An Almost Perfect Murder : David Brown Finally Will Pay for His Fatal Manipulation of Others

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Girls, it has to be done tonight," the balding computer whiz whispered as he roused the two teen-agers--one his daughter, the other his sister-in-law and secret lover--from a restless sleep.

Startled, the girls awoke to the cool, past-midnight quiet of their bedroom and set to work, putting months of helter-skelter, clandestine planning into murderous motion. A few last instructions from David, a few nervous second thoughts, and then:

A gunshot into the sleeping bulk beneath the blue blanket--like a car backfiring. A pillow--to muffle the sound--snagged in the .38 caliber's hammer; can't fire. What now? A baby crying. A pained moan, from the master bedroom. "She's not dead!" Footsteps, running, back to the scene. Another shot. Blood, pounding through her white T-shirt, gurgling through her mouth.

Linda Marie Brown, 23, wife and mother of a 7-month-old girl, was dead, two silver-tipped bullets lodged in her upper chest.

Within minutes, Cinnamon Brown, her 14-year-old stepdaughter, would be lying in her own vomit in the back-yard doghouse, near-comatose from pills her father had given her. A murder-suicide note would be clutched in her hand, bound in ribbon, the supposed goodby of a teen-ager fed up with mom's nagging about picking up around the house.

"Dear God, please forgive me," the note read. "I didn't mean to hurt her."

David Brown was nowhere to be found.

The man due to be sentenced this week as the mastermind of the bloody 1985 affair was buying comic books and a prepackaged fruit pie at a local convenience store in the dead hours of the morning, making sure to stop inside a few times to say hello to the clerk.

As would prove his modus operandi, he left no footprints, no fingerprints, no notes to tie him directly to the crime. It was as if Brown, like the culprit in Agatha Christie's "Curtain," was able to subconsciously drive his subjects to murder.

When police arrived on the murder scene a few hours later, they would find him "scared and upset," shaking, too afraid even to go into the bedroom alone. By all appearances, he was the shocked, grief-stricken husband so common in the detective thrillers that he loved to read and watch.

There was no sign, then, that the computer businessman would collect $835,000 from the victim's insurance, including several policies started just months before. No sign that he had pumped the girls with talk about his wife's supposed desires to "break up the family." No sign of the overpowering nature that would later prompt him to make his sister-in-law (and soon-to-be sixth wife) wear a beeper around the clock to ensure loyalty.

The Teflon Murderer, some might call him.

For nearly four years after Linda Brown's murder, the Teflon held.

Only Cinnamon Brown, the teen-ager who shot her stepmother before passing out in the doghouse, saw punishment for the crime.

She sat silently all that time in the California Youth Authority in Camarillo, claiming forgetfulness about the killing in the face of questions from parole investigators who were skeptical about her role but could not disprove it. Her father, meanwhile, bought a couple of half-million dollar homes in the Orange County area, paying cash for at least one, and lived comfortably and secretively with Patti Bailey, the victim's 17-year-old sister, investigators say.

Only after Cinnamon--and later Patti--had turned against him, part from frustration, part from legal prodding, was Brown implicated in the plot and charged with murder in September, 1988, the beginning of a tumultuous legal journey.

For Cinnamon, it was the disclosure by authorities of her father's insurance payoff and his secret marriage and child with Patti that drove her to sever all ties with him. For Patti, it was her husband's feverish attempt after their joint arrest to blame her for the killing.

Behind the damning cumulative weight of the testimony of Brown's two "puppets," as prosecutors termed Cinnamon and Patti, an Orange County jury took less than seven hours to convict Brown of murder on June 15 for orchestrating his wife's killing and and setting up his own daughter to take the fall.

Now, as wide-eyed television, film and movie writers look on, Brown, 37, faces life in prison without the possibility of parole at his sentencing this Wednesday.

Out of all the bedlam of Brown's spring trial, a single, patient, almost hypnotic line emerged to set the tone for the case. It was a line that, according to Cinnamon's testimony, her father had used repeatedly to gain her cooperation in the murder scheme: If you loved me, you would do this for me.

Brown declares his innocence to this day, maintaining he was set up through the vendetta-like tactics of prosectors and the "lies" of Cinnamon now 20, and Patti, 22.

"I got a bum deal. The truth is, I loved (Linda Brown), quite a bit, more than I ever thought it was possible to love a woman," Brown said in a jailhouse interview a few weeks after his conviction. "Those prosecutors would rather have actual murderers on the loose than me. But they're the ones that have to live with it, because I guarantee you, they (Cinnamon and Patti) will kill again."

But Brown's own words, tape-recorded by authorities before and after his arrest, tell a different story--one of family betrayal, violence, greed and passion.

Perhaps most damaging was his elaborate jailhouse plot, discovered by authorities after a tip from another inmate, to pay a hit man at least $22,700 to kill Patti and two members of the district attorney's office, all in a desperate attempt to thwart his prosecution.

The plot, tape-recorded in early 1989, offers firsthand insight into Brown's methods. In one conversation, the incarcerated Brown told a woman he believed to be a jail inmate that she should come forth after Patti's planned murder and tell authorities that Patti had admitted that her whole testimony against Brown was a lie.

"I'll make it worth your while," Brown promised the woman, an undercover police officer. "I take care of people; that's how I managed to get ahead."

The Brown family saga opens in a modest one-story home on Randolph Street in a lower middle-class section of Riverside.

There, in the mid-1970s, lived David Arnold Brown, son of a transplanted Midwest mechanic. A pock-marked face and a gut notwithstanding, he was a smooth talker, managing to woo Cinnamon's mother with love poems and such. The eighth-grade dropout was just beginning to back up the words with some money through his knack for computers, learned at a trade school.

Although Brown's second marriage was then on the skids, there was hope just two doors down the road. There in a crowded house lived Ethel Bailey, a single mother who struggled to raise 11 children on welfare payments.

Brown's introduction to the family was a desperate plea: Then his mid-20s, Brown claimed he was suffering from colon cancer and had just six months to live. Could the girls he had seen walking to school spare time to help clean the place?

Ethel Bailey obliged. "How do you say no to a dying man?" she asked. "I had no reason to doubt him--then."

Soon, Brown was dating Pam Bailey, a teen-ager and nearly a decade Brown's junior; then in rapid succession, Linda, her younger sister, a kid of 13. In 1979, they were married in Las Vegas. Just 17, Linda had to get her mom's signature to wed her 27-year-old suitor.

"David was always a guy who liked having younger girls, little girls," says Alan Bailey, the twin brother of Linda Brown, a friend and employee of Brown's in later years, and now one of his harshest critics. "That and money was what he was always after."

There were early signs, small but memorable, that Brown had a dishonest, even malicious streak, some family members would later recall.

In the back streets of Riverside, Brown liked to coax some of the Bailey girls and others into stealing tools from the back of pickup trucks--just for kicks, it seemed. And as reported later to police, he managed to get into a slew of car accidents around the Southland--17 by one tally--in just a few years, often exaggerating the damage to reap the insurance and buy fancy new cars, according to Bailey family members and authorities.

By late 1984, all the pieces were in place for what would prove the eccentric Brown's greatest crime, a crime that authorities would later describe as nearly "the perfect murder."

By then, David and Linda--divorced shortly after their 1979 union, only to remarry after another marriage in the interim for Brown--had moved into a quiet home on Ocean Breeze in Garden Grove. They had a newborn girl in the house. There, too, were Cinnamon Brown, who had shuffled in and out of her mother's home in Anaheim before moving in with her father and Linda; and Patti Bailey, Linda's kid sister, who had done likewise a few years before at age 11.

If Brown's murder scheme hinged on his ability to find pawns devoted to him, he found two likely candidates in Cinnamon and Patti.

Both had troubled family lives. Both grew up strapped for money; McDonald's was a rare, high-class treat. And in David Brown, with his computer business then on the rise, both saw a chance not only for nice clothes, meals and financial security, but also for family stability and attention, family members and investigators say.

Patti in particular was jealous of older sister Linda, according to family members.

Indeed, Bailey, who testified she had been molested by a relative while growing up, told her mother in a 1989 letter that she had "always felt like the black sheep." Living with the Browns, she wrote, "I felt like I had a family."

"David treated me real special," Bailey added in an interview from the Youth Authority at Camarillo, where she is imprisoned until perhaps age 25, after being allowed to plead guilty as a juvenile to murder. "He'd let me sit on his lap and give me attention and tell me I'm a good kid and go out and buy me clothes and make me feel real good about myself."

Brown also promised the 11-year-old that some day he would marry her, Bailey said, and that letting him fondle her would "would make me develop into a proper lady, a woman. So when my chest starting developing a little later, I thought, 'Hey, this guy is God.' "

"He's a helluva talker," she said. "If he told me the sky was purple, I'd have believed it."

Soon after the pre-teen Bailey moved in, she and Brown were having sex--often, according to Bailey's testimony.

Linda may have never known about the affair, her family speculates. Cinnamon had her suspicions--especially after she caught the pair in a kiss--but kept them mostly to herself.

As for Bailey, the teen-ager says she went along willingly with Brown's advances. "I just thought that's the way it went . . . in a normal house."

But this was no normal house. As far back as 1983, then living in Yucca Valley, Brown first floated the idea of killing his wife, Bailey asserted.

At first, it seemed almost a game, black comedy.

But beneath the levity lay a deadly serious theme, played time and again by Brown in the next two years, first to Bailey, then to Cinnamon: that his wife was "a changed woman," that she and twin brother Alan wanted to take control of Brown's increasingly lucrative computer business, Data Recovery Inc., and that they would stop at nothing--including murder--to get it. He even talked of the twins' supposed ties to "the Mob."

Working first as a consultant for a Signal Hill computer firm called Randomex and later starting his own firm, Brown helped to develop a process for retrieving data that had been lost in damaged systems, such as in the MGM Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas. By 1984, the process was earning him at least $171,000 in reported annual income. He got accolades as a disaster specialist in publications such as Computerworld, along with letters of thanks from the Air Force, Rockwell International, Northrop, and others.

Linda Brown knew the business about as well as her husband. And while authorities scoff at the notion that she really wanted to get rid of her husband, Cinnamon and Patti say they were convinced: the threat to Brown was real.

Cinnamon suggested divorce--by then, routine for her father. But that wouldn't work, Brown countered; Linda knew too much about the business and would represent competition. Then, of course, there was the nasty business of alimony.

When Bailey walked into the living room one day and heard Linda abruptly stop talking on the phone, she claims to have believed Linda was plotting Brown's murder with Alan. She told Brown and Cinnamon as much, helping to fuel the murder scheme.

"David was everything to me," Bailey said, choking back tears in an interview. "He was my family. If I thought he was going to be taken away, that'd be like pulling the plug."

Whatever differing interpretation can be placed on the events that followed, the one point that remains undisputed, acknowledged Joel Baruch, Brown's first defense attorney, is that "David clearly set the whole thing in motion."

For months, the husband, sister, stepdaughter all reveled in ways to do away with Linda Brown. It became a challenge for the girls to see who could come up with the best way of killing Linda and winning David's favor. Run over her with the van, or push her out of it? Hit her over the head? What about throwing an electrical appliance into the bathtub with her? Cinnamon asked once, until she realized with a laugh that her stepmother only took showers.

One of the girls would have to carry out the plot, Brown made clear. A sickly man with a cabinet filled with medications, "he said he didn't have the stomach for it," Cinnamon recalled matter-of-factly during her testimony.

Brown had the girls practice writing suicide notes, a few dozen of them, burning them later or flushing them down the toilet. And he showed Cinnamon how to concoct a medical mixture to fake a suicide after the murder was done. That way she could escape punishment.

He admitted all this in an often-contradictory interview with police immediately after his arrest, but insisted--in a tone professing amazement--that it was all just "a joke . . . a game . . . I was shocked that Linda was killed."

A few months before the actual murder, Bailey said her lover woke her up with instructions to kill Linda. As Brown hid behind a door, she stood with the gun at the bedroom door--just as Cinnamon would.

But, she says now, "I couldn't do it--she was my sister. I loved her." The gun came down at her side.

It was just as well, Brown told the girls later. Cinnamon, three years younger than Bailey at age 14, should be the one to do it anyway, he explained methodically.

"I was too young to get in trouble," Cinnamon recounted on the witness stand, avoiding her father's gaze as she testified in a small, childlike voice in May. "They would just send me to a psychiatrist and send me home."

Cinnamon said she was willing to do it "because I loved him . . . I didn't want to lose my father . . . Why would he tell me to do something that wasn't all right?"

And so, when Brown woke the girls in the early morning hours of March 19, 1985, Cinnamon took handfuls of pain killers from her father. She took the Smith & Wesson .38, wrapped in a towel, from Bailey. And then, with Brown out the door and Bailey standing by with the baby, she took her stepmother's life.

More than three years later, when the truth about that morning was about to crumble down on him, Brown made one last pitch for his daughter's waning loyalty, summoning all his powers of persuasion in a taped conversation they had at the Youth Authority just a few weeks before his arrest.

"I can't survive in jail," Brown said, imploring his daughter not to tell authorities "the whole truth." "I would kill myself before I'd let myself die a slow and painful death in a cell."

But for some, even life in prison would not be enough for a man who they condemn for ending one life and destroying two others.

"He took my daughter's life, and I want that man to hang," declared Ethel Bailey, 59, who now lives in Apple Valley. "Justice can't do enough to convict him."

Even his own brother, whom he used to ferry $10,000 to the hit man in his jailhouse murder scheme, has turned against Brown. "As far as I'm concerned, I don't have a brother anymore," declared Tom Brown of Long Beach, who was arrested briefly before authorities determined that he had no idea what the money was for. "Anyone who could screw his family like this . . . isn't part of the family. . . . We trusted him."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
61°