EVANSTON — Nearly 20 years after it occurred, the case of the murder of Evanston woman Sue Ellen Higgins finally reached a conclusion on Friday, Dec. 4, when confessed murderer Mark D. Burns was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Higgins was a young mother when Burns took her life on July 18, 2001. Higgins’s husband, Sean, discovered her body when he returned home from work that afternoon. The couple’s 2-year-old son was found playing in the backyard. Although Higgins was found to have suffered two gunshot wounds to the head, no murder weapon was ever found.
During the course of an investigation conducted by Evanston law enforcement, multiple residents of the Red Mountain area near the Higgins’s home reported seeing a man in a dark suit next to a 1970s or 1980s model sedan the afternoon of the murder. However, there were no real breaks in the case and Sean Higgins and his young son moved away from Evanston.
Tragedy was compounded when in July 2005, four years after the murder, Sean Higgins was arrested in New Mexico, where he had relocated, and charged with the death of his wife. At the time, he had remarried and his new wife was pregnant. Herald stories from that time described some of the evidence compiled against Sean, including police reports stating Sean had displayed no emotion on the day of the murder. Such reports were in contradiction to Herald stories from the time of the murder, in which law enforcement described Sean as distraught.
Other evidence included that there was no sign of forced entry and blood evidence patterns on Sean’s clothing. In March 2006, however, Mike Greer — Uinta County Attorney at the time and now a local judge — determined there were “irregularities in evidence analysis,” and the charges against Sean Higgins were dismissed without prejudice, meaning charges could have been refiled if evidence warranted.
The murder of Sue Ellen Higgins remained a cold case until January of this year, when Burns confessed to the murder during an investigation into a string of brutal rapes committed in Utah and Wyoming from the early 1990s to early 2000s. Burns, of Ogden, Utah, had been arrested in September 2019 after DNA evidence linked him to the rapes committed decades prior.
A press release issued by Utah’s Clearfield Police Department in late September said Burns had been linked through DNA testing to “incomprehensible, brutal and methodical” rapes that occurred in Rock Springs in 1991; Riverdale City, Utah, in 1992; Ogden in 1993; Laramie in 1996; Layton, Utah, in 1997; and four rapes in Clearfield in 1994, 1995, 2000 and 2001. The rapes all included similar characteristics, including the victims being bound, repeated assaults over an extended period of time, the smell of alcohol on the perpetrator, victims living in apartments, the suspect utilizing sliding glass doors to gain entry and the use of a firearm or a knife.
The Clearfield press release said multiple law enforcement agencies began working with the television show “Cold Justice: Sex Crimes” in 2015 to search for answers to the unsolved rapes. Ultimately, “as technology advanced, the Clearfield Police Dept. contacted a genetic genealogist, Dr. Barbara Rae-Venter, who was able to study the previously collected DNA evidence to discover a potential familial DNA relationship. … Detectives were able to identify and interview an individual who shared common DNA characteristics with the suspect.”
Burns’ DNA was then tested, and a match was confirmed. He was arrested in Ogden on Sept. 25, 2019, and charged with eight counts of aggravated sexual assault, six counts of aggravated kidnapping, two counts of aggravated burglary and one count of aggravated robbery. Burns pleaded guilty to those charges and in April of this year was sentenced to 242 years in prison for those attacks, which included one case in which the victim was 11 years old when he raped her at knifepoint and another case in which family members were tied up and forced to watch the assaults.
When Burns confessed to investigators, he explained he had decided to visit Evanston in July 2001 to commit an armed robbery because he had grown “bored” with committing rape and wanted to attempt something new. He dressed in a suit and posed as a businessman conducting a survey on the community. When Sue Higgins answered the door, Burns pretended he had lost his pen so she would invite him into the home, which she did.
Once inside, Burns explained he pulled a gun and told Higgins he was robbing her. He claimed he had no intention of murdering her but shot her in the head when she went for the phone to call police. He then stole credit cards, a checkbook and a camera from the kitchen of the home and left the area. Burns claimed he did not remember where he disposed of the weapon but that he definitely did not keep it.
As he had done with the sexual assault charges in Utah, Burns claimed he had not committed any additional attacks since the early 2000s and decided to confess to help bring closure to victims. He said he felt remorse over the Higgins murder in particular.
Burns had previously pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and attempt to commit aggravated robbery in the Higgins case through a plea agreement with the Uinta County Attorney’s office. Appearing in court for sentencing on Friday, Burns apologized to family and friends of Higgins but said, “Simply saying I’m sorry doesn’t matter” and that he realized his confession doesn’t really change anything.
Uinta County Attorney Loretta Howieson-Kallas explained the state had considered pursuing the death penalty in the case but ultimately it was not felt the case met the rigid criteria for such punishment, a conclusion that both public defender Kent Brown and Judge Joseph Bluemel reached as well.
In his comments, Bluemel told Burns, “You took a daughter away from her parents; you took away a sister from a number of siblings and you also specifically took away a twin sister; you took away a wife to her husband, Mr. Higgins; you took away a mother to the child Tate; you took away a friend to many people.” Bluemel also referenced one of the victim impact statements submitted to the court that said Burns has “no respect for humanity,” saying the only thing Burns had done to show otherwise was his confession.
The court also ruled Burns would have to pay $7,200 in restitution for the funeral of Sue Ellen Higgins and the cost to replace carpet in the home. While the victim impact statements also addressed the more than $70,000 it ultimately cost Sean Higgins to obtain legal counsel to defend himself when wrongfully charged with murder, Howieson-Kallas, Brown and Bluemel all agreed those costs weren’t permissible to include in restitution under Wyoming statute.
Bluemel did, however, formally dismiss with prejudice the murder charge against Sean Higgins, proclaiming his innocence more than 15 years after he was originally charged with the heinous crime.
Burns was remanded to custody of the Uinta County Sheriff’s Office pending transfer back to the Utah State Penitentiary, where he will serve his sentence for the sexual assaults. The life sentence for the Higgins murder was imposed to run following his Utah sentence; however, given that Burns is 70 years of age and the Utah sentence is for 242 years, Burns is expected to live the rest of his life in prison in Utah.