The murders of Mary Ann Perkins, Leslie Dawn Preston, Catrina Antoinette Pink, Billie Jean Bear, Patricia Bessie Martin, and Wendy Kyle faded into memory. Not all the victims were sex workers, but some were and collectively, the crimes came to be known as the “Prostitute Murders.”
The killings were so similar in so many ways but the biggest thing they had in common: All were unsolved. All became cold cases.
That changed in late 2007 when the Union Avenue victims began reporting their assaults.
That led to the patrol officers stopping Michael Charles Brown’s gold Mercury, which led to his arrest, which led – in 2009 – to the DNA connection to Ruby Merriweather.
And that led back to Darbee, by then a detective working in the Bakersfield Police Department’s prestigious crimes against persons unit and assigned to the Merriweather case.
He’ll never forget the day he was able to tell her children he had filed charges against their mother’s killer.
“It was an honor to meet her family,” he told Channel 17’s Olivia LaVoice.
“It just reaffirmed what that detective and I had always said: Everybody counts.”
“I remember the faces of her family and it was just fantastic to tell them we had found the guy. It was one of the greatest events of my career,” Darbee said.
But he couldn’t forget the other victims, six cold cases, unsolved murders, some of them 9 years old, growing colder by the day.
He had the same questions in 2009 that drove LaVoice, in 2016, to start investigating the murders: Could Brown be connected to those cold cases? Was Merriweather the only woman he killed? What about his repeated boasts that he had killed before? Could the convicted serial rapist might be an unpunished serial killer?
Could Michael Charles Brown be connected to the death of Patricia Martin, whose battered body, eight years earlier, helped imprint Darbee with the “everyone counts” compassion?
The “Prostitute Murders” all remained open, but the caseload of a busy detective didn’t permit Darbee to spend much time on investigations so unlikely to be solved.
“I don’t believe this happens on purpose or for any nefarious reason,” he told LaVoice last year. “It’s just a government agency trying to handle what they can handle.”
Then, out of the blue, an amazing stroke of luck – “divine intervention” – changed everything.
Darbee was in his office in the downtown Bakersfield Police Department building. He was examining the gory photos taken at the Merriweather crime scene, looking for clues in the gruesome photos of body posed in horrifying positions at the foot of the bed.
Just then, a police service technician walked into Darbee’s office to tell him a joke.
“She glanced at the screen and said, ‘Oh, you’re looking at Kathleen’s case.’
“And I said, ‘No, this is Ruby Merriweather,'” Darbee remembered.
“I said, ‘It just came back, a DNA hit,'” Darbee said.
“She got really excited and she said, ‘Kathleen’s case? There’s DNA?'”
“And I said, ‘No. That’s Ruby Merriweather.’ And she said, ‘No, that’s Kathleen’s Heisey’s crime scene. I took those pictures.'”
But it wasn’t the death scene of Kathleen Heisey, the beloved school principal so brutally murdered in July 1998.
It was Merriweather.
That police service technician had unknowingly connected the case of the impoverished single mom with the community icon.
“Kathleen Heisey,” Darbee later told LaVoice. “This was divine intervention … Kathleen herself pulled that police service technician into my office.”
Darbee knew about the Heisey case. Everyone in town did. It was the most famous murder in decades.
But Darbee never had worked on it and he never had seen the crime scene photos.
He pulled the file and saw the pictures for the first time.
It was shocking. The victims were so very different, Darbee said, but the crimes were so very similar.
“The similarities, I’ll just say, were obvious. Incredibly obvious.”
He wouldn’t say what those similarities were. But LaVoice learned that like Merriweather, Heisey had been sexually “posed” in the humiliating posture at the foot of the bed. And, like Merriweather, Heisey’s killer had moved a chair next to the bed, apparently so he could admire what he had done.
The department had all but given up on the “Prostitute Murders” but suddenly, with the possible connection to the high-profile murder of the white school principal – whose father had been a Bakersfield City Councilman – things changed.
“I brought it to my supervisor and I was allowed, me and another detective, to work on the case. Soon thereafter, we reached out to the sheriff’s department because we had a potential serial killer … we also reached out to the FBI, they had been in touch with us in regards to the Heisey case.”
It seemed to go back to Brown.
“Either the ‘Prostitute Murders’ or Kathleen Heisey … the more he kept fitting, closer and closer and closer, so it gained steam. I’m not gonna lie. It was exciting,” Darbee said.
“He was good when we started and he is great right now.”
Michael Charles Brown is a great suspect, but not great enough. There never was enough truly conclusive evidence to meet the tremendous prosecutorial burden that Darbee had to satisfy.
“There’s only so much stuff you can do, only so many leads you can track down, sometimes all you can do is wait,” he said.
Besides, Brown is on Death Row for the Union Avenue rapes and the murder of Ruby Merriweather; and in Bakersfield, there’s a new murder every week or so.
Darbee retired. But he still thinks about the survivors of the victims of unsolved crimes. He still worries if something else can be done to help close a cold case. He is, he said, “waiting for circumstances to change in witnesses’ lives that might prompt them to be truthful or to remember something else.”
LaVoice lives with the same obsession. Her reporting pushes her every day to poke into old cases. Each week, she spends hours in the court house looking up old cases, hours on the phone with grief-stricken relatives, hours combing old news stories.
She’s been working on the Michael Charles Brown story off-and-on for well over a year. She found a lot of Brown’s life history is a matter of public record – because he’s been in and out of jail so many times. She developed a precise calendar of when he was arrested and when he was paroled.
She layered that timeline atop a list of the dates of the Union Avenue rapes and the murders of Ruby Merriweather, Mary Ann Perkins, Leslie Dawn Preston, Catrina Antoinette Pink, Billie Jean Bear, Patricia Bessie Martin, Wendy Kyle and Kathleen Heisey.
The conclusion was clear: Brown was frequently in jail and none of the crimes happened when he was. And when he was released, people died.
LaVoice contacted dozens of Brown’s friends and family members. None wanted to speak on camera. However, enough information was found in criminal records files and through friends who wished to remain anonymous to paint a picture.
Some friends mentioned how Brown had a diverse group of friends, how he could fit in with different crowds. They recall him spending a lot of time playing pool at bars, often keeping to himself.
Now 42, Brown was born March 19, 1975 into a big family in the small central Mississippi town of Grenada, population 12,000. He had family in Bakersfield and visited Kern County frequently in his youth. In 1992 and 1993, he spent his junior year playing basketball at Highland High School. He still has many relatives and friends in the area, but none willing to speak on the record. Brown’s Kern County criminal record suggests he struggled with alcohol, but friends said he never experimented with drugs. Those friends also said he seemed to always be in a long-term relationship with a series of girlfriends with whom he lived.
He had multiple children with multiple women but never married.
At the time of his last arrest, he was in a serious relationship with a live-in girlfriend with whom he had a child, friends and relatives said.
Brown has experienced tragedy in his own family. While he was incarcerated for vehicular manslaughter in 2003, one of his brothers was the victim of a homicide. That case remains unsolved.
Through the years, Brown has remained silent.
He didn’t testify in his own defense at his trial. In the death-penalty phase of the case, he had the opportunity to have dozens of people testify on his behalf and beg the jury to have mercy on him and give him life without parole instead of the death penalty. Brown declined. He didn’t try to fight it.
LaVoice’s interest in Brown started in 2016 during her investigation into the Kathleen Heisey murder.
After that investigation aired, she received numerous tips from viewers, but one call stood out. A woman said she lived just one street from Heisey.
She remembered a strange instance just before the murder: A young black man offered to clean her carpets for free. She thought it was odd that he was in street clothes and not wearing what someone would wear to clean carpets. Something about his demeanor made her uneasy, and coupled with the fact that she was alone, she declined his service.
Moments later, she called a neighbor friend. That same was at the friend’s house. The friend had agreed to have her carpet cleaned. Our caller went to the friend’s house, seeming to startle the man. He told the two women he needed to get equipment from his car. He left and never returned. Both women were slightly rattled by the situation, but they didn’t report it until they heard the very next day about the Heisey murder just one block away.
They immediately called detectives, but investigators never interviewed either of them. Still frustrated 18 years later, they hoped LaVoice could pass along the tip. She did.
The conversation prompted LaVoice to review her notes from the dozens of interviews conducted for the Heisey documentary.
She found her notes from a conversation with Lynn Runyan, perhaps Heisey’s best friend and probably the last friend to see her alive.
Runyan mentioned that in her last conversation with Heisey, Heisey told her she recently hosted a party and needed to have her carpets cleaned. At the time, it was a minor detail that didn’t seem important.
LaVoice dug deeper into her notes. She gasped when she read about her conversation with the woman who knew both Wendy Kyle and Michael Charles Brown from the Mint bar. It seemed inconsequential at the time of the interview, but the woman mentioned teasing Brown about driving a van to the bar.
“Like a commercial-type van, all white, no emblems on it,” she described. “It didn’t say anything. He said he was doing carpet cleaning. He even had some flyers he was passing out. He was starting his own business doing carpet cleaning. I remember thinking it was kind of a hokey setup type thing.” The woman said.
LaVoice immediately called the detective assigned to the case. After 18 years, the detective formally interviewed Heisey’s neighbor and the mutual friend of Kyle and Brown.
Police won’t say what happened with those interviews.
Detectives say that for the integrity of all the decades-old, unsolved cases, they can’t disclose any information about any of the cases – such as what evidence still exists, DNA results or other possible suspects.
That’s what police say about all these cases. They decline to answer questions about cases that are decades old.
For example, reports say Leslie Dawn Preston fought her killer bravely. She had blood beneath her fingernails. But investigators won’t say if DNA was recovered – they won’t even tell the family.
So the Preston family, and all the families, wait for answers, wait for, as Darbee said, “circumstances to change in witnesses’ lives” or some other divine intervention to move the cases forward.
Meanwhile, Kern County homicides hit a record high in 2016, and more and more cases – more than 60 percent – go unsolved and move toward the cold case classification.
And Michael Charles Brown?
He sits on Death Row.
A year ago, LaVoice reached out to Brown in Death Row. He’s never spoken with a reporter, but the two have exchanged letters.
LaVoice wanted to interview him for her story.
His most recent note says: “I am dealing with a lot right now so it’s not the best time for our meeting. My story still has to be told and I hope you will still be around when the time is right.”