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Epilogue | James Jeffrey Burnette

Kids' love, macho tattoos couldn't save him

ST. PETERSBURG — On Father's Day, James Jeffrey Burnette's two youngest kids gave him a special shirt.

They had dipped their tiny hands in paint at school and pressed them to the fabric. On the back of the shirt, there was a poem about fatherhood written in black marker.

He went to Busch Gardens with his children and their mother. The day was good, but Mr. Burnette, 32, was not fine.

He had battled bipolar disorder for much of his life. He had recently lost his home and job as a cement worker. He couldn't pay car insurance but still lent money to friends. Emotionally, he was walking a thin line.

On June 18, he left home. His family looked everywhere — the beach, the woods, Dumpsters. On a missing persons Web site, they described his many tattoos.

There was one on his right forearm — facing one way, the word "life." The other way, "death."

• • •

Mr. Burnette, who went by Jeffrey, was from a military family that moved around. He was close to his two siblings, and they roughhoused like wrestlers.

He didn't tell anyone when he was in pain. Once, he accidentally broke his wrist and tried to hide it from his mom. Another time, he cut his hand with an ax and claimed to be fine.

A bit of a daredevil, he loved to ride his BMX bike and take it off jumps. In one family photo, he's airborne on a bike with a huge grin. He watched the movie Top Gun on repeat.

Mr. Burnette had five children ages 12 to 3, the oldest from a marriage that ended. He was happiest rolling with them on the ground playing. "I think the reason we have five little pieces of Jeffrey is because he was trying to fill a void he couldn't fill," said his sister Karena Minnick, 34.

The mental illness was always there, she said, but family troubles and the death of a close friend intensified things. He had sought help and was on about five medications, she said. He had covered himself in tattoos to feel tough and strong. So no one could see he was fragile inside.

• • •

He was missing for three months. He had taken all his pill bottles with him.

Sunday, some children found Mr. Burnette's bones in a wooded area of St. Petersburg north of Gandy Boulevard behind the Sienna Bay Apartments. Police said there were no signs of trauma or violence. He was so degraded, a cause of death is unknown.

"I just want people to know he was loved," said his sister. "And he truly loved his children."

She said he was found with a shirt painted in tiny handprints.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

>>Biography

James Jeffrey Burnette

Born: Jan. 14, 1976.

Died: unknown.

Survivors: mother, Linda Burnette; father: Charles Burnette Jr.; siblings, Scott Burnette, Karena Minnick, brother-in-law, Bryan Minnick; children, James Jr., Hunter, Zachary, Jasmine and Dillon Burnette; nephews, Tyler Minnick, Nicholas Burnette.

Kids' love, macho tattoos couldn't save him 09/26/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 30, 2008 3:26pm]
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