The gunman forced his way into the car, snatched Brittany Rock’s cellphone from her hand and smashed his weapon across the right side of her face.
Rock’s vision went black, but all she could think about was saving her little sister, Samantha Burnette, who was asleep in the back seat. Rock jumped out of the car and groped for the handle to her sister’s door.
That’s when her vision returned. What she saw next haunts her: The gunman shot her 16-year-old sister in the head as she woke up and tried to flee.
“She woke up to die,” Rock, 20, recalled Monday. “They pushed my sister’s body out of the car like she was a rag doll, and they drove off.”
Burnette was fatally shot about 7:30 a.m. Sunday in an alley in the 700 block of Sims Avenue in St. Paul, according to police. A 32-year-old man and a 29-year-old woman were arrested several hours later in connection with the homicide, but the cases had not yet been presented to the Ramsey County attorney’s office for charging consideration on Monday.
Police released few details about the homicide and motive, citing the ongoing investigation.
But Rock is certain: The woman who was arrested, whom Rock had considered a friend, set them and another friend up to be robbed.
“I hope … they pay for it,” said Rock, “because they took an innocent child’s life.”
Her nickname was Sunshine
Burnette was an optimistic, skateboarding junior at Minnetonka High School who aspired to become a lawyer one day. She was the baby of the family, with Rock and an older brother on her mother’s side and an older sister on her father’s side.
Her mother, Becky Burnette, called her “Sunshine,” because she was quick to cheer people up with a positive comment or hug.
“She’s a sweet, loving, kind, big-hearted girl,” her mother said through tears on Monday. “She was looking forward to having her whole life ahead of her.”
Burnette, a member of the White Earth Ojibwe tribe, liked to listen to music, swim and watch the TV show “Empire” with her grandmother.
She was born in Detroit Lakes, Minn., grew up in Hopkins and moved to Minnetonka with her grandmother about two years ago.
She was looking forward to graduating from high school in 2018, the year of her golden birthday.
“She never hurt anybody,” Rock said. “She’s so, so optimistic about life.”
She knew she was dying
Burnette looked up to Rock, and arrived at her St. Paul apartment Friday evening to spend the weekend in the city. When Saturday night rolled around, Rock prepared to go out with some friends. Burnette wanted to tag along.
Rock resisted, but Burnette’s persistence won out. They went to a friend’s place, then they drove around the city.
“She was laughing,” Rock said. “She was smiling.”
The woman who was arrested was behind the wheel, according to Rock. The driver insisted on going to the 700 block of Sims Avenue to meet up with her sister before she dropped off Rock and Burnette. The driver was quiet. She exchanged some text messages. It didn’t seem unusual.
But when they pulled into the alley, the driver jumped out of the car. The gunman forced his way into the front passenger seat, prompting Rock to slide into the driver’s seat. A second man jumped in the back with Burnette and another friend.
“They just said, ‘Give me everything!’ ” said Rock, who didn’t recognize either man.
The men grabbed Rock’s HTC phone and her friend’s LG phone. The gunman attacked Rock, and she and the friend bailed out of the parked car. Burnette, who had an iPhone, slept through most of the ordeal.
“It all happened so, so fast,” Rock said.
The gunman shot Burnette, and at some point, the driver returned to the car and fled with the men.
“Go! Go! Go!” someone in the car yelled as they fled.
Flung from the car, Burnette lay in the alley.
“I ran to her and I grabbed her, and she was looking at me and she had this look in her eyes,” Rock said. “You could tell she was scared — she knew she was going to die.”
Burnette gasped for air.
“I just kept telling my sister, ‘Don’t die! Don’t die! Wake up!’ ”
She wasn’t able to speak before she died in Rock’s arms.
“Every time I close my eyes that’s all I see — the look in her eyes,” Rock said. “She looked at me right in the eyes, and she looked so, so scared.”
Ramsey County jail records show that police arrested a man on probable cause murder in the case and for a parole violation about 11:30 a.m. Sunday.
About 45 minutes later, they arrested the alleged driver of the car on charges of aiding an offender and traffic offenses.
The Star Tribune generally does not name suspects who haven’t been charged with a crime.
Court records show that the man has an extensive criminal record that includes convictions for assault, theft, fleeing police, firearms violations and giving police a false name.
Court records show that he had been sentenced in 2013 to five years in prison in a Dakota County case and that he was released on Aug. 15 on intensive supervised release. He had pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm and to motor vehicle theft.
Intensive supervision can include four face-to-face contacts weekly, electronic home monitoring, mandatory work or school, curfews, restitution, and random drug testing, according to the Minnesota Department of Corrections.
In 2003, the man pleaded guilty to driving the car in a drive-by shooting in St. Paul in which a man was wounded in the stomach.
The woman’s history includes convictions for drunken driving and several traffic violations.
St. Paul police said they don’t believe the shooting was random.
Spokesman Steve Linders could not say whether police are looking for a third suspect, but said, “We are exploring the possibilities that there were other people involved.”
Second death at Minnetonka
Burnette was the second Minnetonka High School student to die in less than a week. Last week, Scott Berzins was struck and killed by a car as he attempted to cross Hwy. 7 near Hwy. 101 not far from the school.
“We are a strong community and we need to use this strength to look after and care for each other,” Principal Jeff Erickson said in a statement sent to students and parents. “My thoughts and prayers are with Samantha, her family and friends.”
Erickson said that all of the school counselors are present to help students and that they also work with Growing Through Grief, a school support program. Last year, Minnetonka students dealt with the deaths of three students from the same family who died in a murder-suicide.
Students wore purple on Thursday and white on Friday in honor of Berzins.
“I imagine they will do something as well for Samantha,” Erickson said. “It’s all a little raw and we have not processed that.”
Students are now using the hashtag “tonkastrong” to grieve for the two students.
Connor Joseph, a 16-year-old junior, said students are shocked and numb to the loss of another one of their peers.
“The majority of people at Minnetonka have never experienced what it is like to lose someone to gun violence,” he said. “It is a first for everybody.”
The Minnetonka School District announced that a Wells Fargo Bank fund has been created for the Berzins and Burnette families to help with expenses related to the deaths.
Donations can be made at any Wells Fargo Bank using the Berzins and Burnette family names via online banking for Wells Fargo Bank customers (account No. 1422246015) or mailed to Minnetonka High School, 18301 Hwy. 7, Minnetonka, MN 55345.
Burnette’s death was the 14th homicide this year in St. Paul. Records show there were 16 homicides last year.
Her family grappled Monday with the senselessness of her death.
“How are you going to shoot a young girl in the head?” her mother said. “She’s not a tough girl. She wouldn’t have hurt anybody. What were they thinking?”