He was a Las Vegan, a retired military man, no wife or children, but with a sister and parents who were still living and loving him. He was 54 years old, with decades more of life to live, until 2007, when Brandon Burk, after performing in Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding, chose to get drunk at the Circle Bar at the Rio, slip behind the wheel and drive the wrong way on U.S. 95.
Burk’s car plowed into one driven by Tomlin. Burk suffered a broken knee and a broken ankle. Tomlin died. Burk was imprisoned. Now he’s free.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t remember, first thing in the morning, that my job today is to give back as much as I can,” says the 32-year-old Burk, pausing to overcome the catch in his throat. “All of it is in his name. But I know I can’t give back what I’ve taken.”
We first told you this story on June 11 (From Prison, With Love), when Burk, one of the most gifted actor/directors in Las Vegas, was serving the tail end of a 5 1/2-year stretch that could have extended 14 years, as he maintained his job as artistic director of the Onyx Theatre in absentia. We revisit it now, not to celebrate Burk or whitewash his actions, but to conclude the story of the tragedy he triggered.
“I have paid a debt to society, I have done my time as far as the court is concerned,” says Burk, who was paroled in November. “But as far as I am concerned, it is so much more than that.”
Actually, the court isn’t done with Burk. He may lose his freedom again. As we reported last year, following his imprisonment beginning in 2008 at the Southern Desert Correctional Center in Indian Springs and the Stewart Conservation Camp in Carson City, he was allowed into a work-release program in April 2012. Living under supervision at the Casa Grande Transitional Center on Russell Road, he returned to run the Onyx (where he directed Sweeney Todd, the hands-down best community production of 2012) and also worked as a server at a local Chili’s restaurant. Until …
Burk was rearrested on January 28, 2013—in front of a gathering crowd of Onyx theatergoers—for possessing an iPad, a violation of the rule prohibiting the use of telecommunications devices, as discovered during a random check. He was returned to prison.
Although he’s since been granted parole, he faces a new hearing on that same incident, which was not only a work-release violation when he was technically still a prisoner, but a separate act of breaking the law. He will face the court anew on March 26.
“I’m hoping for probation; I think that’s reasonable, but there is a chance they can send me back,” Burk says. “But I think it’s a very good sign that they granted me parole even after that charge was made.” If he is spared more imprisonment, he will instead be put on probation on top of his parole, which could keep him under state supervision for up to five more years. Meanwhile, Burk travels the road to rehabilitation that began in lockup.
“I’m really focused on my recovery program,” he says. “I did a lot of drugs in high school and college. I was addicted to cocaine for a little while, and marijuana, of course. Alcohol was the biggest problem, the one I always came back to. But they’re all a problem for me. I can’t handle it like a normal human being, so I choose not to do it.”
Meanwhile, the man who hones the vision and sets the agenda for the creatively daring Onyx makes his return to its stage as an actor in Anton Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard of the Living Dead, writer/director Troy Heard’s original comic riff on the angst-ridden works of the Russian playwright, February 21-March 9.
Ask ex-inmates about the one memory that lingers after even the most traumatic have faded, and most would likely agree with Burk. “It’s the first time that metal door closed behind me,” he says. “That’s a sound you never forget. It’s like, ‘Here we go.’” Is prison life how we on the outside imagine it, filtered through Hollywood’s habitual melodrama? “In the show Oz, it got overdramatized, but that’s not daily prison life,” Burk says.
That doesn’t mean it’s The Cosby Show, either.
“I saw some things I wish I hadn’t seen. People got beat up and stabbed. It’s difficult to be around and maintain a diplomacy with others in prison. You have to walk this line. Fortunately, for the most part—and I don’t know why—people were respectful of me. They allowed me to stay separate from the stuff I didn’t want to be a part of, without treating me like an outcast.”
Shuttled between several institutions, Burk was put to work in multiple capacities, including on a state forestry crew, cutting down trees and burning leaves at parks. Eventually, he was assigned to the governor’s mansion, where he and fellow inmates worked parties and events, setting up catering, sprucing up the yard, decorating for the holidays. On a couple of occasions, he was even invited to sing.
By and large, though, prison is not the place to indulge one’s love of theater. Yet Burk did manage to share his passion with a few willing inmates, schooling them in Shakespeare via complete works sent by his mother. “We broke down some of the major plays—Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet—and it was a lot of fun. You could feel them starting to understand, that ‘click’ where they go, ‘This really isn’t a different language.’”
And yes, he remained the Onyx artistic director from inside the joint, constantly phoning theater co-owner Michael Morse and theater manager Ernie Curcio. Together, they set up the season fare and hashed out details of individual shows via 30-minute calls, a limitation that is no longer necessary as Burk has returned to the Onyx’s little office square down the hall from the theater.
“I was always a theater scholar, but in prison I had the time to study the craft even more, and to think ahead,” he says. “What are the aesthetics I’m looking for in the theater? What is it as an artist I want to see more of onstage? I knew the first thing I had to do was come back here to the Onyx.”
Hindsight isn’t always 20/20, especially when it’s soaked in booze.
Probe Burk now about the night that changed his life and took Stephen Tomlin’s, and the picture you get is largely incomplete. “What haunts me is that I don’t remember it,” he says. Actually, he remembers the drinking, but not the consequences.
“I hadn’t intended to get into my car that night, but that’s not a justification or a cop-out,” he says about his elbow-bending at the Rio. “I was waiting for a friend working there as a bevertainer to take me to a party. I got a buzz going, as I too often did, and blacked out completely. I must have wandered off, got in my car and started driving. I wound up going the wrong way on the 95.”
His next clear recollection? Waking up handcuffed to a hospital bed. “They told me there was a car accident and I had been driving, that I had injured someone and it didn’t look like he was going to make it.”
While images from that awful night remain fuzzy to Burk, images from the sentencing are vivid and likely seared deep into his memory, especially that of Tomlin’s elderly mother taking the stand. “She showed me a picture of Stephen; it was his graduation photo from boot camp, and she said, ‘This is my son, my only son,’” Burk recalls. “I couldn’t help but picture my own mother sitting in that chair, holding a picture. I’d never seen him before, I didn’t know what he looked like. I have seen him every night since then.”
Seeking vengeance was not her agenda at the hearing. “She said, ‘I don’t want revenge, I just want a sentence that proves that a life is worth something,’’’ Burk remembers. “I thought it was a graceful thing to say, and I appreciated it.”
When Burk became eligible for parole after serving the minimum of his sentence, Tomlin’s parents did not oppose it. But neither did they wish to engage in emotional healing when, two years after the accident, Burk wrote to them from prison.
“Of course it was an apology,” he says. “But I tried to open the lines of communication, not so I could say what I wanted to say to them, but to give them the opportunity to say what they wanted to say to me. They never wrote back. I anticipated that, and I understand it.”
Some ex-convicts are determined to banish the memory of prison. This one is determined to keep it. “It would be tempting to push it all away, but I need the reminder,” says Burk, who took memorabilia from the unhappiest chapter of his life.
“They have electronics you can buy while you’re in. I had this little tube TV. I decorated it over the years, and I have it with me. There are clothes I have with me, to remember who I was when I was there, and how easy it would be to go back there if I stop thinking about other people.”
On the Onyx stage, Burk will once again tap a comic talent that is prodigious. Anyone familiar with his work in Tony n’ Tina, or his riotous performance in Nevada Conservatory Theatre’s The Gamester years ago, or even his gig as a dialect coach in the Vegas production of Spamalot, can second that.
Yet Burk is acutely aware that whoever else might buy a ticket, take a seat and enjoy his stage return, one man can’t. His name was Stephen Tomlin.
Anton Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard of the Living Dead: 8 p.m. Thu-Sat, 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 21-March 9, Onyx Theatre, 953 E. Sahara Ave., $15, 732-7225, OnyxTheatre.com.
To read Bornfeld’s June story about Burk, From Prison, With Love, click here.