FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Shannon Gallagher legally became the inheritor of her uncle’s estate just days before he died from a gunshot to his head.
Gallagher, a former candidate for the Town of Surfside commission, called police to report finding Thomas Burke dead shortly before 7:30 am on March 21, 2022, hours after she said the sound of a gunshot woke her shortly before 5 am
First responders and detectives who arrived at the home in Fort Lauderdale believed the timeline of the suicide provided by Gallagher wasn’t adding up, court records show. An associate medical examiner determined Burke’s death was a homicide.
Gallagher, 53, was extradited from Illinois to face a first-degree murder charge in Broward County in January and has remained in the North Broward Bureau since.
The state has argued that Gallagher’s alleged motive was that she would have been able to sue a hospice provider that 74-year-old Burke was in the care of, court records show, based on his newly executed will. Defense attorney Robert Resnick told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that Burke was suffering in his final days after an end-stage esophageal cancer diagnosis and decided to end his life.
“There’s no physical evidence that indicates anything other than suicide,” Resnick said.
Ashes and assets
Three days before Burke’s death, he executed a new will. In it, he wrote his wishes for his ashes to be scattered where the water laps the edge of an island in the middle of Bimini Harbor at sunset and that his niece, Gallagher, inherit all of his possessions — clothes, furniture, jewelry, personal property, art, cars, cash and “all other intangible assets, including any interest in any existing or later-filed lawsuits, including but not limited to any wrongful death lawsuits filed on my behalf …,” the document reads.
Resnick wrote in a recent court filing that “the only arguably potential motive raised by the state for Ms. Gallagher to murder her uncle” is the line in his will allowing Gallagher to sue for her benefit.
A nurse manager at the hospice company who interacted with Gallagher and Burke about a week before Burke’s death said in a statement summarized by the prosecutor in a court filing that Burke would have likely needed help “opening a jar of pickles” at his level of strength . The nurse manager said it was hard to tell what Burke wanted and what Gallagher, who “really dominated the conversation,” wanted.
Gallagher told the nurse manager that if her uncle killed himself, the blame would be on the hospice provider and she would sue, according to the prosecutor’s court filing. She threatened the nurse manager multiple times that she would sue.
Resnick said that the alleged motive is weak. Gallagher had “little, if any financial incentive to violently kill Mr. Burke,” Resnick wrote in one court filing.
“The State’s argument, that Shannon shot her uncle, murdering him to sue hospice, is essentially only supported by the statement of a hospice worker, based on observations during a meeting with Tom Burke and Shannon, when Shannon zealously represented Tom’s displeasure with hospice’s inability to provide Tom with a morphine pump, as Tom was not eating or drinking due to his final stage esophageal cancer and was not taking oral medications,” Resnick wrote in court records.
After a two-day hearing on whether Gallagher should be released from jail on bond, a judge decided the prosecutor had not met her burden and granted Gallagher release on a $750,000 bond. Gallagher remained in jail this week.
‘Yeah, looks old’
It was shortly before 8 am on March 21, 2022, when a fire department captain responded to the suicide call, entered the bedroom where Burke lay dead, a gun tied to his hand with a rope, the filing said.
The captain was told the suicide just occurred, according to the prosecutor’s court filing. “Yeah, looks old,” the captain said.
In the room, a hysterical Gallagher knelt next to Burke, wearing blue gloves, the court filing said. In clear view inside the apartment was Burke’s open laptop with a search tab that said, “call police when someone shoots himself in the home.”
Gallagher said she woke up in the living room to a gunshot about three hours earlier.
The captain felt Burke’s body, which hadn’t yet gone cold. A Fort Lauderdale Police detective noticed blood on the bed had already dried.
Another firefighter was “seemingly in agreement that (Burke’s) body did not match what they were being told by Gallagher,” the filing said.
Asked what she did between hearing the gunshot and calling the police, Gallagher said she was “disoriented” and trying to calm her uncle’s pet bird by playing his favorite song, “Over the Rainbow.”
“Gallagher reported that she went back into the bedroom six to eight times to see if there was anything she could do to help (Burke) but was unable to provide a precise answer as to what occurred during this timeframe,” the court filing said. “She also advised that she stood to inherit all of (Burke’s) belongings and that his will had just been updated the previous week.”
‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’
The search on Burke’s laptop about calling police when someone shoots themselves was done at 6:17 am There were several similar searches in a few minutes span, the court document said.
Searches for “Over the Rainbow” were done between 6 and 6:03 am, which did not match the timeline Gallagher told detectives, the document said.
Multiple photos and videos on Gallagher’s cell phone from March 21 were reviewed, according to the court document, including videos between about 4:40 am and shortly after 5 am of the pet bird flying around. One two-second video showed Burke shot in bed, and Gallagher recorded a 45-minute-long video of her voicing her frustrations with the hospice provider.
“I’m so sorry, it’s 6:01 am on March 21, 2022. This morning my uncle shot himself at 2:22 am He didn’t kill himself straight away, he kept breathing. Oh God, oh God, he was so miserable,” Gallagher said in part of the video. At the end of the video, she took the camera into the room where Burke lay dead.
A document on Gallagher’s Google account, called “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” explained the events on the night Burke died, the court document said.
“This timeline contained a rambling stream of consciousness and was last accessed by Gallagher June 1, 2022, just prior to when she gave another statement to the police,” the court filing said.
A test found gunshot residue on Gallagher’s hands, “potentially indicating that she was holding a weapon when it was fired,” the document said.
Defense attorney Resnick said it was a single particle of residue and that Gallagher checked his pulse and was told by a 911 dispatcher to perform CPR, despite Burke already being dead.
“This was a suicide of a man who wanted to commit suicide and succeeded in doing that because he didn’t want to go back to a hospital,” Resnick said. “He didn’t want to suffer anymore. He was down to 122 pounds and was six-foot-two, and it’s so unfortunate that they’re destroying this woman’s life because they can’t get out of the way of the evidence that overwhelmingly supports the fact that he killed himself.”