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Fire victim was an oddly sociable loner

At 336 Hollyhill Drive, he was Leslie J. Burns Jr., the man who lived in a modest 1 1/2-story brick house before he died.

At a dimly lit bar and restaurant a few blocks away, he was affectionately known as Booney, the man who loved marshmallow Peeps and old-time Bluegrass music.

Booney was a man who spent hours settled in a tall wooden chair at The Ketch, off Southland Drive, where groups of patrons often share stories over cold Budweisers and hot sandwiches.

Booney was a man with a nickname so old and universally unquestioned that DeeDee Purvis, 57, his friend of 45 years, doesn't know how it began. He was such a fixture at The Ketch that a wooden sign that reads "Booney's Living Room" hangs above the entrance of an oblong section of the building with high-topped tables and dart boards where Booney often held court.

Oddly, Booney hadn't been in The Ketch in a few weeks, said Art Howard, co-owner of The Ketch.

"I said, 'Somebody needs to check on him,'" Howard said.

Howard never followed up on his suggestion. The next thing he knew, Booney was dead.

"It's kind of hard to make sense of what happened," he said

Investigators say that at about 10 a.m. May 4, a fire appeared to have started in a rear hallway, just two hours before Burns' childhood home was scheduled for public auction.

Firefighters found Burns, 58, just inside the front door. At 10:44 a.m., he died of smoke inhalation and burns, according to the coroner's office.

Nearly two weeks have passed since firefighters extinguished the blaze on Hollyhill Drive. But the Lexington fire department says fire officials are still waiting for investigators to determine the cause of the fire, and they don't know when that determination will be made.

Meanwhile, Burns has not been laid to rest.

Funeral arrangements are pending at Milward Funeral Home. Burns' closest relative, a brother who lives out of state, is ill and hasn't been able to complete arrangements, according to the funeral home.

Neighbors said Burns lived alone and kept to himself. They said they hadn't seen him in a while, and thought he might have moved out.

Burns inherited the Hollyhill Drive house in 1989 from his parents, who bought the property in 1954, according to court records. But he owed more than $11,000 in delinquent property taxes, penalties and fees, for 1999, 2005, 2006 and 2007, according to court records. Warning letters to Burns from Lexington officials were repeatedly returned unopened, court records show.

Burns was a bartender on the third floor of the Clubhouse at Keeneland and worked for Turf Catering for eight years, said Jeannine Tharp, who once worked as Burns' supervisor.

He stopped working at Keeneland last fall, she said. It's not clear whether he worked anywhere else.

Few friends said they knew the details of any financial problems Burns faced.

Some declined to comment.

Others said Booney wasn't the man, Leslie Burns, his neighbors labeled as a loner when he died nearly two weeks ago.

"Look up friend in the dictionary. That was Booney Burns," said Tim Bourne, an employee at The Ketch. "I'm sorry he's gone, but at the same time I feel really blessed that he's one of the guys that I knew in my life."

Many preferred to talk about the better times at The Ketch, when they could glance over their glasses and see Booney at his usual chair.

"This place is very Cheers-ish," Bourne said referring to the bar in the popular '80s TV series. "When you pulled up and saw Booney's car in the parking lot, you liked seeing that."

Dozens of Booney's friends stopped by The Ketch the day of the fire in search of comfort and information about his death.

"It was like a visitation in here," Bourne said.

"It's been a shock to everybody," said Warren Davis, 61, a Ketch patron. "When you lose an everyday friend, that's a sad loss."

Some acquaintances said they noticed some changes in Burns' personality shortly before his death.

Ken O'Rourke, who grew up with Booney and lives on Hollyhill Drive, said the last time he saw him was about a month before the fire. "He was kind of standoffish, like he didn't want to be bothered," O'Rourke said. Even though Booney was well-liked and always around people, "I saw him a long time ago as being a lonely person," he said.

The house at Hollyhill Drive held "a lot of good and sad memories" for Booney, Bourne said.

He said Booney was always more concerned about how others were doing, and he kept his own problems to himself.

"Did he have troubles? Yeah. Who today doesn't?" Bourne said. "If something bothered Booney, you didn't know it."