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Burden of Proof

Dekalb County Sheriff-Elect Murder Investigation: Derwin Brown's Widow Speaks Out

Aired December 21, 2000 - 12:30 p.m. ET


GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CO-HOST: He promised to rid the department of corruption. Instead, someone got rid of the sheriff-elect in Georgia's Dekalb County.


PHYLLIS BROWN, WIFE OF SHERIFF-ELECT DERWIN BROWN: I had 911 on the phone, and I told them, I said, Derwin Brown, sheriff-elect of Dekalb County, has been shot.

THOMAS BROWN, DEKALB CO. DIRECTOR OF PUBLIC SAFETY: We don't want to make a mistake and get narrowly focused on who a suspect or suspects may be. When you conduct this type of investigation, you should assume everything until you can eliminate any possibility.


ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF with Greta Van Susteren and Roger Cossack.

VAN SUSTEREN: Hello, and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF. Roger has the day off.

They're calling it an assassination, a work of evil. Sheriff- elect Derwin Brown was a reformist. His plans included firing as many as 38 employees of the Dekalb County Sheriff's Office, and calling for an audit. His election was something of a surprise, his death, last Friday, a shock. Brown's widow, Phyllis, spoke with CNN's Art Harris about that night.

He joins us in Atlanta, along with Brad Guest, a former homicide detective.

Art, first to you. What happened on Friday night?

ART HARRIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Sheriff-elect Derwin Brown was at a local restaurant with his friends and family. It was his wife's birthday, just given her 13th roses, and he just finished his sheriff's training at the academy in Forsythe, Georgia. His wife left to go home, and back home, hung up the uniform he had designed, but never seen, that was going to symbolize the change he aimed to make at the department. He said good-bye to well-wishers at the restaurant and left to go home. When he got there, he started walking up the driveway, his son looked out the window, told his mom that dad was coming. And then, all of a sudden, there were sounds, sounded like firecrackers. His wife realized they were gunshots, hit the floor, and looked out the door and saw her husband lying just a few feet away.

That is when she called 911. And the coroner has found that he was hit 11 times by automatic -- semi-automatic weapons fire out of 16 shots that were fired.

VAN SUSTEREN: Art, who was Sheriff-elect Derwin Brown? Was there anything controversial about him?

HARRIS: Greta, he had been an activist for years, he had tried to unionize the department years ago, a real low-key individual of the number of people that he had given termination notices to, several had appealed, and his wife Phyllis told me that, when they called him and made a personal appeal, he actually hired them back.

So he was considered a compassionate man, and someone who felt that the county deserved a sheriff who was scandal-free, and that's really what he ran on. But he didn't really push his issues because, during the run-off, the district attorney began investigating the incumbent sheriff, of charges of frauds, of which he denies. But the investigation made the headlines, and Derwin Brown suddenly won by a surprising two to one majority.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, Art, you spoke earlier this week to Sheriff- elect Derwin Brown's widow. Let's listen to that interview.


HARRIS: You are home, you've hung the uniform up, you hear what you think.

BROWN: Initially I thought that they were firecrackers.

HARRIS: How many?

BROWN: I thought it was two, but what someone told me later was that once you -- you will know gunshots, and I knew it was gunshots.

HARRIS: Gut feeling.

BROWN: Yes, and I told everybody to get down, and then I told them to go to the middle of the house.

HARRIS: How old was your son who was there?

BROWN: Eighteen, and Crowder (ph), being a former cop, I figure he could handle himself. He knows what to do.

HARRIS: What did he do?

BROWN: He crouched down on the side of the computer. HARRIS: Nobody had a weapon?

BROWN: No. My son, as soon as -- he had already left the room before the gunshots started. And when we went into the middle of the house, he went running into my bedroom, going where's daddy's gun, where's daddy's gun?

And I'm thinking to myself, this is not the shootout at the OK- Corral, we call 911. I get on the phone, I call 911, and I answer all of the questions, give my name, my address, tell them I heard gunshots.

HARRIS: Dekalb County Police.

BROWN: Dekalb County Police.

HARRIS: And...

BROWN: They said, you know: Has anybody been hurt? I said I don't see anyone. And I peaked out, because Derwin had always told me never look out the window when you hear gunshots, but in order to see anything, you know, you got to do something. So I peaked out, and it looks like between the two cars that were in my driveway, that there were bags or something there.

I couldn't really determine what it was because it was dark. It didn't dawn on me, because my car is white, that the car that was parked next to the driveway on the street was not my car.

And my girlfriend said, Phyllis, that's the rental car. I immediately ran to the back of the house, but I was expecting to find Derwin either in the house already, crouched down in front of the car, between the car and the door, or between the two cars.

I looked out, didn't open the door at first, but I looked out, and you have that peripheral vision, and I didn't see anybody. I never heard a car, and I opened the door and I called Derwin, and I just said: Derwin.

Then I opened it, and I stepped out. I'm sorry. And I looked over, he was lying there.

HARRIS: Your husband.

BROWN: And I had 911 on the phone, and I told them, I said, Derwin Brown, sheriff-elect of Dekalb County, has been shot. And the operator -- I don't know whether she understood what I said. So I said, he is a Dekalb County police officer because I knew that would get a response. And I told her, I said, please send an ambulance, send EMS, everybody.

HARRIS: You told her a cop was down?

BROWN: Right. I kept expecting to hear sirens, something, and I didn't. By that time, I had come back in the house, and I went back outside and I kneeled down next to him. And I said, hang on, baby hang on, they're coming, you'll be all right.

HARRIS: Was he breathing, was he talking?

BROWN: He was gone, I knew he was gone.


VAN SUSTEREN: Who might want Sheriff-elect Derwin Brown dead? We'll explore that next.


A federal grand jury indicted five more people Wednesday on charges relating to the August, 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Seventeen people had been indicted earlier. Four of them are scheduled for trial January 3 on charges of murder and conspiracy.




J. TOM MORGAN, DEKALB COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY: I got a page at 11:20 to go to the hospital, that Derwin had been shot. And the hospital is right down the street. So I immediately got in the car, and I was thinking to myself, it was an accident. I had no idea that someone would have killed Derwin. And as soon as I walked in, the Director Brown pulled me aside and said Derwin's dead, and still it's a shock.

And people in law enforcement, accidents do happen with guns, and until I saw the body and realized how many times he'd been shot was when I realized this was someone who was a professional and wanted Derwin dead very badly.


VAN SUSTEREN: Welcome back. You are looking at live pictures of the is funeral of Sheriff-elect Derwin Brown. The funeral began at 11:00 this morning at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in South Dekalb County.

Art, orient me. Where is Dekalb County?

HARRIS: It is in the shadows of the gleaming of the New South, maybe 10 miles from downtown. Small town square of Decatur is the courthouse. And the man you just saw talking about the number of bullets in the body was the district attorney Tom Morgan, who has been trying to clean up the sheriff's department as well, and had launched two investigations between the election and -- the run-off and the final election.

VAN SUSTEREN: Brad, you are a former homicide detective. Dekalb County has had a problem with corruption. Tell me about it.

BRAD GUEST, FORMER HOMICIDE DETECTIVE: Well, Dekalb County, over the years, has had allegations of corruption off and on, ever since I can remember. The former sheriff, prior to Sid Dorsey, was indicted and in fact did time in federal prison for corruption. And then, since Sheriff Dorsey took over, there had been allegations of corruption as far as, as Art said, using people to work in his private security firm while they were on duty as sheriff's deputies. There had been allegations of him sending the inmates to downtown to work on projects for his wife, as well as the sheriff putting people on the payroll, such as at one point an allegation was made about a personal trainer being on the payroll.

There's been constant allegations off and on for the last couple of years.

VAN SUSTEREN: And let me just emphasize that they are, at this point, allegations and, of course, we need to be careful not to jump to conclusions about what might be the truth.

Art, let me go back to you. Let's talk motive, possible motives.

HARRIS: Well, you've got a department here with about a $50 million budget. And you have employees, about 38 employees who had received termination notices, and others the sheriff said he aimed -- whose promotions he aimed to rescind, who were promoted at the last minute before Sheriff Dorsey went out. So right there you have got about 50 people who are on a potential list that investigators are going down, along with a number of people who had contracts with the county with the jail, which is the largest job the sheriff does have to administer the jail.

So there are so many people who stood to lose big-time if Derwin Brown put in his promises of reform.

VAN SUSTEREN: Art, have the police ruled out just a chance robbery or even a domestic dispute, involving some other relative, obviously I saw a very pained widow, but I mean, an extended family?

HARRIS: No, they have ruled out robbery as a motive, a drive-by shooting, drugs, they have ruled out all the initial things that you check off. They are now calling this a professional hit for the way it was carried out.

VAN SUSTEREN: And let me go to you, Brad. Brad, what makes it a professional hit? What distinguishes this for a drive-by or a chance robbery?

GUEST: Well, due to the fact that the sheriff-elect was entering into a reform-type atmosphere, he was going in, he was going to clean out the sheriff's office. And the fact that a person, it appeared that he had been ambushed, according to the news reports; he was shot eleven times; they apparently shot 16 rounds, so someone who takes the time to shoot another individual that many times is wanting to make sure that that person is dead.

VAN SUSTEREN: Art, any witnesses?

HARRIS: No witnesses, only some neighbors who heard gunfire, but it was very dark, it was a rainy night. The rain did not help the forensics investigation at all, washed away some residue, but the forensics are being handled by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation laboratory, which is a top-flight lab and has actually worked on the Olympic Park bombing case.

So, you know, as far as evidence, as far as eyewitnesses, none of those. It is going to be a case, as the D.A. told me, of basic gumshoe work. But they are looking at all of these potential suspects and their phones -- cell phone records, as well as the phone at the restaurant where they were celebrating that night, was anyone using it, made a call possibly at the time that he left to tip-off a possible shooter and a driver, police are theorizing, were lying in wait.

VAN SUSTEREN: What about the weapon? Is the weapon left at the scene? And I assume that the ballistics -- that what was discharged in to the body has now been taken for analysis.

HARRIS: Yeah. No official findings about the weapon other than semi-automatic or automatic, but a heavy caliber gun was used, possibly like a Glock, 40 caliber; but this was not a .22-caliber or a B.B. gun.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, we are going to take a break.

According to District Attorney J. Tom Morgan, the list of potential suspects in this case includes, but is not limited to, representatives of some companies doing business with the Sheriff's Department, as well as those employees expecting a pink slip.



MORGAN: The reforms that he had promised, such as he was going to have a complete audit of the sheriff's department, an audit of all the contractors, an audit of all bond (ph) companies. He had called upon our help and the help of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. He had reviewed many people in the administration. He had already handed out 30 termination notices. He was not only bringing in his own people, he was bringing in professionals that were going to run the jail, or run the Sheriff's Department in a manner that, you know, probably had not been run in that way in many years.


VAN SUSTEREN: Welcome back.

The funeral of Sheriff-elect Derwin Brown is now taking place in Dekalb County, Georgia at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit.

Tomorrow, an interim sheriff will be appointed until March, when a special election can occur and a successor selected by the voters. Brad, as a former homicide detective, what do you do, where do you begin, and what is the biggest problem?

GUEST: Well, in this particular case, due to the fact that there's no eyewitnesses, that is going to present a serious problem for investigators. But, based on what I have observed from the -- in my opinion one of the best major felony units in this area, the Dekalb County Homicide Unit, they took their time on the crime scene to try to collect as much evidence that they could. And...

VAN SUSTEREN: What can you collect? If there's rain, I mean, you have obviously -- you've got the bullets in the body. You've got that. There's no weapon, there is no eyewitness. You've got sort of a lot of sinister, circumstances, but what else do they have?

GUEST: Well, possibly shell casings left behind by the perpetrators. It was raining, someone could have ran through the yard, they could have left some type of footprints. There's all sorts of forensic evidence that could have been collected on the scene, with the Dekalb County Crime Unit, as well as GBI, which in this, again my opinion as a former homicide investigator, one of the best forensic units in the country. They can take that evidence, and once they develop a good suspect, hopefully that will substantiate the information.

VAN SUSTEREN: Art, in your conversations with law enforcement, do you have the sense that they feel hopeful that there are a lot of clues left at the scene, or are they sort of throwing up their hands, thinking this is going to be a tough one?

HARRIS: Greta, they are going down, you know, A list of potential suspects, and they are optimistic THAT they will bring the killer or killers to justice.

In this case, what we know, for example, I talked to one of the sheriff's -- late sheriff's advisers, and he said over the summer, for example, the sheriff-elected, Derwin Brown, turned to him and said: We are being followed. And he's given that information, for example, a description of the vehicle, and the gentleman to the FBI. And there is a joint task force involved here.

They are interviewing a lot of people on the list to see who might have motives, who might have contracts, and they are taking them off.

In this case, they do expect to break it. You've got the FBI, you've got...

VAN SUSTEREN: Art, in the 30 seconds we have left, I don't mean to be flip, but three of the four predecessor of the current sheriff have been in trouble with the law. What is going on in Dekalb County?

HARRIS: Well, it is a very tough sheriff's department to crack. The D.A. told me that Georgia is the only state that has a grand jury law that allows a public official in the grand jury when witnesses are being questioned. So that can have a very chilling effect, intimidating effect on any, quote, "whistle-blowers," who want to get things right as it were. So it has been very difficult to clean up this department because of that law, and I know that J. Tom Morgan is trying to have that law changed. In the meantime...

VAN SUSTEREN: I am sorry to cut you off. Obviously, a very tragic story, a horrible crime, but that's all the time we have for today. Thanks to our guests, and thank you for watching.

Join me tonight at 8:30 for CNN's new show, "THE POINT." We'll talk to Texas reporters about what to expect from a Bush presidency.

And at 3:30 p.m. Eastern, "TALKBACK LIVE" asks: Have the PC police taken over Christmas? Banned Christmas trees, female Santas, and Nativity scenes that replace Joseph with Josephine.



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