CHARLOTTE, N.C. – A North Carolina parole officer overloaded with cases should not be blamed for failing to tell jail officers to keep behind bars a career criminal who later killed five people, authorities said Tuesday.
Parole officer Angela Merrill saw more than two dozen parolees the day Patrick Burris was released from a county jail after violating parole and she had no evidence to indicate the violent turn his life was about to take, said Keith Acree, a spokesman for the state Department of Correction.
"I think at this point it's hard to point a finger at her and say, 'You didn't do what you should have done,"' Acree said.
Authorities said Burris killed five people between June 27 and July 2 in and around the rural South Carolina community of Gaffney. He was shot to death July 6 by police investigating a burglary complaint at a home in Gastonia, N.C.
Ballistics from a gun found with Burris linked him to the slayings about 30 miles away.
North Carolina officials have been looking into why Burris, 41, was released from the Lincoln County jail June 12 after violating parole, despite having been arrested more than 30 times in that state alone. He also had convictions in Florida, Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland.
The department has said Merrill, who did not return a phone message seeking comment, was vigilant. When Burris was paroled in April after serving eight years in a North Carolina prison for breaking and entering and larceny in Rockingham County, Merrill noted he missed his 8 p.m. curfew several times.
She also reported June 4 to the state Parole Commission that Burris received two traffic tickets in Gaston County even though he didn't have a driver's license. A day later, she spotted Burris driving and took out an arrest warrant.
On June 12, Burris arrived at Merrill's office to check in, but she noticed he drove himself to the meeting and he was arrested.
At 4 p.m. the same day, Merrill received notice from the Parole Commission that Burris should be held until a hearing. Acree said Merrill was busy with other clients and did not have time to check on his status. "She thought he was safe in jail," he said.
He said she was responsible for handling more than 100 cases, and saw 28 clients that day.
"If she thought this guy was in an emergency case, that he needed to be off the streets, she would have dropped everything she was doing to go to the jail and try to find him. I mean, from her point of view, this was a guy who was ignoring her curfew and driving without a license. No one had a crystal ball to know this guy was going to become a serial killer in two weeks," Acree said.
When Merrill checked the jail's Web site that night, she discovered he had been released, Acree said. Police didn't come in contact with him again until the morning he was slain.
Telephone messages for Lincoln County Sheriff Tim Daugherty were not immediately returned Tuesday.