ISTACHATTA — Christopher Burke and his girlfriend hosted a cookout last weekend. They entertained friends, and he barbecued on what looked like a new black charcoal grill.
He, Shannon Atkinson and her first-grade son moved in with his father, Raymond, four or five months ago. The couple told friends they couldn't find work and needed a place to stay. They seemed, neighbors say, to have settled in. A basketball hoop, lowered to 8 feet high, stood in the driveway, and bright yellow toy dump trucks were strewn throughout the yard Friday afternoon. They had even decorated a Christmas tree for the one-bedroom shack the three lived in next to Raymond's double-wide mobile home. A red and green pouch, inscribed with the words "From Santa," hung from their doorknob.
From the outside, the horror is hard to see. But a few feet behind that shack and just beyond a picnic table littered with beer bottles, Hernando sheriff's deputies in black shirts and blue jeans stood knee-deep in a dirt hole just after 1 p.m. Friday. Somewhere beneath the ground, they say, Raymond's body has been buried for 64 days.
On Oct. 13, authorities say, he and his son got into a fight. Christopher, who outweighed his 60-year-old father by 150 pounds, bashed Raymond in the head with a flashlight and then strangled him. A report says he wrapped his father's body in a blanket, dragged him into the back yard and buried him.
Raymond and his brother, James, usually talked three or four times a week. When James noticed his brother's phone was dead, he became worried.
James soon contacted both Christopher and Atkinson. He said both of them lied to him. Christopher, 40, said his father had suddenly left the state with an unknown man. Atkinson told him she had helped Raymond pack for the trip.
But James didn't believe his brother would leave behind his truck or his five small dogs. He called the Sheriff's Office on Oct. 22 and reported his brother missing. He told detectives he believed Christopher and Atkinson had killed Raymond.
"I felt that something had happened to him and they harmed him," said James, standing on the road near the crime scene at 27047 Hiawatha Blvd. "I told them he was buried right here on this property."
Investigators soon learned that Raymond had not left a forwarding address for his disability checks. Christopher, investigators say, continued to lie about his father's whereabouts. He first told them Raymond had gone to North Carolina, and then later claimed he was traveling to Texas.
Detectives say they recently discovered that Christopher had drained his father's bank accounts. Investigators interviewed the couple again Thursday at the Sheriff's Office. There, a report says, Atkinson told deputies what had happened. Soon after, Christopher admitted to the killing, saying he had been angry at his father his entire life.
He was charged with second-degree murder and was held without bail. Atkinson, 42, has not been charged, but Sheriff Al Nienhuis said the investigation is ongoing.
James learned of his brother's death about 3 a.m. Friday. He was angry, but not surprised.
"He was a great brother. He was harmless," James said. "He wouldn't hurt nobody."
The couple, he said, had lived on the property off and on for years.
People who knew Atkinson said she would sometimes complain about her boyfriend and his father. Jeff Walker often spoke with her at the school bus stop when he dropped off his niece. Her behavior over the last two months, he said, never changed. "I could never think she would do something like that," he said. "She seemed normal walking up here every day."
The couple, James said, had stolen Raymond's prescription medications and, about two years ago, had gotten rid of his bird, two of his goats and his favorite dog, "Sammy."
"He tried to get them to move out, move out, move out," he said, "and they wouldn't go."
Both father and son have criminal histories. Christopher has previously been arrested on charges of fraud, aggravated stalking and battery. In 2003, Raymond was charged with shooting at an occupied vehicle and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon after, neighbors say, he fired several rounds at a man who had accidentally driven onto his property.
James said his brother was once a painter, but had somehow become disabled. He wore a back brace and could barely care for himself.
He had two sons and a daughter but, James said, wasn't close to any of them. Other than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Raymond's dogs were his life. He sat on the bottom of his steps every evening and watched them play. At night, they curled up in bed with him.
"He thought more of the dogs," James said, "than his own kids."
Christopher buried his father next to the grave of one of Raymond's dogs. James couldn't remember its name, but he knew it was big and black and one of his brother's favorites. A simple white cross still poked from the ground Friday afternoon.
News researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Reach John Woodrow Cox at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1432.