DEAD & HARRIED
About noon on June 18, 1985, Josh Burner pulled his truck into a parking space in front of the Tempe Police Department. He had come to report a murder. He knew exactly what he wanted to say. As it turned out, Sergeant Mike Palmer, a detective, did the listening.
"My name is Josh Burner," Burner said. "I live [on] East Vaughn in Tempe. And I have reason to believe that on November 22, 1981, Jason Deitz, the previous owner of the house, did, through his own hand or through his own negligence, allow his wife [Laine Deitz] to die in my home."
The detective asked Burner where he got his information. Burner looked him straight in the eye. "Laine Deitz."
Palmer rose. Wait right there, he told Burner, and left the room. Burner knew he'd screwed up. He should have left the ghost out of it. Before Palmer could return with a straitjacket, he thought, he'd better get out of there. He started for the door. And then he heard that voice again. "Don't you dare. Don't you dare. You ain't leaving me here for 300 years. You've gotta help."
And so he did. Palmer would return with another cop to hear Burner tell how the spirit of Laine Deitz was feeding him information about her own murder, and insisting that he do something about it.
Palmer says he didn't put any stock in the ghost story, but the remainder of Burner's claims convinced the detective to reopen the investigation. The case was closed again a few months later, with no action taken.
Dissatisfied with the outcome and determined to prove his credibility, Burner launched a crusade to convince the Tempe Police Department and Maricopa County Attorney's Office to investigate yet again. This time, however, he's kept his ghost out of it. Burner has spent months investigating the old-fashioned way, gathering documents and looking for evidence to convince authorities that Deitz's death was no accident. He's even hired a lawyer to help him.
The case is now in the hands of Tempe Detective Dave Hutchins, who is, he says, "actively investigating."
Born a Montana cowboy, B.L. "Josh" Burner is a salesman--land, airplanes, recreational vehicles--by profession, and a pain in the ass by nature. And damn proud of it. Even a dozen years after the death of a woman he claims to have never met, Burner gets so worked up when he talks about this investigation that his face turns red and his voice louder as he reaches over and grabs his listener's arm for emphasis.
Burner knows there are people who think he's gone off the deep end. But Laine Deitz's spirit won't let him rest. So he remains true to his mission, even though it is a prescription for exasperation.
He cocks his head to the side, grinning ruefully, and asks: "You know how many people you can tell you talked to ghosts? None."
@body:Bill Denny was heading home from a bowling alley at about midnight on November 22, 1981, when he saw flashing lights on a street in his normally quiet, south Tempe neighborhood. He turned the car around when he realized that the commotion might be coming from a house on Vaughn Street--the home of his friend and employee, Jason Deitz.
Indeed, police cars and an ambulance were parked in front of Deitz's home. The cops stopped Denny at the door, but Deitz beckoned to him from the living room. Denny walked in and found his friend distraught. Jason explained that his 23-year-old wife, Laine, was in the bedroom, being treated by paramedics. She had passed out earlier that night.
Denny and Deitz sat and waited. About 20 minutes later, the paramedics carried Laine out on a stretcher. The two men followed them onto the front lawn and watched as the medics wordlessly loaded Laine into the ambulance.
They watched as the ambulance pulled away. No lights, no sirens. No speed. Deitz turned to Denny. "He says, 'Look how slow they're driving,'" Denny recalls. "We both knew exactly what had happened then." Laine Deitz was pronounced dead at Desert Samaritan Hospital at 12:34 a.m. on November 23. The county's chief medical examiner determined the cause of death to be an accidental drug overdose, complicated by diabetes.
Her body was cremated. No one interviewed by New Times--including Bill Denny and the mortuary that made the arrangements--recalls whether there was a funeral. The Deitzes had moved to Tempe from San Diego only four months before; they didn't know many people.
Not much is known about Laine Deitz. She was born in Illinois. She had brown hair and eyes, tattoos on both hips and a husband 19 years her senior. The only other family member listed on police reports is Marilyn Beardsley, her adoptive mother, whose last known address was in Alpine, California.
One of Jason Deitz's two sisters, Marie Dreyfuss, remembers that Laine Deitz had a broad face, sad eyes and a lot of money. Dreyfuss, of Temple City, California, described her brother as "exceptionally good looking"--he had a fan club when he was a high school student in New York City--and she maintains that he uses his looks to con women.
Investigators who looked at the case in both 1981 and 1985 were told that Laine Deitz was a diabetic and, according to her psychiatrist in San Diego, a drug abuser. That didn't stop the doctor from prescribing bottles of Sinequan, an antidepressant, shortly before her death.
One of the Deitzes' few acquaintances was Denny, an old army buddy of Jason's. The two had lost touch years before, but in early 1981, Jason Deitz called Denny's home. Denny had known Jason Deitz as Walter Dorsch; Jason explained that he had changed his name because he'd always hated it. (Marie Dreyfuss says he changed it to escape creditors.)
When he learned that the Deitzes were interested in moving to Phoenix, Denny offered Jason Deitz a job as a salesman at an RV sales lot owned by Tex Earnhardt. The Deitzes bought the home on Vaughn Street in the summer of 1981 and moved in.
Denny met Laine Deitz a few times. "She seemed like a nice person, but he [Jason] was always complaining about her using [drugs]," Denny says.
After his wife's death, Jason Deitz quit his job. He explained to Denny that he didn't have to work anymore; Laine had left enough money to keep him comfortable.
A few months later, Jason Deitz sold his house to another member of Denny's sales team, Josh Burner.
@body:Josh Burner fell in love with the house on Vaughn Street the first day he saw it--the day Laine Deitz died.
By 8 a.m. on November 23, just hours after Laine Deitz had been pronounced dead, Earnhardt's was abuzz with the news. Burner and another salesman were sent to the Deitz residence to express sorrow on behalf of the staff.
Burner had never met Laine Deitz--in fact, he'd never thought much of Jason Deitz--but the sudden death did give him the creeps. He'd spoken to Jason Deitz on the phone at about nine o'clock the previous night, when Burner had called Deitz to find out what time to report to work the next day.
When he saw Burner that morning, Deitz remarked that it was Burner's phone call that woke him from a nap on the living-room couch and prompted him to check on his wife; he found her passed out on the bathroom floor, moved her to her bed and phoned the paramedics at that time, he told Burner.
In 1985, Deitz told police he had no recollection of having received such a call. Moreover, Burner would read the police report years later and realize that Deitz had actually waited until nearly midnight to call for help.
But the day of Laine Deitz's death, Burner wasn't thinking about the possibility of foul play. Burner was about to be married; he was in the market for a house. The floor plan of the Deitz residence was perfect: bedrooms on opposite ends of the house, which would provide privacy (Katherine Krause, his fiance, had a son from a previous marriage). As Burner walked up the driveway--before he even saw the interior--something told him he was entering his future home.
He was right. A few months later, Krause paid Jason Deitz $150,000 for his house. Aside from the fact that a woman had OD'd in the master bedroom, the home on East Vaughn is unremarkable--just another putty-colored ranch house with a two-car garage, low shrubs, tall trees and green grass. The picture of quiet suburbia.
Burner moved into the house in May 1982, sleeping alone on the living-room floor for a few nights until his fiance and furniture arrived.
But from the first night, he knew he wasn't alone. Someone was watching him. When his fiance arrived, he told her, "We're not alone in that house." The Burners referred to their ghost--spirit, presence, whatever--affectionately, as Laine. Beyond that, Burner says, they didn't mention her. Burner had had plenty of adventure in his life--in the military and as an off-road race-car driver and aerobatist (airplane acrobatics). But beyond that, he had been a pretty normal guy. He had definitely not been a paranormal guy. He hadn't had so much as a UFO sighting until he moved into the house on East Vaughn.
Suddenly, however, Josh Burner had his very own ghost. Once or twice a week, usually when no one else was around, Burner says Laine would mess with him. He'd hear the grind of the electric garage door, and go to greet Katherine. When he got to the garage, the door would be closed; no Katherine. Or he'd hear Katherine's bracelets jingle from another room. Thinking she'd just arrived home, he would head toward the noise.
"As soon as I would come around the corner, WWHHHHFFFT!" he says. The ghost would zap him--covering him in goose bumps and leaving his hair standing on end. @rule:
@body:The spirit of Laine Deitz didn't actually speak to Burner until June 1985, when Louise Montemarano came to town. Montemarano, Jason Deitz's sister, had met Burner briefly at the time of Laine's death. For the past few weeks, she had been calling Burner repeatedly--first from her home in Staten Island, New York, then from a motel in Phoenix. She wanted advice about Arizona real estate, and she wanted to talk about her brother, Jason Deitz. Burner told her he didn't want to talk about Jason Deitz. But she continued to call. When Montemarano called on June 18, Burner changed his mind. As soon as he picked up the receiver that day, he felt himself enveloped by the ghost of Laine Deitz, whose voice insisted: "We got him. We got him. Talk to her. Talk to her."
Burner says he and the ghost converse without sound. Burner never speaks aloud when he communicates with the ghost, and he's the only one who hears her.
Burner agreed--finally--to meet Montemarano at her motel. "I knocked on the door, she said come in," Burner recalls. "I walked in. And here's this little old lady, about 5-5, bun on the back of her head, and she looked me straight in the eye and she says, 'My name is Louise Montemarano and Jason Deitz's--ppphtt [she spat]--name is not Jason, it's Walter Dorsch. And he killed his wife in your house and what are you gonna do about it?'" Montemarano told Burner--and, later, the Tempe police--that she had flown to Arizona after Laine's death in 1981, and that her brother had been extremely apprehensive until he received a copy of the death certificate and its confirmation of an accidental death. She suspected that Jason had either poisoned Laine or stood by as she died.
Montemarano phoned Marie Dreyfuss, her and Jason's sister, in California and had her speak with Burner. Dreyfuss agreed that Jason Deitz was a ne'er-do-well who had probably killed his wife.
Burner left the motel and headed to the Tempe Police Department. After listening to the incredible tale, Sergeant Palmer sent Burner away with a business card and a promise that he would take down any more information that Burner could provide.
Burner will never forget the days following his first trip to the Tempe Police Department. He calls it "rush week." Laine Deitz's ghost rode with him in his truck, cracking jokes and warning him about radar cops. She tormented him, begging him to solve her murder. She hugged him. Josh Burner has been married five times to four women, but he's never been more involved with a woman than he was with that ghost. He insists that he wasn't--isn't--in love with Laine. He and his friends do agree, though, that Laine was probably the cause of his breakup with Katherine in 1985. (They were married in October 1982.) Katherine encouraged him to seek psychiatric counseling; Burner says he was diagnosed as manic-depressive, but he doesn't believe it. He insists that Katherine had experiences with the ghost, too. She refused to speak to New Times.
The relationship between man and ghost has never been sexual, or even paternal. Burner just saw someone in desperate need--trapped in an undeserved purgatory--and thought he should help.
@body:"Josh. Josh. Josh." The ghost woke him on Saturday, June 22, 1985, at 7 a.m. with an insistent whisper that nagged at Burner all morning. "Get the paper. Get the paper. Get the paper." Burner repeatedly opened the front door, scanning his lawn for the newspaper, but it wasn't there. The ghost grew more insistent. "Get the paper! Get the paper!"
Hours later, Laine directed him toward the neighbor's yard, where he grabbed their Arizona Republic. Back in his kitchen, Burner unrolled the paper. As he watched in disbelief, the pages of the B section began to turn, flipping faster and faster until they stopped at page 14. The headline at the top of the page read "Houston 'Suicide' Ruled Murder 5 Years Later." According to the Associated Press story, the medical examiner of Harris County, Texas, had changed the cause of a death from suicide to homicide, after detectives alleged that a woman had unwittingly consumed coffee and soft drinks spiked with barbiturates--rather than knowingly ingesting poison herself.
As Burner stared at the story, a paragraph slowly floated up from the page and hovered before his eyes.
And he heard a voice. "That's how I died. That's how he did it!" the ghost told Burner. She said her husband had taken her to many doctors--under the guise of helping her--and had stolen prescription blanks. He had forged and filled the prescriptions, then spiked her food and drinks with the drugs. Jason Deitz had hidden the prescription vials in an air-conditioning duct, then burned them in a fire in the house's fireplace shortly after her death, the spirit insisted.
Then, in an apparent celebration, the ghost appeared to Burner for the first time, dancing through the kitchen. Burner didn't see a body or face, just a red squaw dress with a full skirt. The skirt swung around--whipping through the air--as the ghost danced faster and faster.
She's only appeared to him three or four times since. Once she took shape as an outline of head and shoulders, another time two opaque, white blocks four feet tall--moving up and down independently. Sometimes Laine was just a white blur, floating at eye level, Burner says. "A little mass. Like a white cloud. Like Casper the Ghost, if you want."
@body:After "rush week" in June, the ghost disappeared until August. The day after Sergeant Mike Palmer interviewed Jason Deitz, she spoke up to complain that her husband had lied to the detective. But Palmer closed the case after his interview with Jason Deitz. (He had also interviewed Laine's doctors and Jason's sisters.) His conclusion: The death may not have been accidental, but there's no way it was murder.
"She [Laine Deitz] was hell-bent on self-destruction, and that's exactly what happened," Palmer says.
Palmer resents Burner's insinuation that he didn't investigate the case thoroughly. "I totally disregarded all the ghost crap," he says, and proceeded as he would have with any other homicide investigation. The detective claims that Burner harassed him, following Palmer and his family in his car (Burner denies this), and wants nothing more to do with either Josh Burner or this case.
"I think he [Burner] is a dangerous person if he wants to be," he says, refusing to elaborate.
And what about the investigation? "To me it's a total waste of time. He [Burner] can come up with absolutely nothing, even as far as circumstantial evidence. . . . The only reason this has gone on for so long is because of him. He can't take no for an answer."
Burner maintains it is the spirit of Laine Deitz that won't take no for an answer.
She appeared to him in December 1991, asking him to try once more. And so the two became "like Starsky and Hutch," he says, digging around for any concrete proof of murder.
In early 1993--with the help of a lawyer, but with no mention of the ghost--Burner presented his newfound evidence to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office and Tempe police. Bill FitzGerald, spokesman for the county attorney, refused to comment earlier this month, except to say that the case had been turned back over to Tempe. Tempe Detective Dave Hutchins has been actively investigating the case since February, simultaneously with the county attorney. In May, Burner presented him with a letter detailing his remaining concerns.
"He's [Burner] got some valid points, there's no doubt about that. He outlined his theories about what happened, and it's not too unbelievable. However, being able to prove that is another story," Hutchins says.
Hutchins doesn't believe in the paranormal. And it's his hunch that the salesman in Burner is motivated not by a ghost, but by the desire to sell a good story.
"It's just my personal opinion that he's trying to set the groundwork for a book. Wouldn't it be interesting? . . . How it was investigated at one time. And then, later on, it was reinvestigated. And then, later on, it's brought up again and reinvestigated and later turns out that it was a murder and then the bad guy's arrested and everyone lives happily ever after except Laine Deitz."
Burner admits that it wouldn't make a bad book. Or maybe a movie. @rule:
@body:Hearing Josh Burner argue his murder theory, it's easy to see why police agreed to look at the case again. He raises many intriguing questions. Few will ever be answered with any certainty.
After two police investigations and additional investigation by Burner, it is still not known just how much Jason Deitz stood to gain financially from his wife's death. This is crucial, because Burner maintains that Jason Deitz was motivated by greed.
During his 1985 investigation, Palmer was told by Laine Deitz's psychiatrist that she had inherited a large sum of money, possibly $3 million. He told New Times he didn't check financial records.
However, Jason Deitz told Palmer that Laine had only inherited $650,000, and that the last of that was used to purchase the Tempe house for $86,000. (County records reveal that the Deitzes actually paid $147,000 for the house; there is no mention of this fact in Palmer's report.)
Probate records in Maricopa County Superior Court reveal little more than the fact that complete control of the estate was granted to Jason Deitz weeks after Laine's death.
John Lewis, a Tempe attorney who represented Jason Deitz at the time, says he sent Laine Deitz's estate file to Jason a year after the case closed. He says he recalled that Laine's estate contained only the house on Vaughn and a condominium in San Diego valued at about $130,000. He does recall that Jason Deitz mentioned a life insurance policy, but says his client "took care of it himself."
As for the poisoning theory, Burner notes that four prescription vials confiscated at the time of Laine's death had been filled in the two months prior to her death--at four different pharmacies, two of which were in Mesa and Apache Junction, out of the way from the Deitz home and Jason's workplace.
Police say that it is impossible to tell who filled the prescriptions, but Burner did discover one odd fact. On April 13, 1982, Jason Deitz went to the medical examiner's office to retrieve the four vials--two of Sinequan, two of Dalmane (a sleeping pill)--and a bottle of insulin that had been confiscated by the police at the time of Laine's death. Burner says the ghost told him that shortly after Laine's death, Jason destroyed other prescription vials--which he had stockpiled--in a fire in the home's fireplace.
According to the 1985 police report, Jason Deitz admitted to police that there was smoke damage to the house's interior as a result of a fire he started in the fireplace sometime in late 1981 or early 1982. Jason Deitz told Palmer that he destroyed his late wife's bathrobe by pouring gasoline on it and setting it on fire. But he had neglected to open the fireplace flue, and the home filled with smoke.
Burner says that at the time he was considering buying the house, Jason Deitz told him he had burned only papers in the fireplace.
Jay Kristofferson, who worked for the cleaning service hired by Jason Deitz to clean up the smoke damage, says he gave Hutchins photos this summer that reveal weblike residual material that resulted from the fire. Such residual indicates that synthetics were burned, Kristofferson says, adding that such residuals could come from burned prescription vials. If it was a bathrobe, it was synthetic, he says.
Burner disputes the report of the Maricopa County medical examiner, in which the death is determined to be accidental, the result of a drug overdose and hyperglycemia (because of her diabetes). Burner has tracked down an expert who backs him.
Dr. John Palmer (no relation to the detective), acting head of the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Arizona, says there is a strong possibility that Laine Deitz died of an intentional drug overdose, not hyperglycemia combined with an accidental overdose. "There is nothing in the Medical Examiner's report nor the Police Department report that would enable one to make a determination as to whether the death was accidental or otherwise, i.e., suicide, homicide or unknown," Palmer wrote in a letter dated January 1993.
According to his staff, the chief medical examiner, Dr. Tom Keene, isn't budging. He met with staffers from the County Attorney's Office this summer to review the medical examiner's 1981 autopsy.
"Dr. Keene is of the opinion that there is nothing to dispute," says his medical secretary, Jerry Green. @rule:
@body:Although Josh Burner moved out of the house on Vaughn Street in 1985, he says the ghost of Laine Deitz zaps him once or twice a week. But it's been months since they spoke.
In May, though, Laine thanked Burner for his help and told him--through a song playing on the radio--that the two of them will go down in history.
She told him that Jason Deitz would be led away in handcuffs. Coincidentally, in June, Jason Deitz began serving a two-year sentence for burglary in San Quentin State Prison in California. He was convicted of stealing hundreds of model aircraft valued at approximately $75,000 from one of his more recent employers, McDonnell-Douglas in Long Beach. Jason Deitz refused New Times' request for an interview.
Laine Deitz declined to comment, as well.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.