The man accused of killing Richmond K-9 Officer Seara Burton died June 6 in his prison cell.

The death of Phillip Matthew Lee, 48, ends the criminal case charging him with murder without a trial. Lee won’t face a jury of his peers, and there won’t be a verdict.

“Two years ago, a very bad thing happened in our city, and we don’t really have justice, but we have something like closure,” Mayor Ron Oler said during a news conference inside the Richmond Municipal Building. “Maybe not the outcome the citizens wanted, but at least there is an outcome.”

An emotional Mayor Ron Oler speaks during a news conference about the death of Phillip Lee, who was charged with murder in the August 2022 shooting death of Richmond Police Department K-9 Office Seara Burton. Photo by Mike Emery

Pendleton Correctional Facility staff found Lee unresponsive in his cell shortly after midnight, according to an Indiana State Police news release. Lee died despite staff immediately attempting to provide medical assistance.

Sheriff Randy Retter responded to Lee’s death with a social media post.

“In this moment, my heartfelt thoughts and prayers are with Officer Seara Burton and her family,” Retter’s post said. “With the news of her murderer being found dead in his prison cell today, I hope this brings some measure of peace and closure to them as they continue to navigate their loss.”

The State Police are investigating the death in accordance with prison protocols. Toxicology reports and an autopsy are pending; however, no foul play is suspected, according to the release.

“My concern is the men and women of the Richmond Police Department, the family of Officer Seara Burton and the community of Richmond,” RPD Chief Kyle Weatherly said during the news conference attended by about two dozen RPD officers, plus city council members and city staff. Weatherly, who said he had spoken with Burton’s family, said resources were provided to officers and family members for their well-being.

RPD Maj. Adam Blanton read an RPD statement to begin the afternoon news conference.

“The Richmond community and beyond continue to grieve the loss of Officer Burton,” Blanton read. “We will never forget her dedication, bravery and selfless service. Officer Burton’s memory and legacy remain a guiding light for all of us.

State Rep. Brad Barrett initiated action during the 2023 Indiana legislature session to rename the U.S. 27 bridge over Interstate 70 the Officer Seara Burton Memorial Bridge. The legislature recommended the name to the Indiana Department of Transportation. Oler said the naming had been delayed nearly a year while waiting for Lee’s trial, but he “couldn’t be more excited to finally name that bridge after her” and ensure she’s remembered.

“As we move forward, let us carry the spirit of Officer Burton’s dedication and bravery in our hearts,” Blanton read from the statement. “Let us continue to uphold the values she embodied, ensuring her legacy of service and sacrifice is never forgotten. Her impact on this community is immeasurable, and her memory will forever inspire us to strive for excellence and compassion in our duties. In doing so, we honor her by continuing to live lives and build a community that strives to be worthy of her sacrifice.

Lee was scheduled for trial Jan. 10, 2025, in Wayne County Circuit Court on a murder charge in Burton’s death and on additional attempted murder, firearm and drug possession charges. He also was accused of being a habitual offender. The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office was seeking the death penalty if Lee had been convicted.

According to court documents, Lee was housed at Pendleton’s Indiana Department of Correction facility because of concerns for his safety.

A Circuit Court hearing was scheduled June 13 to consider a motion by Lee’s defense attorneys to delay the trial date. The motion cited 125 necessary depositions of prosecution witnesses and litigation of planned motions when filing for the delay.

Lee is accused of shooting Burton in the head and firing a shot at Officer Austin Adams during an Aug. 10, 2022, traffic stop on South 12th Street. Burton and her K-9 partner, Brev, were called to the stop, and Brev indicated to the presence of a narcotic odor in Lee’s moped, according to an affidavit of probable cause.

Richmond Police Officer Seara Burton and K9 Brev. File photo supplied by Indiana State Police

Burton had returned Brev to their police vehicle when Lee drew a concealed handgun and fired rounds at Adams and Burton, the affidavit said. Other officers on scene returned fire, and Lee, who ran away, was wounded before his apprehension.

Methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin were found in the moped, according to the affidavit. Wayne County Drug Task Force officers had requested a traffic stop of Lee after seeing him interact with a person under Task Force surveillance.

After initially being transported to Reid Health, Burton was flown by medical helicopter to Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, Ohio. The shooting occurred less than two weeks before Burton’s scheduled wedding to Sierra Neal.

Weatherly said that departmental training attempts to prevent another such situation from occurring.

“There are always lessons to be learned, and we move forward to do our very best to ensure that this does not happen again,” he said.

After three weeks in the hospital, doctors determined Burton would not recover from her wounds, and she was taken off life support Sept. 1, 2022. Burton, however, survived her removal from life support, and she was eventually moved back to Reid Health for hospice care. She died there Sept. 18, 2022.

Burton’s funeral was conducted Sept. 26, 2022, in Richmond High School’s Tiernan Center. She was buried in the Heroes of Public Safety section of Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.

Burton, 28, a Northeastern High School graduate, was a four-year RPD officer who reached her goal of becoming a K-9 officer during April 2022.

Updated at 11:20 p.m. to include additional information and photo from the City of Richmond press conference as well as Sheriff Retter’s social media post.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 12 2024 print edition of the Western Wayne News.

Mike Emery is a reporter and layout editor for the Western Wayne News.