‘None ever got away’ — Colorado man confesses to killing spree

Published 5:59 pm Friday, July 28, 2006

Looking back, Johnny Norman remembers the tough kid from the hard-luck family having a quick mind and a bad temper.

Norman, the sheriff of Red River Parish, used to be a gym teacher in tiny Coushatta, La., and one of his students was Robert Charles Browne, the man who may be one of the nation’s worst serial killers. He claims responsibility for 49 slayings dating to 1970.

“He was a loner, but not somebody you’d expect to do this,” Norman said Thursday after Colorado authorities released the grisly details. “He did have a hot temper. In a pickup basketball game, somebody fouled him or hit him, he’d fly off the handle.”

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Browne, 53, is serving a life sentence for the 1991 murder of 13-year-old Heather Dawn Church, who was abducted as she baby-sat outside Colorado Springs. He also pleaded guilty Thursday to killing another Colorado teenager, Rocio Sperry, who vanished in 1987.

Sperry was strangled and then dismembered by Browne in a bathtub, authorities said. Her remains have never been found.

Authorities so far have been able to corroborate his detailed claims in six unsolved slayings — three in Louisiana, two in Texas and one in Arkansas, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said.

Browne says that, in Arkansas, he killed Lisa Lowe, 21, at West Memphis after she was last seen Nov. 3, 1991. Her body was found in the Mississippi River. Browne said he met her in a blues club in Memphis, Tenn., and the two drove to Arkansas on Interstate 40 to a wooded area off the highway. Browne said he strangled the woman, and possibly shot her after she performed oral sex on him.

Authorities said all the claims by Brown will be pursued.

“It’s possible he’s exaggerating, but I don’t think you can conduct business assuming he’s exaggerating,” Maketa said.

Browne’s public defender, Bill Schoewe, did not return a message Thursday.

A 44-page affidavit paints a picture of a killer who met his victims in everyday, even mundane, situations — a motel bar, an apartment complex, even a convenience store where he worked.

In one case, Browne allegedly used ether to knock out a drunken woman he was seducing and then “used an ice pick on her.” In another case, authorities say he used ant killer to subdue a woman he later stabbed repeatedly with a screwdriver.

Authorities say Browne never gave a lot of thought to the killings, before or after. He forgot names and had trouble with details, once mixing up two victims during interviews with investigators.

He did have a “very low” opinion of women, investigators said in the affidavit.

“He said, ’women are unfaithful, they screw around a lot, they cheat, and they are not of the highest moral value. They cheat and they are users,”’ they said. “Mr. Browne said in some way, he feels justified in what he has done.”

Browne was asked whether any of his victims ever got away.

“None ever got away; never gave the opportunity. If you’re going to do it, just do it,” he told investigators.

Browne, a high school dropout who worked odd jobs and was kicked out of the Army in 1976 for drug use, claims his killing spree began with a fellow soldier in South Korea in 1970, though Maketa said that has not been verified.

The sheriff said the other claims include 17 murders in Louisiana, nine in Colorado, seven in Texas, five in Arkansas, three in Mississippi, two each in California, New Mexico and Oklahoma, and one in Washington state. Authorities all six of Browne’s ex-wives are alive.

It was Browne himself who spurred investigators to take another look at his past by sending an unsolicited letter to prosecutors in 2000.

“Seven sacred virgins entombed side by side, those less worthy are scattered wide,” the letter says. “The score is you 1, the other team 48.”

The letter included a map traced from an atlas, and it showed outlines of Colorado, Washington, California, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi.

Browne wrote a number inside each state and the total was 48.

Authorities responded, but Browne clammed up for a while, then agreed to more discussions. Eventually, he began providing details on other slayings.

Asked why Browne would confess, investigator Charlie Hess said he believes the killer himself doesn’t know.

“Does he have a conscience? Is that what motivated him? I really have no idea and I’m not sure he knows,” said Hess, a retired police officer who also worked for the CIA and FBI.

Retired Colorado Springs police investigator Lou Smit, famous for suggesting the killer of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey in Boulder in 1996 was an intruder, had helped authorities build the Church case. He said he always had a feeling Browne was something even worse.

“’I know a guy who might be a serial killer,”’ he recalled telling fellow cold-case volunteers in 2002. They contacted Browne and the off-again, on-again discussions began again.

Authorities said Browne grew up the youngest child of nine in the northern Louisiana town of Coushatta, about 40 miles southeast of Shreveport.

Norman, the Louisiana sheriff, said the Browne family ran a dairy in the 1960s and had hard times. “He came from a tough family,” Norman said.

Browne’s father, Ronald, at one point served as a parish deputy before Norman was elected, the sheriff said.

The elder Browne was a deputy at the same time the department was investigating the death of Wanda Hudson, 20, in Coushatta, the sheriff said.

According to the affidavit, Browne confessed to using ant killer to “chloroform” Hudson, then stabbed her nearly 30 times with a screwdriver in her apartment — a home he was familiar with because he had changed locks there as a maintenance man.

Browne allegedly strangled, shot or stabbed men and women he met along roads, in bars or on the street. Sperry apparently met Browne at a Colorado Springs convenience store where he was working and he attacked her while her estranged husband was out of town.

“He described how he severed her at the joints, ’just popping them’ and taking the body apart,” investigators said. “Browne said he placed the body parts, piece by piece, into trash bags and then took them out to the dumpster behind the apartment.”

If Browne’s claims prove true, he would be one of the most prolific killers in U.S. history.

Gary Ridgway, Seattle’s Green River Killer who in 2003 became the nation’s deadliest convicted serial killer, admitted to 48 murders but once said he killed as many as 71 women, according to interview transcripts.

Investigator Rick Cole of the Fayette County, Texas, Sheriff’s Office said he has been working with Colorado officials for years. He said the 1984 death of 22-year-old Melody Bush, whose body was found near Flatonia, 85 miles east of San Antonio, remains open

“It looks like it’s going to maybe come to a close,” Cole said.