A Shot in the Dark
Phoenix police officer Franklin Brown Jr. has returned to the scene of the crime."Right here is where it started," he says, standing on an isolated two-lane road at the city's southwest tip, on Lower Buckeye Road between 91st and 99th avenues. "This is where I got shot."
Speaking in the understated monotone that is a cop hallmark, the slight 30-year-old says it happened about 3 a.m. on July 5, 2000, moments after a Hispanic man flagged down his westbound cruiser.
Brown describes how the stranger knocked him to the ground, then shot him with a handgun as two accomplices armed with automatic weapons looked on.
Somehow, Brown says, he repelled the trio during a ferocious gunfight that lasted, according to police reports, almost 30 minutes. He sustained minor bullet wounds to his left hand and to his chest in the process. He says his bulletproof vest surely saved his life.
"I felt like I was blacking out," Brown continues softly, closing his eyes as he relives his tale. "My chest was hurting. I reached in, and felt blood, but it was from my hand. It's weird how the mind works. I know that I accepted death that morning."
The amazing events won Brown selection as a "Top Cop" by the National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO) -- the equivalent of an Oscar for police officers.
He also received his own department's Medal of Valor.
The popular television show America's Most Wanted aired an episode on the case, portraying Brown as heroic.
But if this sounds like a feel-good story about a courageous police officer who miraculously survived an inexplicable attack, it's not.
For more than a year, the Phoenix Police Department quietly has been investigating whether Frank Brown faked the ambush and shot himself on Lower Buckeye. He's been on administrative leave since last October, and precincts throughout the city have been instructed not to let him inside their buildings.
Now, Brown says, his own department is determined to prove he's a liar.
Much has changed for Brown since that fateful July morning, and most of it's been bad."I've had a black cloud following me for a long time now," he says. "It's not my fault, it's just there. My police career is shot, my wife left me, and my department thinks I'm a phony. But I know for a fact that I almost died for my job."
Questions about the complex, troubling incident on Lower Buckeye continue to fester inside the Phoenix Police Department. The case remains the stuff of heated debate inside the agency, where Brown has served for more than four years.
The anti-Brown camp is certain that Brown staged his own "ambush" and shooting for reasons they can't fathom. The pro-Brown camp is just as certain the department has targeted the wrong guy, and that investigators should be looking for the assailants instead of focusing on their fellow officer.
The Lower Buckeye case still is being investigated by the department's homicide and professional standards (formerly internal affairs) bureaus.
Is Frank Brown a sick puppy? Or is he simply a star-crossed guy whose department has had it in for him?
The answers aren't easy, as borne out by the fact that the department, after more than 18 months, still hasn't finished its investigations.
Though the agency has released little publicly about the case, Brown himself recounts many of the questions he says investigators have had for him:
Why did it take such an improbably long time for the attack to continue -- about a half-hour from the time Brown pulled over until he called for help on his police radio?
Why was Brown's own blood found spattered in an unlikely location several feet from where the officer says he was shot?
Why didn't Brown notify dispatchers of his whereabouts before the ambush? And why was he patrolling the most remote part of his beat?
Why were expended shell casings -- from a weapon other than Brown's service revolver -- found in a location that doesn't comport with Brown's account?
Why did Brown receive only relatively minor injuries during an allegedly vicious battle that likely should have resulted in serious injury to him or his death?
"They tell me I've had a consistent pattern of not remembering things I should be remembering out here," he says. "But why would I have done these things to myself? There was no gain. I've heard the rumors -- that I'd been involved in drug transactions, that I wrecked my car and then created this scenario. That I had co-conspirators. Please."
The first official inkling that something was amiss came last October, when Phoenix's police union president announced Brown wouldn't be getting his "Top Cops" award in Washington, D.C., later that month.
Jake Jacobsen, the president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association (PLEA), said the department had notified NAPO of its unspecified "concerns" about Brown's account. Jacobsen -- whose association had nominated Brown for the coveted award -- insisted Brown still could collect it "once loose ends have been cleared up."
But Frank Brown still isn't a "Top Cop." Actually, he's a cop in name only at this point, and has been on paid administrative leave for almost six months, as Phoenix PD contemplates his future with it.
By all accounts -- including his own -- Frank Brown is a tortured soul, with myriad stresses that continue to wrack his life.His wife, Jennifer, left him last June, taking the couple's three children -- who are under the age of 5 -- back to her native Southern California.
And the alleged ambush isn't the only open case involving Brown. In December 2000 -- five months after Lower Buckeye, and just five weeks after he returned to active duty -- Brown was involved with two other officers in the fatal shooting of a west Phoenix man. That case, too, is still under investigation because of nagging questions about Brown's account.
Finally, investigators also have questioned Brown about alleged misstatements on his 1996 application with the Phoenix Police Department concerning his military and personal background. He denies having misled the department.
Brown says a union representative recently told him that "if they don't burn me on the Lower Buckeye thing, they're gonna do me on the application -- which is ridiculous. He said I'm toast with this department. They just need a fail-safe, because they've spent so much time and money trying to bring me down."
Last July 5 -- the first anniversary of the Lower Buckeye incident -- attorney Tom Baker filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Jennifer and Frank Brown against the department and Maryvale precinct commander Susan Parra.
The lawsuit alleges the department "retaliated" against Brown because of negative public statements he made to reporters after the shoot-out. Brown claims it took the form of transferring him to a do-nothing desk job, and by placing him in a "false light" among his peers.
It says in part: "The [department] retaliated against Franklin Brown for exercising his First Amendment rights by prohibiting off-duty employment, supplemental overtime and forcing him to accept a 'good for the department' job transfer."
In those public statements, Brown alleged Phoenix's brass had been jeopardizing line officers by not affording them easy access to rifles in their cars, and by not updating hand-held police radios to account for alleged "blackout" areas. He also bemoaned the scarcity of two-person patrols on Phoenix's tough west side -- especially after fellow Maryvale precinct Officer Marc Atkinson's murder by drug dealers in March 1999.
The department formally denied Brown's allegations of retaliation in court papers filed November 21. As for Brown's claim that he'd been ambushed on Lower Buckeye, the department's attorney responded, "[We] are without sufficient information or knowledge to form a belief as to the truth of the matters asserted herein."
In other words, investigators still weren't prepared to say definitively what they believe happened out there.
As for Commander Parra, Brown says she told him last year that she believes he's a serial murderer, apparently referring to two fatal on-duty shootings in which he's been involved -- there also was one before Lower Buckeye -- since 1999.
Speaking for Parra, Phoenix police spokesman Sergeant Randy Force says Brown's account is grossly inaccurate. "Commander Parra's recollection is that she and Officer Brown had a conversation about him doing background investigations, and he questioned why he needed detective certification to do that. And she told him, 'You'll actually be doing background investigations. We don't need to be hiring any serial killers.'
"At no time did she tell this officer that he was a serial killer. She, too, has shot two people in the line of duty, and she knows others who have done the same thing, and she considers none of those people, including herself or Officer Brown, serial killers."
Police officials placed Brown on administrative leave early last October for duty-related stress. He says police psychologists examined him months ago, but he hasn't been told of the results. Though he still may keep his badge in his wallet, Frank Brown has been ordered not to carry any weapons.
In the old days, street cops used to kibitz after hours at smoky gin mills and the like. These days, they're just as likely to adjourn to a Borders.A few weeks ago, three officers sipped java at the bookstore and spoke about their friend, Frank Brown. Some of them have had their own problems with Phoenix PD, but insist that doesn't color their perceptions. However, it also means they won't allow their names to be used for this story.
These officers say Brown is a man they trusted on the beat. They say he's been unfairly maligned, mostly because he had the audacity to speak publicly against his bosses after his brush with death.
"All I know is that there's no way Frank made that thing up," one cop says. "He's just not the type of guy to do something remotely like that. He's no big shot, he's just a cop."
Brown says he's gratified for the support, though he's painfully aware that other Phoenix officers suspect he's a fame-seeking nut case.
"The department has left this perception in the mist about me, and they've never cleared up what happened," he says. "I can see why some people believe I'm a faker. But they're going to be hard-pressed to prove I wanted attention so much that I hurt myself on purpose. I am not a glory hound."
Brown is referring to something akin to Munchausen's syndrome, a psychological condition in which a person intentionally injures him or herself, with no obvious reward other than drawing sympathy and attention -- usually medical. (This is not to be confused with Munchausen by Proxy, where an afflicted person purposely hurts someone else, usually his or her child, to gain medical attention.)
Dr. Tod Burke, a criminal justice professor at Radford University in Virginia, considered the topic in a 1992 journal titled "Munchausen's Syndrome in Law Enforcement."
"An officer faced with overwhelming interpersonal stress or threat of loss, creates an incident in which he . . . is the victim and occasionally the hero," wrote Burke, a former cop himself. "The officer creates a situation in which he becomes the focus of sympathy, concern and care."
Burke adds, in an interview with New Times, "The Munchausen officers also have what I call the 'hero syndrome,' in that they have a need to be recognized as having accomplished something remarkable, such as survived a shooting."
(Strange as it seems, more cops intentionally shoot themselves and blame unknown suspects than most people realize. See the accompanying story)
"That's not me," Frank Brown says, after being read part of Dr. Burke's article. "I'm just a guy who grew up wanting to be a cop, and I got to be one. I'm not a hero."
Franklin Edward Brown Jr. was raised in a tough, lower-middle-class neighborhood in Banning, California, a city of about 26,000 off Interstate 10. His father, Franklin Sr., was disabled, and Brown's mother, Lupe, says her son -- the youngest of two children -- had many responsibilities around the household.
"He never was belligerent or a juvenile delinquent," says Mrs. Brown, who lives in the same home in Banning where Franklin grew up. "And ever since he started talking, he said he wanted to be a police [officer]."
Brown says he was supposed to graduate from high school in 1990, but passed the California proficiency test two years earlier, at age 16, because he had to care for his ill parents.
Though Brown says he's never "intentionally tried to hurt someone, or done something criminal," the black cloud he often speaks of seems to have hovered over him for much of his life. Another way of looking at it is that he's fortunate to be alive.
Even before he turned 21, according to Brown's account to New Times, he'd been shot at, stabbed, and had been the victim of an armed robbery, all in separate incidents.
Unscathed, Brown later enlisted in the U.S. Marines, and says he passed basic training. But he says he soon left active duty because of his parents' illnesses, and instead joined the Marine Reserves.
This was in the early 1990s, during which time Brown says he applied for work with the Los Angeles Police Department. He says a flunked polygraph test killed his hopes of getting on with LAPD.
Brown's explanation: "I had been asked to list all police contacts I'd had, and I'm thinking speeding tickets, stuff like that. But they found out I was listed as a victim in two cases -- one where I'd been shot at, and one when a guy with an ice pick stole a bag of checks from a shoe store I was working at. The LAPD guy kept asking, 'Are you sure you're telling me everything?' and I'd say yes. But he never said, 'Were you a victim?' That's where I went wrong."
An LAPD background investigator also spoke with a Banning man with whom Brown had a run-in four years earlier: "In the polygraph, they kept asking, 'Did you threaten anybody?' I said no, and I told them about the thing with this guy, which had been no big deal to me. I guess the investigator told me I'd been withholding information."
Though stymied by LAPD, Brown says he still was determined to give police work a go. By 1996, he'd met Jennifer, and says he started to contemplate marriage.
Brown says Jennifer wanted a fresh start, and Arizona sounded good to both of them. He applied with the Phoenix Police Department in December 1996, the same month he says he passed the first of two polygraph tests here.
"I told Phoenix I had applied with LAPD," Brown says. "Why would I have even listed that if I had something to hide? If they had wanted to check up on me, they could have."
On his Phoenix application, Brown says he wrote that he expected an honorable discharge from the Marine Reserves. But the following month, in January 1997, he says he received an "other than honorable" discharge, apparently for skipping too many drills.
Brown married Jennifer in March 1997. She gave birth to their first child that August, the same week her new husband started at the Phoenix police academy. He graduated in December 1997, and was assigned to the Maryvale precinct, a sprawling high-crime zone that covers 57 square miles and a population of about 200,000.
Brown says he soon noticed the difference in policing during his daytime and nighttime shifts: "Daytime is for community-policing, feel-good policing. Nighttime is different. I'm not a brutality type of guy, but certain officers will throw in a couple of extra punches to let the bad guy know who's boss.
"It happens all the time that you have split-second judgments looking at you, and you're going to cost someone their life or cost your own if you make the wrong move. But there are times you just have to do something."
One of those times apparently came on July 20, 1999. That night, Brown was patrolling near 28th Avenue and Taylor with another officer, Ed Mendez. Police reports say the pair learned someone allegedly was selling narcotics from a home in that neighborhood.
The officers later said they'd knocked on the front door, but no one answered. As they prepared to leave, the cops saw someone behind a bush in the fenced-in backyard. They said the man, 20-year-old Saturnino Campos, was holding a gun in his hand.
After the incident, Phoenix Sergeant Jeff Halstead said: "The officers gave commands in English and Spanish: 'Drop the weapon.' And at that time, the suspect started to stand up, raised the gun toward the officer [Brown]. And that's when the officers shot the suspect. . . . We were a split-second away from a double-officer funeral."
Brown says Campos did more than raise the gun.
"The gun was six inches from my face when the guy pulled the trigger," he recalls. "He had left the safety on, or I'd have been dead. My friend [Mendez] said he could actually see the back of my head blowing out in his imagination."
Department investigators later concluded that the officers were justified in shooting Campos, who died. Frank Brown was back on the street in days.
But less than a year later, he'd take a spin down Lower Buckeye Road that would change his life forever.
The Phoenix Police Department breaks up the city into six precincts. Within the Maryvale precinct are 16 "beats," each of which is patrolled by squads of about 10 officers on a given shift.Those on the "835 beat" are responsible for patrolling more square mileage than others in the precinct, because much of the sector is sparsely populated. The beat encompasses Maryvale's southern and westernmost parts, then goes east to 51st Avenue, and north to McDowell Road.
It's not as if the officers of "835" are in danger of being bored for long. Often, they help fellow officers in other areas as the need arises.
That's what was supposed to happen at about 3 a.m. on July 5, 2000, when a dispatcher asked Frank Brown to respond to a non-emergency call at 43rd Avenue and Osborn. He replied that he'd gotten the message.
That would be the last the dispatcher heard from him until nearly a half-hour later, when he called for back-up after the alleged attack.
Brown says he was about nine miles from 43rd and Osborn when he was dispatched, near 91st Avenue and Lower Buckeye, in the southern part of "835."
"When the investigators questioned me later," he recalls, "they said, 'Why were you way out there, it makes no sense.' I said, 'Well, that's in my patrol area, and we'd heard of illegals being dropped off there, even the possibility of bodies.' I was just riding through there."
Brown says he's foggy about some pivotal events during the subsequent 25 minutes -- which included the alleged ambush and gun battle. But that's not necessarily a point against him, if the book Deadly Force Encounters is accurate.
Co-authors Loren Christensen, a Portland, Oregon, police officer, and Alexis Artwohl, a clinical psychologist, contend: "It's normal when you are involved in a deadly force encounter to not remember parts of what happened and parts of what you did. . . . You may think you saw, hear or experienced something during the event, but later you find out it happened very differently or never really happened at all."
Here's what Brown says he does recall about the start of the ambush:
"I saw the guy who flagged me down illuminated in my car's headlights. I know the situation escalated as soon as I got out of my car. I know I saw a muzzle flash before I got shot. And I know I tried to call dispatch with my portable radio, but it wasn't working."
After that, he says, things are far more fuzzy.
Brown says he somehow was able to get back to his car and drive in reverse for about 50 yards; he didn't want to go forward because he suspected that a car parked up ahead might belong to his would-be killers.
As he backed up, Brown says, he accidentally backed onto a dirt berm built up adjacent to an irrigation canal that runs alongside Lower Buckeye. That left his cruiser high-centered, with its rear end hanging over the water.
But Brown says his mysterious attackers inexplicably didn't flee immediately. Instead, they tried to finish the job, exchanging gunfire with him for what seemed to him like minutes.
He says investigators have told him he'd fired 30 rounds of a possible 46 from his service revolver, and he's fairly sure he wounded one of the men.
Later, Brown provided a mostly generic description of the man who'd flagged him down, and a more detailed description of the nearby vehicle. He told investigators that at least one attacker had been wearing body armor outside of his clothing during the clash.
"The investigators told me it's most likely impossible that I could have described a possible suspect car in the eastbound lane. . . . They said, 'How the hell could you give such a description? It was so dark out there.'"
(National Weather Service records for July 5, 2000, indicate the Phoenix night sky was clear, and it was only a few days after the full moon. But that doesn't necessarily prove that Brown, in the middle of a firefight, could have seen what he says were the car's Sonora, Mexico, license plates.)
Brown also recalls that a passerby drove onto Lower Buckeye during the clash, and likely took some bullets to his car. He says he ordered the passerby to leave, and assumed he'd seek help. But the other man never did call police, nor did he come forward after the fact.
Brown admittedly doesn't have a satisfactory explanation for the alleged 25-minute duration of the gunfight -- a key point for dubious investigators, according to the officer.
"They said to me, 'Are you aware that gunfire happens really quickly?' I said, 'There was a lot going on.' The gunfight could have lasted a few minutes, and then maybe I was out cold until I came to and put out a call. I don't know. But I'm not going to make something up. I remember holding myself up on the edge of the canal . . . and I remember slipping back in the water feet first."
Finally, at 3:35 a.m., Brown spoke with a police dispatcher for the first time in almost a half-hour. A tape of that transmission shows that, because of continued static over the police radio, the dispatcher barely could understand Brown.
"835 John, try again," the dispatcher says calmly. "Where are you at?"
Brown's next few words are inaudible, then he screams, "Lower Buckeye! Block southbound traffic! Don't come in here!"
Brown tells New Times that he thought he'd seen the suspects' car turn southbound off Lower Buckeye, and says he didn't want fellow officers running into an ambush of their own. He adds that he also didn't know if any of his assailants were still in the area.
Brown later tells the dispatcher, "I've been shot several times! Suspects armed with assault rifles!"
About 13 minutes passed before an armada of officers from Phoenix and other agencies was able to pinpoint Brown's location. During that time, he continued to advise the dispatcher to warn officers not to rush to his aid.
When the cops finally found Brown, records show, he was in the canal below his police cruiser. Brown says one of the officers apparently twisted his testicles to see if he was still alive, then pulled him to safety. (Oddly, Brown says he has scant memory of being on the receiving end of that painful, but sure-fire, technique.)
Brown's squad car -- still hanging precariously over the canal -- had been riddled with bullets. But his rescuers didn't see any signs of his assailants, or their car.
Brown was rushed to Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center, where he would spend the next few days. Meanwhile, police helicopters and ground troops futilely scoured the wide-open farm country for signs of Brown's attackers.
Brown says investigators have told him that a witness has alleged he'd seen him trying to push his police car out of the canal, but saw no one else there.
"Sure, they [department investigators] say it's too dark for me to have seen anyone or anything out there," he says, "but not for this guy. They want it both ways."
Brown says investigators also asked him how his blood ended up on the north side of the road, across from where he'd supposedly been shielding himself from gunfire behind his incapacitated cruiser.
If he'd been there during the clash, Brown concedes, "I would have been killed. It doesn't make sense. It seems like I had to be standing there because of the [blood] pattern, but I was shot in the center of the road -- at least I thought so. I don't have an answer for that."
Brown says the investigators haven't told him what kind of expended shell casings they found on Lower Buckeye, but "my friends tell me they are definitely high-powered casings and other handgun casings."
Force, the police spokesman, confirms that detectives did find shell casings from guns other than Brown's service revolver at the crime scene.
But if Brown brought automatic weapons with him to stage a phony gunfight, what happened to them?
Did he first discharge the weapons on Lower Buckeye, then drive and dump them somewhere, return to the scene, back his car over the berm, shoot himself, then call for help?
Or did he bring the expended shell casings with him to the scene, in an attempt to divert suspicion from himself?
Finally, could he have had a co-conspirator working with him?
Police searched the adjacent fields after the sun rose on July 5, and sent scuba divers into the canal to look for evidence of a gunfight.
Apparently, they found nothing.
The Brown ambush story was a hot news item for days. Phoenix police soon released a portion of the officer's emergency call, including the part where he urged his rescuers to beware."Even in that firefight," one news anchor intoned, "he didn't want anyone else to get injured, and he was in a life-and-death struggle there. Is that chilling? That is really disturbing."
Within a few days, more than 50 people had phoned police with sightings of the suspects' car -- which Brown had described as a gray, older-model Mercury Grand Marquis with an antenna attached to its trunk.
"We won't give up," Phoenix police detective Bob Ragsdale told the media. "However long it takes, we'll find them."
They never did.
A few days after the Lower Buckeye incident, one of Brown's squadmates on the "835" beat spoke to the media on Brown's behalf. Officer Al Richard said his injured friend was dismayed that the department wasn't putting enough officers into two-person patrols. He also said Brown was concerned the department wasn't allowing its officers to carry rifles inside their cars.
"In Frank's mind, it's not if it's gonna happen again, it's when," Richard said, referring both to the alleged ambush and to the slaying of Officer Marc Atkinson.
Frank Brown held his own press conference eight days after the Lower Buckeye incident. With his left hand still bandaged from the bullet wound, Brown added, "It seems like we're doing [our jobs] with one hand tied behind our backs right now."
Brown also noted that his hand-held radio hadn't worked during the ambush, which he claimed isn't uncommon for west Phoenix officers.
"Sporadic radio problems have existed in the city of Phoenix in the past," says Force, "but I don't know any specifics about that area."
Brown says he just was expressing what many of his fellow officers long had been saying privately, but feared the department's image-conscious brass would retaliate against him for being so vocal.
"They don't like grunts like me speaking out about policy, even if they knew I was right," he says.
That theory makes little sense to PLEA president Jake Jacobsen, whose organization would nominate Brown for the "Top Cops" award.
"To single out an officer because he's spoken out is ludicrous, especially in such a high-profile case," Jacobsen says. "That definitely could have backfired on the department. It just didn't happen the way Franklin thinks it did."
Brown took about four months off to recover from his injuries, and spent much of his time at his west Phoenix home. But he soon started to hear disquieting rumors from friends inside the department.
"I know there were questions about the ambush. I had my own questions. Then I started hearing that some people were thinking I had shot myself."
Brown's now-estranged wife, Jennifer, says he became "paranoid" after the alleged ambush.
"He started to wear his [gun] when he was mowing the lawn," she tells New Times, "and he made me shop up in the Arrowhead mall area, not even close to our home, because he was afraid of the bad guys who shot him."
But the many lingering questions didn't keep police officials in November 2000 from pronouncing Brown physically and psychologically fit for duty.
Early that December, Brown says, detectives from the homicide unit -- which investigates all police-involved shootings -- questioned him at the Lower Buckeye crime scene about the alleged ambush.
"They were rolling their eyes at my answers, and it felt like an interrogation," he says. "I was a victim, but I sure wasn't feeling like one."
As 2001 approached, Brown says he and his wife discussed the possibility of filing a lawsuit against the police department.
"I wasn't dead set on suing them, but my hand was still screwed up and workers' comp was going on only so long. Jennifer was telling me, 'This was their fault. Look, you're having nightmares. If you had been in a two-man [patrol car], or if you had had the proper equipment, this wouldn't have happened.'"
Brown says his wife also drove home a painful truth for him before he finally decided to sue his department: "She made this point -- and it's one she stayed with, because she's divorcing me now -- that after the ambush I wasn't the same person. I'm not. She said I was really distant, I don't talk, I don't play with the kids anymore, don't go to the park. I was all bottled up -- more than one bottle, to tell you the truth. It's hard when your department has it in for you."
On the evening of December 17, 2000, residents at a west-side mobile-home park reported that someone in a red pickup was racing around the property firing shots.A police helicopter soon shined its spotlight on the truck, shortly before Officer Dave Norman drove up in his patrol car to 27th Avenue and Osborn. Norman saw that two men were in the truck, and later said he'd seen a gun on the seat beside the driver's right leg. He directed them to show their hands, which they did.
But the driver, Felipe Venegas, grabbed the gun and lifted it up. Officer Norman shot four times past the unarmed passenger through an open window, gravely wounding Venegas. Venegas lowered the gun, as Norman opened the passenger door to yank out the other man.
Within seconds, Officers Joe Twyford and Frank Brown had arrived in separate patrol cars. According to the pair, Venegas raised his weapon again, at which time Twyford fired three times and Brown once. According to police reports, Brown fired the last shot, which struck Venegas in the upper chest.
"We got there about 20 seconds after Dave put out the call," Brown recalls. "He said the guy had a gun. I saw him lift up an object. If he had a cell phone, I probably would have shot him because we'd ordered him not to move. I said, 'Please, God, not again.'"
The 31-year-old father of four died the next morning. The Venegas shooting marked Brown's third violent clash in 17 months. He says the department allowed Twyford and Norman to go back on the road after three days.
"I was told to take a little more time off," he says.
Brown filed his letter of intent to sue the Phoenix Police Department two weeks later.
But, remarkably, the department again allowed Brown back on the street, this time for a short, uneventful stint in January. That month, however, his bosses abruptly put him on a desk job -- "Twiddling my thumbs," Brown says.
"They also told me they didn't want me to work off duty, which cost me a lot of money," he says. "I wanted to go teach at the academy. But after I filed my letter [of intent], everything went upside down."
Hurting badly for money, his marriage on the rocks, and relegated to a desk job, Brown says he signed up several times between January and June of 2001 for "supplemental" shifts at Maryvale -- overtime patrol duty for officers.
"I'd show up for briefing and they'd go, 'What are you doing here? You can't work,' and I'd say, 'Why not? I need the money,' and sometimes they'd say I could work that night, but don't let it happen again."
Then, one evening in the spring of 2001, Frank Brown says, he nearly was involved in yet another shooting of a civilian:
"Someone called saying their boyfriend was trying to break the door in. I arrive there with another officer, and we're the first units on scene. We see him banging on the side door in the carport, standing behind a car or a boat covered up in the driveway.
"All I can see is his shoulders up, and the caller had said he had a gun. We had our guns pointed at him. 'Show us your hands.' And he was, 'F you. Shoot me.' I was, like, 'Oh, shit, I can't believe this is gonna happen.' . . . He came around the corner and he raised his hands, and he didn't have a gun. I'm thinking, 'If he had had something, what would I have done?'"
Last June, Jennifer Brown and the couple's three small children moved back to California. Frank Brown says the move came as no surprise, but upset him deeply. He soon took "family leave," hoping in vain, he says, to patch things together.
"Too much bad had happened between us after the ambush for the bond to ever come back," explains Jennifer Brown. She says that she believes Frank's account.
That wasn't the only momentous event that summer.
A letter from the National Association of Police Organizations in late June informed Brown he'd been chosen as one of the nation's Top Cops for the year 2000, "for actions above and beyond the call of duty" on Lower Buckeye. A NAPO spokesperson says the association sifted through more than 250 nominations before deciding on the 10 most worthy applicants.
Less than a week later, Brown says homicide detective Paul Dalton -- the lead investigator on the Lower Buckeye case -- called him into his office to ask him more questions. Brown was joined by union representative Michelle Monaco and his squadmate, Al Richard.
Brown alleges Dalton told him: "'This thing [the Lower Buckeye investigation] is very politically motivated,' and I informed him I wasn't going to talk to him anymore. . . . The timing of this says it all: They had to try to get more out of me . . . because the one headline they didn't want to read was, 'Top Cop Sues City.'"
Officer Al Richard confirms Brown's account.
"I do remember that Frank brought up that the investigation was political," Richard tells New Times, "and that Detective Dalton said something to the effect that, yes, this is very political."
Force, the police spokesman, says the detective vehemently denies that he said anything of the sort.
"I know Paul had questions then, and I know he has some questions now, some concerns about Franklin's story," Force says. "But the concerns that he has are his own concerns. No one in management has given him any direction in how to proceed in this investigation, and nothing has been motivated by politics or managerial direction at all."
Officer Monaco says she didn't hear Dalton say anything about the investigation's alleged political motivation. However, she does have a vivid recollection of what turned out to be a contentious meeting.
"We were trying to figure out if Paul [Dalton] was treating Frank as a victim or as a suspect, and I'm not sure that Paul knew for sure what he was at that point," Monaco says. "I remember Frank going after Paul hard for about 10 minutes, saying that he was a victim and that he knew that Chief [Harold] Hurtt didn't believe him."
Adds Randy Force: "Paul realized there was the possibility of misconduct by Officer Brown out there, but he also realized that Brown still could be a real victim. I'm sure he wasn't sure then what category to put Officer Brown in."
Frank Brown and the other "Top Cop" winners were slated to be flown to Washington, D.C., for the annual awards presentation last October 26. Word was that President Bush planned to attend the banquet, which traditionally is frequented by luminaries including actors who play cops on television and a bevy of politicians.
Brown says he invited his mother to join him on the big trip, for which she bought a new dress. He ended his "family leave" in early September, and returned to work expecting, he says, to conduct background investigations for the department.
"With my streak of bad luck," he says, "I didn't really want to be on the street even if they'd let me."
But a few days later, Brown says Detective Dalton asked him to submit to another interview. Brown again declined.
"Things are so jumbled anyway," Brown says. "They could show me a picture of Saddam Hussein and I'd say, 'Hey, maybe that's who shot me.'"
Brown says PLEA president Jake Jacobsen soon visited him at his desk, and allegedly told him "I'd better start filling in the gaps if I was going to consider this Top Cops thing. [He] asked me to call and cancel it, and I said no. . . . I was upset and very stressed, but I didn't make any threats or anything."
Within a few weeks, Phoenix PD put Brown on administrative leave because of duty-related stress. His supervisors immediately took his service weapon, which is standard in such situations, then ordered him not to carry his own personal guns.
He says his weapons still are in storage: "I'm not a freaking paranoid, but I'm not going to do anything to get me fired or killed. I don't want to end up in a suicide-by-cop shooting."
Jacobsen asked Brown to meet with him at the union offices about a week or so after he went on administrative leave. It was at this meeting, both men confirm, that Brown first learned an assistant chief had asked NAPO to postpone his "Top Cops" award.
Says Jacobsen, "It broke my heart sitting there telling him. But the department had expressed some concerns that Franklin's description and the evidence weren't holding together in certain areas. They wanted us to withdraw the nomination, which we refused to do. So they called NAPO. NAPO later told us this award is still Franklin's at such a time that the investigation is complete."
Jacobsen says Brown was "visibly disappointed" at the news, though he didn't make any threats against anyone.
NAPO spokesperson Jill Cameron says the turn of events is unfortunate.
"It was to protect ourselves," she says. "We can't sacrifice the integrity of the award regarding a case that's not yet closed, and about which we're getting contradictory information."
Without being asked, she adds, "In all honesty, the nicest of the 'Top Cops' I've ever spoken with was Franklin Brown. He was a wonderful and kind person. This decision has nothing to do with the person."
The news didn't become public until mid-October, a few weeks before the banquet. Brown says the "Top Cops" fiasco humiliated him, because it made him appear guilty of having staged the ambush -- which he denies.
Phoenix PD's concern about how Frank Brown would react to the snub became evident last October 12. That day, the brass circulated a memo with a photograph of Brown to precinct commanders and front-office personnel.
"Officer Brown has been placed on administrative leave until further notice," it said. "Please be advised that he is not allowed into ANY police department facility without supervisors' permission."
The Lower Buckeye clash wasn't the department's only ongoing investigation concerning Frank Brown. Investigators were revisiting the December 2000 Felipe Venegas shooting -- the one in which Brown and his colleagues killed the gun-toting man in his pickup.
On October 5, assistant medical examiner Mihai Iliescu issued an amendment to the original autopsy. It said that, after Venegas had been shot twice in the upper right arm -- the third and fourth of six gunshot wounds -- "It is my best professional opinion [that] the decedent was incapacitated in such a way that would be a low probability that he would be able to raise his right arm."
That statement raised new doubts about Frank Brown's earlier statement that Venegas had lifted his arm bearing an object moments before Brown and Joe Twyford had shot him.
On January 22, the county's Professional Standards Review Board concluded, "It is the opinion of the board at this time that Officers Norman, Brown and Twyford did not commit any act that warrants criminal prosecution."
However, the phrase "at this time" is not boilerplate. And that concerns Brown.
"Nothing that they'll do will surprise me," he says.
Jennifer Brown says investigators from both the homicide and professional standards bureaus interviewed her in California a few months ago.
"All of their questions were geared toward their doubts of Frank," she says. "I could have bashed him for a lot of things, but not for the reasons they wanted."
Randy Force says he doesn't know when his agency's investigations into Frank Brown will be finished.
"I know that in any kind of investigation, you always exhaust all workable leads," he says, "and I believe that is where Paul Dalton is today -- no new leads, no new information. It remains officially unsolved. The internal investigation may be a different story. That one may reach a resolution some day, because Officer Brown can't refuse to cooperate with them."
Brown counters: "They just won't give up. Even if they come out and say they screwed up on everything -- the ambush, you name it -- I'm tainted. I wouldn't take a chance on me after what they've done. I don't trust them."
He pauses for what seems like several seconds.
"I really don't know who's good and who's bad anymore," Officer Brown says.
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