EVANSTON — A nearly 20-year-old unsolved murder may finally be nearing resolution.
On July 18, 2001, 28-year-old Sue Ellen Gunderson Higgins was found dead in her Evanston home. The Herald reported at that time that she had been found by her husband when he returned home from work, with two bullet wounds to the head. The couple’s young child, who was reportedly 2 years old at the time, was playing in the backyard.
The murder weapon was never found.
A press release issued by the Evanston Police Deptartment on Wednesday, Jan. 30, said the EPD “investigated this case thoroughly,” but “the lack of evidence prohibited resolution and the case became an inactive cold case.” However, earlier this month the EPD was contacted by Utah law enforcement agencies after a man in custody in Utah on multiple sexual assault charges had provided “material information about this cold case during multiple interviews with Utah authorities and Evanston detectives.”
According to multiple news agency accounts, that man, Mark Douglas Burns, 69, of Ogden, Utah, was arrested in September 2019 in connection to multiple rapes that took place in Utah and Wyoming in the 1990s and early 2000s.
A press release issued by the Clearfield, Utah, Police Department in late September said Burns had been linked through DNA testing to “incomprehensible, brutal and methodical” rapes that occurred in Rock Springs in 1991; Riverdale City, Utah, in 1992; Ogden in 1993; Laramie in 1996; Layton, Utah, in 1997; and four rapes in Clearfield in 1994, 1995, 2000 and 2001. The rapes all included similar characteristics, including the victims being bound, repeated assaults over an extended period of time, the smell of alcohol on the perpetrator, victims living in apartments, the suspect utilizing sliding glass doors to gain entry and the use of a firearm or a knife.
The Clearfield press release said multiple law enforcement agencies began working with the television show “Cold Justice: Sex Crimes” in 2015 to search for answers to the unsolved rapes. Ultimately, “as technology advanced, the Clearfield Police Dept. contacted a genetic genealogist, Dr. Barbara Rae-Venter, who was able to study the previously collected DNA evidence to discover a potential familial DNA relationship. . . Detectives were able to identify and interview an individual who shared common DNA characteristics with the suspect.”
Burns’ DNA was then tested, and a match was confirmed. He was arrested in Ogden on Sept. 25, 2019, and charged with eight counts of aggravated sexual assault, six counts of aggravated kidnapping, two counts of aggravated burglary and one count of aggravated robbery.
According to the press release, “detectives believe there are more victims and do not believe Burns suddenly stopped committing such heinous crimes since 2001. Mr. Burns’ occupation included a long-haul truck driver and (he) has visited multiple cities in the western United States. We are encouraging victims who have been assaulted by an unknown attacker with similar circumstances to contact their local police department. In addition, agencies in the western United States should check their cold case files or any rape kits that have not been entered into the CODIS database.”
Burns was reportedly previously convicted of rape and served time in prison in North Carolina in the 1970s.
In the case of the Higgins murder, investigators continued to work the case for years. Her widowed husband and child moved away from Evanston. However, in July 2005, four years after her death, her husband Sean was arrested in New Mexico and charged with her murder. A Herald report on July 19, 2005, said the EPD had compiled enough evidence to secure an arrest warrant.
According to subsequent Herald stories, that evidence included law enforcement officers stating Sean Higgins displayed no emotion when officers arrived at their home in July 2001, that the couple’s marriage may not have been described as “happy,” that the murder scene was orderly and there was no sign of forced entry, and that Sean Higgins’ clothing was marked with blood stains described as “high-velocity blood splatter.” However, in news reports from the time of the murder, Sean’s demeanor at the time of his wife’s death was described as “distraught.”
The case took another twist in March 2006, when then Uinta County Attorney Mike Greer dismissed the charges without prejudice citing “irregularities in forensic evidence analysis.” A statement issued at that time by the county attorney’s office reportedly said, “that proceeding to trial given recent developments would be ill-advised and not likely to result in a fair resolution of the case.”
The Wednesday EPD press release states that officers “often revisited the case and reached out to numerous other agencies throughout the years to see if this case could ultimately be solved and Mrs. Higgins’ murderer brought to justice. The other agencies were ultimately unable to provide any new information or ideas.”
Now, however, “based upon information gathered since 2001 related to this investigation, in correlation with Burns’ statements, the Evanston Police Department anticipates submission of its investigation to the Uinta County Attorney’s Office for consideration of charges related to Mrs. Higgins’ 2001 homicide.”