Grisly Tale of Missing Family Torments New England Town : Crime: An 8-year-old and her parents are found in shallow graves. The suspect is a victim’s former broker, a Sunday school teacher.
It was the center of a quiet, well-ordered universe, a classic New England farmhouse with peeling white paint, a barbecue out back and a front porch as expansive and inviting as a grandmother’s lap.
Now yellow tape hugs the trees: “Police Line Please Do Not Cross.” At the bottom of the driveway stands a small, brave barricade of white, yellow and lavender mums turning to brown, and pumpkins with painted faces and messages for a missing girl: “To Emily--Best Friends Forever.”
No one had seen Emily Brendel, 8, or her parents, Ernest and Alice, since Sept. 20. They were three of the 395 missing Rhode Islanders listed in the FBI crime computer, and three of the 11 classified as “involuntary”--missing under circumstances that suggest they disappeared against their will.
On Thursday, a woman walking her dog less than half a mile from the Brendel’s comfortable home found a shallow grave containing the bodies of Alice and Emily Brendel. Ernest’s body was found close by in a grave near a grade school.
Six weeks after their disappearance, the question “where” has been answered. But the “why” may torment this town for months to come.
“I said three weeks ago: ‘They’re all dead, and they’re out of their misery.’ No matter what happened, how utterly horrible it was for them, it’s over,” Jim Page, Emily’s godfather, said before the grave was found. “I had to do that for my own sake. I had to assume they’re dead. I had to.”
Investigators, including the FBI and state police, had made the same assumption. But for weeks, all they had was a silent and surprising suspect, Christopher Jemire Hightower, 42, a devoted father of two who taught Sunday school and coached soccer. He also was a commodities adviser who once handled some of Ernest Brendel’s investments and allegedly defrauded him.
Hightower denied knowing the family’s whereabouts, and he has not been been charged in their deaths. After the bodies were found, he was put under suicide watch at the jail where he was being held on extortion and stolen property charges, pieces of a circumstantial puzzle that hint powerfully at a dark, bizarre crime made even more confusing by the upstanding citizen at its heart.
“People just don’t understand, one, how this could have happened,” said John Digits, executive director of the East Bay Mental Health Center, which has been helping residents cope. “Mr. Hightower seemed like the pillar of the community. And how could someone have presented that image and then acted the complete opposite? Who do you trust, is what people want to know.”
Ernest Brendel trusted Hightower, at least enough to allow him to handle small commodities accounts. A lawyer specializing in trademark and international licensing matters, Brendel, 52, had done well with investments over the years, authorities said.
He and Alice, 46, a Brown University librarian, moved to Barrington from Providence about three years ago, drawn by the schools and space for Emily, a bright, outgoing third-grader.
After years in New York, the peaceful, small-town life in Barrington suited the Brendels, friends said. They were shy, quiet people who led conservative lives, preferring home-cooked meals to evenings out and spending time with each other to anything else. They shared a love of history and travel and were happily planning Emily’s first trip abroad, to France.
“They were intellectually oriented, but kind of self-effacing,” said Page, a New York writer who had known Ernest Brendel for 20 years. “They didn’t go out of their way to be anything but what they were. They said what they felt, they explored ideas, but it was all genuine. We just enjoyed each other, and we enjoyed being together, which doesn’t sound like much, but in this day and age, it’s a hell of a lot.”
Hightower came to Rhode Island from Titusville, Fla., where he grew up the eldest of five children. He married his first wife while with the Navy and was divorced eight years later.
He married Susan Slicker, 12 years his junior, a year later. The couple moved to Dayton, Ohio, where both attended Wright State University; Susan pursuing a master’s degree in education, and Hightower completing a master’s in physiology and enrolling in a doctoral program in biomedical sciences.
The couple abruptly left after two fires within a week in their home, said Robert Gotshall, who was Hightower’s student adviser.
Hightower failed his doctoral preliminary exams, which had to be postponed three times because of the fires, Gotshall said. At the same time, Hightower was dabbling in the volatile commodities market.
“It was my impression he decided to change his career because he was doing better in the stock market,” Gotshall said.
Hightower, his wife and two sons moved in with her parents in Barrington, and he embarked on a full-time career as a commodities trade adviser, although the scope of his business is unclear. It is certain, however, that his efforts on Brendel’s behalf were a failure.
In a complaint filed in July with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the federal agency that regulates commodities trading, Brendel said he opened a trading account with Hightower in March, 1989, and closed it six months later at a small loss. “I concluded that, despite his claimed ability to trade his own account, Hightower seemed unable to trade client accounts,” Brendel wrote.
Brendel said he “kept in touch with Mr. Hightower since we both lived in the same small community and I supported his efforts” to become a successful trader. He also loaned Hightower $2,000 to buy computer equipment.
In May, 1990, Hightower persuaded Brendel to reopen his account by showing him a handwritten trading record for the “Spaziano account” that showed a $65,567 profit on a $75,000 investment in four months.
But Brendel closed the second account in April, after his $15,000 had dwindled to about $3,100. In a letter to Hightower asking for repayment of his $2,000 loan and half his investment money, Brendel wrote: “Chris, I am truly sorry that matters did not develop as we had hoped. I wish you all future success.”
Still puzzled by Hightower’s ineptitude, Brendel investigated the trader’s claim of fantastic profit in the Spaziano account. In a far less friendly letter a few weeks later, Brendel accused Hightower of falsifying that trading record and demanded his money back.
“I find this information extremely distressing and impossible to comprehend,” he wrote. “I am unable to discuss this with you since you have apparently disconnected your telephone lines.”
Brendel also threatened to take the case to the authorities for possible criminal prosecution and said he was filing a complaint with the CFTC, which could result in loss of Hightower’s trading license. The deadline for answering the complaint was Sept. 17. Hightower never did.
That week, Hightower’s personal and professional life collapsed.
His computers were repossessed, and he was barred by court order from contact with his wife and sons. In affidavits seeking the order, Susan Hightower said her husband had told her he had paid $5,000 to have her killed and another $1,000 “to make sure it looks like an accident.”
“His life was in a tailspin,” State Police Capt. Brian Andrews said.
On Sept. 20, Hightower picked up Emily from an after-school program at the YMCA. Workers at first refused to allow the child to go but relented after Hightower produced Ernest Brendel’s driver’s license as proof that he was acting on her parents’ behalf.
Hightower was identified by a deliveryman as the person who answered the door at the Brendel house that night and turned him away.
The Brendels were last heard from on Sept. 21, when Alice Brendel called Page and said her husband could not meet him at a college football game that day because his mother had been hospitalized. The excuse was untrue.
“There was absolutely nothing untoward in her voice,” Page said. “If something horrific had happened at that point, she couldn’t have disguised that.”
That same day, Hightower used one of Brendel’s credit cards at a mall. The next night, he showed up in the Brendel’s red Toyota at the home of Brendel’s sister, Christine Scriabine, in Guilford, Conn. He told them his family and the Brendels were being held for $300,000 ransom, and allegedly showed them bloodstains inside the Toyota to persuade them to kick in $75,000.
He left empty-handed six hours later, and the Scriabines contacted authorities. “His story didn’t hang together,” Scriabine said.
On Sept. 23, Hightower was stopped in the Brendel’s car. Inside, police found blood, several teeth, a half-empty bag of lime and a crossbow. The blood was Type O, Ernest Brendel’s type. One of the teeth was identified as his.
That evidence and other items from the Brendel home were sent to the FBI for analysis, along with a letter written on Brendel’s stationery that arrived at the CFTC the week after his disappearance. It withdrew the complaint against Hightower.
“We had held out hope right to the end,” Andrews said. “To come up with the end result we came up with, especially when it involves an 8-year-old girl, is tough to deal with. We all have families.”
Three of the 25-member Barrington force worked full time on the case, and they set up a confidential post office box to field citizen information and suggestions. Police repeatedly searched stands of trees, just beginning to turn when the Brendels disappeared, now the color of dried blood. They recently combed the waterfront near the Barrington Congregational Church, where Hightower taught Sunday school.
Social workers fanned out across town, holding counseling sessions for the children in Hightower’s Sunday school class, Emily’s classmates at Primrose Hill Elementary, and the YMCA staff who released her to Hightower. Fear invaded the well-tended homes of weathered shingle and clapboard, and it will remain as long as there are unanswered questions about the life of Christopher Hightower and the deaths of Ernest, Alice and Emily Brendel.
“The whole community is in pain for the Brendel family and for the Hightower family,” said the Rev. Joseph Dye, pastor of Barrington Congregational. “But we are filled with anxiety because there is no answer. Our children ask: ‘Who can we trust?’
“We have no answer because we don’t know what has gone on.”
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