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A Brunswick County man has escaped the death penalty by pleading guilty to the 2008 murder of a Leland woman.
Now Carl Alston, 39, will spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Last Friday was to be the third day of jury selection in Alston’s murder trial. Instead, he pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, first-degree rape and first-degree kidnapping of 49-year-old Valerie Burns.
Both the prosecution and the judge said her murder was “brutal.”
As court was called to session, Brunswick County Superior Court Judge Robert Floyd warned, “Emotions will run high and get higher as we go through this hearing. I expect no confrontation.”
As a part of the plea arrangement, Alston was sentenced to three back-to-back consecutive sentences.
He received a minimum of 40 years and a maximum of 48.75 years for the charge of first-degree rape and a minimum of 14 years to a maximum of 17.58 years for the charge of first-degree kidnapping, each to run consecutively to the sentence of life in prison without parole.
The D.A.’s case
“On July 29, (2008), the victim Valerie Burns spent the day with her family. Within 12 hours of leaving her family, she was dead,” district attorney John David said. “At 3:45 a.m. a 911 call was placed. A neighbor just home from work was letting a dog out of the house and saw a fire in a vacant field.”
When firefighters arrived, they found a car on fire. After extinguishing it, a firefighter opened its trunk.
“They popped the trunk to find Valerie Burns’ naked body. She was wearing only socks,” David said. “The autopsy later revealed she was burned alive. She had wounds on her head consistent with trying to get out of the trunk.”
The Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office immediately began a murder investigation.
“It took five weeks for the defendant to ultimately be arrested,” David said. “The car registration tied back to Valerie Burns. There was not much to go on. They didn’t know how Valerie Burns got to the Snowfield area.”
On July 29, 2008, Burns spent the day in Wilmington with her family. That evening she went out alone to Hell’s Kitchen, a restaurant/bar in downtown Wilmington. She left at about 1 a.m.
She left a message with a friend at 1:10 a.m. saying she was still downtown.
“It is still unclear how this victim’s and the defendant’s paths crossed, but about two hours later the victim’s naked body is found in a car 1,500 yards from his house,” David said.
Law enforcement immediately canvassed the area and interviewed Alston.
“He said he was in Wilmington the night before and hitchhiked home. He denied knowing Valerie Burns,” David said. “He was released from prison nearly five weeks prior. He was an informant for the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office before going to jail.”
Multiple times, Alston denied knowing Burns before his arrest.
According to the alibi he gave for that night, he hitchhiked from Leland to Wilmington where he went to a sex shop on Market Street called The View.
The owner verified Alston arrived around 11:15 p.m. and stayed until it closed at midnight.
Alston told investigators he hitchhiked from Market Street to Burger King on Third Street near the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge.
“By his own alibi, he places himself in Wilmington, in the victim’s path and in a sex shop,” David said. “It is still unsure how they met. Valerie Burns had picked up hitchhikers in the past.”
Investigators matched Alston’s DNA to that found on Burns’ body.
“He never acknowledged guilt to law enforcement, but he acknowledged it to at least two cell mates,” David said. “He admits to killing Valerie Burns and putting her in the trunk.”
David said the state’s theory was that Alston attempted to destroy evidence by burning the vehicle with Burns inside.
Her cause of death was carbon monoxide poisoning.
During the sentencing hearing, photographs of Burns rotated on a large overhead monitor in the courtroom.
Burns’ family read victims’ impact statements.
Her sisters and daughters described her as a loving, passionate, caring and outgoing person. She had three sisters, two daughters and a grandchild.
Nan Burns, the victim’s younger sister, told the judge that at 16 Valerie Burns was hit by a drunk driver while riding her bicycle. She was left injured in a ditch. She had many surgeries, skin graphs and amputations.
Nan Burns said her sister’s arms and legs were a constant source of trouble for her and she would not have been unable to fight off her attacker.
“Instead of giving up, she found her inner strength and didn’t allow it to change her loving and outgoing personality,” Nan Burns said.
Next Nan Burns turned her attention to Alston, who was seated at the defense table across the courtroom, and said, “You took something precious…the boys at the prison have rolled out the welcome mat for you. Watch your backside; sleep with one eye open. Bon voyage on your journey and may it lead you straight to hell.”
“The was a heinous crime. This is not how I will remember my mother,” Casey Burns, Valerie Burns’ youngest daughter, said.
“Losing my mother is the most traumatic thing that has ever happened to me,” Carri Burns, Valerie’s oldest daughter, said. “I have so many questions. Why? My family and I will never be the same. He has hurt so many people by what he has done,”
“Speaking to both the families,” Judge Floyd said, “This is a terrible, terrible tragedy…it is one of the most brutal cases I’ve ever been involved with. To the victim’s family, you will always hurt. To the defendant’s family, you’ve lost a loved one. Its just a sad thing.”
After sentencing, the family agreed it was a time to celebrate Valerie Burns and her memory.
“Today is Valerie’s day. A celebration of Valerie day,” they said.
“We are very happy with the outcome. We will never have closure but we are glad to know he is not on the streets hurting anyone else,” Casey Burns said.
Family members said they planned to celebrate Valerie Burns’ life all weekend by doing some of her favorite things, cooking her favorite foods and sharing memories with each other.
“We have to move on, honor her memory and live life the way she would want us to,” Casey Burns said.
“We want to thank the jurors,” David said. “He (Alston) started to get cold feet, we think, from seeing the jury. It helped move him away from his position…it was an appropriate and harsh sentence today.
“There are no appeals moving forward. It’s a horrendous case and we honored the family’s wishes and consulted with them each step of the way.”
Rachel Johnson is a staff writer at The Brunswick Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or firstname.lastname@example.org.