'Since we didn't get sliced or killed, it was swept under the rug' : Night of Terror, Bitter Aftermath

Times Staff Writer

It was a warm evening in June when the nightmare began.

As a Laguna Hills family relaxed at home that night in 1986, two men wearing stocking masks and carrying handguns kicked open the front door.

Nearly two hours of terror followed.

Eighteen months after the attack, Bob and Jane Brown (not their real names) are still wrestling with the trauma. Changing addresses to another home in south Orange County has not quieted their jangled nerves. Nor have weekly sessions of psychiatric therapy.

Nobody knows why it happened. Nobody knows why the Browns were singled out.

The Browns think their house may have been mistaken for one in the neighborhood known for drug dealing. Police say there's no proof. They say such acts of random violence are rare, especially in affluent neighborhoods, and that they are usually solved.

But no one was ever caught in the Browns' case. And therein lies much of the family's frustration. It has led them to lash out at nearly every official connected with the incident.

They are angry at the Sheriff's Department, at a hospital where the woman underwent rape examination, and even at an insurance company for not adequately cleaning a carpet that became soiled during the crime investigation.

Said Mrs. Brown: "The men who came in that night are criminals, but the people who do not follow up (on the case) are also criminal."

Brown remembers napping on the living room couch that June 17 night while his boys watched television and the girls slept upstairs. It was about 9.

"The first thing I heard was the oldest boy saying, 'Dad,' and there was terror in his voice," said Brown, 41, a service technician.

"I saw two men with nylon stockings over their heads coming at me with guns. Without thinking, I hit one, got a glancing blow, and the second one hit me over the head with his gun."

While one of the men remained downstairs and threatened to shoot Brown and his two sons, the other raced upstairs and awakened his daughters, who began screaming. He brought them downstairs.

A few moments later, Mrs. Brown, 40, returning from a parents' meeting at school, walked through the front door and into the gun sights of one of the intruders.

The intruders shouted at the family to turn over their money, she said. The Browns told them they had no cash in the house, except for the money in the children's piggy banks.

Brown and his wife said they offered to go to their 24-hour bank machine and withdraw some cash, but the men responded by yelling obscenities and kicking Brown and his oldest son. They also put guns in the mouths and ears of the children, threatening to pull the triggers.

And they pointed guns at Ripple, a rabbit whose cage was in the front room. One of the men grabbed a gallon of milk from the refrigerator and tried to drown the bunny, but it survived.

It seemed like forever as the men pillaged the house, ripping wallpaper and dumping drawers. They took Mrs. Brown upstairs and raped her repeatedly--in front of her husband.

Brown, who said the attackers behaved as though they were on drugs, expected to feel a bullet in the back of his head at any moment.

"You might live another hour or you might live the whole night," Brown remembers hearing an assailant threaten at one point. "I haven't decided yet."

The men left the house as suddenly as they had come, taking with them the money from the piggy banks and Brown's $5,000 coin collection.

Once he was sure they had gone, Brown whispered to his children to run out the open back door, climb a neighbor's 9-foot fence and call the police. When the youngest daughter couldn't climb it, Brown ran out and heaved her over the fence onto the neighbor's hedge.

He ran back into the house to get his wife and the couple fled the house.

They stayed outside until the police arrived.

It was 20 minutes, the Browns said, until the first sheriff's deputy arrived. The deputy refused to go into the house until she called a backup unit, they said.

"I told the deputy to give me a shotgun and I'd be her backup, but she refused," Brown said.

Despite a half-hour search of the home, deputies didn't ask for a description of the attackers until an hour afterward, giving them plenty of time to escape, Brown said.

Although the attackers wore no gloves and touched surfaces throughout the house, investigators reportedly took only one partial fingerprint.

"Since we didn't get sliced or killed, it was swept under the rug," Mrs. Brown complained, saying the investigators did not seem concerned about solving the crime.

Lt. Richard J. Olson, spokesman for the Sheriff's Department, said the agency investigates all such crimes thoroughly. Olson declined to discuss specifics of this case and added that he could not address the issue of officers' response time without extensive investigation.

But Olson said solving this type of crime depends on how much evidence is left by the criminals at the scene. If little evidence such as fingerprints is left, Olson said, the crime is difficult to solve.

Olson also said authorities have not been able to link the intrusion into the Browns' house with any drug raid, despite speculation by the family that the men burst into their home by mistake, thinking it was a known drug house located at about the same address on a nearby street. That house was the site of a cocaine raid by police several months later.

Also drawing the Browns' ire is the hospital where Mrs. Brown was taken for examination after being raped.

A blood sample was shipped by the hospital to its own laboratory for testing. After Mrs. Brown returned home, a deputy telephoned to ask if she would return to the hospital and re-take the exam. He explained that because the blood had been out of law enforcement custody, it could be inadmissible as evidence.

The family's largest complaint involved its insurance company, which was to restore the house while the Browns fled town for several months to recuperate with friends and relatives. The cleanup included removing graphite left in the carpet by sheriff's investigators who had dusted for fingerprints.

It was eight months, according to the family, before the carpet finally was replaced and the family could sell the home and begin a new life.

Believing that the delay prolonged their nightmare, the Browns in September filed a $20-million lawsuit in Superior Court in Santa Ana, seeking punitive damages from State Farm Fire & Casualty Co. and Better Floors & Interiors, a Placentia company that State Farm contracted to do the carpet cleaning.

The defendants said the family's anger is misdirected.

"We certainly sympathize with what they went through," said R. Thomas Peterson, an attorney representing Better Floors. "(But) they are confusing their anger and outrage . . . over their crime with unknown, inconsistent and unsubstantiated claims."

Brown directs some of his anger at himself.

Although he probably would have been killed had he resisted, his wife said, he still holds himself responsible--so much so that he once told a friend of contemplating suicide.

"He blames himself for our depressions, had he been able to protect us," she said. "He feels like he let us all down. He feels like he cannot let it ever happen again."

Brown has installed an elaborate security system in the new house, and he keeps a gun.

A big, raw-boned man who grew up in a tough neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, Brown only wishes he could have had more of a chance with his attackers.

He said he moved the family to Orange County in 1979 because he thought it would be a quieter, more crime-free environment than their former home in Chicago.

"I guarantee if it was just me and him, I would have taken a swing at him," Brown said of the attacker who raped his wife.

The first few weeks and months after the night of terror were the hardest on the family. All four children slept in their parents' room. Brown stayed home for eight months with his wife, who, he said, was suicidal.

The children, all four of whom had been in a gifted-students program at school, began doing less than straight-A work for the first time. And their attitudes also changed. While the children had been mature and outgoing before the attack, Mrs. Brown said they became paranoid and withdrawn afterwards.

The youngest girl, once ladylike and independent, reverted to babylike behavior.

"She became clingy and wanting attention," Mrs. Brown said. "She talked a lot of baby talk."

The younger boy now chews on the cuticles of his fingernails.

During this past New Year's Eve, Mrs. Brown said, her oldest girl pulled the covers over her head and glumly said, "I don't want to have another year like this one."

The couple's oldest son also seethes, but unlike the rest of the family, he hasn't been able to talk much about his feelings at psychiatric counseling sessions.

And none of the children trust people anymore. The girls are distrustful of men, particularly, and Mrs. Brown worries that they may suffer permanent disenchantment with marriage and leaving home.

But the family is beginning to heal. The children's grades are improving, and all but the oldest girl are able to be away from their parents for extended periods during the day, Mrs. Brown said.

And Ripple the pet rabbit, which Brown had wanted to give away before that night, has found a permanent home.

"I hated that rabbit," Brown said. He changed his mind when he saw the attackers trying to hurt it.

"I said to myself then, 'If you make it, rabbit, and we do, then I'm gonna take care of you the rest of your life,' " Brown said.

Today Ripple lives in a palatial redwood cage that Brown built, with a night light and a ramp that gives the rabbit free run of the family's house.

"I mean," Brown said, "that rabbit's my buddy now."

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