The origin of this investigative story was complicated, like a puzzle with lots of little pieces that I was never really sure would fit together. It really all began soon after I began my journalism career at KGET. I was the morning show reporter, and though I hoped to cover crime, it was rarely the assignment I was given. Finally, a few months into my position in March 2016, I was given the opportunity I had been waiting for.
My boss told me a man named Michael Charles Brown was going to be sentenced for raping four women and murdering another. He said that thanks to the work of former KGET reporter Kiyoshi Tomono, we knew Brown was a suspect in the unsolved murder of a young woman named Wendy Kyle. I was told I had a day to find her family, and if I did, I could do a story on the case.
Unfortunately, it didn’t happen. The day of Brown’s sentencing, reporter Jason Galvin prepared a wonderful in-depth look at the crimes Brown was convicted of, but Wendy was just a one-line mention at the end of the piece. Then came the final line that really stuck with me:
“The FBI has said four other cold cases in Bakersfield around the time of Merriweather’s death were likely committed by the same person, but no charges have been filed in those cases.”
I immediately wondered, who are the four other murder victims? If they likely have the same killer as Ruby Merriweather, doesn’t that make Brown the prime suspect in all those other cases? It seemed like a bombshell was being treated as an afterthought.
Now I’d like to mention here, I am sure I am not the first reporter to have this thought. Other reporters at 17 News of course wanted to know, but it isn’t always that simple. Police weren’t willing to divulge that information. The mysterious comment from the FBI about the homicides appearing linked was made in 2002 and there was no official record of it. The FBI wasn’t willing to comment further. As a news agency, we can only report the information we have, and we just didn’t have enough. Brown was sent to death row and his story seemed to be over, but it still remained in the back of mind.
As my fascination and passion for covering cold cases grew, I started making a list of unsolved homicides I thought potentially could be the murders that were linked to Ruby Merriweather’s. By late spring of 2016 I found out about the murder of Kathleen Heisey. The case instantly intrigued me and I felt a deep sorrow and frustration for her loved ones that the case was still unsolved. A few months into my research on the case, I thought I had a good grasp on the list of suspects in the Heisey murder. But one night, Kathleen’s daughter Lisa Heisey casually brought up that a young detective had once told her they were looking into the possibility that Kathleen was the victim of a serial killer. She couldn’t think of his name, but Michael Charles Brown immediately popped into my head, though I knew he’d only ever been charged for one homicide. Lisa Heisey said the detective told her the theory’s biggest hole was that Kathleen didn’t fit the victim profile whatsoever. Lisa and I both agreed. It seemed half baked and we never spoke about it again. Meanwhile, it’s important to note that at this point, Bakersfield Police were not willing to give me any information about suspects in the Heisey case, but they did let me know they had assigned a new detective who was reviewing the case full-time.
Around this same time, I got a call from Wendy Kyle’s mother. She was devastated she’d missed the chance for us to cover Wendy’s case. She wanted to know if there was any way we could still look into it and keep Wendy’s story alive. She still prayed constantly she would one day have answers. I couldn’t say no, but at this point I was tied up with Kathleen Heisey. I figured the least I could do was make a few calls. To my surprise, The Kern County Sheriff’s Department agreed to set up a meeting with me about the case. To be clear, Wendy Kyle was the only homicide victim that law enforcement had ever publicly linked to Brown. Her case, unlike the other mysterious unnamed four, was being investigated by the Sheriff’s department, not the police department.
As I sat down in the meeting full of Sheriff’s detectives, I noticed a Bakersfield Police detective was also at the table. The same Bakersfield Police detective who’d been assigned to reexamine the Kathleen Heisey case full-time. I couldn’t help but blurt out, “what are you doing here?” It was confusing. We we were at a meeting about the Wendy Kyle case where Michael Charles Brown was the prime suspect, and the BPD detective investigating the Kathleen Heisey case was at the same table. It was getting harder to ignore this mysterious theory of a serial killer with four nameless victims, including a respected school principal.
A few months later, just days before my story on the Kathleen Heisey murder was set to air, I got a call. A source was willing to talk to me about the possibility that Michael Charles Brown could be a viable suspect in the Heisey case.
The connection was unexpected, but for the first time, it made sense. I knew I had to give the theory some serious thought, as I did with the other suspects in the Heisey case. But something else happened at the meeting with my source. I pulled out my list I had made almost a year earlier of homicide victims that I thought could be linked to Brown. My source confirmed some of my names were right, some were wrong and several names were missing. I was shocked. I guess I shouldn’t have been, as the idea that Brown had killed others obviously wasn’t new. But seeing all these women for the first time and knowing their names was different. It made it real. It made me wonder what had been done to close these cases? I knew it would be a huge disservice to focus only on the possibility that Michael Charles Brown killed Kathleen Heisey. I was going to have to look at all the potential victims, all seven of them.
Making the story come together proved to be much harder than expected. For nearly six months, the only person I could get to agree to speak with me was retired detective and sergeant Bill Darbee. Fortunately, he provided valuable information, enough so that, for a while, it seemed the story would have to rely solely on his interview.
It took almost a year to find the families of every victim other than Wendy Kyle. As soon as we found them, they were grateful and eager to tell us about their loved ones. More than that, they were eager to hear what we had found. Only Wendy Kyle’s family had ever heard that their loved one could’ve been the victim of a serial killer.
When it came to getting people to speak about Brown, it was nearly impossible. I contacted immediate and extended family, friends, acquaintances and former lovers. I made dozens of calls to attorneys who represented him. I even contacted schools I thought he attended in Grenada, Mississippi. Only a couple people were willing to speak with us off-camera, anonymously, but most either didn’t answer the calls or open their doors. If they did, they asked me to never contact them again.
In the end, there’s still much more we’d like to learn about Brown and the crimes he’s linked to. There’s still several other people we’d like to speak with and dozens of family members who still need answers.