For Mobile native Michael Burchfield, South Carolina Lowcountry was similar to home but not the same. The distance felt especially far on Labor Day weekend 1983 when his boss knocked on Burchfield’s door at “two or three o’clock in the morning.”
“That’s when he told me my brother Major had been murdered. My life changed forever,” Burchfield said as his voice shook. The 68-year-old sighed, looked away and stroked his snowy goatee, his watery eyes distant.
Mobile lost a nascent cultural force to a late-night frenzy of blood and blade. The Burchfield family lost part of their heart.
“Most of the people who knew Major are probably dead and gone now,” Michael said.
On the road
Though born in Mississippi in 1943, Major Burchfield spent his adolescence in Mobile. Family history traced back to the Appalachians, but his father’s job in fossil fuel exploration brought repeated relocations. It wore on Major’s mother, who wanted roots for her growing family.
The Burchfields settled in Mobile in the mid 1950s. They optimized the seaside locale with family fishing outings to Dauphin Island on weekends.
“We first lived where the railroad track crosses Howells Ferry. Then we moved to Birdville for three or four years, then Oakdale,” Michael Burchfield recalled.
Artistic pursuits ran in the family. Michael and his youngest brother, George, reminisced on square-dancing grandparents, visual artists and singers.
First-born Major followed suit. He took voice and piano lessons, learned about floral arrangements.
“He came to me with no training. He desired to dance more than anything. I took him in,” dance studio owner Madeline McDonald told a reporter in 1983.
That passion filtered to his smaller siblings. Eight years younger, Michael dabbled in adagio, a slower paced movement form straddling acrobatics and dance. Social pressures forced him toward sports.
“In the South, people frowned on it,” Michael said. A sixth grade teacher noted his dance performance photo in the newspaper. He lied and denied involvement.
“I was embarrassed because that’s how they treated you back then. It’s like, ‘I’m gonna’ beat your ass when you get out of school,’” Michael said.
Major was undaunted.
“He was very disciplined, like a father,” Michael said. “You didn’t make mistakes or you got called down —“
“– Corrected!” brother George smiled and nodded.
The brothers said Major joined the Air Force after Murphy High School graduation. After the service, he moved to New York City and ticked off a list on his ascent.
Classes at Long Island’s Adelphi University: checked.
Studies at Martha Graham School: checked.
Dance with professional companies: checked.
Touring and starring spots: checked.
He followed that up with a year in the Royal Dutch Ballet then became co-director of Mandala Dance Theatre and toured major cities of India.
“We didn’t hear from him much. He’d come home occasionally. He would write and I would write him,” Michael said.
In the late 1970s, Major became director of a Virginia Beach ballet company. He also accepted Madeline McDonald’s invitations for special Azalea City performances. The visits rekindled old embers, so by August 1977 Major announced plans to return home.
Return to form
A February 1978 Press-Register article announced Major Burchfield’s new company, Dance Theater of the South, would hold auditions. In April, they performed at the Fine Arts Museum of the South, now the Mobile Museum of Art. He created a new dance workshop at Spring Hill College that summer with faculty from around the globe.
In August, Burchfield Ballet instructional academy was incorporated. He shared space with McDonald at the intersection of Springhill Avenue and Stanton Road.
Pressing forward, Major and Ann Duke announced their new venture, Alabama Dance Theater, in September. Their debut, “Coppelia,” played the Mobile Civic Center in November.
Major’s resilience convinced dancer Pagan Mosher to return to Mobile from Birmingham despite Mobile’s lack of semi-professional or civic ballet.
“I’m 5 feet 3.5 inches, so I’m thinking maybe [Major] was 5 feet 6 inches, if that. He was small and back in the ’60s and ’70s taller dancers had an advantage, but he persevered,” Mosher said. “He gave a lot of Mobile dancers an opportunity. He was a good teacher.”
Mosher said she and fellow dancer Carl Belk were close to Major. She described Belk as handsome, strong, quiet and gentle. By her account, he grew up on a dairy farm and came to dance later than she did.
“My girlfriends would ask me to set them up with Carl,” Mosher said. She diplomatically dispelled interest. She also sensed insecurities in Major.
“The company probably would have grown a lot more, but [Major] would spend the profit on taking out all the dancers for dinner afterwards when it wasn’t required. With nonprofits, you have to use your seed money for your next endeavor. We’d have to start over most every time because he would do that,” Mosher said.
In January 1983, an impasse led to Major’s resignation from Alabama Dance Theatre. Months later, it changed names to Ballet Mobile. Burchfield Ballet would receive more attention from its namesake, with plans to expand its performance capabilities.
The Burchfield brothers said Major’s vision extended in other directions. He rented an apartment across Dauphin Street from the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in a downtown emptied by suburban sprawl over the ’60s and ’70s. Major told Michael of an opportunity to buy half the block.
“[Major] said [he] might be able to get it for $30,000. I said buy it,” Michael recalled. “He wanted to open up a French restaurant in part of it.”
The spot became John Word’s restaurant in 1982. Today, James Beard Award-nominated Southern National is there.
“[Major] could speak French before he went [to Europe], took it in school. He loved the language and learned to cook,” Michael said.
“I’m down at his place and I ruined one of his frying pans by cooking a grilled cheese sandwich – you remember that? – in his apartment,” George said, laughed with his brother.
Major relocated to Palmetto Street in the Oakleigh Garden District. After 1979’s Hurricane Frederic, he moved into Town Court Apartments at 1111 Church St.
Colleagues said Major superficially masked his homosexuality. Pagan Mosher pointed to his lack of “flamboyance.”
“You can imagine in the ’60s and ’70s being gay was difficult,” Mosher said. I know Mobile has gotten better but I thought it was gutsy.”
Major’s unapologetic admission of his sexuality irritated George. The youngest brother attributed it to the rashness of late adolescence.
“I found out how much of a man he was because he looked me in my God-given eye and said, ‘You can think of me what you want to, son, but let me tell you one thing: my lifestyle’s my lifestyle and my life is my life and how I care about people is between me and God,’” George said.
George’s attitude would change. Character became paramount.
So why did Major return to Mobile when the cultural and social battles were so tough?
“I think the main thing was to be closer to his family. He was seeking to bring things to Mobile, to attract that audience to the theaters and performances. He’s the one that brought ‘The Nutcracker’ back,” George said.
Out of the shadows
In 1983, downtown Mobile was different after dark, after the suits and secretaries scuttled home for dinner. An X-rated theater sat on Dauphin Street, just east of the intersection with Jackson Street.
There were a few saloons for seamen, including a couple of dives cozied up to the corner of Government and Royal streets. The Lucky Lady Lounge was more famous as a strip joint, but the neighboring Club Royal hosted dancers, too.
“Guys would get their draws off of the ships and they come and get intoxicated and then what money they hadn’t spent on liquor the prostitutes would take,” former Mobile Police Department (MPD) Detective Wilbur Williams said.
Williams remembered the Society Lounge at the corner of South Conception and Conti, too. It was an “up-and-coming” gay bar nicknamed “Sweaty Betty’s” by its clientele, after owner Betty Yates.
“One night they had a cutting there where there were a bunch of victims. It was the damnedest thing you’ve ever seen. It was right along in that [same] period of time, too,” Williams said.
Major was celebrating on Sunday, Sept. 4. He had finished auditions and completed a fall and winter tour schedule. He was due at his parents’ house for their wedding anniversary the next day, but there was time left in the Labor Day weekend until then.
Major stopped at David’s Lounge, next to Universal Hardware at the Five Points intersection of Springhill, St. Stephens and Ann. When he climbed back into his late-model station wagon after midnight, he headed downtown.
A gangly 21-year-old walked into the Lucky Lady, the latest stop in a night of bar-hopping. He made the rounds, asked for a ride to West Mobile. He didn’t catch a lift but another hard-luck case made him a deal.
The young man’s arm with the “DM” tattoo offered cash while the stranger slipped three Valiums into the other hand, the one beneath his rebel flag tattoo. Maybe the pills were for the skinny construction worker’s bad knee, maybe just to make another steamy night slide by.
He asked another person for a ride, then another. Something finally arose.
Williams was on MPD’s brand new homicide division, begun in 1981. In 1980, Mobile had 62 homicides, then 54 in 1981 and 61 in 1982 so when the young sergeant was called to an Oakleigh crime scene on Sept. 5, his workload was already full.
“I want to say it was later in the evening because it was damn dark when we got there and he’d been dead for a long time,” Williams said. Rigor mortis was present.
Little inside the small Church Street apartment looked out of place at first. A small kitchen was to the right. A slight blood trail led to the short hallway, past a bathroom to the bedroom door where the placid appearance exploded.
Major Burchfield was on his bed, nude and face up. Lacerations riddled his wiry upper body.
“Severe injuries, deep, penetrating … the bedroom was bloody as hell,” Williams said. A forensic pathologist’s report would cite 19 stab wounds, in the chest, neck, shoulder and back.
A bloody palm print from a right hand was on the right side of the doorframe, a little less than shoulder high.
“It was like he put his right hand up and reached for the door with his left hand … It was like he was steadying himself as he opened the bedroom door,” Williams said.
It was no good for identification. No one filed palm prints. What it revealed was the moment’s whirl, exhaustion and panic.
The murder weapon, a kitchen knife, was cleaned and in the bathroom sink.
A resident in the same complex, Carl Belk had dropped by about 10 p.m. after plans to attend the Burchfield anniversary dinner never materialized. He let himself in with his house key, found the body and called police.
Williams said Belk wouldn’t have been surprised if Major came home with someone from a bar. He also told them Major’s car was gone.
Neighbors heard nothing unusual from the ground-floor apartment. Some were gone for the holiday.
At the Burchfield home, worry bloomed. It was unlike Major to miss Monday night’s anniversary dinner. George answered the phone Tuesday morning and recognized Belk’s voice.
“He said, ‘Major’s been killed.’ I said, ‘Daddy, you need to get over here to the phone’ and gave him the phone. I was in shock,” George said.
Michael was in Summerville, South Carolina, working on an archaeological site. His boss’ concern showed.
“He’s a hell of a guy. My boss came down with me, took my Dad to go view Major. I couldn’t do it. He had to identify him,” Michael said.
The brothers said it “devastated” their family.
“Our mother grieved herself to death after that,” George said.
“We kind of parted our ways about four months before [Major] died. I kind of regret it,” Pagan Mosher said. “He managed to get an awful lot done in a short period of time as far as developing his school and the dance program in Alabama Dance Theatre.”
Mosher thought she detected smugness in the news. Her inference from reports was, “This is a crime only in the ballet community.”
Major was cremated. As expected in the death of the well known and young, the service overflowed the Radney Funeral Home sanctuary.
“I was worried about Carl [Belk] for a long time. At the service, I sat with him. Everybody was looking at him and I was irritated they suspected him,” Mosher said.
Major wanted to be scattered into the ocean, ideally near Navarre Beach, Florida. However, Michael had to get back to South Carolina and their mother was doing too poorly for the 150-mile trip.
In a nod to family history, “two to three carloads” drove to the east end of Dauphin Island, where “Major loved fishing.”
“We got there by Fort Gaines, I knew I couldn’t do it because I was just about ready to break down. I am now,” Michael said as his eyes welled.
In the early hours of Oct. 22, a Harris County, Georgia, deputy sheriff spotted a blue 1982 Dodge station wagon with an Alabama tag parked near a Callaway Gardens construction site. A quick check through the National Crime Information Center identified it as stolen from a murder scene.
David Nelson Mize was awakened in the back seat. He told arresting officers he “won the car in a pool game with a guy named Major” and had been working at the site.
“As homicide investigators, when you steal a car, buddy that’s the biggest chance we’ve got of catching you,” Williams said.
Williams and his partner, John Wayne Boone, were dispatched to retrieve Mize from Hamilton, Georgia, near Columbus. Officers scrutinized everything. Mize had nicks on his hands that could have come in the knife attack, but he was a carpenter so it would be hard to prove.
Georgia law enforcement found blood in the car, on Mize’s clothes. Without DNA, all they could prove was ABO type and enzyme testing.
“They couldn’t say absolutely for sure that it was Burchfield’s, but they could say it wasn’t [Mize’s],” Williams said.
Mize waived extradition hearings, ready to go back to Mobile on a charge of receiving stolen property. When the trio of travelers reached Montgomery, Mize was “interjecting himself” into the detectives’ conversation.
“By the time we got to about Greenville or so, he started crying. ’Course anytime you get a suspect to start crying, you got your foot in the door. You need to go ahead and kick it off the hinges and go on inside and take care of business,” Williams said.
They tried to pull over on Interstate 65, but traffic noise made for a bad recording. There was a rest area ahead, just south of Evergreen.
“So we pulled right out there and walked out to one of the picnic tables and instantly – of course he had to retract his desire not to talk to us. We made sure we had all of that on the tape and everything and then like I said he came on and told us the whole story,” Williams said.
By Mize’s account, Major offered him “a ride home” to West Mobile from the Royal Street bar. In transit, Major told him he forgot something at his apartment and needed to stop.
“They get to the apartment and Burchfield says, ‘Man, I got some cold beer in the refrigerator; come on in and help yourself to one while I get …’ whatever it was,” Williams recalled.
Mize said he went to the apartment bathroom then to the kitchen and was rummaging through the refrigerator. He claimed Major was in the bedroom.
“He came back into the kitchen with no clothes on,” Mize said, sighing.
Mize said Major wanted Mize to disrobe then described sexual acts.
“He tried to touch me but I wouldn’t let him,” Mize said. “I pushed his hand away. I wanted to leave but the door was locked with a deadbolt lock. I couldn’t get out. I grabbed a [kitchen] knife and struggled with him a few minutes. I stabbed him in the chest several times.”
Mize said Major shouted “Are you crazy?!” when he was stabbed. Mize said he pushed the dancer to the bedroom.
“The first time I stabbed him he didn’t put up a struggle,” Mize said.
Mize said once Major stopped moving, the assailant cleaned off the knife and left it in the kitchen. Police found it in the bathroom.
Mize pulled $15 from Major’s wallet. He said that’s when he first knew the dancer’s identity, from his driver’s license.
“When did you learn Burchfield was dead?” Williams asked.
“When you two told me, when I saw you at Hamilton jail,” Mize said.
“Did you figure he was dead before you left?” Boone asked.
“Yes. I wasn’t sure you was looking for me or anyone else. I didn’t see anything on the TV or read anything in the newspaper about it,” Mize replied.
“So why’d you have to kill him?” Boone asked.
“What would you do if a guy was coming toward you like that?” Mize said.
Boone and Williams checked out Mize’s tale. People at the Royal Street dives, bartenders and patrons, verified the tall kid with short, brown hair sought a ride to “Theodore or Tillman’s Corner,” Williams recalled.
“It was one of those things where you only have one verbal story being told, Mr. Mize’s story because Major wasn’t talking. There were some questions, but we were never able to concretely establish a robbery motive,” Williams said.
Paperwork was filed for the receiving stolen property and the murder charges. In December 1983, a grand jury indicted Mize for murder. Peter Palughi was assigned counsel for the indigent Mize.
When the trial arrived in mid-April 1984, Mize stuck by his confession and entered a “not guilty” plea. Palughi said the panicked decision to flee in the victim’s car was “due to his youth.”
District Attorney Chris Galanos called 16 witnesses to Circuit Judge Ferrill McRae’s witness stand, with Carl Belk first. Then came detectives Williams and Boone, followed by other police officers and forensic personnel.
Mize kept his head down, eyes on a transcript while his tearful roadside confession played in court. Mize’s father, a Grand Bay resident and a family friend testified to the defendant’s character.
“I was there,” George Burchfield said. His summary of Mize? “No remorse whatsoever. Not in my eyes.”
Galanos let loose in his closing argument, cited robbery as the motive. He pointed to Major’s .21 blood alcohol level.
“This man found a drunk in a downtown bar and took him home and rolled him,” Galanos thundered.
The prosecutor pointed to size discrepancy, that Mize was a half-foot taller and 30 pounds heavier. He questioned self-defense.
“Is it reasonable to make sexual advances at a person coming at him with a knife?” Galanos asked.
The prosecutor traced Mize’s trail, that he drove to Grand Bay in Major’s car, then drove to Mississippi where he had drinks and shot pool. He returned to Mobile, stopped at his George Street apartment, just blocks from the murder scene, where he packed clothes then visited relatives in Pine Mountain, Georgia.
Galanos highlighted falsehoods Mize gave officers. He said he won the station wagon in a pool game. When found, he had a health permit card from Charleston, South Carolina, and the identification of another person in his possession. Williams later said Mize never indicated to him or Boone that he lived in the neighborhood near Major.
“A life is a life. I don’t know whether [Major] is a homosexual or not. I do know he was a human being and had a right to live,” Galanos said.
The defense leaned on attempted rape. If Mize submitted to Major, “would he ever be the same person and have the state of mind of a normal person and not practice perverted sex?” Palughi asked.
Despite asking for seven clarifications from the bench, the jury returned a guilty verdict in just 46 minutes.
“I don’t feel justice was ever done,” George said. “I’ve forgiven the guy, I just think a lot of the story wasn’t fully told.”
The Burchfield brothers quickly noted Major “had a lot of cash money on him” then. Williams said no cash reserves were found in the apartment.
“I still believe today,” George said, tapping the table with his index finger, “that he followed [Major] home from the bar.”
In his pre-sentencing investigation, Mize admitted to downing a minimal six-pack of beer daily. “Mize is known in the community as a homosexual and a heavy drinker,” it read. No evidence was cited for the conclusion.
Palughi’s motion for a new trial based on discrepancies between Mize’s verbal confession to officers and written confession given to counsel was denied. On May 18, Mize was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Jackson, Mississippi, dancer Oscar Garza was hired to oversee Burchfield Ballet. Before long, it was rebranded as Ballet Bienville. It and Ballet Mobile struggled until merging into Mobile Ballet in 1986. Winthrop Corey was hired to helm it in 1988 and “The Nutcracker” became an annual tradition.
“[Mize] came up for parole in seven years,” George said. “Then he came up two years later.”
An October 1992 parole hearing notification listed Mize’s time served as 8 years, 11 months and 6 days. It also listed Major’s four siblings as notified of the proceeding. Michael said he missed that one while George said he was there.
Mize was paroled less than a decade after being sentenced.
“As quick as [Mize] was paroled, he would have had to have been a decent inmate and I venture to say nobody from the victim’s family showed up in protest [at the parole hearing] … If anybody showed up in protest, it was very unlikely [inmates] got out,” Williams said.
The detective said Mize was the only person he’s ever arrested who wrote him in gratitude from prison, “for all [Williams] had done for him.”
Years later, Williams worked as chief of security at Ladd Stadium when approached by an old University of South Alabama schoolmate. He asked if Williams remembered Mize.
“He said, ‘Well he works for me and wanted me to tell you hello and wanted me to thank you for being nice to him,’” Williams said.
“I just had to come to grips that he gave the family what they asked for, at the end with his being able to get out of the penitentiary. That was a letter to the family with a reason why,” George said. He couldn’t clarify what was in the letter Mize wrote.
Mize lives in Phenix City, Alabama. He was married in 2009 and plays in a Christian rock band in his spare time.
“It’s 36 years later and I’m just so emotional. I know you can’t go after somebody because it’s not up to us to do that unless it’s in self-defense,” Michael said.
George and Michael grasp memories against time’s tide. Their mother died in February 1990, while George was in the Indian Ocean as a merchant seaman. Their father passed away in 2001. Tommy — the brother between George and Michael — died in the last couple of years.
They try not to linger on Major’s early demise but his influence.
“He saw gifts in people and if you chose not to use them then that was on you,” George said.
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