At 3:30 p.m. Thursday afternoon, Webster County Prosecuting Attorney Ben Berkstresser saw and spoke to Justin Burney, a sergeant for the Webster County Sheriff’s Department, just before Burney left the Marshfield square.
“I’ve always liked Justin a great deal,” Berkstresser said.
“He was just a kind soul, a really special young man.”
Little did he know that was the last time he would see Burney.
Twenty minutes later, the 26-year-old Burney was in a two-vehicle accident on Interstate 44, about a half-mile west of Marshfield, with his two children, ages 3 and 6, in tow.
At 4:25 p.m., he was pronounced dead at Cox Medical Center South in Springfield, where his two children also were taken after the 3:50 p.m. accident.
“This is the definition of a tragedy,” an evidently emotional Berkstresser said Friday morning, his voice shaking.
“I’m glad that I got to see (Burney) that final time yesterday, but I’m just absolutely heartbroken for his family, his children and his fiancé.”
According to Cpl. David L. Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, Burney was westbound on four-lane Interstate 44 in a 2015 Kia Soul when an eastbound 2004 Jeep Liberty “traveled off the left side of eastbound I-44, traveled through the median cable barrier and crossed the median.” Johnson’s report continued, “The Jeep Liberty traveled into the westbound lane and struck” Burney’s Kia.
Driving the Jeep Liberty was 35-year-old Justin Spearing of Tucson, Ariz., who was traveling alone.
Riding in Burney’s Kia were his two children — his 6-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son.
His 6-year-old daughter sustained what Johnson described as serious injuries and was taken by ambulance to Cox Medical Center South in Springfield. His 3-year-old son’s injuries were described as minor, and he was taken to Cox South by private vehicle, the patrol report said.
Later, Burney’s daughter was flown to a St. Louis hospital, where her condition was reported as critical over the weekend.
“I think she’s doing pretty good now,” Webster County Sheriff Roye Cole said Sunday. “Her injuries were very serious. It’s just going to be a long recovery.”
Spearing’s injuries were listed as moderate.
He was taken by ambulance to Mercy Hospital in Springfield, according to the patrol report.
Johnson said in his radio report that Spearing was tested for alcohol.
“No intoxicants were found,” Berkstresser said Friday.
“He blew triple zeroes. There doesn’t appear to be any impairment.”
So what happened?
“Right now, we don’t know anything conclusively,” Berkstresser said. “I’ve spoken to several (patrol) troopers.
“It appears the driver (who struck Burney) may have fallen asleep. We don’t know that, but from what we’ve been able to piece together at this point, that’s what we’re looking at with this accident.”
Assisting Johnson at the accident scene were Lt. J.B. Johnson, Cpl. E.B. Adams and Cpl. T.V. Mosley of the patrol, as well as several deputies from the Webster County Sheriff’s Department.
“Justin Burney was both loved and respected by those who knew him,” Berkstresser said. “Today is just a sad and tragic day in Webster County. The county lost a wonderful young public servant who had a very bright future ahead of him.”
Burney’s career with the Webster County Sheriff’s Department began on Jan. 2, 2014, as a detention officer for the jail when he was only 18 years old.
He later attended the police academy, and once Burney graduated, he transferred from detention offi cer to deputy.
Burney also served as a school-resource officer in Marshfield, then took an advancement to work with the Bolivar Police Department in nearby Polk County before returning to the Webster County Sheriff’s Department, where he rose the ranks to corporal, then sergeant.
“He was an integral part of the opening of the new Webster County Justice Center, and he was responsible for the training and implementation of our new security system in the jail,” Cole said.
“Justin Burney was the most encouraging, helpful, kindhearted person you could ever meet. He didn’t know a stranger and would do anything for anyone. His smile was contagious. You couldn’t be in a bad mood when he was around.”
Cole added, “Justin loved his family more than anything in the world. Nothing was more important to him than his family. Sgt. Burney will be missed by so many.”