In 2014, I was working as a nurse in a hospital clinic when I met Dr. Brian Burns. I only worked with him one day for a very brief amount of time, but I was beyond shocked just a few years later the news broke about the disappearance of his wife and the subsequent charges filed against him. On March 10th, 2016, friends and family of Carla Burns of Harrisburg, Illinois notified authorities that no one had seen or heard from Carla since March 8th. The truth about what happened to Carla rocked the small southern Illinois community. This is the story of The Deadly Divorce of Dr. Burns.
Brian & Carla Burns
Dr. Brian Burns was working in Texas in 2008 when he met an attractive dark-haired nurse named Carla. Carla was a mother of two sons and a successful nurse. Dr. Brian Burns would later say that Carla “saved my life” (Smith, Dec. 16, 2019). Brian and Carla liked to scuba dive and took a trip to Costa Rica once. They shared a small white dog named Chloe. After marrying in 2009, the couple moved to Harrisburg, Illinois where Dr. Burns found work at local hospitals. Carla began a teaching position in the nursing department of Southeastern Illinois College. (Smith, Dec. 11, 2019)
The marriage did not last, however, and Carla filed a petition for divorce in December of 2014 against the wishes of her husband. The divorce proceedings became hostile and Carla eventually filed a restraining order against Brian claiming that he was verbally abusive, and she was afraid he would become physically violent. Brian made his own claims in subsequent filings accusing his wife of “economic blackmail, verbal harassment, and unfounded allegations that could jeopardize his medical license” (Tribune-Star, 2016). On an episode of Meet Marry Murder, investigators say that during the marriage, Brian suspected Carla of infidelity with her ex-husband (Meet Marry Murder). Brian was accused of rearranging assets to ensure Carla would not have been granted them during a divorce settlement including their savings and property. (Meet Marry Murder).
On March 8th, 2016, Carla was last seen leaving work at approximately 3:30 pm. She was never heard from or seen again. Family notified authorities she was missing after not hearing from her for two days. The investigation into Carla’s disappearance began on March 10th, 2016. (The Charley Project). It was very unlike Carla to miss work and not communicate with friends and family.
Carla had been staying at a motel in Marion, Illinois, but there was no sign of her there. The investigators interviewed Brian Burns at his home in Harrisburg. He was very cooperative and talked openly with police. Carla’s vehicle was found parked at Brian’s home, which was suspicious as she had no other means of transportation. Brian also had possession of Chloe the dog, which family members said Carla would never have left behind. (Meet Marry Murder)
Brian Burns also let investigators know that he felt Carla was at high risk of suicide, stating that she had access to medications as a nurse and a handgun. (Meet Marry Murder). A neighbor, however, claimed that he and his wife had heard shots around the time Carla disappeared. (Tribune-Star, 2016). As the investigation continued, Brian began to behave more nervously and raised the suspicions of investigators.
The investigators eventually found a burn pile on the property just adjacent to Brian Burn’s home and received permission to search the area from the property owner. (Meet Marry Murder). In the burn pile, small pieces of bone fragments and human remains were found. Brian’s story continued to change, and clear inconsistencies were recognized. On March 16th, 2016, Brian Burns was arrested for the murder. (Cruz, 2016).
After his arrest, Brian Burns told investigators another story. He explained that on March 8th, his estranged wife came to his home and asked to shoot a handgun. Brian took Carla out to the wooded area behind the house and claimed that she fired the weapon once. He said after she fired the weapon, the gun kicked back and fired another shot in her forehead. He claimed it was a tragic accident. (WSIL, 2019).
Brian claimed that on one of their trips to Costa Rica, he and his wife witnessed a ritual cremation on an island and were very moved by the ceremony. He claimed that at that time, his wife decided she wanted to be cremated. (Smith, Dec. 16, 2019). For this reason, Dr. Burns placed Carla’s body on a fire pit and “cremated” her. He then spread her ashes around the property claiming that this is what his wife would have wanted. (Meet Marry Murder). Dr. Brain Burns was charged with two counts of first-degree murder and one count of concealing a homicidal death. His medical license was suspended in light of the charges. (idpfr, 2016).
There were some weird circumstances that pointed the finger at a pre-meditated murder. First, there is a video from a trail cam showing Brian Burns creating the burn pile days before the murder. A neighbor claimed that Brian Burns asked him to load a weapon days before the murder, while he wore rubber gloves. Investigators suspected that he was attempting to frame his neighbor for the crime he wanted to commit. After the murder, the Brian admitted to putting Carla’s phone under that same neighbor’s truck seat. (Meet Marry Murder)
Dr. Burns was held on one million dollars bond, so he was jailed awaiting trial and not free. During his time in jail, he met another inmate who was facing charges for child sexual assault. This cellmate told his lawyer that Dr. Burns had asked him to assist in another crime, kidnapping the Saline County States Attorney Mike Henshaw. (Esch, 2016). Apparently, the plan was for the state’s attorney to be kidnapped and held until he agreed to drop the murder charges against Mr. Burns. Brian stated he wanted the attorney to believe he was kidnapped by supporters and former patients of Dr. Burns. (Meet Marry Murder).
The other inmate agreed to wear a wire and conversations were recorded. Dr. Burns eventually had a phone call with someone he believed to be a hitman, which was actually an undercover detective. During this call, he agreed to pay $1000 for the kidnapping of the attorney. State’s Attorney Mike Henshaw announced in September of 2016 additional charges against Burns including solicitation and conspiracy to commit kidnapping. (Esch, 2016).
Sadly, on March 22nd, 2017 States Attorney Mike Henshaw passed away in his home after a fall down the stairs. He was seventy-two years old. Despite the issues with Mr. Burns, foul play was not suspected in this case. (News-Democrat, 2017). Despite the death of Mr. Henshaw, the charges against Burns remained unchanged.
The trial for the kidnapping conspiracy began in May 2017 in Saline County. Evidence presented included the taped recordings of conversations between Dr. Burns and his cellmate as well as handwritten documents from Mr. Burns about the conspiracy. In the writings, he stated that the job would be called a “roofing job” when communicating via telephone since he was in jail. Brian Burns offered the undercover officer “$1000 to do a roofing job” (Smith, May 10, 2017).
The defense attorney claimed that the entire idea that an educated physician believed he would buy his way out of jail with $1000 was ridiculous. He also claimed that the cell mate informant had a long criminal history and had motive to make up stories in order to arrange a deal for himself. He also stated that the conversations between the two were purely fantasy and money never actually exchanged hands. (Smith, May 10, 2017). After a two-day trial, it took a jury just two hours to convict Brian Burns with one count each of attempted aggravated kidnapping, solicitation and conspiracy to commit aggravated kidnapping. (Smith, May 12, 2017). On January 23rd, 2018, Brian Burns was sentenced to twenty years in prison for these crimes. He still awaited trial for the murder of Carla. (Associated Press, 2018).
The murder trial began in December 2019 in Saline County. The state presented two videos in which Brian Burns confessed to the crime and showed investigators the crime scene on his property. In the video, Burns explained that Carla died March 8th, 2016, during a shooting accident on the property in which Carla accidently shot herself. Burns stated he tried to save her life but was unable to. He described her as “gurgling”. (WSIL, 2019). He later described burning her body in the burn pit because he was panicked and not thinking straight.
Burns also admitted on these tapes to hiding Carla’s phone in the neighbor’s truck. Throughout the videos, Burns maintained his innocence describing her death as “a tragic accident” (WSIL, 2019). He even said, “If I murdered my wife, you never would have found me” (WSIL, 2019). The defense claimed Dr. Burns was in a state of overwhelming grief in an attempt to explain why he did not call 911 if Carla died by accident.
A friend and colleague of Carla’s testified that Dr. Burns harassed his wife and her, wanting to get information on Carla. She claimed Burns called her frequently and at all hours. She felt very intimidated by his harassment. (Smith, Dec. 11, 2019).
Eventually Brian Burns took the stand to testify in his own defense. Dr. Burns gave the story about teaching his estranged wife to shoot a 9mm pistol and backfire from the first shot caused her to accidently shoot herself in the head. He told jurors about scuba diving in Costa Rica with his wife and witnessing a ritual cremation. He claimed that this experience led him to burn her body as he felt she wanted that. He also stated he felt Carla may have wanted to kill herself with the gun. (Smith, Dec. 16th, 2019).
The doctor also self-diagnosed himself with dissociative amnesia, claiming the trauma of seeing his wife die caused him to repress the memory. This was an attempt to explain why he didn’t tell authorities immediately about what happened to Carla while she was considered a missing person. (Smith, Dec. 16th, 2019).
The prosecution challenged Dr. Burns claims and presented other evidence suggesting a financial motive for murder. Dr. Burns had deeded the couple’s home to his uncle just before the divorce. He had also drafted a will in his own handwriting and asked someone to “copy my wife’s signature” on the document. (Smith, Dec. 16, 2019). Evidence also suggested he was told before the murder his wife planned to file her taxes separately, which would increase Dr. Burn’s taxes by $15,000 (Meet Marry Murder).
Brian Burns was convicted of one count each of first-degree murder and concealment of a homicidal death on December 17th, 2019 in Saline County. (Fuller, 2019). Additionally, Carla’s sons were awarded eleven million dollars in a civil wrong death suit in May of 2018. (Smith, May 24, 2018). The family sought to ensure Brian Burns could never profit off the death of Carla. The Covid-19 pandemic caused several delays in the sentencing hearing of Dr. Burns. On September 8th, 2020, Brian Burns was finally sentenced to forty years for the murder charge and an additional five years for the concealment charge. (WSIL, 2020).
A loving mother was taken from her sons. A physician, who’s responsibility it is to protect life, committed this heinous crime. The motive was likely financially related or based upon pure obsession with a woman who no longer wanted to be married to him. The story of Dr. Brian Burns and Carla Burns demonstrates that regardless of socioeconomic status, domestic abuse should always be taken seriously. Brian Burns is currently serving his sentence at Menard Correctional Facility and will not be eligible for parole until 2075, when he will be one-hundred and sixteen years old. (IDOC, 2021).
Fuller, L. (2019) Brian Burns convicted of murdering estranged wife, Carla Burns; WPSD Local 6; Retrieved at: Brian Burns convicted of murdering estranged wife, Carla Burns | News | WPSD Local 6
News-Democrat (2017) Saline County prosecutor’s death was due to fall, ISP investigation determines; Belleville News Democrat. Retrieved at: Saline County State’s Attorney dies after falling down stairs, state police says | Belleville News-Democrat (bnd.com)
Meet Marry Murder (Unknown) Season 1, Episode 18; Retrieved at: The Murder of Carla Burns - YouTube
Tribune-Star (2016) Illinois man faces murder charges in wife’s disappearance; Retrieved at: Illinois man faces murder charges in wife's disappearance | News | tribstar.com
Smith, I (May 24, 2018) Family of Carla Burns awarded millions in wrongful death suit against Brian Burns; Retrieved at: Family of Carla Burns awarded millions in wrongful death suit against Brian Burns | Crime/Courts | thesouthern.com
The Charley Project (2016) Carla Mae Burns; Retrieved at: Carla Mae Burns – The Charley Project
IDPFR (2016) Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation News; Retrieved at: Microsoft Word - IDFPR (16) March Enforcement Report.docx
IDOC (2021) Illinois Department of Corrections Inmate Search; Retrieved at: Offenders (illinois.gov)
Esch, J. (2016) Harrisburg murder suspect charged with attempting to kidnap state’s attorney; Retrieved at: Harrisburg murder suspect charged with attempting to kidnap state's attorney | Crime/Courts | thesouthern.com
Smith, I. (May 10, 2017) Trial begins for Harrisburg physician accused of trying to kidnap state’s attorney while in jail on murder charges; Retrieved at: Trial begins for Harrisburg physician accused of trying to kidnap state's attorney while in jail on murder charges | Crime/Courts | thesouthern.com
Smith, I. (May 12, 2017) Burns found guilty of attempted kidnapping of state’s attorney while in jail on murder charges; Retrieved at: Burns found guilty of attempted kidnapping of state's attorney while in jail on murder charges | Crime/Courts | thesouthern.com
Cruz, L. (2016) Husband accused of killing wife, burning her remains, appears in court; KFVS; Retrieved at: Husband accused of killing wife, burning her remains, appears in court (kfvs12.com)
WSILTV (2019) “A tragic accident”: First evidence, witness in Brian Burns murder trial; Retrieved at: "A tragic accident": First evidence, witness in Brian Burns murder trial (wsiltv.com)
Smith, I. (December 11th, 2019) Friends, co-workers testify in 2nd day of Brian Burns’ murder trial; Retrieved at: Friends, co-workers testify in 2nd day of Brian Burns' murder trial | Crime/Courts | thesouthern.com
Smith, I. (December 16th, 2019) Brian Burns, accused of killing his wife in 2016, takes stand at trial; Retrieved at: Brian Burns, accused of killing his wife in 2016, takes stand in trial | Crime/Courts | thesouthern.com
WSILTV (2020) Burns Sentenced to 40 years for murder; Retrieved at: Burns sentenced to 40 years for murder (wsiltv.com)