Philadelphia Enquirer, January 16, 1999

Pastor charged in boy's death--The Upper Dublin man savagely punished the boy, 4, and others in his home, authorities said.
By Matt Stearns and Ralph Vigoda

The Rev. Javan M. McBurrows, a man of God, was accused yesterday by Montgomery County authorities of turning his home into a living hell.

District Attorney Michael Marino charged Mr. McBurrows with murder in last weekend's death of Michael Davis, a 4-year-old North Philadelphia boy who was in his care. Marino said he had not decided whether to seek the death penalty.

Authorities said Mr. McBurrows, 47, pastor of the Third Christian Church in Overbrook, ruled his home in a "reign of fear" in which he administered savage beatings to his wife and some of the eight children in his custody. Michael and his two siblings, who lived in the McBurrows home, all had suffered recent, untreated fractures to their hands consistent with defensive wounds.

Officials called it one of the most horrific child-abuse cases they had seen. The beating of Michael Davis "was so savage," Marino said, "that he could have died from the shock of the bleeding and the blows alone."

As Mr. McBurrows was being arraigned before a district justice in Fort Washington yesterday, about 50 mourners gathered for Michael's funeral at a North Philadelphia funeral home. He was remembered in the program as "a bubbly, friendly little boy who loved wrestling and food" and who "loved to sing and could often be heard singing 'Sunshine in My Soul Today.' "

In addition to murder, Mr. McBurrows was charged with voluntary manslaughter and eight counts of endangering the welfare of children -- one count for each of the children living with him: his five boys and girls, ages 4 months to six years; Michael, and Michael's two siblings, a boy, 5, and a girl, 7. All resided in what officials described as squalid conditions in an Upper Dublin Township house that has been condemned.

Medical experts determined that Michael died from blunt trauma. An autopsy showed that the boy suffered a severe brain injury caused by blows to the head, had injuries to his arms consistent with defensive wounds, and had fractures to his left wrist, left lower leg and left hand that had not been treated and had occurred in the previous month.

The Davis siblings' mother, Erika Daye, 30, a member of Mr. McBurrows' church, has said she agreed to let them stay temporarily with the McBurrowses. The three moved in with the pastor and his wife, Jane, about six weeks ago. Marino said there were no signs that any of Michael's injuries occurred before he got to the McBurrows house -- a two-story, two-room, 500-square-foot home in the North Hills section of the township.

Prosecutors brought the charges after interviewing Michael's sister, and after a second interview with Jane McBurrows.

The little girl -- who, along with her 5-year-old brother had numerous injuries and bruises consistent with abuse, court papers said -- told investigators that Mr. McBurrows owned a paddle-like device that he routinely used to beat the children. "Both [ Davis ] children had injuries to their arms and healing fractures to their hands which were consistent with defensive wounds," the documents said. There was no evidence of sexual abuse, Marino said. The children are now in the custody of the county's Office of Children and Youth Services. Jane McBurrows initially gave a statement on Monday in which she said her husband did not beat any of the eight children living in their house. But she changed lawyers -- and her story -- a couple of days later. In fact, she told investigators on Wednesday, her husband was a violent, hot-tempered man who ruled the house in a "reign of fear," as Marino put it.

Mr. McBurrows denied killing the boy as he was led out of court following a three-minute proceeding before District Justice Patricia Zaffarano in Fort Washington. He is being held in Montgomery County Prison without bail. "I've been in the ministry since 1969, working with children, and I never murdered anyone," he said in a calm voice, speaking publicly for the first time since his arrest on endangerment charges Sunday night in Stone Mountain, Ga. He said his concern went to his wife, Jane, and his five children. "I told my wife to separate herself from this," Mr. McBurrows said. "My wife's job is to take care of the children. . . . I told my wife she can divorce me if she wants to because I want my wife and children to be safe."

But Jane McBurrows told investigators that her husband beat her many times with his fists and other items, including a baseball bat and a two-by-four. On one occasion, she said, he threatened to kill her with an ax. According to her new attorney, John Conner of Jenkintown, she also described beatings of the McBurrows children and of the Davis siblings. Marino said the investigation into other beatings continued. He added that Jane McBurrows would not be charged.

According to court documents, the fatal beating of the 3-foot-7, 52-pound boy occurred about 3:30 a.m. last Saturday when Michael disobeyed one of the house rules: He did not close his eyes when he walked into the bathroom where one of the girls was sitting on the toilet.

Jane McBurrows told detectives that she saw her husband hit both sides of Michael's head with his open hands. Mr. McBurrows then asked Michael what he was supposed to do when he walked into the bathroom. The children had been trained to answer "Close my eyes," but Michael did not speak. Mr. McBurrows hit him again in the same way, his wife said. Then, her statement says, McBurrows grabbed a two-foot-long, metal-encased mason's level and, holding it like a baseball bat, swatted the backs of Michael's legs six to 10 times. "The severity of the beating was such that the young boy tried to put his hands behind him to ward off the blows," Marino said. "As a result of that, he has injuries to the arms, to the buttocks, to the back, to the lower legs." When Jane McBurrows tried to intervene, documents say, Mr. McBurrows raised the mason's level and said, "What do you want?"

Mr. McBurrows then forced the boy to march back and forth across the floor, according to documents.

Exhausted, the documents say, Michael asked, "Pastor, I'm sleepy, can I take a nap?" He was then placed in the bathtub while water was being heated on the stove for the bath.

Five to 10 minutes later, Jane McBurrows told police, she noticed that Michael was losing consciousness. Mr. McBurrows put Michael on his lap and slapped him on the back. Michael vomited into the bathtub.

Mr. McBurrows then told his wife to take Michael to Abington Memorial Hospital.

It was then, prosecutors allege, that he began to cover up what had happened. Jane McBurrows said that as she left for the emergency room, her husband asked her: "Jane, are you going to fold on me? Are you with me?"

Doctors at Abington transferred Michael to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, where he died of his injuries at 7:15 a.m. Saturday.

Jane McBurrows said that after she returned from the hospital, Mr. McBurrows drove her to an abandoned church in the 5100 block of Wakefield Street in Germantown and threw two mason's levels over a fence. Marino said police believe that the level they recovered was the murder weapon; they are still looking for the other one. While driving home, she said, they received a call from the hospital saying Michael had died, probably from abuse. When they got home, she said, Mr. McBurrows put their five children in a van and drove to a friend's house in New Jersey. Jane McBurrows followed in a car with the two surviving Davis children. Once there, they got into the van and drove to Jane McBurrows' sister's home in Stone Mountain, Ga. Mr. McBurrows was arrested there late Sunday night and returned to Philadelphia on Tuesday. Jane McBurrows had come back Monday, and with Center City lawyer Harry Aaron Rubin at her side, told investigators that while her husband disciplined the children frequently, he never beat them.

However, she later told investigators, she was uneasy with Rubin because he had represented her husband in 1992 and in 1995, when Mr. McBurrows was charged with assaulting her. The earlier charges were dropped, but Mr. McBurrows was convicted of choking his wife in 1995.

"I wasn't too comfortable with Mr. Rubin -- saying things in front of him," she told investigators.

She said fear kept her from taking her children and leaving her husband. "I had no way of getting them out of there," she told investigators. "He said that if I ever take the children away from him, he will hunt me down like a dog, and if he couldn't find me, he would hurt my family, starting with my sisters."

Inquirer staff writer Clea Benson contributed to this story.

1999 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.


Return to Newsroom Index or to Table of Contents