Murder of Brenda Sue Brown
On July 27, 1966, rescue workers found the nude body of eleven-year-old missing child Brenda Sue Brown in a wooded area near downtown Shelby, North Carolina. The murder investigation remained cold until a series of newspaper articles highlighting the 40th anniversary of the case in the spring of 2006 brought forth new evidence.
Events of July 27, 1966
After a morning of arguing over a powder-puff compact with her younger sisters, Brenda Sue was asked to walk her six-year-old sister, Patricia, two blocks to headstart class. This was the last time Brenda Sue would be seen alive. After Brenda Sue did not return home, a search began.
At 10:15 am, Brenda Sue's mother, Gladys Brown, began a door to door search when Brenda Sue had not returned home. Brown then drove through her neighborhood asking neighbors and passing motorists if they had seen Brenda Sue. An hour later, a search team was formed by Shelby Rescue Squad members.
At 6:45 pm, Brenda Sue's nude body was found in a wooded area 150 feet from South Lafayette Street, not far from the family's home. Her body was covered by freshly cut tree limbs, leaves and brush, the red and white dress she had worn was folded neatly and placed atop the brush. A bloody rock was also found nearby.
Authorities determined Brenda Sue had been beaten to death with the rock found nearby. Her skull had been fractured in 12 places. Police reported that even though Brenda Sue was found stripped of her clothing, she had not been raped. Detectives believed the killer was walking, because with the heavy traffic on South Lafayette Street, the killer would not have been able to get out of a car and force the girl into the woods without being seen.
At the time, police had several suspects, including an unidentified white, bald man who had exposed himself to Brenda Sue's sister a few days before the murder and a local 13-year-old, mentally disabled, black boy named Robert Roseboro.
With no leads, or sufficient evidence to make an arrest, Brenda Sue Brown's murder became a cold case.
The unidentified man who exposed himself to Brenda Sue's sister a couple of days earlier could not be found. Meanwhile, Robert Roseboro was briefly questioned by police. When officer Harold Smith questioned Roseboro at the police department, he said Roseboro stayed silent. "He wouldn't answer. He just sat there. Roseboro´s silence made him more suspicious", Smith said. The public was baffled as to why Roseboro, who was seen in the area on the morning of Brenda Sue's murder, was not interrogated further by police. Many locals theorized that Roseboro may have been protected by a local crime syndicate who dominated Shelby, North Carolina during the 1960s and because of this police would not arrest him. "We just didn´t have enough evidence on him. We had to let him go", said Harold Smith, a retired police captain. Smith said he and other investigators in the case believed Robert Roseboro killed Brenda Sue Brown. Roseboro lived a few hundred yards from where Brenda´s body was found. That with his refusal to answer questions made him suspicious, Smith said.
When the case was reopened, detectives visited Roseboro in prison, but he refused to talk about the Brenda Sue Brown murder. Robert Roseboro would later be convicted in May 1969 of the 1968 murder of Mary Helen Williams of Shelby, whose murder paralleled the Brenda Sue Brown case.
Murder of Mary Helen Williams
At 11:30 am on June 22, 1968, a woman and her daughter arrived at Mary's Cannon Towel Outlet, Mary Helen Williams' business located on Dixon Boulevard in Shelby, and saw a "closed" sign hanging in the window. The girl looked in the window and saw a woman lying on the floor covered in blood. Shelby police were called to the business, where Robert Roseboro walked out with his hands in the air. Mary Helen Williams was found nude, with her body beaten and stabbed using a pair of scissors. The county coroner later said even though Mrs. Williams was found stripped of clothing, she had not been raped. In the store´s restroom, police found Mrs. Williams´ dress and underwear.
At the time of Mrs. Williams' murder, racial segregation was intense in Shelby and rumors of the Ku Klux Klan threatening to harm Roseboro were taken so seriously that he was secretly transferred to a jail in a nearby county until his trial in 1969.
During the two-day murder trial, a pathologist testified that blood found on Roseboro's clothes was type "A", which matched Mrs. Williams´ blood type. Roseboro denied killing Mrs. Williams, saying the detectives lied about the investigation and said he had no motive in the murder, being as there was no rape or robbery. He drew maps of where he was in the building when the police arrived, and explained how Mrs. Williams' blood got on his clothes. Roseboro was found guilty for the murder of Mary Helen Williams and was sentenced to death, however, his sentence was reduced to life in prison. Because of the similarities between the Mary Helen Williams murder and the Brenda Sue Brown murder, it became a common local belief that Roseboro had committed both.
In February 2010, Roseboro was subpoenaed to a Cleveland County hearing to determine if enough evidence existed for Brenda Sue Brown murder suspect Thurman Price to be brought to trial. During his testimony, which lasted less than ten minutes, Roseboro denied killing Brenda Sue Brown or knowing who did or having any remembrance of the day she was murdered, saying "You’re talking about something 40 years ago. How would I recall something that long ago?”
Reopening the case
In 2005, Brenda Sue Brown's sisters, Patricia Buff and Mary McSwain, spent months asking the Shelby Police Department to reopen the case. Officers told them Brenda Sue's case files were missing. After four days of searching through files in storage, the files were found packed in an unmarked box with the files of the Mary Helen Williams murder case. However, the evidence, including Brenda Sue's dress, underwear, shoes, the powder-puff compact she was carrying, the rock that was used to kill her, two vials of blood, fingernail scrapings, branches and a hair sample, were missing. According to police records, Sheriff Allen was the last person in possession of the evidence when he retrieved it from the SBI in Raleigh, North Carolina in August 1966. The only physical evidence still available is a bloody palm print that was taken from Brenda Sue's shoe in 1966.
On May 15, 2006, the remains of Brenda Sue Brown were exhumed from the Spring Hill Church Road Cemetery in Lillington, North Carolina and examined for any available evidence. However, the wooden casket in which she was buried had disintegrated and only a few bones remained. On May 21, 2006, a public memorial service was held and Brenda Sue's remains were laid to rest in Sunset Cemetery in Shelby, North Carolina.
Arrest of a suspect
In the spring of 2006, the Shelby, North Carolina, newspaper, The Shelby Star, ran a 13-part 40th anniversary series about the Brenda Sue Brown murder. Shortly after, Lori Lail came forward to police claiming her grandfather, Earl Mickey Parker, told her shortly before his death on June 26, 2002 that he and a man named Thurman Price had killed Brenda Sue Brown.
The indictment indicates that Earl Mickey Parker described in detail how Brenda Sue was killed and according to authorities, his confession to his granddaughter is consistent with the evidence found at the crime scene in July 1966. According to court records, Lail called the family of Brenda Sue Brown on April 3, 2006 and told Brenda Sue's sister that the killer is Thurman Price, but left out her grandfather's involvement.
On February 12, 2007, at 5:15 PM, Shelby Police arrested Thurman Price, 79, on first-degree murder charges. Price's home is located within proximity of the location where Brenda Sue Brown's body was found, but it is unclear whether he lived there in July 1966. According to county records, Price did not purchase the home until 1973. Price was released from jail on February 16, 2007, on $50,000 bond and denies any involvement in the murder of Brenda Sue Brown. On May 10, 2007, Earl Mickey Parker’s body was exhumed from Sunset Cemetery in Shelby to see if his palm print matched a bloody one found on Brenda Sue’s shoe. The results of the test were inconclusive as Parker's hands were too deteriorated to get a print.
- Prior Criminal Record
In 1954, Parker, 26, and Price, 25, were indicted together for the rape of Shirley Gantt, a 12-year-old girl, in Patterson Springs, North Carolina. In January 1955, the men pleaded guilty to assault to commit rape. According to court records, both Parker and Price were given a 3-5 year suspended prison sentence, ordered to keep a job, not to drink alcohol and pay court costs of $240.
- The Deathbed Confession
On February 9, 2010, a Cleveland County judge ruled that Earl Mickey Parker's deathbed confession and Lail's testimony will be admitted evidence at trial. Lori Lail testified at the hearing that in June 2002 her grandfather, Earl Mickey Parker, told her on his death bed that he and Thurman Price killed Brenda Sue Brown in 1966.
Thurman Price maintained his innocence until his death on August 4, 2012 while still awaiting trial.
According to Lail, she was alone with her grandfather in his hospital room at Cleveland Regional Medical Center in Shelby when he told her, “I’ve done some bad things with my life and before I can move on I need to get them off my chest.” Lail recalled the story her grandfather told her that he walked to a local bootlegger’s house the night before, where he met Price and drank for several hours. While walking home the next morning they saw Brenda Sue near South Lafayette Street and they sneaked up behind her with the intention of rape. Lail described how Parker told her that Price had grabbed Brenda Sue and dragged her from the road to where “There was a little black boy playing in a field and Price screamed after him to get home." Supposedly, this was Robert Roseboro. According to Lail's grandfather's account, Brenda Sue fought hard and scratched Price which made him angry and he picked up a rock and hit her in the face and told Parker that they had to kill her because, “They would go away and do real time this time”.
The Brenda Sue Brown murder mystery has been profiled on several crime shows, including the Oxygen Channel's "Captured" on November 11, 2007.
- Find A Grave.com
- Oxygen Network Case Profile
- The Shelby Star's Brenda Sue Brown 40th Anniversary articles
- Ward, Megan (26 March 2006). "Who Killed Brenda Sue?". Shelby Star (Freedom Communications, Inc.). Retrieved 20 March 2012.
- Ward, Megan (12 February 2007). "Beaten to death July 27, 1966". Shelby Star (Freedom Communications, Inc.). Retrieved 20 March 2012.
- Ward, Megan (28 March 2006). "She must have put up a tremendous fight". Shelby Star (Freedom Communications, Inc.). Retrieved 20 March 2012.
- Ward, Megan (7 May 2006). "‘Promising’ new lead". Shelby Star (Freedom Communications, Inc.). Retrieved 20 March 2012.
- Ward, Megan (31 March 2006). "The search for a killer". Shelby Star (Freedom Communications, Inc.). Retrieved 20 March 2012.
- Ward, Megan (1 April 2006). "Who killed Brenda Sue? Charge him with this one". Shelby Star (Freedom Communications, Inc.). Retrieved 20 March 2012.
- Ward, Megan (2 April 2006). "Who killed Brenda Sue?". Shelby Star (Freedom Communications, Inc.). Retrieved 20 March 2012.
- Ward, Megan (10 February 2010). "'Yes!' Family celebrates as judge rules 1966 Brenda Sue Brown murder case can go to trial". Shelby Star (Freedom Communications, Inc.). Retrieved 20 March 2012.
- "Brenda Sue's body exhumed". Shelby Star (Freedom Communications, Inc.). 16 May 2006. Retrieved 20 March 2012.
- Neeley, Olivia (31 December 2010). "High-profile murder trials planned in killings of Brenda Sue Brown, Jeremiah Swafford". Shelby Star (Freedom Communications, Inc.). Retrieved 20 March 2012.
- Ward, Megan (15 January 2008). "Did two men kill Brenda Sue Brown? PLUS: How close are their graves to one other?". Shelby Star (Freedom Communications, Inc.). Retrieved 20 March 2012.
- Ward, Megan (9 February 2010). "Will a deathbed confession make trial in 1966 murder? New information in the Brenda Sue Brown case". Shelby Star (Freedom Communications, Inc.). Retrieved 20 March 2012.
- Ward, Megan (17 February 2008). "Family still waiting on murder trial". Shelby Star (Freedom Communications, Inc.). Retrieved 20 March 2012.
- "Episode 6: P. Buff & M. McSwain". Captured: Case Studies. Season 1. Oxygen.