Editor’s note: Although more than 10 years after this tragic incident took place, the following story often is cited and used by counselors as a reminder to current students and residents to always practice good safety habits.
This narrative first was published in 2010 and is based on testimony and court documents, and articles written by the Opelika-Auburn News. It also was re-posted as background in connection to a court hearing for convicted killer Courtney Lockhart, who is seeking to have his death sentence overturned.
In memory of Lauren Burk:
The boy who made his mother laugh never came home.
The girl who made hearts glow is gone, too.
Lauren Burk disappeared into a cool March night in 2008, failing to arrive for a study session after leaving her boyfriend’s dorm on the Auburn University campus. An hour later, she reappeared naked except for socks along Alabama Highway 147. The pretty brunette was covered in abrasions and gasping, her lungs pierced by a .38-special bullet.
Three days later, a quiet Army veteran from Smiths Station would confess to the shooting after a brief police pursuit in Phenix City.
Courtney L. Lockhart, a 26-year-old construction worker, remained silent during his capital murder trial more than two years later. Lockhart’s face didn’t change as a Lee County jury recommended Thursday he spend life in prison without parole for the capital murder. He chewed gum as he had for most of the nine days of his trial.
Somewhere amid the maze of concrete barriers and makeshift barracks of a distant Army outpost in Iraq, the boy Catherine Lockhart Williams loved disappeared.
Maybe it was in his bunk listening to the thud of falling mortar rounds, worried one would come through the ceiling. Maybe it was outside Al Taqaddum, Iraq, when an improvised explosive device killed two soldiers, including the fatherly first sergeant he idolized. Or perhaps it was stateside in the uncomfortable calm of Fort Carson, Colo., where the combat veteran turned to marijuana and heavy drinking to cope.
Someone different came home in 2005, family and friends say.
“He wasn’t the Courtney that I knew,” Williams said. “… Wouldn’t tell jokes no more.”
She said her son refused to let people walk behind him and sometimes hid under the bed and in the closet.
Lockhart joined the U.S. military in 2003, going to basic training at Fort Sill, Okla., before heading to Fort Carson, Colo., and deployments to South Korea and Iraq in 2004.
His former girlfriend said Lockhart had envisioned a career in the military.
“He loved it,” Nicole Threatt said.
When Lockhart returned to the U.S. in the summer of 2005, the two got engaged.
But something had changed.
“When he returned he was mad at times, his attitude was kind of like I don’t care,” Threatt said.
Their engagement ended, but the couple had a daughter in 2006, the year Lockhart was court martialed and imprisoned for assaulting and threatening other soldiers and smoking marijuana.
After seven months of confinement, Lockhart returned to his mother’s home after his bad conduct discharge.
As March 2008 approached, a once-neat Lockhart began to bathe less and visited his daughter less frequently. He continued to smoke pot and began living out of his car.
“He lived like someone who believes his life is over,” defense attorney Joel Collins said during closing arguments in the trial.
His path of self-destruction ended in Phenix City after a string of alleged robberies and assaults, including Burk’s death, scattered through communities along Interstate 85.
Flanked by an Auburn police detective and an investigator from the Alabama Bureau of Investigation, Lockhart was interrogated March 7, 2008, at the Phenix City Police Department about Lauren’s robbery and death.
Lockhart vomited and then explained to investigators what happened to Lauren after she stepped into the parking lot three days before. The video of the interrogation would become a key piece of evidence during his trial.
On Tuesday, March 4, 2008, Lockhart awoke in his silver Chrysler Sebring at East Alabama Medical Center in Opelika. He had spent the night in his car. Lockhart was working for a grading company which was doing roadwork along North Dean Road in Auburn. Rain the night before had cancelled work. Lockhart didn’t have enough gas to return home, so he began to drive around Opelika and Auburn.
Across town, Lauren began her day having breakfast at a coffee shop on campus with boyfriend, Sean McQuade, before beginning a day of classes at 11 a.m.
Lockhart’s wandering drive ended on the Auburn University campus, parking in the lot near Hinton Field behind a cluster of dorms. He backed into a parking space to hide his tag as he watched students go about their days. He returned to EAMC in Opelika after a police cruiser passed through the lot.
As classes ended for the day, Lauren talked with her father, James Burk, about her Spring Break plans and an upcoming dental appointment. She returned to McQuade’s dorm to hang out with the boy she had dated since high school.
“She napped, and I watched TV,” McQuade said.
As daylight faded, Lockhart returned to the Hinton Field lot.
After her catnap, Lauren prepared to leave for a study session with high school friend Michael De St. Aubin. The two planned to meet at the Ralph B. Draughon Library at 8:30 p.m. Minutes before she left, McQuade said the young couple argued about one of Lauren’s outfits. The couple would have spats, but always made up soon after, according to McQuade.
Lauren left McQuade and walked to her black 2001 Honda Civic, parked near the back of the lot beside a blue Jeep Grand Cherokee under the orange cast of street lamps.
“I see Lauren getting in her car,” Lockhart said. “She’s already got her door open. She is doing it so slow. When I saw Lauren, I hung up the phone and grabbed my gun and came up behind her. I told her to get the (expletive) in the car. And I asked her how much money she had.”
Faced with a gun, the freshman backed into her car and crawled into the front passenger seat. Lockhart climbed in with her.
“I was just sitting in the driver’s seat,” he said. “She didn’t say anything; she was just screaming … she finally calmed herself.”
Lauren handed Lockhart $200 in cash and begged him to leave.
In one of many contradictions that night, Lockhart said he didn’t want her money.
Lockhart’s intent at that moment was debated in his murder trial. Lockhart said he was looking for someone to rob and only wanted money, but refused to take the cash and leave. Throughout his interrogation by police, Lockhart said he never planned to have sex with the Marietta, Ga., teen — or shoot her.
As they left campus on College Street, Lockhart forced Lauren to take off her clothes.
He drove with one hand on the wheel, the other pointing a Rohm RG revolver at the terrified 18-year-old.
“I didn’t want her to do anything or make any crazy moves,” he said.
“At first, she wouldn’t take her clothes off,” Lockhart said. “Then she took her shirt off ... then her bra.”
The black Honda two-door drove through the heart of Auburn past busy college bars, boutiques and downtown restaurants.
The Delta Gamma sorority member who loved Coldplay was naked by the time the Honda passed the Chevron gas station at the corner of North College Street and Glenn Avenue.
“She tried to talk me out of it,” Lockhart said. “She kept asking if I would shoot her.”
As they left the center of town, Lauren tried to reason with Lockhart.
“We were talking about how my life was over and how she could help me get a job,” Lockhart said. “ … She says she knows someone who can get me a job. I said I got a job; I don’t need a job.”
As Lockhart drove along Alabama Highway 147, De St. Aubin and McQuade began calling to check on Lauren.
McQuade’s call to make sure his girlfriend arrived at the library safely went unanswered.
Lockhart finally let Lauren answer her phone with instructions to make something up.
Lauren canceled her study session with De St. Aubin, saying she had forgotten about previous plans. She hung up abruptly.
“At the time, I didn’t think about it that much,” De St. Aubin said. “Looking back at the phone call — wow — I could have realized that something was up.”
At some point along the stretch of 147 between Farmville Baptist Church and U.S. Highway 280, Lockhart shot Lauren.
“I had the gun like this, and it just went off …” Lockhart said in the video. “I guess we were both shocked. She was screaming.”
The .38 caliber bullet entered the back of Lauren’s left shoulder, exiting through her upper right arm. Both her lungs had been pierced. The muzzle of the gun was inches from Lauren’s back.
Lockhart drove on as Lauren tumbled from the car, pulling over in the parking lot of the Baptist church about a quarter of a mile away.
Lauren was lying in the roadway as Marcus Ratliff drove his black Ford Explorer toward the intersection of 147 and 280. Lauren stumbled to her feet covered in “road rash” and with a fatal gunshot wound to her back. Adrian and Savannah Benford of Auburn passed a crying, naked young woman waving at them from the western shoulder of 147. Ratliff and the Benfords turned around to check on the strange scene they had passed.
As Ratliff made his turn in the roadway, the Benfords pulled into the church parking lot, only to find the exit blocked by Lockhart idling in the stolen Civic. As Lockhart drove back toward Auburn, the Benfords returned to check on Lauren.
The drivers stopped their cars in the roadway, blocking traffic from both directions. Lauren lay on her back in the middle of the road. The Benfords called 911 a little after 9 p.m.
“She was taking deep, slow breaths,” Ratliff said.
“She was gasping,” Savannah Benford said.
Eric Duke and his fiance came upon the blockade of vehicles. Duke got out and approached the young woman.
“There was a lot of blood,” Savannah Benford said.
Lauren stopped breathing as Auburn police officers arrived. Her body went slack with her last breath.
Auburn police officer Jason Jenkins was patrolling near the Village Mall when he heard a call over the radio about a naked woman in the roadway. He arrived at approximately 9:12 p.m. to find Lauren unresponsive. APD Lt. Charles Buckner arrived soon after. Buckner covered Lauren’s chest with a jacket.
Jenkins and Duke began CPR.
EAMC emergency medical technician Tony Martin took over CPR after he arrived. The paramedic reported no pulse or heart beat. As they rolled Lauren onto a backboard to transport her, Martin and Jenkins saw the gunshot wound.
“We didn’t know what happened,” Martin said.
Martin said Lauren had no heart beat as he tried to revive her.
As the police, paramedics and strangers tried to save Lauren’s life, Lockhart stopped for gas at the Chevron on North College at the end of Auburn’s main drag. Lockhart bought $14.65 of gas with Lauren’s stolen credit card at 9:17 p.m. He splashed the inside of the car with the fuel before driving back to the Hinton Field parking lot.
He rolled the windows down as gas fumes began to make him light-headed.
Lockhart returned the car to the spot near the hedgerow border of the band practice field.
After his first lighter failed to spark, Lockhart returned to his car to get a Burger King bag, a starter for the fire to burn the traces of his crime.
Lockhart took $46, Lauren’s iPod, her credit card and his gun. The rest he left to burn — her clothes, the remaining cash and her digital camera.
“I watch too much TV,” Lockhart said. “I didn’t want to be linked to it.”
Lockhart left campus in his own car. After buying gas, he returned to check on Lauren’s burning vehicle. Satisfied with the fire, Lockhart left, driving north on Interstate 85 toward Atlanta.
At approximately 9:27 p.m., dispatchers receive a call about a car fire on campus, and Auburn fire and police responded. Unable to find the owner among a crowd of curious college students drawn from their dorms by the blaze, Auburn police ran the vehicle’s registration and discovered James Burk, a Cobb County, Ga., resident was the owner.
Near 9:30 p.m., Auburn police called James Burk, Lauren’s father, asking about his missing daughter. The resident from a North Atlanta suburb began calling friends of his youngest daughter, trying to find her. James Burk called Lauren’s mother, Viviane Guerchon, to see if his ex-wife had heard from their daughter, who had lived with Guerchon in high school. Soon after, James Burk began his drive south toward Auburn.
Guerchon called Lauren’s boyfriend at 9:40 p.m. with the news Lauren was missing and her car had been found on fire.
“When I heard that, I though it was a car accident originally,” McQuade said.
McQuade, whose calls had gone unreturned earlier that evening, called De St. Aubin and other friends. When De St. Aubin told McQuade that Lauren had canceled their study plans in an abrupt conversation, McQuade grabbed a bike from one of the racks in front of his dorm and pedaled for downtown.
Miles away at EAMC, a trauma staff worked to bring Lauren back.
Dr. John McFarland and an emergency room staff worked for almost an hour to revive Lauren, who had arrived at 9:35 p.m. with no signs of life.
“She bled to death from a gunshot wound,” McFarland said.
The doctor said Lauren was too far gone when she arrived. She needed medical attention in the first 8 minutes to have a real chance.
Back on campus, McQuade stopped an Auburn police officer and learned the fire was in the lot near his dorm. He returned to the scene in a frantic search for his girlfriend.
James Burk pulled off the interstate at Exit 58, two exits east of the fastest route to campus. He met APD assistant chief Tommy Dawson, who asked James Burk to drive the few miles to EAMC — the place where Lockhart began his day — to see if he could identify the body of a young woman.
Lauren lay in the morgue under a white sheet.
James Burk’s quiet reaction was enough. He kissed his daughter on the forehead and left the room.
“She looked like an angel,” he said.
News of Lauren’s death spread quickly. By early March 5, 2008, a Facebook page had been created to memorialize the much-loved freshman. By 3 p.m., more than 10,000 people had joined the group.
As her friends grieved and shared memories, Lauren’s body went to an Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences lab in Montgomery for autopsy.
State forensic lab investigators and officers from the Lee County Sheriff’s Office and the state fire marshal’s office sifted the remains of Lauren’s charred car, which was moved to the Auburn Police Division late March 4. Investigators chiseled away at the amalgam of melted plastic and fabric. They recovered scraps of burned clothing, floor mat, Lauren’s melted digital camera and the owner’s manual to the Civic. Under the driver’s seat, an investigator from the fire marshal’s office found a .38 caliber bullet in the debris.
In Atlanta, Lockhart used Lauren’s credit card to buy more gas.
Later in the day, he used the card again at a Kroger in LaGrange, Ga., to buy, among other things, bottles of Gatorade. As he drove south toward Alabama again, Lockhart threw Lauren’s card out the window.
As dusk approached and the shadows lengthened in the Hinton Field parking lot, AU students gathered for a vigil to remember their slain friend.
“I know when someone dies, everyone talks about how good they were,” Elizabeth Chandler said in 2008. “But Lauren really was a gorgeous person … Today the world doesn’t look so beautiful.”
During the next two days, memorials for Lauren continued as investigators, now part of a multi-agency task force of state and local law enforcement, work to piece together what happened.
At 9:55 a.m. on March 7, 2008, in a Walmart parking lot in Newnan, Ga., Lockhart allegedly hit a 72-year-old woman in the head and forced her into her car. For some reason, he abandoned the woman’s car and fled in his Sebring.
Hours later, Lockhart was speeding through a construction zone on Alabama Highway 80 headed to Columbus, Ga., when Phenix City motorcycle police officer Darryl Williams pulled him over at 11 a.m.
Lockhart stopped on the exit ramp for Summerville Road. He had a license, but no proof of insurance. Williams wrote Lockhart two tickets.
After Williams called in Lockhart’s information, the dispatcher said investigators wanted to speak with Lockhart. Williams asked Lockhart to exit his car. Lockhart stood at the back of his Chrysler, waiting with Williams for the arrival of Phenix City investigators.
Fellow motorcycle officer Dale Richards had just finished a traffic stop when he arrived near the entrance of the Summerville Road exit. He watched Williams and Lockhart near the top of the ramp in his rearview mirror.
Phenix City crime scene investigator Michael Vargo and Sgt. Greg Lahr arrived soon after.
As Vargo and Lahr arrived, Lockhart struggled with Williams before getting back into the driver’s seat. Lockhart raced away on Summerville Road.
Richards turned his motorcycle around and sped up the ramp after Lockhart. Williams, Vargo and Lahr joined the chase.
The four officers pursued Lockhart north along the snaking county road lined with subdivisions. As he passed a Publix store, Lockhart threw his revolver out the window. The pistol came to rest at the bottom of a steep shoulder near the curb of the parking lot.
The chase reached speeds of 80 miles an hour.
“He was very reckless,” Richards said. “He was off the road a couple of times.”
After Publix, the neighborhoods spaced out and wooded tracks appeared along the road. About half a mile from Glenwood School, Lockhart abruptly stopped his smoking Chrysler in the roadway and opened his door. Richards veered to the left, trying to pass around the silver sedan. The Phenix City officer’s bike struck Lockhart’s open door, catapulting Richards over his handlebars onto the road.
Lockhart ran, ducking behind a house and into the woods beyond. Richards climbed to his feet and struggled to run, making it to a tree in the yard.
Clinging to the tree, Richards sent Vargo and Lahr after Lockhart. As Williams arrived, Richards pointed him toward the chase.
Handguns drawn, the officers followed Lockhart into the woods.
Lahr was the first to find Lockhart, keeping him in sight as they ran a few hundred yards.
“I just followed him into the woods until the point, I guess, he couldn’t run anymore,” Lahr said.
After several commands to “get on the ground,” Lockhart finally complied.
Vargo clicked handcuffs on his wrists. Lahr took Lauren’s black iPod and picked up a cell phone.
“He said he was sorry and that nobody would help him when he got back from Iraq,” Williams said.
In his car, they would find spent .38 special casings, Gatorade bottles and a green T-shirt with flecks of blood.
Lockhart continued to talk with the officers who captured him.
“I (expletive) up, didn’t I?” he said.
As Lockhart sat in Russell County jail, Lauren’s family attended a memorial service in her hometown on March 8.
“I loved this girl with everything I had …” McQuade said. “I can’t imagine my life without her. I will always love her.”
Friend Johanna Cooper remembered Lauren’s fits of giggles.
Lauren’s family would bury their daughter on March 9, the day Auburn police investigators would interrogate Lockhart for a second time. A day later, Lockhart would be charged with capital murder during a kidnapping, capital murder during a robbery and capital murder during an attempted rape in Lee County Circuit Court.
Lockhart will be sentenced officially in January when Judge Jacob A. Walker III accepts or rejects the jury’s recommendation of life in prison without parole.