‘The Godfather of Homicide’ | Meet the man who has investigated more than 1,000 murders in St. Louis

Joe Burgoon has been a police officer since Eisenhower was president, and he's solved more murders than most detectives see in a lifetime.
Published: Jan. 22, 2022 at 3:44 PM CST
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - Sometime in the early 1990s, I was standing on a street corner in north St. Louis. It was dark, cold, and rainy. Yellow crime scene tape was up. Another night, another homicide in the city.

“I’m freezing,” I said to another media person standing next to me. “I wonder how long we will be out here?”

Then a dark blue Plymouth Volare pulled up.

“Won’t be long now,” the person next to me said. “Burgoon is here.”

“You mean we might get out of the rain?” I said.

“No,” the person said. “It means this case is about to be closed.”

It soon was.

The legendary detective is 83 now, not that anyone would ever know it. We met to talk about cold cases in the St. Louis area, a topic nobody knows better than Joe Burgoon, having spent 44 years on the streets of St. Louis, 27 of them in homicide.

“I wrote a story a while back,” I told him. “It was about a social worker who was murdered.”

“Laura,” Burgoon said after about two seconds. “Laura Dinwiddie. She was from Greenwich, Connecticut.”

At first glance, that revelation might not seem like much. Until you realize that Dinwiddie was murdered in 1975.

They had two names for Burgoon at the police department. The Blue Knight, and the Godfather of Homicide. It was almost as if he was born for the role. His father was a police officer.

He grew up on the northside, and it wasn’t easy. His mother died when he was four. Burgoon would graduate from the old McBride High school for boys on Kingshighway, which closed 50 years ago. Then it was off to the Air Force for four years, then a return home to follow his father’s footsteps. Those would be big shoes to fill. Charles Burgoon was a patrolman for 33 years.

Joseph Burgoon was sworn in at the city police department when Eisenhower was president, proudly wearing badge number 4022. That would be Biden, Trump, Obama, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy, and Eisenhower for those keeping score. Joe Burgoon has been hunting bad guys while America has had 13 Presidents.

He would start as a relief sergeant, working the beat near Vashon High School.

By the time Burgoon was 30, homicide was calling. And for the next 27 years, if a white body sheet was surrounded by yellow crime scene tape in St. Louis, Joe Burgoon would pull up in that blue Volare.

And like that person told me years ago, it often meant the case was about to be closed.

Life still wasn’t easy for Burgoon. His wife died when he was just 33, leaving him with four small children. He would work days, play “Mr. Mom” at night, and wait for the inevitable phone call that could come 24/7. He would re-marry, and stay on the force for 44 years. He would raise seven children, one of them a police officer.

He presided over thousands of homicide cases in the city. I asked him which was the biggest. There was no pause from Burgoon: The 1987 National Supermarket mass killing that left five dead and two injured, stunning the city.

Burgoon closed the case, as he had so many others. Of course, not all were solved. While they all still live in his mind, one haunts him to this day.

Her name is now Precious Hope. Then, it was Jane Doe. Her headless remains were found on Clemons Avenue on the city’s northside in 1983. She was a small child, and like the National Supermarket killings, her story shocked and horrified the city. Police checked every school to find a missing child. Nothing. They waited for someone to come forward looking for a missing child. Nothing. It was as if the little girl’s body appeared out of nowhere, wanted by no one.

Despite tireless efforts, she was never identified, and was buried at Calvary Cemetery under the pseudonym.

By 2004, at 65, it was time for Joe Burgoon to hang up his pen and notebook, but that didn’t last long. A few years later he was roaming the halls at the St. Louis County Police Department as a cold case investigator, reviewing homicides and sexual assaults, still on the hunt today for justice.

Burgoon spent a career not just coming after them and locking them up, but doing it with a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down.

Where do you begin to tell the story of a man who has accomplished so much, a man who has had an impact on hundreds of others lives, a man so humble and decent and kind and devout in his faith...

Chris Pappas worked as a St. Louis police officer for 26 years, 18 of them in homicide under Burgoon.

“I can’t say enough about Joe. He’s one of the the finest men I know. I learned so much from him. I asked him so many questions, I figured he would get tired of answering them. But he never did. I worked side by side with him for nearly a dozen years. He was an excellent investigator who had a keen eye for detail, and the best memory of anyone I know. For any measure of success I might have had as an investigator, I owe to Joe’s mentoring. It was my honor and privilege to work with Joe. I’m proud to call him my friend.”

Scott Ecker has been with city police for 30 years. When he moved into homicide, Burgoon was his supervisor.

“When I first met Joe, he was part supervisor, teacher, mentor, and father figure. His patience and understanding when dealing with a young detective those many years ago certainly left a lasting mark with me. In my humble opinion Joe has no equal when it comes to investigations, especially homicide incidents.”

You might wonder how a man running a homicide department for three decades while he was raising seven children had any free time. But Burgoon found it in a strange place.

“Joe was a big wrestling fan,” Pappas said. “We had countless conversations about Nature Boy Rick Flair, Rowdy Roddy Piper and Hulk Hogan. Joe would always roll his eyes and say, ‘it’s all real, you know!”’

I asked Joe how he wanted to be remembered.

“It’s not about me, it’s about the families. If you can help people,” he said. “We have helped a lot of people get over things. And we’ve put people away, where they thought they were home free and then here we come.”

Burgoon and I shook hands to say goodbye. I told him what a remarkable life he has led, a race well run, and how many lives he had touched and comforted along the way. But no matter what I could say, Scott Ecker said it better

“In the case of Joe, God just does not make people like him anymore.”