07.10.10

The GPS Murderer

James Stropas apparently had no idea that his car was being tracked.

It was June 21, coming off another in a series of scorching hot weekends in the quaint Philadelphia suburb of Springfield. Unbeknownst to Stropas, his Jeep Grand Cherokee had a small GPS device attached to its frame that was now broadcasting a signal, silently pinpointing his location as he pulled into the parking lot of the bustling Olde Sproul Shopping Village strip mall. According to police, a man with a laptop accessed the GPS data at 10:40 a.m. Ten minutes later, that man climbed into Stropas's Jeep and stuck a knife in him.

Police investigated Burton's vehicle and found plastic covering the seats, a pair of gloves, a hatchet, a shovel, a fresh set of clothes, and some gasoline, presumably to burn whatever evidence remained after he buried the dismembered body.

Chasing a group of teens off a keg in the woods is what usually passes for an exciting day for the Springfield police. The town, more welcoming to working class families when this reporter grew up there in 1980s, is now solidly white-collar and more affluent than ever. It went hard for McCain/Palin, and has become a regional base of Tea Party support. It has a reverence for high school football, well manicured lawns, and conservative family values. Residents like it this way.

Now, their cozy little hamlet is the scene of a horrific crime, the details of which are just beginning to emerge. The victim, 32-year-old James Stropas, was an Iraq War vet who just returned from the battlefield in March. He had signed up for a couple of tours as an Army sergeant after September 11th. He also happened to be dating the not-yet-divorced wife of one Sean Burton, and had recently moved into her Springfield home.

That same Sean Burton was pulled over by Springfield police not far from the scene minutes after witnesses to the crime called the police; he was covered in blood, and weakly claiming self-defense as the reason for the mutilated corpse curled up under the passenger's-side dashboard.

Burton was driving Stropas's Cherokee when he was arrested, and the FBI later discovered the GPS tracking device on its underbelly.

It was Burton’s laptop from which the location of Stropas’s car was checked ten minutes before he died. And at a preliminary hearing on July 1, witnesses described the blood: all over the car, and dripping from Burton’s hands and arms. The grim signs of calculated premeditation mounted when police investigated Burton's vehicle – he’d had his car kitted-out Soprano's-style, with plastic covering the seats, a pair of gloves, a hatchet, a shovel, a fresh set of clothes, and some gasoline, presumably to burn whatever evidence remained after he buried the dismembered body.

Burton was the owner of a car stereo and alarm installation shop in Morton, the next town over from Springfield. Morton isn't Springfield — it has a lot of low-income housing, and residents have knicknamed the town "Little Chester," after the drug-and-crime ridden city located just a few miles down the road. According to one person who knew him, Burton had a bad reputation in the local circles of mechanics and car audiophiles he moved in. At one time he was a regular at "the Races," an illegal drag race scene that coalesces weekly along a remote stretch of industrial highway in far-southwest Philadelphia. For years, the Races have drawn throngs of local motorheads who match their stock muscle cars against each other in dangerous street duels. The illicit events draw a rugged crowd of working-class bruiser-types who can appreciate the brawny roar of a big block engine and the acrid smoke of a burnout. They're the kind of dudes who know bad news when they see it.

"We used to see (Burton) down Bartram Avenue at the Races all the time maybe ten years ago," says Dave Pieri, a local auto mechanic who was raised in Springfield and still lives nearby, of the accused killer. "He always had a 'my shit don't stink' attitude. He didn't seem like that great of a guy."

The GPS unit Burton allegedly used to electronically stalk Stropas sells for about $500 with all the necessary wiring included and a handy padded case to carry it in. The industry that manufactures the devices touts their various legitimate uses as vehicle theft deterrents and for tracking stolen merchandise. One manufacturer, the Global Tracking Group, includes excerpts on their website from favorable Washington Post and New York Times articles with suggestions that anxious parents use the devices to keep tabs on their newly licensed teenagers. The FBI has used them to recover diverted trucking shipments of consumer electronics.

Gary DeFinis, a licensed private detective and owner of Philadelphia Surveillance Company, affirms that the devices can play an important and positive role in the surveillance industry when they are used legally, as the manufacturer intends.

"For example, in my business GPS tracking units could hypothetically be used in a divorce proceeding," DiFinis explains. "Say the wife is trying to gain intelligence about her husband's extra-marital activities in order to build her case. In that type of situation, GPS could help her get out of exactly this kind of toxic relationship. Nobody in the industry wants to see the technology used to hurt people like this."

The technology is so new that legal precedents on the use of GPS tracking and privacy invasion are still developing. There is concern in the industry that high-profile cases like Burton's where the devices are used for nefarious purposes could hamper growth in sales for legitimate uses.

Burton's car-stereo installation shop is shuttered in the wake of his arrest. Local mechanic Pieri says his work wasn't known around town as top notch, anyway. The accused is being held without bail on murder charges in Delaware County's George Hill Correctional Facility.

In the aftermath of the crime, Springfield is back to its quaint and quiet self with American flags still flying high all over town in the wake of the Fourth of July holiday.

Jeff Deeney is a social worker and freelance writer from Philadelphia. He works with felony drug offenders in the criminal justice system and writes about urban poverty and drug culture.