By the time Debbie Brown turned her white volvo onto Eliot Drive in the Suffolk County town of Lake Grove, she already knew something was wrong. For nearly a day and a half, she and her husband, Steven, had been unable to reach his parents. Debbie normally spoke to her mother-in-law daily; and Steven, who ran a $30 million cleaning business called Eastco with his father, spoke to him several times a day.
"It's hard to explain," Debbie says, "but I just had this eerie feeling."
She drove slowly down the gently curving, tree-lined stretch of modest homes until she reached No. 24, Heyward and Ellen Brown's white colonial. Their cars were in the driveway. She could also see water seeping out from under the garage door and flowing down the blacktop.
"I was so nervous I actually went past the house," Debbie says. "Then I turned around and came back and parked in front. I left my 2-year-old in the car and walked up to the front door."
It was late in the afternoon on a bleak, overcast Friday in December, but Debbie remembers the house looked especially dark. She knocked on the door. Nothing. Not even a bark from Charlie, the Browns' cocker spaniel. Debbie was really nervous now. She was on the cell phone giving Steven a running account of the scene.
"Something's definitely wrong," Steven said, agitated. "Go back to the car and call the police."
It had already been a difficult week for Debbie. Steven was sick, suffering the effects of what doctors believed was a form of hepatitis, and Debbie had been taking care of him around the clock. Friday was going to be her day out, her brief escape. She made an appointment to have her hair done, and Steven's mother said she'd watch the baby. Debbie left a couple of messages for Ellen Brown on Thursday to confirm their plans but didn't hear back. "So on Friday, since I hadn't heard from Ellen, I took my mom and the baby and went to the beauty parlor," Debbie says.
"The officers asked me, 'What would you say if we told you we thought it was your brother?' And I told them I thought they were out of their minds. I told them they'd have to prove it to me."
"I called Steven from the car, and he said he still hadn't heard from his mom or dad. It was past noon and his dad hadn't even been in the office, which was really unusual. So I said I'd drop my mom off and then drive over and check the house."
When a cop showed up on Eliot Drive, Debbie explained the situation and told him she didn't have a key to the house.
"He broke in through the back door, and he was only in the house a couple of minutes," Debbie remembers. "And when he came out, he had this look on his face, this look of shock. He said, 'I think your mother-in-law's dead.' And I was like, 'What? Can you call an ambulance? Should I call an ambulance?' He just shook his head slowly and began using his radio to send out an emergency call."
When Steven Brown pulled up, he found his wife kneeling on the ground with a police officer hunched over her. "And suddenly she just starts screaming," he recalls. "Then a homicide detective comes up and starts to shake me. 'Where's your father? Where's your father?' And I'm screaming, 'Where's my mother? Where's my parents?' And he says, 'Listen to me: Your mother's dead. We need to find your father. Is there any possibility your father would hurt your mother?' I -- I just couldn't believe what I was hearing."
Moments later, several cops emerged from the house and told Steven and Debbie they'd found his father. In the basement. He was also dead. It was now around 4:30 in the afternoon, barely an hour since Debbie had first arrived.
What had minutes before been a quiet, picture-perfect middle-class suburban street of small but fussed-over front lawns, two-car garages, and eat-in kitchens with knotty-pine cabinets had been transformed into a freakish spectacle.
There were cops and cop vehicles (buses, cruisers, ambulances, and a camper-mobile unit to be set up as a command post) everywhere. The police had established a perimeter, lit the area, secured the crime scene, and begun to canvas the neighborhood.
"I was basically in shock," says Steven. "I couldn't even get my wife up off the ground. My body was shaking. One of the neighbors was coming home from work, and he's yelling at me, 'What happened? What's going on?' And I looked at him and said out loud for the first time, 'Somebody killed my parents.' "
Two and a half years later, despite a massive effort by the Suffolk County police, no one has been indicted for the murders and no arrests have been made. Though the investigation remains officially active, Police Department sources say no arrests are anticipated anytime soon. In fact, the cops admit they have essentially hit a wall. But just because the cops don't see any arrests on the horizon doesn't mean they don't have any suspects. They do. They have one suspect: Steven's older brother, Harvey.
Before the murders, the Brown family was living a version of the Long Island dream. They worked hard for their success in the most unglamorous of businesses, cleaning toilets and mopping floors. The building-services business, like the trash-hauling industry, sometimes involves tough, blue-collar warfare (several of Eastco's trucks have been set on fire), and occasionally, charges of mob influence.
But having earned their money the hard way, the Browns enjoyed it: flashy cars and watches, trendy clothes, country-club memberships. Heyward was a man who liked his luxuries, and one who thought nothing of buying a new car for one of his sons on a special occasion. At the time of the murders, the couple (he was 54, she was 53) were in the process of decorating their recently purchased dream house, on a golf course in Delray Beach.
Steven and Harvey grew up with money, but they hardly seem like rich kids. Both have a kind of unpolished edge and can be harsh, demanding, and quick to anger. Too similar perhaps to ever really be close, they'd drifted apart over the years, as Steven teamed up with his father in the family business and Harvey settled into his role as angry troublemaker. Still, he was by no means an obvious suspect -- especially to Steven.
"The detectives were at my house early one morning about three months after the murders," says Steven, who's 34, two years younger than Harvey. "And they asked me, 'What would you say if we told you we thought it was your brother?' And I told them I thought they were out of their fucking minds. I told them they'd have to prove it to me."
Slowly, the cops laid out their case against Harvey Brown. To begin with, there were problems with his alibi. He claimed he'd gone to visit his girlfriend in Manhattan. But police sources say the girlfriend doesn't corroborate the time frame of his story, and the cops can place him near his parents' house around the time of the murders.
Harvey was estranged from his parents and had fought bitterly with his father for years, at one point threatening to go to the Internal Revenue Service with allegations of wrongdoing at his father's company. Harvey believed he was denied his rightful place in the family business. There were also aspects of the crime scene that clearly indicated the killer was familiar with the house and its occupants.
In addition, Harvey wouldn't cooperate with the police. The one sit-down he did agree to have with the cops was with his lawyer present -- a criminal lawyer. He refused to give a sample of his blood, claiming he believed police would use it to frame him by spreading it around the crime scene, and he repeatedly refused to take a police-administered lie-detector test.