High school sweethearts raised an ‘ideal family’ and were fixtures in Ellicott City, Md. Then, police say, an estranged brother came calling
BALTIMORE — The high school sweethearts from Cumberland, Brian and Kelly Sue Robinette, had created an idyllic family and a comfortable life in Ellicott City, Maryland.
Their son graduated from college and their daughter was close behind. They posted photos from scenic beach vacations and happy family portraits at sunset.
Brian Robinette, 58, was thinking about retiring from his job as a Walgreens pharmacist in Severna Park, said Jerome “Jerry” Robinette, 83, Brian’s father. And as he and Kelly Robinette, 57, thought about their future, they knew their close-knit family meant they wouldn’t stray far from their Maryland roots.
Back home in Cumberland, the life of Brian’s half brother whom he’d mostly cut off ties with years earlier, Jeffrey Burnham, was taking a different course.
He still lived with their mother, Evelyn Burnham, in a small, brick home. He had set up a security system for his bedroom and told his mom the FBI were after them. Evelyn Burnham told the Cumberland police she was concerned. His appearance was disheveled and neighbors noted his deteriorating manner. On Sept. 27 or Sept. 28, neighbors said, he erupted at a group of children playing outside in the narrow street.
That Thursday, Sept. 30, the estranged half brothers’ paths crossed in a deadly encounter. After killing his mother’s 83-year-old friend, Rebecca Reynolds, of Cumberland, and stealing her pristine Lincoln Corsair SUV, police said, Jeffrey Burnham, 46, drove to Ellicott City and gunned down Brian and Kelly Robinette in their suburban home. Their bodies were found with gunshot wounds in an upstairs bedroom, and their red Corvette was missing.
An 18-hour manhunt ensued, leading to Jeffrey Burnham’s capture Oct. 1 in Davis, West Virginia.
That day, he told a firefighter outside The Billy Motel & Bar there that he’d been “forced to kill three people.”
Burnham also worried his mother by expressing displeasure about Brian Robinette’s work as a pharmacist administering coronavirus vaccines. He told one person, who was not named in his charging documents, that his half brother was “killing people with the COVID shot.”
In Cumberland and in Ellicott City, the Robinette family is left with the grief associated with the seemingly inexplicable and unforeseeable loss. They wondered why a half brother Brian Robinette barely associated with had taken the couple’s lives.
“He was a great father and I wouldn’t want a better son than I had in Brian,” said Jerome Robinette, of Cumberland, who raised Brian with his second wife, and was not Burnham’s father.
His daughter broke the news to him over the phone Sept. 29.
“As a father, I was broken down,” he said. “You lose a son, it’s not anything other than sorrow and gloom.”
In West Virginia, Kelly Robinette’s family also remains in shock.
“She was very outgoing. Always had a smile on her face. She was happy,” Todd Miller said of his older sister. “They made a good life for themselves.”
Brian Robinette’s niece, Carrie Robinette, who lives in Glen Burnie, said “it’s still unreal. Brian and Kelly are just amazing people.”
Several family members say they still are grappling with why Burnham allegedly targeted his brother whom they said he has been estranged from in recent years.
“They didn’t really speak, as far as I know, for a while,” Carrie Robinette said.
She attributed that to Burnham’s withdrawal from the others. She also said she wondered if Burnham, who continued to live with his mother, had fostered some jealousy about his brother, who had built a successful life for himself in Ellicott City.
“He was very smart, successful and everyone loved him,” she said of Brian Robinette.
Brian and Kelly Robinette went to Fort Hill High School, where he graduated in 1981. Brian went on to complete two years of pre-pharmacy studies at Allegany Community College before attending the University of Maryland Baltimore School of Pharmacy, said Jerome Robinette. They married sometime after he graduated in 1986, and settled in Ellicott City.
State property records show the couple purchased their home on Kerger Road, where police last week found them slain, in 1996.
Brian Robinette found work at the Walgreens pharmacy on Ritchie Highway in Severna Park, but staff there directed all questions to the corporate offices. A man who greeted a reporter at the Robinette family home Thursday afternoon declined to answer questions.
Jerome Robinette said his son and daughter-in-law couldn’t have children, so they adopted two kids. The children played sports and, at home, they hosted family gatherings in a close community.
“It was an ideal family,” Jerome Robinette said. He described them as inseparable spouses. Kelly Robinette “never met an enemy,” he continued. “She was just like Brian. They were a perfect match.”
While the Robinettes maintained close ties to Cumberland, visiting regularly, Jerome Robinette said Brian would not visit his mother.
“He broke up the relationship from her for some reason I don’t know about,” Jerome Robinette said. “When he would come to town, he wouldn’t make a point to go see her. My other children would.”
And, while Brian and his mother appeared to have drifted apart, Burnham, too, was becoming increasingly withdrawn from the others in recent years.
Carrie Robinette said her uncle Jeffrey Burnham was distant from his half siblings. But he also seemed different from the others. She said he had long believed conspiracy theories.
“Anytime I’ve been around him, he’s just really quiet. He was just kind of the oddball out,” she said.
Recently, she said her aunt Kelly, not her uncle Brian Robinette, had lobbied for their mother, to get a COVID-19 vaccine, but Jeffrey Burnham opposed it.
The family said they are searching for other answers, like why Burnham allegedly killed Reynolds.
“I’m wondering myself,” Carrie Robinette said. “We’re all just trying to wrap our heads around it.”
Reynolds neighbors described her as a petite but independent woman, who loved her dogs and maintained a feisty spirit. They said she would’ve put up a fight.
Paramedics found Reynolds dead in her Cumberland home with a deep laceration across her throat and a pillow over her face, according to charging documents. Cumberland Police described signs of a struggle in the court papers.
Reynolds graduated from Fort Hill High School with Evelyn Burnham in 1956 and continued her studies at Western Maryland College for undergrad and George Washington University for her master’s in education, according to a family obituary. She was a teacher in Virginia for 35 years.
Police said that after he killed Reynolds, he took her SUV and drove it to Ellicott City. But Carrie Robinette said her grandmother, Evelyn Burnham, had a car, and questioned why Jeffrey Burnham killed her if he had access to a vehicle.
Evelyn Burnham could not be reached for comment. In a previous interview with The Sun, she grieved the loss of one son to violence and the other to jail. She said she was sorry for what Jeffrey Burnham did and expressed concerns about his mental health.
Attorneys for Jeffrey Burnham filed a motion for a competency evaluation, online court records show. An Allegany County District Court judge signed an order for mental health professionals to determine whether he can assist in his own defense and understands the court system.
“Mr. Burnham is presumed innocent. He’s entitled to a fair trial and due process under the law,” said Michael Allan Stankan, one of Burnham’s attorneys with the county public defender’s office. “At this time, we are in the process of meeting with our client and reviewing the evidence.”
Jeffrey Burnham faces charges of first-degree murder and unlawfully taking of a motor vehicle in Allegany County, where he is being held at the county’s detention center. He has not yet been charged in connection to the Robinettes’ deaths in Ellicott City, though Howard County police have indicated charges are forthcoming.
Miller said he and other family members still are trying to comprehend what happened.
“It’s kind of surreal,” said Miller, Kelly Robinette’s brother.
And now, Miller is left picturing a future without his older sister.
While she lived in a different state, he said, their families always got together on holidays.
“They aren’t going to be the same anymore.”
(Baltimore Sun reporter Tim Prudente contributed to this article.)