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Art, Murder and Mystery

Spartanburg Herald Journal
February 16, 2003
By Suellen E. Dean
Staff Writer

Art collector Roger de la Burde only knew about Limestone College in Gaffney because that's where his longtime friend and lover Beverly Monroe got her chemistry degree.

Nearly 18 years ago, they visited the college to donate 40 pieces of West African art that Burde said his father had found on Indiana Jones-type expeditions at the turn of the century.

Limestone accepted the unusual gift and stored it, lacking the space to exhibit such oddities.

Wofford College librarian Oakley Coburn learned of the pieces by chance from Andy Cox, Limestone's longtime art department director who didn't know what to do with it all.

Coburn visited Limestone and found the pieces stored in a padlocked, dusty dormitory. He dusted them off, studied them and displayed them in the library.

A few days after the exhibition in Spartanburg, Burde was found dead at his 220-acre estate, a working horse farm along the Huguenot Trail bordering the James River west of Richmond.

The Mystery

Burde was lying in the fetal position on his couch, a single bullet to the head. Police first assumed Burde had killed himself. He faced increasing debts, an investigation into fraudulent art deals and felt pressure from his pregnant mistress.

But then the police met Beverly Monroe. She had visited Burde the night he died.

Despite his other problems, they accused her of killing Burde. They claimed she was a scorned woman, upset at the thought of the pregnant mistress capturing Burde's attention -- and money. The genteel Southern woman who had always voted, donated to charity and never even had a traffic ticket was convicted, despite a solid alibi that she was at the grocery store at the time of the shooting.

Since the last exhibit and Burde's death on March 4, 1992, Monroe, now 65, has lost everything -- her job, her home and her savings. She has fought for her freedom and claimed her innocence for nearly 11 years. A judge recently set aside her conviction and ordered a new trial.

While Monroe's life has been at a nightmarish standstill, the Burde-Monroe collection of West African art has been in storage. For the second time since the donation and the first time since Burde's death, the pieces, using the same historical descriptions that Wofford College used, now fill the Nita Milliken Gallery at the Art Center on Spring Street.

But a sense of mystery surrounds the exhibit, questions about the art that may never be answered. How did Burde acquire the pieces? How old are they? Where did they come from?

There also are questions about Burde's death. What happened the night of his death? If he killed himself, what drove him to suicide? Or was he murdered? And if so, who did it?

The Woman

E-mails from strangers come in daily to the "freebeverly" Web site.

" People are just shocked and in essence say how horrible that this can happen," Monroe said from her home in Virginia. "I get e-mails from people who understand what it's like when someone close to you takes their own life," she said.

Monroe spends her days babysitting her 4-year-old grandson, Asher, working in her daughter's garden and waiting for the next decision about her freedom.

She and her children say they have been fighting to regain their lives. At the time of her trial, her daughter, Shannon, who is now 32, had plans to go to graduate school, Monroe said. Her son, Gavin, was living with her and trying to finish college. Her oldest daughter, Katie, had a promising law career.

" It's taken their futures away. It's taken my grandson's future. All the security I worked for and my savings are gone. It's painful. And it's hard to clear your name."

Immediately after Burde's death, Monroe cooperated with a detective who told her he was trying to close the case. Still experiencing emotional trauma from Burde's death, she said the detective convinced her that she was in the house at the time of the shooting.

" It is very easy for people to make up stories about women going bonkers over men. That's a common thread. But I wasn't always around Roger. I didn't depend on him. I had my own home. A very good job. A full life. I was financially independent."
Not only did police think Monroe had motive because of Burde's unfaithfulness, but they thought they had proof that Monroe had plans.

A stranger serving time on fraudulent check charges had called police to say Monroe had contacted her about buying a gun that couldn't be traced. After Monroe was sentenced, she learned that the mystery witness received a lighter sentence in exchange for her testimony.

There are other details that didn't make it into the trial, including a neighbor who reported seeing a Chevy Blazer leave Burde's home, the cigarette butts in an ashtray that were never bagged or tested, and the forensic evidence that the gun residue on Burde's hand indicated that he fired the gun. Instead, the prosecutors' convinced the jury that it would have been too hard for Burde to shoot himself with his right hand while he was lying on the couch.
" I've tried to rebuild and search for some good to come from all of this. I've learned so much that I would like to help others and see our system improved," said Monroe, who spent her days in prison teaching computer classes.

Monroe's present attorney has taken the case pro bono. And her daughter, Katie, works full-time on her mother's behalf.

" I've learned that when you are innocent, you have to fight harder. The more we try to prove my innocence, the more intense the defense fights. I can see how this can happen to other people. The threat is real."

In the past few years, Monroe's story has received national media attention. Dateline NBC aired a story about Monroe in 2001. Her case has been the subject of segments on TNT and the Today Show, and her daughters appeared on NBC's Leeza in 1998 and 1999. Random House published a book last spring by New York writer John Taylor.

Since her release, she has been unable to leave Richmond. "I'm considered dangerous," she said.

She had very little time to spend with her ailing mother, who had retired to Marion, N.C., and died last fall.

" At least she had the relief of knowing my case had been overturned."

The Book

John Taylor's book "The Count and the Confession" was on the way to print when the author got the call from Monroe's lawyer, Steve Northrup. After 10 years, numerous appeals and seven years in prison, Monroe was going to be released.

U.S. District Judge Richard L. Williams granted Monroe's petition for a writ of habeas corpus and ordered that her conviction be vacated or set aside, citing police and prosecutors mishandling the evidence in the case.

So, Monroe was going home. Actually, her home was gone, sold years earlier to pay her legal fees. She was going to live with Katie, who had years earlier prepared a room in her bungalow on Richmond's west side.

Katie, 37, was just out of law school when her mother was convicted. For eight years she has lived with her fiancee, waiting for the day when her mother could attend their wedding in Montana. Four years ago she had Monroe's first grandchild, who until last year had grown accustomed to weekly visits with his "Mimi" in the basement visiting room at the Pocahontas Correctional Union in Chesterfield, Va.

Monroe's ordeal is not over. Williams' ruling does not mean that Monroe is innocent, just that she is entitled to a new trial.

The Virginia attorney general's office is appealing that ruling. If the commonwealth loses, the county prosecutor can still retry Monroe. If the commonwealth wins, Monroe can appeal to the Supreme Court or appeal to the governor for clemency.

Random House pulled the book so Taylor could rewrite the ending. It was released last spring and will be released in paperback this summer. It was ranked New York Times Nonfiction Book of the Year in 2002 and received favorable reviews from the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. "I've been approached by producers who are interested in a movie," he said.

Taylor, who discovered Monroe through a story in the New York Times three years ago, said the Monroes were not initially pleased with his book because he included the views of the investigators and the prosecutors.

" I was writing a balanced book and trying not to attack the police or the criminal case," he said.

Memories of South Carolina

Monroe spent her early years in South Carolina. Her father, Dallas, was a rural mail carrier and farmer. He was working in the Marion post office when he met Monroe's mother, Anne Duncan, whose father owned a hosiery factory and funeral home.

Six years later they moved 110 miles south of Marion to Leeds, between the towns of Chester and Carlisle, which is in Union County. Monroe, who remembers taking tap lessons in Union, often helped her father with his mail route while her three brothers worked the farm.

After finishing the seventh grade at Leeds, she graduated from Chester High School. In her yearbook she was listed as Miss Senior Class, an honor student and a member of student council. Then she left home to attend Limestone, which at the time was a small liberal arts school for girls.

After college, she had a chance to work for Milliken & Co. in Spartanburg or go to the University of Florida. Her father encouraged her to continue her education.

" Seek higher horizons," he told her, according to Taylor's book. She went to Florida, where she got her master's degree in chemistry and met and married Stuart Monroe, a doctoral candidate in the chemistry department.

They ended up in Ashland, Va., where Stuart Monroe worked as a chemistry professor at Randolph-Macon College. In the meantime in South Carolina, her parents' house burned and they moved to a small rental house in Carlisle.

By the summer of 1970, her father had become depressed. After learning some of his stock investments had declined, he borrowed a rifle from a neighbor and killed himself.

Monroe never discussed the details with her mother. Burde's death brought all of those suppressed memories back to Monroe, according to Taylor's book.

As her marriage to Stuart Monroe started to fail, she decided to establish her independence. Philip Morris hired her to conduct patent searches for the company's research and development department. Burde, a known womanizer, moved in on Monroe, using his art connection and wit to charm her.

He and his wife were separated, Monroe soon discovered. They began to spend more time together, visiting galleries and going to cultural events. Monroe also helped Burde get his farm in order and helped him organize his large collection of West African art. She encouraged his donations to colleges, including Limestone, so the pieces could be of academic use.

The Count

Burde claimed he was a count. He even put the title on his letterhead and often told stories about his royal background and how he descended from a French aristocrat who had settled in Krakow, Poland, after the Napoleonic Wars.

People who knew him, including Monroe, didn't take him seriously. They thought it was just part of his personality. Virginians suspected it was his European style. He wore smoking jackets and ascots, told stories in a thick accent and loved all women.

Burde actually grew up in Poland during Nazi occupation. His father was a lawyer who was forced to surrender their house. After receiving a doctorate's degree in chemistry from Krakow, he slipped into Germany and then to the United States, where he worked in Buffalo and Chicago before joining Philip Morris in the 1960s.

He was devoted to culture, teaching himself to speak French and play the piano. One of his foremost enthusiasms was African art.
F.D. Gossett, an art critic for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, wrote that Burde had one of the best collections in the country. He began collecting the pieces during a trip to Nigeria in 1968 and owned more than 400 pieces -- from spears and headdresses to Ere Ibeji twin-cult figures and wooden Yoruba statues, according to Taylor's book.

" Despite the size and unquestionable value of some of the pieces, a taint had become attached to Burde's art collection after he lied about its provenance," Taylor wrote. "To avoid acknowledging that he had violated Nigeria's antiquities law by exporting valuable historical artifacts, he claimed that his father, Rudolph, was an Indiana Jones type and acquired these pieces from the hands of natives during trips through West Africa at the turn-of-the-century," Taylor said.

His embellishment of the facts surfaced after an associate curator of African art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art confronted him with her research. In an effort to restore his reputation, for the two years before his death Burde worked on a book about the art, complete with photographs of the important pieces and essays by five academics, Taylor wrote. In fact, his publisher was the last person to speak to Burde on the telephone.

At the time of his death, he had started trading pieces for contemporary art. He even asked a friend and stonemason to carve certain sculptures so he could pass them off as ones by well-known European artists. The ex-husband of Burde's pregnant mistress reported Burde for fraudulent art. Taylor, after his research, is sure that Monroe was not aware of his schemes.

Taylor, who lives in Long Island, N.Y., and is a senior writer for Esquire Magazine, said he discovered the Burde case by reading one article in the New York Times.

" I found it fascinating and once I started looking into it I found that the case had provoked a lot of debate in Richmond."

With the release of his book, Taylor built a Web site that allows readers to give their own verdict in the case. As of this week, 317 votes had been cast – 16.4 percent believe Monroe is guilty and 83.6 percent believe she is innocent.

And after writing the book, Taylor admits that he has come up with his own conclusion.

" I'm convinced he committed suicide."