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Dave Olson, Published June 12 2009

Confession could solve Moorhead cold case

The 16-year-old mystery of Sharon Stafford’s murder has been solved by a detective who was a Moorhead High School student when Stafford’s body was found in a mobile home park not far from the school in 1993.

Authorities said Thursday Det. Ryan Nelson broke the case earlier this month when he interviewed Clarence Michael Burcham, 44, in Center, N.D., where Burcham lives.

Clay County Attorney Brian Melton said Burcham, who was charged Thursday with second-degree murder, has been a suspect since Nov. 2, 1993, the day Burcham reported finding Stafford’s body in her trailer in the Dulski Mobile Home park.

“We are confident and know that we have the right person in custody,” Melton said.

When he was originally questioned by police in 1993, Burcham said Stafford attended a party at his trailer in the mobile home park.

Over time, he gave different accounts of what happened that night, including one in which he said he watched two men walk Stafford to her trailer after the party, according to court documents.

Burcham told police when he went to Stafford’s home later to check on her, he found her dead.

In a follow-up interview, Burcham said he never saw two men walk Stafford home and he said he discovered her body when he went to her home to retrieve his glasses.

The case grew cold but was never closed.

The case was given to Nelson when he became a detective in 2005.

Nelson declined to discuss specifics of the case Thursday, but he said it took some time to review all of the reports and evidence. He said he started making progress on the case in early 2008.

Court documents state Nelson talked to Burcham in March and again June 2.

In the latter interview, Burcham told Nelson that he forced Stafford to have sex with him before strangling her with an electrical cord, the court documents said.

Burcham said Stafford angered him by calling him “retarded.”

He told Nelson to tell Stafford’s father that he was sorry for what he did, according to the documents.

Melton said Burcham was arrested in Center on Thursday morning.

Burcham was being held in the Mercer County (N.D.) Jail on Thursday afternoon and was expected to make a court appearance today.

Melton said if Burcham waives extradition proceedings, he could be returned to Moorhead sometime next week.

Stafford, who also was known by the names Vicki and Debbie, grew up in California and moved to Moorhead in the early 1990s.

Authorities said Stafford, who was 26 when she died, has relatives in California and Minnesota, but they have indicated they are not ready to talk publicly about Thursday’s arrest.

Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger said he was proud of the work the department devoted to the case.

“The victim of this crime didn’t have influential or powerful people to speak for her. She was a victim of an unspeakable act in a poor and difficult part of our city,” Ebinger said.

“But,” he added, “the members of this department did not forget. We did not let this case sit … and justice is being served for this individual now.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555