Crash and Burn

Fire chief is killed after ex-con flees

Draped in purple cloth and perched atop a shiny yellow fire engine, Affton Fire Chief Gerald Buehne's coffin slowly wound its way to its burial plot in Resurrection Cemetery last week.

The ceremony was long on pomp, with a Highland marching band accompanying the coffin and hundreds of fellow firefighters, emergency medical technicians and police in attendance. A giant was being put to rest, and the crowd stood in silence as a voice crackled over the PA system: "This is the last alarm for Chief Buehne. He will be missed."

Buehne's lifetime of service in the Affton Fire Department stands in stark contrast to the life of the man who killed him. Suspected of shoplifting watches and medicine at a Walgreens store, Claudex Simmons was fleeing police in a purple PT Cruiser when he slammed head-on into Buehne's Crown Victoria on the morning of March 10.

Simmons' rap sheet dates back to at least June 1984, when he was picked up on a stealing charge in St. Louis county. It was his third offense, and he was looking at doing fifteen years' hard time as a repeat offender.

But Simmons saw an out: A few days prior to his arrest, detectives had interviewed him about the June 4, 1984, shooting death of Donald Ball. When detectives first spoke to him, Simmons said that he'd heard shots but hadn't seen the assailant. Faced with fifteen years in prison, he changed his tune and told detectives he'd seen the shooter, a man he identified as Darryl Burton (see Malcolm Gay's "A Shot in the Arm," November 3, 2004).

Simmons cut a deal with prosecutors. In exchange for his testimony against Burton, he would receive probation and a suspended sentence. Largely on the strength of Simmons' testimony, a St. Louis court sentenced Burton to life without parole.

But Simmons' relationship with the state soon soured. He broke the terms of his parole and, while locked up at the city workhouse, admitted that he'd perjured himself at Burton's trial. According to records on file with the Missouri Department of Corrections, a St. Louis County judge imposed Simmons' original fifteen-year sentence in 1987, and for the next twenty years he was in and out of prison.

Since his parole in 1999, the 44-year-old Simmons had managed to fly under the courts' radar -- until the morning of the crash. Now Simmons is locked up and facing second-degree murder charges, Darryl Burton remains imprisoned, and Fire Chief Gerald Buehne is dead.

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