Larger than life -- and death

Six months later, the search for Derwin Brown's killer consumes DeKalb

Dedications and ribbon-cuttings are generally tiresome things.

Smiling politicians spill perfunctory bromides while bored newsies record their utterances for posterity, and onlookers stand by, casually checking their watches.

Thus, last week's dedication of a monument and walkway at the DeKalb County Jail seemed a bit unusual. This time, there was genuine feeling in the voices of the speakers; genuine interest in the eyes of the camera-toters and scribblers hovering about; and genuine determination in the faces of the police officers and sheriff's deputies who stood shoulder-to-shoulder under gathering clouds.

As much as those present may have wanted to think of other things or be other places, the shadow of Derwin Brown — the sheriff-elect murdered in his own driveway last December just days before he was to assume office — looms over county law enforcement like the massive gray monolith of the jail itself. The likelihood that individuals with ties to the Sheriff's Department may be responsible puts officers in the uncomfortable position of investigating their own.

Perhaps most noticeable are the near-mythic proportions Derwin Brown has assumed in death. From now-Sheriff Thomas Brown's calls to "make sure Derwin Brown's spirit is always upon us" to former DeKalb Police Chief Bobby Burgess' description of the slain sheriff-elect as a "man of powerful vision," the image of Derwin Brown as a dedicated reformer cut down before his task began seems to have seized the imaginations of the public at large.

Declaring her amazement at the outpouring of support her family continues to receive, Derwin Brown's widow, Phyllis Brown, acknowledged that public sentiment has been, at times, overwhelming.

"Because I looked at my husband as being, well, my husband," she said. "I never really expected this type of support. ... It makes me feel good to know people still care and that Derwin was as thought of as highly as he was. So it's bittersweet, 'cause you're sitting there going, 'Gosh, Derwin would really appreciate hearing that.' "

For her family, the last five months have been a process of "getting better," she said later. "Right now is a real trying time for my youngest son. He's 18 — the only one that Dad did not see turn 18, the only one Dad will not see graduate. So the past couple weeks especially have been tough."

But her husband's well-known plans to re-work the Sheriff's Department, and the fact that those plans may have cost him his life, continue to weigh on her mind. Phyllis Brown — who was briefly courted as a possible candidate for sheriff herself after Derwin Brown's death — said she hopes there will be more than marble memorials to mark her husband's vision.

"He knew there were things he had to do once he took office. He knew he could not do it alone, and he selected people for his transition team that he was going to bring over to get the job done. ... I'm hoping that at least some of the changes Derwin planned to make will be made. I think the voters of DeKalb County deserve that. I think that even the people who are in the jail population deserve fair treatment."

Derwin Brown had run last year's campaign on one basic premise: a promise to clean up the DeKalb County Sheriff's Department. The former sheriff, Sidney Dorsey — the latest in a string of questionable characters who've pinned on the county sheriff's badge — had long been the target of accusations of malfeasance and mismanagement. Even before being voted out of office, Dorsey was ensnared in controversy. Now, two special grand juries have been convened: One is hearing evidence in the Brown slaying, the other looking into Dorsey's tenure.

Sheriff Thomas Brown (no relation to Derwin), DeKalb's former public safety director, was appointed by Gov. Roy Barnes following Derwin Brown's slaying and then won the job in a March special election. From the day he took office, the sheriff has been under pressure to carry out Derwin Brown's slate of reforms. Fellow candidates for sheriff and confidantes of Derwin Brown blasted the sheriff when he declined to fire all of those targeted for termination by the murdered sheriff-elect, or to hire those previously promised jobs. Although he has dismissed some personnel, Sheriff Brown has been criticized, both before and after the special election, for not fully embracing those changes.

When he came aboard, said Brown, the department was uneasy; he thinks his decisions have helped calm things.

"There may have been some concerns when I came in," said Brown. "I made very few staff changes. There were a few personnel changes — we did let some people go — but the heart and soul of the people who built this facility are still here."

Brown has also addressed another of Derwin Brown's concerns — clearing out the bondsmen who had set up shop in the jail while he reviewed their operations. One company has since been denied permission to write bonds at the jail; the operator of another recently filed a lawsuit alleging that Dorsey extorted sex and money from her.

But while the Sheriff's Department may be calm, the impact of Derwin Brown's murder and the ensuing investigation continue to mesmerize local law enforcement.

"This particular incident is not only a threat to law enforcement, but a threat to our way of government," said former DeKalb Police Chief Burgess, who recently stepped out of that position to become acting public safety director.

Burgess' assessment may seem dramatic, but — considering the circumstances — not far from wrong. From the night of Derwin Brown's murder, DeKalb officials have lived with the suspicion that one or more county lawmen might have plotted to kill a veteran officer and elected official.

A March shootout at the south DeKalb home of former deputy Patrick Cuffy, who was fired Jan. 1 and was interviewed in relation to Brown's murder, fueled those suspicions. That wild affair, which left a man dying in a nearby park, resulted in Cuffy being charged with evidence-tampering for allegedly hiding a pistol following the incident. Police have since made a dozen arrests on various charges, including kidnapping and murder, in connection with the shooting, and the task force looking into Brown's murder has offered a reward for a Tec-9 semiautomatic pistol — the same sort of weapon police believed was used to spray the sheriff-elect with bullets as he returned from a victory dinner celebrating his new job.

But no arrests have been made in connection with Derwin Brown's death. A reward fund has grown to $71,000, and a special grand jury investigating the murder continues to meet on a weekly basis, according to DeKalb District Attorney J. Tom Morgan's office.

Otherwise, the prosecutor and task force are staying mum. But Burgess discounts any notion that the murder is growing stale, and makes little effort to hide his own suspicions.

"News reports have seemed to indicate we're stalemated. We're not," Burgess said. "We're still getting tips, we've got a big reward, a hotline ... we've still got 38 people on it, and other agencies are helping us, as well."

Having worked on several major murder cases over the years, Burgess said, he's confident something — or someone — will break.

"It's a funny thing about police work," said Burgess, "I've seen it many times. All it takes is some scintilla of evidence to break a case wide open. Somebody gets scared, somebody gets mad, the reward prompts somebody to make a call ... we're going to close this case."

As to the arrests and charges in connection with the shootout at Cuffy's house, and other misdemeanor charges against former deputies and their friends on charges of lying on the night Brown was killed, Burgess is fairly candid.

"Yes, there've been some charges made," he said, arching a brow. "We're not saying those people are involved [in Brown's murder] but, well, let's just say, where there's smoke, there's fire."

He's similarly blunt on the reasons Brown was killed. Unlike other DeKalb cops — including the new sheriff — who have said the murder may have been committed by someone unrelated to the department, such as someone jailed by Brown earlier in his career, Burgess is openly scornful.

"People ask me, 'Isn't it an awful presumption to say that deputies may have been involved?' My answer is this: 'What the hell do you think he got killed for?' He was the sheriff-elect and he was going to make some big changes in this department, and some people were very upset. They didn't kill him because his name was Derwin Brown!"

It's a tough time for DeKalb cops, said the 70-year-old lawman. But, he noted, the affair may have at least one beneficial aspect.

"I think it's energized law enforcement in general," he says. "The thought that anybody who'd wait in the rain to murder a sheriff outside his house is still free ... DeKalb police and sheriff's deputies have always worked closely, but now all the officers are standing together. They know this is a very difficult case."

Back at her home, Phyllis Brown is constantly reminded of her late husband. In addition to the calls from friends and family, she's also still under police protection. Although it had been scaled back for awhile, she said, the shooting at Cuffy's house renewed the fears that gunmen might return.

But she sees no long-term threat, and has no intention of moving either out of fear or grief.

"As painful as it can be at times," she said, "this is where all the memories are. This is where we raised our family."