EVANSTON — The nearly two-decade old murder of Evanston resident Sue Ellen Higgins took another step toward resolution this week when the man who confessed to her murder appeared in Third District Court.
Mark D. Burns, 69, appeared before Judge Joseph Bluemel via video conference on Monday, Sept. 14, for an arraignment on charges of first-degree murder, attempted aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary, being a felon in possession of a firearm and larceny, at which time he pleaded guilty to murder and attempted aggravated robbery.
Burns confessed to the 2001 murder earlier this year while being questioned by investigators about a string of violent sexual assaults that took place in the late 1990s and early 2000s across Utah and Wyoming. Genetic evidence had linked Burns to those crimes and following his arrest in late 2019, he told detectives he had committed the Higgins murder that took place in Evanston on July 18, 2001.
During questioning, Burns told investigators about driving to Evanston during the summer of 2001 to commit an armed robbery because he had gotten “bored” with the rapes. He said he searched for an upper middle-class community that was somewhat isolated and found what he was looking for in the Red Mountain area.
He said he spotted Higgins pull into the driveway of her home and watched her go inside and then proceeded to approach the house and knock on the door. Burns said he wore a suit and posed as a representative of the chamber of commerce conducting a survey on the community. When he claimed to have lost a pen, Higgins invited him inside, at which point he pulled a gun and told her he was going to rob her. After instructing her to sit in a chair, Burns said Higgins reached for a phone and said she was calling police, at which point he shot her in the head.
Burns repeated those details during Monday’s court appearance, stating he had then approached Higgins and shot her again to ensure she was dead. He said he then went into the kitchen and stole money, credit cards and a camera, being careful to avoid leaving any fingerprints.
In his appearance, Burns said he never planned to kill Higgins. “It absolutely never entered my mind that something like that would happen,” he said, referencing her attempt to phone police and stating he “reacted badly” when she did so. He further explained that when he went to leave the residence he noticed she was slumping forward in the chair and moved her body to the floor.
“For some reason, I just felt bad about her falling on her face so I moved her onto the floor,” he said.
Burns and his attorney, public defender Kent Brown, along with Uinta County Attorney Loretta Howieson-Kallas said a plea agreement had been reached, through which Burns would plead guilty to murder and attempted aggravated robbery and the State would dismiss the other three charges. Although the first-degree murder charge carries the possibility of a death sentence in Wyoming, the parties had agreed to a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Although it initially appeared as though Burns would be sentenced during Monday’s hearing as well, Howieson-Kallas told Bluemel the victim’s family, including her sister and husband Sean, had requested more time to prepare statements and digest the situation. Sean Higgins had at one point been arrested and charged with his wife’s murder, although charges were later dismissed due to irregularities and conflicts in the evidence. Her death had remained and unsolved cold case until Burns’s confession.
Burns said his preference was to be sentenced right away; however, he said he had confessed because he wanted to provide closure to the family and therefore had no objection should Bluemel opt to delay sentencing.
Bluemel did choose to delay the sentencing to give the family more time, scheduling sentencing for 9 a.m. on Dec. 4. Burns was remanded back into the custody of the Uinta County Jail to await sentencing and transfer to the Wyoming State Penitentiary. Burns was previously sentenced to 242 years in the Utah State Penitentiary for the sexual assaults committed in that state.