Whack Job 

Frank Brown was butchered in 1996. His killer still hasn't paid the price.

His friends at the Sin City Deciples clubhouse say Frank Earl Brown was straight-up.

Generous, he'd give you the shirt off his back. Dedicated, he had the club's moniker tattooed on his left arm. Dependable, he worked as a crane operator in Alton for as long as anyone can remember.

Growing up in East St. Louis, Brown didn't make it past the tenth grade, but he believed in working for a living. He started hanging around the Alton docks as a youth.

"He started sweeping the docks and loading barges and everything," recalls his sister Evelyn Brown, who lives in Kansas. "He was always willing to learn. He always hung around the older men up there, and they were willing to teach him. As he got older, they hired him on."

Brown was blue-collar, and he was fastidious, ironing his T-shirts and his money -- his relatives remember him exchanging soiled bills for fresh ones. But he was a man's man, the kind who didn't easily show emotion. A relative who'd known him since he was six says she saw him cry three times: when his parents died and when he sat at the bedside of a brother who was dying of cancer. "He turned his head quick and wiped his eye so I couldn't see," recalls the relative, who had walked into the room where Brown's brother lay. She asked that her name not be published.

Fellow bikers called him Mongoose because he could spot a snake. You can almost feel his ghost in the clubhouse on the outskirts of East St. Louis. He often stayed here in a trailer parked in the yard. A plaque dedicated to him hangs at the end of the bar. His leather gas-tank cover hangs above it. Photos of Brown adorn the walls, as does a program from his funeral. A headstone -- one version of it, at least -- sits on a shelf, wrapped in plastic and safe from dust. The maker carved the wrong date of death. Frank died on Friday the 13th, not the next day.

You have to ride a Harley-Davidson to be a Deciple, but Brown started with a Honda. He once organized his own club, called the Wild Bunch, which eventually petered out, as did Brown's interest in foreign motorcycles. He signed on with the Deciples in 1985. In six years, he rose to chapter president. He lived to ride. The only things his sister worried about were black ice and her brother catching cold.

"He would ride all during the winter until ice was so bad he just couldn't hold it up," Evelyn Brown says. "It would be freezing, but he didn't care."

Brown was old-school, favoring models from the 1970s, when the AMF Corporation owned and nearly killed the motor company by putting out notoriously unreliable bikes. But outdated engineering didn't matter. Brown could fix nearly anything. He made his motorcycles from scratch.

"He could get pieces and just make a motorcycle," his sister says. "He would find the one that was in 100 pieces. He put them together, each one of them. He taught himself to do it. He didn't go to school, but he'd get books and read things, and he could just do it. Even puzzles: I would look for a puzzle with the least amount of pieces. He would get the one with a lot of pieces. That was his love, putting little things together."

Before runs, Brown made sure his ride and everyone else's were straight. From Sturgis to Daytona, he roamed the country. And he didn't take shit from anyone.

Take the time Brown was relaxing at the Parkside Lounge in East St. Louis back in 1989. The evening ended in gunfire. The way Brown told the tale to a judge, the victim had it coming.

Someone at Brown's table had spilled a drink on a woman. He offered to get her dress cleaned or buy her a new one, but she wouldn't calm down. The situation escalated when a guy grabbed the woman's behind, Brown later told a judge: "I said, 'You got a problem?' He said, 'You're not talking to me.' I said, 'Yes, I am talking to you.' And one thing led to another, and we got to fighting. We fell through the door, and I fell down and someone stomped me in the face, broke my glasses."

"Kicked you," the judge interrupted.

"Stomped me," Brown corrected.

One of Brown's partners pulled a gun and fired a couple of shots in an effort to stop the fight, but the gunplay only made matters worse. Brown told the judge that the man he had been fighting pulled what looked like a knife. Brown grabbed the .25-caliber pistol from his partner's hand and shot the man in the chest. The bullet passed through the man's torso. The victim ran to the bar and got his own gun, chasing Brown and his companions out of the lounge, but his weapon wouldn't fire. The wounded man drove himself to a hospital and made a complete recovery. Ultimately Brown pleaded guilty to aggravated battery and was put on probation for two-and-a-half years. It was his only felony conviction on a rap sheet dominated by traffic offenses.

"He was a real righteous dude," says Chasmanian, a Deciple since the East St. Louis chapter was formed 28 years ago. "He really was. When that happened to him, I couldn't believe it."

Chasmanian shakes his head.

What happened to Brown shocked more than the Metro East biker community. His death brought the media spotlight to Madison County, but the glare has long since faded. Several Deciples are too new to remember Brown. But they all know his story.

At tonight's meeting, members of other clubs drop by, and no one much cares whether they arrive on Kawasakis or hogs. When meeting time arrives, the Deciples depart for a nearby building to conduct business, leaving a handful of folks to mingle at the bar. It's a small place, with cinderblock walls and a cement floor. Hip-hop pulses from a portable CD player. The darts are soft-tip and the billiards table pocket-size. There's fried catfish and white bread. No one pays any attention to the battered nineteen-inch television tuned to a news broadcast.

It's as comfortable as a living room.

A man named Child, who leads the Midnight Riders, pulls on a can of Busch. He thought of Brown as a brother.

"A damn good guy," Child says.

"Shit happens. What can you say?"

The case began when the downstairs tenant noticed a leak coming from the apartment above.

It wasn't water.

The neighbor called Collinsville police around dinnertime on September 14, 1996. The substance dripping from her ceiling sure looked like blood, so Officer Dan Arvizu went upstairs. No one was home. The landlord let him in.

Arvizu went from one room to another in the two-level apartment, checking to see whether anyone needed help. Nothing seemed amiss, save for a red spot the size of a quarter on a baseboard near the bathroom. A Rubbermaid trash can in the kitchen also seemed out of place. Arvizu was turning to leave when his thigh brushed against the can, knocking the lid off. He peered inside and saw a blanket wrapped around something. When Arvizu lifted the blanket, he uncovered a human foot -- and one of the most grisly homicides in Madison County history.

The 30-gallon trash can contained Brown's body, but not his head. Investigators found that at the bottom of the kitchen freezer, with food stacked neatly atop it. There were two holes in Brown's forehead and a pair of bullets inside his frozen skull, which was wrapped in plastic garbage bags and towels. Brown's penis and testicles had also been sliced from his body, which was still clothed in overalls, boxer shorts and a black Harley-Davidson t-shirt. Investigators found Brown's genitals inside his clothing. The overalls were cut just below the pelvis, where the killer had tried to sever the legs. The cuts went all around the thighs, right down to the femur. Brown had also been shot in the torso. In an apparent attempt to retrieve the bullet, the killer had sliced deep into the wound.

There was a bottle of carpet-cleaning solution under a coffee table, but the murderer had missed several spots. In addition to the stain on the baseboard, investigators found bloodstains on a sofa and walls in the living room and a hallway -- it's not clear why Arvizu didn't see them. The living-room carpet near a loveseat was also stained by blood, which had soaked through the floor and into the apartment below.

It didn't take long to find the killer. Within 48 hours, police arrested Suzanne Marie Johnson, Brown's girlfriend and the renter of the apartment where he died. She confessed. She said Brown had beaten her on previous occasions and that she killed him in fear for her life.

Former State's Attorney William R. Haine wasn't buying.

"This is a cold, calculated act of first-degree murder," the prosecutor declared at a news conference September 17, 1996, the day after Johnson's arrest. Noting that Johnson had never filed a domestic-violence complaint with police, Haine pegged her as a jealous woman whose rage went out of control. If convicted, she'd serve between twenty and 60 years, he said.

Six years later, Johnson has yet to see the inside of a prison.

Brown, 41, was getting ready to leave for Michigan the day he died. He was going with fellow Deciples. Johnson, the same age as Brown, wasn't coming along, and she didn't like it.

Johnson wasn't Brown's only girlfriend. Six months after he died, another woman gave birth to his fourth child. Johnson didn't keep her anger a secret.

"She said, 'If he goes out of town again without me, I'm going to do something about it,'" Chasmanian recalls. A woman sitting next to him in the Deciples clubhouse agrees. "She had set here and said she was going to kill the man," the woman says. Chasmanian and the woman say they told Brown about Johnson's threats, but he apparently didn't take them seriously -- at least, not seriously enough. Then again, there was nothing about Johnson that suggested she would shoot a man, let alone cut him into pieces.

Chasmanian had known Johnson for about twenty years, longer than he'd known Brown. The two dated off and on for fifteen years, he says. She was a constant in the Metro East biker scene, running with the Sundance Riders, the Midnight Riders and several other clubs besides the Deciples. When Chasmanian first met her, she was driving a school bus. Eventually she got a job at Mercantile Bank, where she worked for more than ten years.

"She was a nice person -- that's for real," Chasmanian says. "She wasn't an aggressive person. You never would have expected it. I can see they got in an argument and she shot him, but mutilating his body? Ridiculous. It was ridiculous what she did to that man."

A van rented for the Michigan trip was parked outside Johnson's apartment when the argument began in the kitchen, sometime after 3:30 p.m. It quickly escalated.

Drawing from Johnson's confession, Collinsville detective Robert Vecchetti told a coroner's-inquest jury that she went to her second-level bedroom after Brown pushed her inside the kitchen. Brown followed and pushed her again. Then he turned around and started for the stairs. Johnson got off the bed, grabbed a revolver from a dresser drawer and followed. As Brown reached the bottom of the steps, he started to turn. Johnson told police she thought Brown had something in his hand, so she shot him in the back.

After he was shot, Brown continued down the stairs and made his way to the living room, with Johnson in pursuit. Brown was at the front door when he turned around. Johnson fired again, striking him in the forehead. He moved toward her, so she fired a third time, again hitting him in the forehead. This time, Brown dropped to the floor. One of the shots left powder marks on Brown's head, indicating that the gun was fired within two feet of the target.

As Deciples started calling the apartment to locate Brown, Johnson disposed of evidence.

She first drove the rental van to a nearby motel, parked it and walked back to her apartment, where she changed clothes. Then she went to a coin-op laundry and washed her bloody garments. On returning to her apartment, she took out some garbage, taking time to chat with her landlord at the trash bin. After that, she drove to the Martin Luther King Bridge and tossed the revolver into the Mississippi River. Then she took a nap, with Brown's body lying in her living room.

When she awoke, sometime between 2 and 3 a.m., she had a big chore on her hands. Brown was more than six feet tall and weighed about 250 pounds. Johnson was five-foot-four and weighed 120 pounds. But she was determined.

She grabbed a shower curtain and some razor blades from the bathroom and went downstairs to the living room, where she severed Brown's head. Coroner's records aren't clear on what she used to cut through the neck, but funeral-home director Carl Officer, who prepared Brown's body for burial, says Johnson used a kitchen knife. "She took her time," says Officer, a former deputy coroner for St. Clair County who served as mayor of East St. Louis and is a candidate for mayor again.

Johnson went after the bullet in Brown's torso with a razor blade but couldn't reach it. After wrapping the head in trash bags and towels, she hid it in the freezer, then rolled the corpse onto the shower curtain and dragged it into the kitchen. Using razor blades, she cut both legs down to the bone. She told police she castrated Brown with a razor blade because his genitals were in her way.

All this took several hours. With the sun now up, Brown drove to a Super Valu grocery store and rented a steam cleaner. She returned it with bloody water remaining in the vacuum's reservoir, recalls Collinsville police Chief Garrit M. Gillespie. After washing walls, carpet and furniture, she went to the Grandpa's store in Collinsville, where she purchased a trash can. She tried stuffing the body into the can, but Brown was too big, so she took the can back to Grandpa's and exchanged it for a bigger one, also picking up some wall paint to cover up what couldn't be washed away. The body still wouldn't fit, so she returned to Grandpa's and bought an ax, which she used to hack at Brown's right femur. The bone proved too strong. Eventually she gave up and again tried cramming the body into the trash can. After finally succeeding, she changed clothes and went to her sister's house for a family reunion.

Her apartment was surrounded by police cars when she returned, so Johnson hid her car at a nearby apartment complex and called her sister, who picked her up. She told her sister what she'd done, then spent the night at her sister's house. The next day, she took a cab to a friend's house, where she was arrested hours later.

The case against Johnson appeared strong.

Police had a body. They had a confession. They had Johnson in jail, no bail, with a first-degree murder charge hanging over her head.

But police weren't entirely unsympathetic.

"She was upset and very emotional," recalls retired Belleville police Sergeant Michael Boyne, then commander of the Major Case Squad. "I remember feeling very sorry not only for the victim but for her. Nobody -- nobody in this world -- deserves to die that way, but he brought a little bit of this on himself."

Boyne recalls that Brown had told Johnson he was taking another woman to Michigan. "You can never justify it, but if anything's going to incite you, this is going to incite you," he says. "I think this was more a panic situation than anything else. What I remember about her was, she held a pretty good job. She'd done well, raised two children who, I believe, were in the military and doing well. It was just not an act you would suspect from her -- that was the shocking part. One of the guys who was interviewing her said, 'Mike, this is a pretty nice gal. She made a terrible mistake. This thing just really got out of hand.'"

Other officers have a different recollection.

"She was calm, cool, collected," says Sergeant Sean Fagan of the Florissant Police Department, who interviewed Johnson as a member of the Major Case Squad. Fagan declined to answer further questions without clearance from David Rands, the prosecutor assigned to the case, and the Collinsville police, who approved an interview request. Rands did not return repeated calls. Unlike Boyne, Chief Gillespie says he doesn't feel for Johnson. "I think Mike's entitled to his opinion," the chief says. "I don't think we've ever believed it was a case of self-defense."

Monica Doby, Brown's 24-year-old daughter, doesn't believe her father was abusive. "Even if he was, why wouldn't you just let him leave?" she asks. "He was going to leave. Why not let him leave? Why kill him? It wasn't self-defense. Why would she buy a trash can and say it's not big enough and go and buy a bigger trash can and an ax?"

Johnson retained J. William Lucco, one of the most prominent defense attorneys in Madison County. It appears to be money well spent.

Less than two months after Johnson's arrest, Lucco convinced Madison County Circuit Judge Charles V. Romani to grant bail on the grounds that Johnson, a lifelong county resident, wasn't likely to disappear. Lucco noted she had no criminal record and had steady employment. She was released on a $40,000 bond.

Considering she was accused of first-degree murder, Johnson enjoyed remarkable freedom. With the blessing of the state's attorney's office, she traveled to Texas for four days in 1997 to visit a daughter. Under her bail conditions, the state's attorney's office had to agree before Johnson could travel outside Illinois. She obtained permission at least seven times while facing substantial prison time. Besides Texas, she has traveled to Maryland, Louisiana, Florida and Mississippi.

"I'm not a lawyer or nothing like that, but if you are guilty of first-degree murder or whatever, how can you be free to go wherever you want to go?" Doby asks.

Susan A. Jensen, the prosecutor who handled the Johnson case until mid-December, won't comment. Lucco also refuses to talk, saying he doesn't comment on pending cases. Johnson did not return a phone call.

Haine, who resigned as state's attorney in November after winning election to the Illinois Senate, says his office had no grounds on which to oppose Johnson's travel requests.

"When someone's out on bond, unless they violate the terms of the bond, it's very difficult to object if they want to leave the state unless there's a showing that they're a flight risk," he says. "The lawyer's stature plays a role; there's no question about that. Bill Lucco's clients don't flee. That's true of the top defense lawyers -- they're just not going to run on you. Bill is the best lawyer in the county."

Lucco won 22 continuances for his client. The prosecution's case started to unravel in March 2001, when Romani ruled that police should have gotten a search warrant as soon as Officer Arvizu spotted Brown's foot. Instead, they waited 28 hours from the time Arvizu moved the blanket aside before obtaining a warrant to search Johnson's apartment.

Romani's initial ruling excluded Brown's head as evidence, but prosecutors still had his body and Johnson's confession. Lucco and Jensen asked the judge to reconsider his decision. It was a slam-dunk for the defense.

On further review, Romani ruled that Arvizu had no right to move the blanket that hid Brown's foot. Arvizu says he moved the blanket aside because he was "curious" about what was inside the trash can. But curious isn't good enough. Under the law, police must have good reason to believe a crime has been committed, and even then they usually need a warrant before searching private property unless there's reason to believe someone is in need of immediate assistance. Arvizu admitted he'd already determined that no one was in the apartment when he looked in the trash can and that he was turning to leave when he knocked the lid off.

Romani's ruling meant that prosecutors couldn't use the head, the body or anything else they found in Johnson's apartment. They also couldn't use Johnson's confession on the grounds that police used illegally seized evidence to coax her admissions. What had looked like loads of proof had crumbled to nothing.

If Arvizu had lied and said he saw the foot as soon as he knocked the lid off the garbage can, things might have turned out differently. The law allows for accidental discovery of evidence. Instead, Arvizu told the truth. As a result, Johnson was on the verge of going free.

Chief Gillespie says his officer did the right thing in telling the judge how the crime scene unfolded, and any mistakes were honest ones.

"You tell the court exactly how it was when you found it," says Gillespie, whose department has handled just one other homicide since Brown was killed. "We've all held up that right hand and taken an oath to uphold that Fourth Amendment, no matter what the outcome might be. In retrospect, I wish we would have backed out of that apartment after we knew we didn't have a suspect in the house -- secure it, guard it until we get a warrant. It would have been better for everyone if we had done that. Let's face it: We would have found the body in the trash can and the head no matter what."

Call it an accident of timing. If the blood had leaked through the floor more quickly, perhaps police would have caught Johnson, quite literally, red-handed. If Johnson had gotten back from her family reunion before cops arrived at her apartment, maybe her answers to "Why is blood leaking from your apartment?" and "What's that trash can doing in your kitchen?" might have raised more suspicion or perhaps prompted a confession.

"We could 'what if' this case for years," Gillespie says. But, in the end, stuffing Brown into a trash can and leaving him in her own kitchen proved the key to beating the rap.

It's a situation that grates on Haine.

"Suzanne Johnson was just so frustrating," the former state's attorney says. "We've told the police officers over and over again, we used to tell them at every meeting, to seek warrants. Seek our counsel. Call us when there's a homicide. That's in every letter we used to send: Call us."

But Haine doesn't blame police as much as he does the way judges have interpreted the law. So far as he's concerned, when blood is dripping, police shouldn't be required to get a search warrant.

"It's just a messy case created by bad precedent where judges really read too much into the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution," Haine says. "Put yourself in the place of a cop. You're not thinking, 'Gee, I've got to go get a search warrant.' Cops are cops. They should be looking for evidence, not thinking of some damn lawyer later on, six months from then, on a motion to suppress [evidence]."

Quoting U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Judge Romani essentially said "tough luck" in his September 2001 ruling that stripped prosecutors of their case. "It may well be that, in such circumstances, no effective means short of a search exist," the judge wrote. "But there is nothing new in the realization that the Constitution sometimes insulates the criminality of a few in order to protect the privacy of us all."

Prosecutors appealed. In court papers, Jensen argues that Arvizu had a right to continue searching Johnson's apartment until he discovered the source of the blood leaking into the apartment below. She also says police didn't need a warrant because officers would have inevitably found the body and all the other evidence they discovered. Behind the scenes, the sides started talking about a plea bargain.

Negotiations culminated last summer. The state's attorney would agree to a second-degree murder plea, with a maximum prison term of twenty years. Prosecutors wouldn't recommend a sentence, leaving Romani to decide an appropriate punishment.

Johnson didn't bite. She had won so far, and if the appeals court agreed that the search was illegal, she would walk away innocent, at least in the eyes of the law. That was a chance Haine didn't want to take.

"It was an all-or-nothing roll of the dice," Haine recalls. "If the appellate court sides with Romani, we're done. We don't have a case -- we would have had zip, zero, nada. That was the crapshoot. So we made the offer, but we said, 'This is it: Second-degree murder, take it or try it.'"

Several months passed with no word from the appeals court or Johnson. In November, Haine won election to the state Senate and said he would resign as state's attorney. The odds-on favorite to replace him was William A. Mudge, Lucco's law partner -- he'd said he was interested a year earlier, when Haine announced he would run for the Senate. As Haine was clearing out his office, he got an unexpected phone call.

"They came back and said, 'We'll take the deal,'" Haine says. "We didn't hear anything until the day before I left office. I can't explain why. Maybe she feared the unknown, with a new state's attorney coming in. The plea was her decision. Our backs were against the wall long before that."

On November 21, Johnson pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, and Romani gave her permission to travel to Florida for six days shortly before Christmas. Moments after Haine resigned the next day, the Madison County Board unanimously appointed Mudge as his successor. To avoid any conflict of interest, Mudge turned the case over to Rands, a special prosecutor with the Illinois Office of the State's Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor.

Haine says a first-degree murder conviction wasn't guaranteed even if prosecutors had won their appeal.

"You've still got to go through a difficult trial," he says. "This is a case where the woman shoots the guy -- he's a rough guy, a tough guy, so there's going to be an allegation of domestic abuse, which could have muddied it up and resulted in a second-degree verdict."

Although they say they don't believe Brown was violent toward women, his friends and family also say they weren't with him around the clock. In her 1993 divorce petition, his ex-wife, Elizabeth Tolliver, cites "extreme and repeated acts of mental and physical cruelty" as grounds for divorce but provides no further details. Tolliver declined an interview request. She attended Brown's funeral, as did Doby's mother, who gave birth to two of Brown's children. Less than three months before Brown died, Tolliver attended a family reunion at his brother's house, posing for a snapshot with her ex-husband. In the photo, the two are smiling and holding hands.

When Johnson will learn her punishment is anyone's guess. More than three months after she pleaded guilty, no sentencing date has been set. Meanwhile, she works as a cook at the Perkins Family Restaurant in Troy, Illinois, where the mention of her name brings smiles to waitresses.

"She's really nice," says one. A manager who says she's familiar with Johnson's history refuses to answer any questions.

The waiting has been hard on Brown's friends and family, who say it's time for Johnson to go to prison.

"She hasn't been behind bars," Evelyn Brown says. "She can visit her family, see her grandkids, have holidays and everything. She needs to be punished for what she did. I never thought it would take this long. I don't understand a lot about it."

Two weeks after Brown died, his brother Edward succumbed to cancer. Three months later, another brother died. "He dropped dead from a heart attack," Evelyn Brown says. "He just grieved himself to death. I lost three of my brothers, one right after the other."

Brown had eight siblings, and he helped keep the family strong, according to his sister. Evelyn Brown says he called her every Friday night. Even now, she waits for a call that will never come. "Every Friday night, I can't sleep," she says. "I keep thinking he's somewhere and he doesn't know where he is and he's going to come back. We always talked about everything, no matter what -- I always knew he'd be there. Maybe he was my crutch."

Doby says Brown took care of her and his other children. When she was living in St. Louis, he would put her on the back of his Harley and take her to the clubhouse, where he barbecued and taught her how to play darts. After she moved to Mississippi with her mother, he called at least once a week, taking pains to talk to her boyfriend as well. She last saw him a few months before his death, when he asked her to come to St. Louis. When she arrived, he bought her a dress for her high-school prom. He picked it out.

"We still attend his family reunions," Doby says. "We didn't want for anything -- we were taken care of. My father, any woman he dated, he took care of them -- them, their child and everybody. When he came to visit us at home, if our friends or someone was over there and he was bringing us food or treating us or taking us somewhere, he didn't leave that child out. He included them. My daddy didn't overlook no one.

"I know we're supposed to leave it up to God. He's the one who makes the final judgment. But she should receive some kind of punishment. She shouldn't be able to walk free like she hasn't done anything."

More by Bruce Rushton

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