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Neighbor who killed mom of two with shotgun over ‘stupid’ lawn tractor dispute locked up for decades

Amber Burton, Nery Morales

Amber Burton (Des Moines Police Department), Nery Morales (Polk County Jail in Iowa)

A 52-year-old man in Iowa who admittedly shot and killed a neighbor in 2021 with a shotgun as part of a dispute over a repossessed lawnmower was sentenced to spend at least the next two decades in state prison.

Amber Marie Burton’s mother said at Nery Arnoldo Lopez Morales’ sentencing last Thursday that the motive for the killing, as she understood it, is among the stupidest she’s ever heard of, according to the Des Moines Register.

“I understand Amber may have taken a lawnmower or some tools from you, and yes, that would make me angry, and that would be wrong of her if that happened, but this is one of the most stupid reasons I have ever heard to shoot someone,” Valerie Burton was quoted saying of her only daughter, a 42-year-old mother of two who “worked long hours” to support her family and help others.

Morales was initially accused of first-degree murder after shooting Burton in the chest with a shotgun in the Sept. 12, 2021. Court documents said the victim had “re-possessed” a lawn tractor she sold; the defendant apparently still owed Burton money for the mower.

“The 911 caller told dispatch that she could hear her next door neighbor screaming and described what sounded to her like a struggle occurring. The 911 caller then told dispatchers that the neighbor just stopped screaming all of the sudden. The 911 caller believed her neighbor to be in trouble,” the complaint said. “Officers were sent to the above address and found the victim deceased on the couch with obvious traumatic injury to the upper torso.”

Surveillance video caught Morales’ red GMC pick up truck pulling up to Burton’s residence before the killing, and witnesses identified the defendant as the person they saw at the scene.

“The defendant owns a red GMC pick up truck quad cab with chrome wheels and a chrome tool box in the bed of the truck,” the complaint said.

The Polk County Attorney’s Office reached a plea deal with the defendant in February on charges short of murder but charges which will nonetheless put the 52-year-old defendant behind bars for at least 20 years. The charges to which Morales pleaded guilty are: voluntary manslaughter, first-degree burglary, intimidation with a dangerous weapon, and assault while participating in a felony.

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District Court Judge Heather Lauber of Judicial District 5 accepted the plea.

“By direct conversation with the defendant on the record, the court finds that defendant understands the charge(s), the penal consequences, and the rights being waived. Based upon defendant’s statements, the prosecutor’s statements and the minutes of testimony as applicable, the court finds that there is a factual basis for the plea and that the plea is knowing and voluntary. Defendant’s guilty plea is accepted,” plea documents from mid-February said.

Last Thursday’s sentencing proceedings mean that Morales will not be eligible for parole until he serves the mandatory minimum 20 years in state prison. By the time he’s up for parole, he’d be in his seventies. Morales was also ordered to pay $150,000 in restitution.

Family said that Amber Burton, a nurse, “worked with the elderly” and “loved her patients.” She also “enjoyed spending time with her children and family.”

Read the complaint, plea, and sentencing order in the case.

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Matt Naham is the Senior A.M. Editor of Law&Crime.