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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin