Court documents detail history of Susan J. Burns, who allegedly hit Gauguin art
By Dan Zak,
The woman who allegedly attacked an $80-million painting by Paul Gauguin at the National Gallery of Art last week was previously employed by an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and has a history of schizophrenia, according to documents from the Arlington Circuit Court.
Susan J. Burns, an Arlington resident who was charged with attempted theft in the second degree and destruction of property under $200 after reportedly pulling and pounding on the plexiglass-covered artwork, had worked for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars as recently as 2006 as an administrative assistant. She is detained at the Correctional Treatment Facility in Southeast, pending a mental observation hearing in D.C. Superior Court.
That hearing — to determine competency to stand trial — was scheduled for Tuesday but was postponed after authorities did not transport Burns to court because of an undisclosed medical issue. Burns also was not in court Wednesday or Thursday, and the hearing is rescheduled for 1 p.m. Friday.
On Wednesday, Burns’s court-appointed attorney, Sharon Weathers, asked for the hearing to be moved to next week, pending the completion of a psychiatric evaluation.
“At this point, she’s being detained and there’s no basis for her being detained,” said Judge Karen Aileen Howze, who ordered the hearing to be scheduled daily until Burns is fit to appear. A mental observation hearing must occur within three business days of a screening order if the defendant is being detained, according to a competency statute in the D.C. Code.
Fifteen minutes before the gallery closed April 1, which was Burns’s 53rd birthday, Burns entered the third room of the Gauguin exhibition, went directly to the 1899 piece “Two Tahitian Women,” tried to pull it from the wall and then banged on it with her fist, according to gallery spokeswoman Deborah Ziska, who has reviewed security footage.
“This is evil,” the woman screamed, according to a witness. Within moments, Burns was restrained by a museum guard.
“I feel that Gauguin is evil,” Burns told an investigator after her arrest, according to court papers. “He has nudity and is bad for the children. He has two women in the painting and it’s very homosexual. I was trying to remove it. I think it should be burned. I am from the American CIA and I have a radio in my head. I am going to kill you.”
Burns has a lengthy criminal record dating back to 1995. In July 2002, she was banned from a department store on the 1100 block of South Hayes Street in Arlington — which is the address for the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City — for assaulting an employee, and she returned three hours later to demand service and throw shoes at people, according to Detective Crystal L. Nosal, a spokeswoman for the Arlington County Police Department. Burns was arrested and convicted of trespassing.
In March 2005, Burns became disorderly at a restaurant on the 2000 block of Wilson Boulevard in Arlington, threw a full cup of coffee on a bartender and assaulted a detective who responded, all while screaming obscenities. She was convicted of assault and battery on an officer and served 2 1 / 2 years in prison.
A trial competence report after that 2005 arrest says that Burns “acknowledges having schizophrenia and willingly takes prescribed medications.”
In October 2000, she was convicted of assaulting a police officer and served just over a year in prison. She served six months in jail after being convicted of conspiracy to commit carjacking in March 2006. Since 1995, she has also been charged with vandalism, destroying city property, disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace. Those charges were either dismissed or the state declined to prosecute.
Weathers, Burns’s attorney, declined to comment on both the delay in bringing Burns to a mental observation hearing and the Gauguin case as a whole. A spokeswoman for the Wilson Center declined to comment on the length and nature of Burns’s employment.
While there was minimal damage to the fixtures and frame, the art was unscathed and was remounted Tuesday. “Two Tahitian Women” is on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for the exhibition “Gauguin: Maker of Myth,” which opened at the National Gallery in late February and is on view until June 5.
The painting is positioned near a quotation from Gauguin imprinted on the gallery wall: “In the silence of Tahiti’s beautiful tropical night, I will hear the soft, murmuring music of my heart, in perfect harmony with the mysterious beings that surround me.”
Staff writers Timothy R. Smith and Jacqueline Trescott contributed to this report.