Police say it was later that night — after leaving the home and visiting a bar — that Burke’s friends placed him, apparently drunk, in the driver’s seat of a running car.
He was found dead the next morning near the intersection of U.S. 14-16-20 and Wyo. 30, north of Burlington. Burke had been ejected from the vehicle in the crash.
On Wednesday, as part of a plea agreement with the Big Horn County Attorney’s office, Brunko pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of criminally negligent homicide and allowing a house party.
For allowing the drinking to take place at her house, Basin Circuit Court Judge Thomas Harrington sentenced Brunko to five days in jail and ordered her to speak with area parents about refusing to allow parties where there’s drinking.
“Sometimes a tragedy gets to be a poster child, and Ms. Brunko, I think that’s exactly what you are,” Harrington said. He noted that the jail sentence was only in consideration of the house party charge — not the deferred count of negligent homicide.
Under a statute for first-time offenders, the plea agreement allows the negligent homicide charge to be dismissed without a finding of guilt if Brunko successfully completes a year of probation. She also must pay $340.
Deputy Big Horn County Attorney John Frentheway had unsuccessfully argued for Brunko to receive 30 days in jail for allowing the drinking. Frentheway said there is some thought that “if she (Brunko) had stopped that and not allowed that to occur, that her son would still be alive today” and that a message should be sent “that allowing house parties for young people under the age of 21 ... is not only against the law, it’s against the law for good reason.”
Brunko’s attorney, Matt Winslow of Cody, countered the case had already sent a message that “if your children drink, you may bury one of them.”
“It’s all over the Big Horn Basin that the effects of that night left Marie (Brunko) burying her son,” Winslow said, asking that Brunko receive credit for the three days she served after her initial May arrest and be released to probation.
Harrington, however, added the two additional days to send another message: “(If) somebody’s hosting or allowing a house party, the adult’s going to jail.”
Harrington also said he believed that if Brunko hadn’t changed her behavior because of the loss of her son, sitting in jail likely wouldn’t make any difference, either.
At the hearing, Winslow specifically directed Brunko away from talking about the night of Burke’s death. Brunko, who is in ongoing custody disputes over her other children, vaguely indicated that she might have made better decisions that night.
“There’s so many things that we could have done differently. It just boils down to just don’t do it,” she said. In general, she pointed to her son’s choices.
Brunko said one of Burke’s friends had brought the alcohol, and court records say she went inside while the teens were partying outside.
“He (Burke) made a choice to leave. He did not have my permission to leave,” she said Wednesday.
Brunko’s 15-year-old daughter, testifying in her support at the hearing, similarly pointed to Burke’s decisions and suggested her mom wouldn’t have been able to stop her “bullheaded” brother from doing what he wanted.
Harrington seemed sympathetic.
“It’s real easy to look at it after this tragedy and say, ‘What would I have done differently?’” the judge said. He said he could second-guess Brunko’s actions — maybe she could have called police, took the keys or cut the distributor wires — but “I don’t have a clear answer for you of what we do.”
The better answer, Harrington suggested, was not allowing drinking at all.
“What I heard you say, I think, is true: If we allow it, how do we control it? and I do not think we can,” he said.
That’s why Harrington ordered her to speak to parent groups in the area three times in the next year and a half.
“I want you to educate us about this,” the judge told Brunko.
Brunko described an incident months after the fatal crash in which she and her daughter saw Burke’s smashed car displayed as a warning against drunk driving. They decided to cover the car with posters to make the anti-drinking message more clear and a few teens approached them to see what was going on. Brunko said she spoke to them.
“We told people this is what happens when you do certain things,” Brunko said, saying she told the teens, “if you want to be in the cool crowd, it doesn’t mean you have to drink,” and “how just one little thing can ruin an entire family.”
That message, Brunko’s daughter said, “saved” those three teens and Harrington said she’d turned some of the tragedy into a positive effect by doing so.
Frentheway was more critical.
“So you didn’t talk to anybody about your responsibility as a parent to a child, did you?” he asked.
“Not in so many words, I did not,” Brunko said.
Frentheway described Brunko as “recalcitrant” and said she didn’t seem to be showing regret for allowing other parents’ teens to drink illegally.
Sometime after the bonfire and drinking at Brunko’s house, Burke and his friends reportedly went to the Burlington Bar. The 30-year-old bartender, Melissa Braten, later told the Big Horn County Sheriff’s Office that Burke and two friends came in around 11 p.m. and were already “extremely intoxicated,” say court records cited by the Basin Republican Rustler. The teens claimed to be 19 and Braten didn’t check their IDs, court documents say. (You must be 18 to be in a serving room.)
Though all of the teens had been drinking, Braten allegedly asked one of them to give Burke — who was reportedly passing out — and another friend, a ride home.
Instead, court records say, Burke was put into a friend’s running vehicle and left unattended.
He drove off, fatally crashing at the intersection.
When the 17-year-old didn’t return home late that night, Brunko and others reportedly went to the crash site multiple times to look for her son. They never called police for help.
It was some six hours after Brunko began searching, at about 7 a.m., that a passerby saw the crash and reported it to police.
Burke’s body was found roughly 15 minutes later.
Braten is charged with criminally negligent homicide and allowing minors to be in a serving room. She has pleaded not guilty and a trial is set for Nov. 30 in Basin.
Editor's note: This version corrects the length of Brunko's probation.