Developer Arraigned In His Ex-girlfriend's Killing At Casino Lot Donald Burris Is Charged With Murder. The Victim Was Apparently Shot Dead While On A 911 Call.

Posted: August 08, 1997

MAYS LANDING — A prominent South Jersey developer charged with shooting his ex-girlfriend in the employee parking lot at Harrah's Atlantic City was arraigned on murder charges yesterday while several of the victim's friends watched tearfully.

Donald Burris, 45, of Voorhees, is charged with murder, possession of a weapon and possession of a weapon for unlawful purposes in Wednesday's shotgun slaying of Peggy Ann Selvaggio, 35, of West Berlin, a cocktail waitress and bar owner.

Burris' company, Donald A. Burris Inc., developed several properties across South Jersey, and with his brothers, his business interests extended into Florida and Massachusetts. Among his accomplishments as a builder was winning a $9 million contract for Mercer County Waterfront Park, a stadium completed in 1994 for the Trenton Thunder, a team in baseball's Eastern League.

``I find it difficult to believe that Don would do something like this,'' said Herman Costello, mayor of Burlington City, where Burris grew up. ``Until I hear him say it, I'm going to find it difficult to believe.''

In the 1980s, Burris helped redevelop a section of Burlington City's historic downtown and received a city award for his work. He was also responsible for Perkins Glen, the largest housing development in Edgewater Park Township since 1975.

Other acquaintances of Burris' were shocked to hear he had been charged with murder. They recalled a loving father and good friend.

``I guess I'm surprised any time anyone's charged with murder,'' said Bob Dovey, an Edgewater Park Township committeeman who said he had known Burris since they attended Burlington City High School. ``I've never known anyone charged with murder before. It certainly was shocking.''

Burris, a stocky man with a curly black-and-gray hairline and full beard, appeared for the brief arraignment before Superior Court Judge Albert J. Garofolo via a closed-circuit video link from the Atlantic County Justice Facility, where he is being held on $1 million cash bail.

MOTION FOR REDUCED BAIL Shackled at the wrists and feet and wearing a V-neck orange jail-issued jumpsuit, Burris clearly answered ``yes'' to questions from Garofolo about whether he could hear the judge speak and whether he understood the charges against him. He did not enter a plea, and his case next will be sent to the grand jury.

Burris' attorney, Mark W. Catanzaro, of Moorestown said he planned to seek bail reduction next week for his client, calling the $1 million set by Garofolo ``outrageous.''

``Bail is a means of making sure a suspect is going to show up,'' Catanzaro said. ``He has six children, four brothers and sisters and a business in New Jersey. Where is he going to go?''

Catanzaro said he had been retained by his client's family on Wednesday. Burris is divorced, and no members of his family attended his five-minute arraignment. In addition to their construction and contracting businesses, the family was known as avid hunters who frequently took trips to Maryland's Eastern Shore, where they owned land.

Catanzaro said he had a 90-minute interview with his client before yesterday's hearing. He did not say what Burris' defense would be or whether the two had talked directly about what happened.

Police arrested Burris minutes after the 3:58 a.m. shooting. From a description the victim provided during a 30-second 911 call to police, authorities tracked Burris to Georgia and Fairmount Avenues in downtown Atlantic City. Police said they would release a tape of the call eventually.

Investigators say Burris drove his 1997 Chevrolet Tahoe sport utility vehicle from the murder scene in the parking lot off North Carolina Avenue in the resort's Marina District. They arrested him several miles away, police said. A 20-gauge shotgun and 20-gauge shells - the kind routinely used to hunt deer - were found on the front seat of the truck when Burris was arrested, according to Atlantic County Prosecutor Jeffrey S. Blitz.

MULTIPLE GUNSHOT WOUNDS Selvaggio died of multiple gunshot wounds to the face, the back and the chest, according to an autopsy by the Atlantic County Medical Examiner's Office. The blasts sent her body 15 feet from the telephone, which was left dangling in the booth.

She worked the overnight shift at Harrah's once a week and had been a cocktail waitress for 14 years, according to a Harrah's spokesman.

Selvaggio co-owned a bar in West Berlin called Ott's Greentop Inn - known as a hangout for members of the Philadelphia Flyers, who practice in nearby Voorhees - and was also the part-owner of Canal's liquor store in Marlton. At the Greentop Inn, a sign outside last night read: ``Peggy We Love You!''

In court yesterday, Selvaggio's friends appeared grief-stricken as the charges were read against Burris.

Vicki Michetti of Medford described herself as a family friend and said she attended the court hearing yesterday ``for Peggy. She was a wonderful person. We're here to help her.''

Michetti said she had been caring for Selvaggio's cats, Rocky and Moe.

Tom Marchiani, 36, who runs a pressure-washing business in West Berlin, wept as he described how he had met Selvaggio and Burris about two years ago through her bar.

Marchiani said he knew that Selvaggio and Burris ``had problems'' and that Burris had been possessive of the tall bar owner called ``Pebbles'' by her friends and co-workers because of a ponytail like the Flintstones character.

Selvaggio had apparently known Burris for about two years and lived with him for about one year in his condominium in the upscale Main Street complex in Voorhees. She had moved out about two weeks ago - around the time her mother died - and was living in a small apartment behind the Route 73 bar.

Harrah's announced yesterday it would make a $5,000 donation in Selvaggio's memory to the Atlantic County Women's Center, which helps battered women.

At the site of the telephone near the killing last night, there were seven sprays and bouquets of flowers left by her friends. ``You were always such an inspiration to me. You will be sorely missed. Your friend, Debbie,'' said the card attached to one of them.

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