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A fight, a death: crime or self-defense?

Officials are familiar with key facts in the death of a man in a mobile home park fracas. They don't know if it was murder.

By JAMAL THALJI
Published April 7, 2006


ZEPHYRHILLS - Authorities know that Joe Burke died March 23. They know how he died: a blow to the midsection. They know who and what caused the injury: a pipe swung by David Trombley during a scuffle with Burke 10 days earlier at a mobile home park.

What they don't know is: Was it a crime?

That's a call prosecutors will make.

The Pasco County Sheriff's Office has completed its investigation into the 43-year-old's death, spokesman Kevin Doll said, and sent it to the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office on March 28 to decide what to do next.

"This could very well be a case of self-defense," Doll said. "Whether or not it's going to be more than that is going to be up to the State Attorney's Office."

Prosecutors could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The scuffle happened about 10 p.m. on March 13. At 4 the next morning, Burke checked himself into Florida Hospital Zephyrhills, Doll said.

The Sheriff's Office doesn't have the specifics of what happened to Burke between then and when doctors turned off the life support March 23 at 5 p.m.

The hospital reported his death to the Sheriff's Office and said Burke had a ruptured spleen. The medical examiner said Burke died of blunt force trauma to the abdomen.

Trombley cooperated with the sheriff's investigation, Doll said. The 27-year-old taxi driver said he's lived at the Vagabond Mobile Home Park for five months, but hadn't seen Burke until their March 13 scuffle. Trombley said he was defending himself, and both he and a deputy said Burke was drunk.

"That's all it was, was self-defense," Trombley said. "So I'm not worried about it because you shouldn't be getting drunk and high and starting stuff with other people."

A report of a fight brought the deputy to the park March 13, where he found Burke injured, with a small laceration on his left side. Burke told the deputy it started when someone threw rocks at where he was sitting. Then came the fight, a neighbor said, involving Burke, Trombley and Benny Santos, 43.

Burke said he swung a wrench at Trombley, missed and hit a nearby trailer. Trombley grabbed a pipe and threw it at Burke, injuring his side, Burke said.

But Burke didn't complain about any pain. Trombley denied anything happened, which the deputy didn't believe.

The deputy said Santos changed his story several times. Almost everyone at the scene was drunk, the deputy said, some belligerent. The deputy left without even filing a report.

"It's not uncommon: A deputy shows up, there's a commotion, but people aren't cooperative," Doll said. "People are intoxicated. No one wants to file a report, and (the deputy) didn't file a report."

--Times researcher Lea Iadarola contributed to this report.