Defendant held for trial after witnesses recount savage demise of James Stropas

Posted: July 02, 2010

The final moments of James Stropas' life were so violent that the butcher knife used to kill him broke in half.

Blood was everywhere, dripping from alleged murderer Sean Burton's arms and splattered inside and outside of Stropas' Jeep Cherokee, according to witnesses who testified yesterday at Burton's preliminary hearing.

Police say Burton, 42, of Newark, Del., used a GPS unit to secretly track Stropas, 32, an Iraq war veteran who had been dating Burton's estranged wife.

Heather Artis, a manager at Famous Footwear in Springfield, Delaware County, said she witnessed the savage killing on the morning of June 21 in the parking lot of the Olde Sproul Shopping Village on Baltimore Pike.

Artis testified that she saw a man fitting Burton's description appear to stab another man multiple times - "I could see the up-and-down motion," she said - then pull the victim into a Jeep and drive away in it.

Choking back tears, she said, "I could see a man's arm hanging out the side," referring to Stropas.

Burton, who owns the Final Impact car-stereo shop in Morton, was arrested minutes later at nearby Smedley Park. Stropas had been crammed into the Jeep sideways, his face on the passenger-side floor, according to Delaware County Detective Robert Fuss. Stropas was pronounced dead at the scene.

Search-warrant applications state that Burton had been using a laptop and a GPS unit he had attached to Stropas' truck to monitor his movements.

Police later searched Burton's van, which was left at the shopping center, and found a hatchet, a shovel, gloves, a change of clothes and a gallon of gasoline. Investigators believe that Burton might have been planning to use those items to dismember and dispose of Stropas' body. The SUV seats were covered in plastic bags.

In court yesterday, Burton's attorney, Mark Much, argued that the case should be downgraded from first-degree murder. Assistant District Attorney Stephanie Wills had little trouble making the charges stick.

"The cause of death was multiple stab and slash wounds," Wills said.

Magisterial District Judge Anthony Scanlon sided with the prosecution, saying that he would have to "divorce myself from common sense" to find a lack of malice or intent to kill. He held Burton for trial on all charges and remanded him to the county prison without bail.

Burton had difficulty signing his name on court documents yesterday, gripping the pen with two fingers due to the heavy bandaging on his right hand and arm. He declined to comment as he was led into the court building in shackles.

Stropas, an Army sergeant from Norristown, returned in March from his second tour in Iraq and was looking for a job, according to relatives.

Fuss testified that Burton, who was dressed in all black and bleeding from his hands when he was pulled over in the park, claimed that he had been acting in self-defense.

When detectives asked Burton if there were any guns in the Jeep, he responded, "Check with the other guy," Fuss said.

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