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Man held after attack on friends

Frank Varone and Dennis Burke always appeared to be friends. Neighbors often saw the two men running errands together, and Burke frequently helped Varone by clearing trees from his property just outside Crystal River.

But on Wednesday night, something snapped.

Now Burke, 48, of Homosassa is accused of beating Varone's wife, Linda, with a shovel. Authorities said Burke then stole his friend's .22-caliber gun and tried to shoot him.

Linda Varone was airlifted to Tampa General Hospital for treatment of severe head injuries. A hospital spokeswoman said Mrs. Varone was in critical condition Thursday, which means her vital signs were not stable.

Frank Varone was taken to Seven Rivers Community Hospital, where he was treated for cuts on his hand and face. He was released Thursday.

Authorities are holding Burke on two counts of attempted first-degree murder with a deadly weapon, one count of armed robbery of a conveyance, one count of armed robbery of a dwelling and one count of grand theft.

He is being held without bail at the Citrus County jail.

Burke's mother, Eleanor, lives around the corner from the Varones. A neighbor said Burke spent a lot of time with his mother and the Varones.

According to the Citrus County Sheriff's Office, a deputy was called to the Varones' W Jonathan Lane house about 9:30 p.m. Wednesday after someone called 911 to report a person had been injured.

When the deputy arrived, he saw Linda Varone, 53, sitting in the front yard, half her face covered in blood. Dazed, she told the deputy she couldn't remember what had happened but knew she had been beaten by a white male, according to an arrest report.

She said the suspect was in the house with her husband.

Three deputies entered the house and heard a voice shout, "He's in here!" They found Varone in a bedroom, struggling to contain Burke, the report said.

"He had a gun," Frank Varone told the deputies. They put Burke in handcuffs.

Short of breath and wounded, Varone, 57, gave the deputies his account. He said Burke had been repairing a shed in the Varones' backyard when he suddenly started shouting at Linda Varone.

"Do you appreciate the help I give you? Because you don't show it," Frank Varone quoted Burke as saying.

Burke then picked up a long-handled shovel and began swinging it at Linda Varone, her husband told the deputies. He hit her several times in the head, Varone said.

Frank Varone went back into the house to get his gun. Meanwhile, Burke broke into Varone's 1989 GMC truck and took a pistol from the glove compartment, the arrest report said.

Once inside the house, the two men began to struggle. Burke pointed the gun at Varone and squeezed the trigger. But the gun didn't fire.

Varone knocked the gun from Burke's hand. The fight continued until sheriff's deputies broke them up, the report said.

Deputies said Burke smelled strongly of alcohol and his eyes were glassy and bloodshot.

News of the brawl stunned Jo Imhoff. She lives next door to Burke's mother and around the corner from the Varone.

"You never expect something like this to happen in your neighborhood," Imhoff said. "It would almost be better if it were a stranger."

Imhoff said she and Burke share a love of sports trivia and have become close friends over the years. She said the attack is totally out of character.

"I've never even heard him raise his voice," she said. "He's never appeared to be an irrational type of person."

Burke moved to Citrus County from Pittsburgh about five years ago to be close to his sick mother, Imhoff said. A former tree surgeon, he currently suffers from back problems and performs odd jobs.

Imhoff said Burke frequently helped Frank Varone clear his property. She often saw the two men driving to town together to buy supplies.

"If you saw Frank, you always saw Dennis," she said.

Also surprising was the deputies' assertion that Burke had been drinking Wednesday night. Imhoff and her husband, John, had invited Burke to dinner several times and he always refused alcohol.

"I've never seen him touch a drop," she said.

However, according to court documents, Burke was arrested and accused of driving under the influence in Inverness in September 2000. He was also cited for driving without a valid license.

Burke failed to show up for a scheduled court appearance in October and a warrant was issued for his arrest.