Judge finds probable cause to proceed with jury trial in January
The jury trial of a Carterville man charged with the murder of a John A. Logan student will begin Jan. 21.
A Williamson County judge ruled in a preliminary hearing Monday afternoon that there is sufficient evidence to proceed with the trial of Benjamin Aaron Burns, 29, of 906 Pear St., Carterville.
Burns, 29, is charged with two counts of murder in the death of Ryan D. Strum of Elk Grove village. Burns allegedly shot Strum at a trailer in Carterville and dumped the body in a marsh near the Mississippi river at the bottom of Fountain Bluff, a large rock formation near Route 3, south of Gorham.
A preliminary hearing is a court appearance where the prosecution must present part of its case to prove to a judge there is sufficient evidence to show probable cause.
Michael Ryan, a detective with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department, was called to testify for the prosecution. He said two campers found Strum’s body Sept. 2 face down in about six inches of water, with two cinder blocks chained and padlocked around the neck and left ankle. He said a sleeping bag was also found near the body.
The body had badly decayed, but Ryan said preliminary findings indicated Strum bled to death and two ribs on the right side were fractured. He said further examination revealed a bullet hole through the pelvis.
Ryan testified that Strum’s mother, Julie Harris, contacted the Carbondale Police Sept. 12 after not hearing from him since Aug. 11. He said Harris told police Strum had moved south to attend John A. Logan Community College and was living in Carterville with a man named Ben.
Harris provided police with dental records, which were compared by a forensic dentist in Evansville, Ind., to the skull of the recovered body and determined to be a match.
Police determined Strum had been living with Burns and went to the home in Carterville, Ryan said. He said Burns was not home and officers questioned Aisha Pearl Robinson, 23, who lived with Burns.
Ryan said Robinson told police she was in the back of the trailer home where the three lived and heard an argument between Strum and Burns and what sounded like four gunshots. She said Burns told her to stay where she was, but she saw Strum curled up on the floor, Ryan said.
Robinson allegedly told officers Burns placed Strum’s body in the bathtub, cleaned the area of the shooting, and collected the bullet casings.
Ryan said that, in a second interview, Robinson told officers she went to Wal-Mart in the early morning hours of Aug. 13 and purchased two lengths of chains, a three-pack of padlocks, a sleeping bag, soda, water and Tic-Tacs. She then allegedly told officers the couple acquired the cinder blocks from a location on Pleasant Alley in Carterville.
Ryan said Robinson told officers Burns wrapped the body in the sleeping bag and the couple drove to the Gorham area. She allegedly told police Burns dragged the body down to the water’s edge and placed it in the water.
Burns allegedly told officers in a first interview that he came home to find Strum shot. Ryan testified Burns told police he panicked, decided not to call police and disposed of the body.
Ryan said Burns confessed to shooting Strum in a later interview. Burns allegedly told police he fought with Strum about $1,500 he said Strum loaned to him for a cannabis-growing operation that had been confiscated by police. Ryan said Burns alleged Robinson was not comfortable with Strum living at the trailer and Burns was going to tell him to leave.
The detective testified Burns told police he had gotten a gun from his father’s house and brandished it during the argument. Burns allegedly told police Ryan would not stay seated and moved toward him. Burns allegedly confessed to striking Strum twice with the gun and then shooting him.
During questioning by Burns’ attorney, public defender Alex M. Fine, Ryan testified Burns had indicated Strum was a cocaine dealer who had sold to Burns. He said Burns also indicated he previously saw Strum in possession of a gun.
Fine also asked if Burns indicated Strum made forward motions and he may have been under the influence of drugs at the time of the shooting. Ryan confirmed Burns had told police Strum had stepped forward after Burns told him not to and Strum was allegedly using some substance the night before the shooting.
Fine also questioned whether Burns’ familiarity with Sgt. Robert Burns, of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department, could have influenced his decision to confess instead of asking for a lawyer. He said Sgt. Burns had known the defendant’s father, a retired police officer, and as a result, knew the defendant. Ryan said the defendant had been advised of his Miranda rights and chose to speak.
Burns entered a plea of not guilty. He will have a status hearing Dec. 16, where the court determines if the case is ready for trial. His final pre-trial appearance is Jan. 13. His jury trial begins Jan. 21.
Reporter Greg Cima can be reached at