Gangs, guns, a killing Ñ and then É silence
- Jennifer Anderson
- Portland Tribune - News
Investigators are certain that dozens know who shot Anthony Brown, but nobody is talking
Anthony Brown knew he was a wanted man.
From the day he pulled the trigger in 1996, paralyzing a rival gang member, Brown knew that his adversaries would be looking for him, waiting for the right time and place to retaliate.
The former Woodlawn Park Bloods gang member came out of prison and avoided his past haunts as best he could, but after six months he grew tired of hiding.
On the night of Sept. 7, he went out on the town and found his way to an after-hours party on Northeast Russell Street, where he was shot to death in the midst of a crowd of hundreds of people.
Five months later, police have made no arrests, they say, because the dozens of potential witnesses at the scene have refused to cooperate. Aligned with the deeply rooted street code, the community has chosen silence and denial over sharing information with authorities.
While authorities say they don't have any official suspects, they think many people know exactly what happened that night. It's the best-kept secret in Northeast Portland: Who killed Anthony Brown?
Until there's an answer, Brown's family members and community leaders say they won't stop pleading to the public to come forward with information, to spare the lives of more victims of gang violence.
'If you start catching people doing this, they'll stop,' says Mark Young, Brown's uncle. 'But if you let them get away with it, they'll keep doing it. It's got to stop somewhere. The community needs to step up, too. People that were there need to say what they saw. Because the next time, it could be them.'
Regret for his crime
Brown's death, the first of five gang-related homicides in Portland last year, was one more on a list of scores of people killed in citywide gang violence starting in 1987. The majority of the victims have been young, black men who were raised much like Brown, caught in the gunfire by their environments.
Portland police have cleared the majority of cases Ñ if not immediately, then months or years later.
Community leaders and family members say the damage is devastating.
'I've been brought up in the deep South, and I've been through everything,' says Brown's grandfather, 73-year-old Howard Hornbuckle, a preacher at Grace and Truth Church in Southeast Portland. 'But nothing like what our young folks are going through today. It's a war zone out there.'
Brown's case harks back to a crime he committed in 1996. Fed up with members of a rival gang who shot up his family's house and his car, he shot and paralyzed a rival gang member. He was frantic afterward, telling family and friends that he regretted it, and 'he hoped the little dude wasn't dead,' one cousin remembers.
Several years later, it was Brown who was the victim.
Authorities say it's difficult to proceed with the case because witnesses have refused to come forward. Some fear retaliation; some want to avoid being labeled a 'snitch.' Others simply hope to handle the situation with their own form of street justice.
'On the investigative side, there's very little,' says Ethan Knight, the Multnomah County deputy district attorney handling the case. 'We know he was shot multiple times. We know where and when. The brick wall that we're up against is the unwillingness of witnesses to come forward.'
A friend of Brown's who was with him that fatal night says his reason for not talking is simple. 'I swear to God I don't know who killed that man,' says Kumari White, 24, a former Bloods associate. 'If I say I know who did it I'd be lying, because I didn't see it.
He adds: 'That's the police's job, anyway. They get paid to do that.'
With limited cooperation, authorities are left to sift through the decade-long trail of feuding between Brown's family and a small group of gang rivals. Their task is to extract the names of people who had reason to want Brown dead, then investigate who did it.
While it is still not certain that Brown's slaying was direct retaliation for his 1996 crime, Knight says he is aware of those links.
'We're fully aware of the history that precipitated this,' he says, adding that current or former associates of the rival gang are 'a logical place to start.'
The street beckons
Brown was a precocious child, raised in a loving family with an older brother and three younger sisters. They lived in the 6300 block of Northeast Grand Avenue.
Known to his family and friends as Stu, he grew into a bright, charismatic young man who never drank, took pride in his appearance and as a teenager loved to show off his glossy-blue 1977 Cutlass Supreme, according to his loved ones.
'He wasn't like a thug; he was like a pretty boy,' says Tomika Browner, 22, a friend. 'He wasn't a hard-core gangster.'
His parents separated when he was young, but the family remained close, taking summer vacations every year to Las Vegas and to Southern California, where they visited Disneyland and Magic Mountain.
He attended Woodlawn Elementary School, Whitaker Middle School and Jefferson High School. But as he began seeing fewer and fewer of his friends stay in school, he, too, soon dropped out in favor of the streets.
He sold drugs, as did many other kids in the neighborhood, so he could afford the flashy cars and clothes flaunted by the gang members infiltrating the community. He dressed all in red, to denote his affiliation with the Bloods gang, and fell into rivalries with Crips gang members. Fistfights soon escalated to gunfire.
'It's not like he was entrenched (in gang activity) from Day 1, that he didn't have a life that was pretty normal,' says the Rev. Robert Richardson, who knew Brown as a child. 'But he's an inner-city youth.'
Brown also was deeply protective of his family. So when members of the rival gang shot at his house, his car and his brother, he got a gun. And he used it one day, his family says, when he couldn't take the pressure anymore.
A battle without end
Born in Los Angeles, the Crips and Bloods made their way up the Interstate 5 corridor in the mid- to late 1980s. The members of both gangs were black, they were armed, and they hung out on corners, peddling marijuana and other drugs.
In Portland, young men were impressed by the gangbanging lifestyle and began 'claiming' the L.A. gangs, then formed their own subsets, according to neighborhoods. They were merciless as they fought over their turf, marking it with their graffiti. In time, young people started dying, and a full-scale gang war ensued.
On the afternoon of May 17, 1996, according to police reports and Tribune interviews, Brown Ñ who was 19 Ñ was walking near his house when he saw a car that he knew was sometimes driven by Crips gang member Mano Gonzales parked in the 6400 block of Northeast Seventh Avenue.
The day before, Gonzales, who was 25 at the time, had shot and killed Anthony Todd Penney, a 23-year-old former Bloods gang member who was Brown's friend.
(Gonzales, who had accused Penney of showing disrespect to his girlfriend, was eventually convicted of murder and is now serving a life term in prison.)
Brown told a detective his first reaction was to confront and fight the occupant, but when he approached the car, someone standing on a porch shot at him once or twice and missed. Brown told police he fired back with his .40-caliber handgun, three or four times.
It's unclear whether Brown's bullets were aimed at the man who shot at him Ñ who is not named in the police report Ñ or at the man in the car.
The victim was Chris Phillips, who at that time was a member of the Crips subset the Rolling 60s and a friend of Gonzales.
Phillips, a rapper known on the streets as 'Lil' G,' had just finished playing basketball and was listening to music in his parked car. He later said he heard six shots fired from behind and swiveled in his seat and laid across the floorboard.
At one point, he saw the suspect Ñ whom he later learned was Brown Ñ hold the gun flush against the driver's side window and fire into the car. Phillips said he remembers only the smoke, the smell and the insides of the seat cushions flying through the air. He still doesn't recall actually being shot.
Phillips was conscious and was interviewed at the scene before an ambulance took him to Legacy Emanuel Hospital & Health Center, where he went into a brief coma. His spinal cord was severed; four months and seven surgeries later, he was released from the hospital Ñ paralyzed from the waist down.
Brown escaped the scene by hopping over a fence and running through a yard to return to his nearby home. Detectives questioned him later that day after finding a trail of blood leading to his house; he later said he had cut his hand on the fence.
With his father's coaxing and witnesses' accounts pointing to him, Brown eventually confessed to detectives, telling them he did it 'because of everything they've done to us.'
Asked what that meant, he told a detective: 'They posted up (shot up) at my friend's house and shot up my car two weeks ago.'
He said the same people also fired shots into his friend's car, and he named five Rolling 60s Crips members who had history with his older brother.
After pleading guilty to a reduced charge of second-degree assault, Brown was sentenced to five years, serving the full time at Eastern Oregon Correctional Facility in Pendleton. He was released March 15, 2002, two days before his 25th birthday.
'He paid his debt to society,' says Cecilia Hornbuckle, Brown's aunt. 'It's a shame that when they come out into society, they still have to deal with the heathens on the street.'
Before the shooting, many say Brown was a tinderbox waiting to explode.
He had a temper, his friends say, which surfaced explosively when he'd reached his limit. Taking his anger out on Phillips was one of those times, a cousin says: 'I think it was kind of a boiling point. He kind of just lost it, just flipped out. He loved his family, loved his house; he didn't want anyone to hurt that.'
No one is certain of the real reason for the shooting. Like many gang shootings, it wasn't necessarily personal Ñ Brown and Phillips knew of each other but had never spoken. They just knew that they wore different colors Ñ red for Bloods and blue for Crips.
The war continues
After Brown's arrest, trouble continued to brew. Two months later, on July 2, 1996, police say the Crips retaliated for the shooting of Phillips. Fernando Gonzales, the 20-year-old brother of Mano, shot and injured Anthony Brown's 20-year-old brother, John Cory Brown III, a Bloods associate who was known as JJ.
According to police reports, John Brown drove his car to Northeast Dekum Street and Garfield Avenue just before midnight to visit a friend and parked a distance away to avoid pulling up in the Crips' turf.
While he was walking, a car carrying Crips members rolled up to him. Dressed in red and white, he began running toward Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, while Fernando Gonzales shot at Brown from the back seat of the car.
One of the shots hit him in the buttocks; he flagged down a friend and admitted himself to Legacy Emanuel. He described the men to police but refused to positively identify them.
John Brown, who had served time in jail previously on a firearms charge, told detectives he shot back at Gonzales but missed him. 'He believed he was in trouble because of an ongoing feud related to the shooting of a Crip by his brother, Anthony,' a police report says. 'He said his brother shot one of their members and feared retaliation.'
Fernando Gonzales was convicted of second-degree assault and attempted murder in John Brown's shooting and sentenced to prison for 90 months; he's due to be released in March 2004. Brown was convicted of weapons and drug charges and sentenced to five years in federal prison. His family worries about his well-being and state of mind when he rejoins the community this summer.
Planning a future
Anthony Brown came back from prison last March a changed man.
He had obtained his GED in prison and was determined to leave the gang life behind, his friends say. He went to church, spoke with his family every day Ñ including his young son, now 6 Ñ and enrolled in a computer science course at Clackamas Community College, earning straight A's. He worked at an apparel store part time and spent much of his free time at 24-Hour Fitness.
'He always said, 'Grandmother, I'm not going to do anything,' ' says Brown's grandmother, Julia Hornbuckle. ''I'm just going to go to church and pray to ask the Lord to watch over me.''
But coming from the streets, he knew how street justice worked, and he was wary of the shadows.
'If you stood and talked to him, he'd always be looking around,' says Howard Hornbuckle, his grandfather. 'I think he suspected something would take place.'
Brown avoided nightspots, going out only briefly, if at all, to see old friends.
And he wanted to get financial aid from the college so he could rent an apartment closer to campus and live outside Northeast Portland, where he knew too many people and too many people knew him.
Brown's plans shifted in August when he attended a weeklong fashion show in Las Vegas to check out new clothing lines for the shop at which he worked. The store adjoins Terrell Brandon's Barber Shop at Northeast 13th Avenue and Alberta Street.
Friends say he was happy to be able to let down his guard in Las Vegas. Returning home, he told friends he wanted to move there as soon as he could save some money, even if it meant making the hard decision to leave his son and family.
'After Vegas, he wanted to have fun,' according to a cousin, who declined to be named.
He told friends he would attend the Roy Jones Jr. fight on Sept. 7 at the Rose Garden because he wanted to be able to do what everybody else was doing.
And as far as trying to avoid old acquaintances and rivals, he told the cousin: 'Forget it, I'm done running. I ain't gonna keep running.'
That night, he enjoyed an expensive steak dinner and the boxing match at the Rose Garden with friends, then went club-hopping, making the small circuit of downtown nightspots.
One of the stops was the Roseland Theater, where the man he'd shot, Chris Phillips, was performing and a number of Crips were hanging out outside. No one knows why Brown chose the locale.
Another stop he made was a parking lot at Southwest Third Avenue and Stark Street, where he sat and hung out in the car with his friend White.
According to multiple sources, Brown was forced into a confrontation there with one of his old Crips rivals and 'knocked him out.' At around 1 a.m., he called Timmy Owens, one of his close friends with whom he'd hung out with earlier that night, and told him about the fight.
'I told him, 'Go home,' ' 23-year-old Owens says. 'You never know who's going to be looking for you.' Brown had moved on to another bar but agreed to go home, Owens said.
Over the next hour, Owens and another cousin spoke with Brown twice more on the phone. Each time Brown brushed off their worries, saying he was 'cool.' At some point, Brown decided to go to the after-hours party at Northeast Russell Street to look for girls.
'Going out that night was just the biggest mistake anyone could have made,' says Dapo Sobohemin, Brown's longtime mentor.
A big party scene
It was just after 2:30 a.m., and the staff at Doris Cafe, at 325 N.E. Russell St., had long since closed the door to the $20-per-head party they'd promoted.
While a packed house danced to a DJ's tunes inside, an estimated 300 people formed their own block party outside. Some couldn't get inside; some simply wanted to soak up the vibe on the street.
At one point, Michael Irish, who lives at the intersection of Northeast Rodney Avenue and Russell Street, was awakened by the thundering bass of low-riders cruising bumper to bumper down the street in both directions. Some people sat in parked cars in a public parking lot; others streamed through the parade of traffic.
'It was like a riot,' says Irish, 23. 'It was like rush-hour traffic on the freeway that night, right here.'
Irish watched as hundreds of intoxicated people streamed through the traffic. Irish says he called police at 2:37 a.m. to complain about the noise. Portland police say they dispatched uniformed officers at 2:55 a.m., and they arrived seven minutes later.
Police say they 'attempted to communicate with the crowd to determine why they were there and if someone was in charge, but the crowd was very uncooperative.'
Officers were still trying to control the situation at 3:11 a.m., when between five and seven gunshots rang out. Some sources say there were as many as three assailants Ñ wearing hoods or masks to conceal their identity. They fled on foot, disappearing into the night as people ran, screaming, eventually screeching away in their cars.
Irish remembers hearing a woman cry out: 'He's down, he's down.'
Cell phones lit up as people relayed the news: 'Stu got shot, and they think he's dead.'
Police said their attempts to enter the crowd were unsuccessful, so dozens of units from other agencies were called for help, including those from Troutdale, Fairview and Gresham and the Oregon State Police.
Amid the chaos, Brown lay dying of gunshot wounds. Someone at the scene gave him CPR, to no avail.
Portland police say that when officers finally parted the crowd, they found Brown's body lying in a driveway in front of the Multnomah County Library Administration Building on Northeast Russell Street.
Police say the ambulance, which was waiting at a staging area to the north of Northeast Rodney Avenue, finally was able to get through. It transported his body to the medical examiner's office.
The buzz on the street began that night.
'I didn't kill him'
Phillips, who now lives in Gresham, acknowledges that because of the circumstances, he will always be many people'sNo. 1 suspect. 'My name is ringin',' he says, recalling that he received about 30 calls on his cell phone immediately after Brown's murder. 'The cats in the streets is always gonna think I had something to do with it.'
Phillips, 25, says his brush with death led him to shed his gang life and to begin giving gang outreach talks throughout the country. He says he is now a devoted Christian who spends his days working on his second rap album, his autobiography and a movie script about his life.
He's had a lot of time to reflect on what happened to him, he says, and it took him a long time to forgive Brown for shooting him. But, he says, his faith allowed him to do so. And since the shooting, he's been far removed from the streets.
(Phillips faces a federal firearms charge after being caught with a gun he says he obtained to protect himself and his property after a burglary of his home. He is out of custody pending his appeal on a pretrial suppression motion.)
As for the night Brown died, Phillips says: 'Everyone knows I didn't kill him. Only God knows who killed Anthony Brown. I really don't want to know who killed him.'
Pressed for his whereabouts that night, Phillips declines to answer.
Another rumored suspect is the man Brown fought in the downtown parking lot hours before he died. The man, who has not been charged with any crime relating to Brown's death, was unavailable for comment.
Homicide detectives would not confirm the names of any rumored suspects.
Besides men who once ran in the same circles as Phillips and the man with whom Brown fought that night, there are about 20 known Crips living in Portland, some of whom could have found reason to shoot Brown, police say.
Phillips says he has a lot of friends and fans, and it's possible someone who'd seen him in his wheelchair shot Brown on his behalf.
'In malls, stores, restaurants, everyone knows me,' Phillips says. 'People say, 'Man, that's messed up; man, that man gotta get it.' '
In any gang-related case, police say, it's possible that the shooting was committed by a younger boy or group of boys eager to 'put in work' for the gang, to earn status among the older members.
It's also possible, police caution, that the person or persons responsible for Brown's murder could have had nothing to do with gangs. For instance, the shooting could have been over a drug deal or a personal issue.
But many who are familiar with the way gangs operate note that the street has a long memory.
'If you went to prison for shooting someone or killing someone, the person you hurt in the past, they might not have changed their life; they might not have moved on,' says Carl Green, Brown's parole officer, speaking in general terms. 'They still remember what happened five years ago. These people don't care what changes you made; you still did something to them.'
Can it be solved?
As the case drags on, Brown's family, friends and other community members are divided in their thoughts on the police investigation.
Many, mainly his elders, have faith that the killer or killers will be caught. Others, including relatives and friends, criticize the way the police have handled the case, saying officers did not allow medical personnel to reach Brown in time.
Still others insist the police won't be able to break the street code. 'It's unsolvable,' Brown's friend White says. 'I don't care how many witnesses you got. They're all going to see different things.'
But authorities say the case remains viable if anyone in the community is able to confirm a possible lead or tidbit of information.
'Probably 50 people out there know exactly who did it,' says Eric Bergstrom, supervisor of the four-person gang unit in the district attorney's office. 'The word on the street gets out. I get calls; officers get calls from informants. É You almost always know who they are.'
To provide information on the case to the Portland Police Bureau, call 503-823-0400. To leave an anonymous tip on the Crime Stoppers hot line, call 503-823-4357 (HELP).