Burton was adopted as a baby by an older couple. Burton was described as an artistic and polite child, who went off the rails after his adoptive father died when Burton was in his teens. This left his foster mother to raise him on her own. It seems she struggled to cope and was very critical of Burton as he was growing up. If he misbehaved, she would remind him he was adopted and threaten to give him back. As a result of put downs and constant criticism, Burton grew up feeling insecure and angry, with little sense of attachment to his adopted mother. He began using drugs at the age of 15.
The TVNZ documentary Beyond the Darklands documented Burton’s increasing abuse of drugs as a teenager and, in particular, highlighted his use of LSD, cannabis, alcohol and prescription pills. From the age of 17, he was using drugs on an almost daily basis. His girlfriend who was interviewed for the documentary said he used to break into chemist shops to get benzodiazepines and committed burglaries to get money for drugs. By the time he was 21, he had 91 convictions for property, fraud and other drug-related crimes.
Burton’s frustrations came to a head in 1992 after he was refused entry to a Wellington nightclub. He took his resentment and rage out on Paul Anderson, a lighting technician at the club, stabbing him to death in an alcohol and drug fuelled frenzy. He was under the influence of six different drugs at the time. A friend said he witnessed Burton taking 8 to 10 Halcion tablets (a benzodiazapine) and a couple of trips (LSD) in the hours before the murder and said he had been drinking "tequila slammers" all evening. This chemical cocktail turned out to be a recipe for disaster.
Burton was sentenced to life imprisonment and continued using drugs in prison. In June 1998, Burton and three other offenders escaped from Paremoremo Prison, sparking a manhunt involving more than 100 police. He was sentenced to three years' prison for the escape and associated crimes.
Burton spent 14 years in prison from 1992 to 2006. He returned a number of positive drug tests in prison but managed to avoid positive tests in the last three years before he was paroled. He participated in the violence prevention programme after the New Zealand Parole Board regarded him in 2004 as "at high risk of re-offending if released". In September 2005 he was denied parole again because, through no fault of his own, the board's earlier recommendation that the Corrections Department arrange temporary escorted releases to test his conduct away from prison was not fulfilled. However, the board was impressed by information that indicated apparent progress, in particular that "in the last two years his conduct has been described as impeccable". But it wanted one more psychological assessment done on him.
The board's decision to release Burton was made at a hearing in June 2006, and it ordered his release on 10 July. The final psychological assessment had been done and concluded: "Mr Burton's documented improvement in conduct and release plan supports a case for a carefully managed release under close supervision." The decision to parole him was made despite the Department's failure to meet the board's request that Burton be eased back into the community by a process of home leaves. The Board also decided it would be unfair to hold against him an unsubstantiated allegation related to an alleged incident in prison, because there was no documentation to confirm whether it had occurred.
Burton was released into the care of his biological mother, whom he barely knew; he had met her about 12 times in the 14 years he had been in prison. She had been living in Australia for some years but agreed to come back to New Zealand for one month to assist Burton's "reintegration". His adoptive mother had died of cancer in 1999.
His mother went back to Australia and Burton spent the next few months using stand-over tactics and assaulting drug dealers. According to media reports, the police were fully aware that he was buying methamphetamine but failed to act. Police allege that on 3 January 2007 Burton attacked a man in an apartment near his own Tory Street home. A day later a cache of weapons was found at Burton's home. On 5 January he was involved in a home invasion in Lower Hutt. He killed Karl Kuchenbecker on 6 January in the hills of Wainuiomata. Burton also fired at several other mountain bikers before levelling his shotgun at the police. The police fired first, hitting Burton in the leg, which was subsequently amputated. Altogether, his drug-fuelled rampage lasted six months.
When Burton was asked to give his account of what happened he said he did not want to go back to prison and hoped he would be killed: "I saw the police and thought, 'It's over'. I was happy. I ran at them smiling, thinking, 'It's over, thank God it's over'. The police shot me and I was hit in the artery in my leg. I thought I'd bleed out. I surrendered as I thought death was certain. Unfortunately, that was not the case, much to my disgust, as I wanted to be killed. I was gutted that I wasn't killed."
Burton pleaded guilty to 11 charges relating to the events of 6 January. The charges were one of murder, two of attempted murder, two of aggravated robbery, two of kidnapping, two of using a firearm against a law enforcement officer, aggravated injury and injuring with reckless disregard. He was sentenced to life imprisonment with a non-parole period of 26 years for the murder. For the other, lesser charges he was sentenced to preventive detention with a non-parole period of 26 years.
The Parole Board and the Corrections Department conducted separate inquiries into what went wrong. The Parole Board’s decision making was reviewed by James Ogloff, professor of forensic psychology at Monash University in Australia, and New Zealand’s Chief District Court Judge, Russell Johnson.
Corrections examined its handling of the Burton case and also found some serious mistakes. Burton broke his parole conditions for the first time on 5 December 2006, when he phoned his probation officer instead of meeting him, but the probation officer took no action. He subsequently failed to report at all. Corrections did not lodge a complaint with police until 19 December, a week after Burton failed to report and two weeks after his first breach. Coroner Garry Evans found Burton had breached his parole conditions six times in the few months he was on the loose. In his final report on Mr Kuchenbecker's death, Mr Evans said: "Fundamentally, Burton was treated as a normal parolee ... when, in fact, he was a high-risk, high-profile parolee, registered on the department's Offender Warning System, who required close monitoring for early signs of relapse and the taking of immediate and effective action on presentation of such signs ... "
Police also knew of several incidents where Burton robbed and beat up drug dealers towards the end of November 2006, but declined to use the information to get him recalled to prison.
In December 2008, Burton was involved in another violent incident – this time in Auckland's maximum security Paremoremo Prison. He stabbed Headhunters gang member Dwayne Marsh through the heart and in the shoulders, arms and legs with a sharpened steel rod. Marsh who was rushed to Auckland Hospital's emergency department by ambulance and placed in the Intensive Care Unit and Burton was subsequently convicted of attempted murder. Then in 2010 prison officers were placed under investigation after a knife was found in Burton's cell. A source told the Herald on Sunday that officers had been failing to make daily cell searches and the homemade pocketknife was discovered hidden inside a fan in his cell.