Suicide Adds Latest Twist to 5-Year-Old Murder Case
GREAT NECK, N.Y., June 10 - When Heyward and Ellen Brown were found bludgeoned to death inside their ransacked Long Island home more than five years ago, the police suspected it was a burglary. But almost from the start, the pieces did not all appear to fit: the burglar alarm had not been tripped, for example, and the middle-class neighborhood was generally safe.
The case took an even stranger turn two years later. The couple's younger son, Steven Brown, filed a civil wrongful-death lawsuit accusing his brother, Harvey, of committing the murders, even though no criminal charges had been filed.
Recently, the Suffolk County district attorney, Thomas J. Spota, decided to take a second look at the case. But on Monday, before a grand jury looking into the evidence handed up any indictments, the mystery took an even more bizarre, and perhaps final, twist. Harvey Brown committed suicide in Tampa, Fla., on his 39th birthday, his brother's lawyer said.
At a news conference today in the Lake Success office of his lawyer, Howard Fensterman, Steven Brown, 37, said he interpreted Harvey's suicide as a long-delayed admission of guilt. He said he believed that his brother had been on the verge of being indicted for their parents' murder, and that he had chosen to die rather than face prison time.
"I do believe my brother did commit these murders," Steven Brown said. "By him committing suicide, I believe it was evident that he did it."
The suicide caps, albeit inconclusively, a tale with all the makings of a made-for-television movie. According to Steven Brown and his lawyer, it is the story of how a successful family business set off a venomous case of sibling rivalry and, ultimately, murderous rage. They also accused the Suffolk Police Department and the previous district attorney of failing to pursue the case aggressively, and they credited Mr. Spota for reopening it, based on evidence collected during the discovery process for the civil lawsuit.
Today, Steven Brown acknowledged that his brother's death was a bittersweet development. "Nobody wants to see their brother die, or their parents," he said, his voice breaking. "But I guess he paid the ultimate price for doing what he did."
Heyward and Ellen Brown's bound, bludgeoned bodies were discovered on Dec. 19, 1997. Their home in Lake Grove, in Suffolk County, was in disarray, the police said, and jewelry, including Mr. Brown's Rolex watch and Mrs. Brown's diamond ring, was missing.
At first, Steven Brown said today, he did not suspect his brother. But the clues started piling up. Harvey Brown kept changing his alibis, Steven said. He refused to cooperate with the police by, for example, taking a polygraph test or giving a blood sample. And two weeks after the deaths, Steven said, Harvey hired a criminal defense lawyer.
But no one was ever charged, so in December 1999, Steven Brown filed a civil suit in State Supreme Court, seeking $17 million in damages. At the time, Harvey Brown told a reporter he had "absolutely nothing to do with" his parents' death. "This is all about money and greed," he said.
To hear Steven Brown and his lawyer, Mr. Fensterman, tell the story, it was about money, but not just money. Mr. Fensterman said problems started years ago, with tension that surfaced in the running of the family's janitorial company. In 1989, Mr. Fensterman said, when Heyward and Steven started another business, Eastco Building Services, the father cut Harvey out, forbidding him even to set foot inside.
Eastco became a success, and it showed. Steven Brown bought a new house, Mr. Fensterman said, and his parents bought a vacation and retirement home near a golf course in Delray Beach, Fla. Harvey, who Mr. Fensterman said was working as a handyman, was jealous.
"He felt he should have been in that business," Mr. Fensterman said. "And he was not permitted to because of his relationship with his father, which was definitely one of hatred."
Mr. Fensterman said that after Mr. Spota became district attorney, in January 2002, he gave him copies of depositions and other evidence collected in the course of the civil suit.
In a written statement today, Mr. Spota said simply that the investigation into the Browns' murders "allowed me to conclude that their son Harvey Brown was complicit in these homicides." He said he had instituted a grand jury proceeding but declined to comment further, citing secrecy laws. His spokesman said the grand jury was still sitting.
"We understand and empathize with the frustrations of a son whose parents were brutally murdered, and whose brother has now taken his own life," Mr. Spota's statement read. "Sometimes cases don't get resolved as quickly as victims would hope for."
Mr. Spota defended the Suffolk homicide squad, which he said had handled the case "with the highest degree of professionalism."