpse of the bike seat while she was driving in the county park and felt a blow to the head.
Olson compared her son's face to a “human werewolf” as she turned the car around and attempted to drive back to the highway. Ewing pulled the keys out of the ignition, bringing the car to a stop.
“I saw a horrible, horrible face, an awful grimace,” Olson said. “His eyes were just vacant. I said, 'No Burt. No Burt. Please Burt. Why Burt?'
“He told me, 'You're the antichrist and I have to kill you.”
“This was not the boy I gave birth to,” she said later during cross examination by Ewing's attorney, Tracy Bains. “This was not the child I remembered. This was not the young man I was so proud of.”
It was Rebecca Rasmussen and her husband, Darby, who decided to make a quick stop at the park to check for turkey hunters. Rasmussen was the first witness called during the second portion of the trial. While being questioned by Fischer, she described how Ewing's actions were "vicious" while his demeanor was "calm" as she and her husband watched the brutal attack.
"We were trying to talk to him, telling him to, 'Please stop, please stop,'" Rasmussen said. "He looked me square in the face and said, 'My name is Burt Ewing. I'm from the St. Peter hospital. This is my mother and I'm going to kill her today.' And he kept beating her."
Fischer spent under an hour presenting law enforcement reports, photographs of the scene where Ewing attempted to kill Olson, reports from hospital staff and other evidence during the first portion of the trial.
Bains and Ewing's other attorney, Stephen Ferrazzano, didn't object to any of the evidence and didn't present a case of their own before Krehbiel went to her chambers to consider the evidence. At about 10:15 a.m., just over an hour after the trial had started, Krehbiel returned and found Burton guilty of the attempted murder charge along with four lesser charges including assault with a dangerous weapon.
With that out of the way, the much longer process of finding whether Ewing was mentally ill at the time began. Ewing's attorneys have to prove he didn't understand that what he was doing was wrong. The trial is expected to last at least two more days.