Extensive phone taps led police to coach Former basketball star named in drug probe

November 22, 1997|By Jay Apperson and Dail Willis | Jay Apperson and Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

The drug case against the former basketball star began with a recorded message: "You have reached the desk of Monroe Brown."

To the detectives listening in on wiretaps, the message was just another voice and another name in a long list of drug suspects. They didn't recognize Monroe Brown as "Monnie" -- the high-scoring guard who starred at Aberdeen High School and Penn State before turning his considerable talents to coaching at Marist College.

To them, Brown was just one of 39 people named in indictments released Thursday -- and one of two accused of being "kingpins" in a drug ring that brought as much as a pound of cocaine a week into Harford County.

Brown was awaiting a bail review hearing last night in Bel Air hTC after turning himself in to authorities. On Thursday night, after the indictments became public, he was suspended from his coaching job at the Poughkeepsie, N.Y., school.

The developments stunned coaches and others who had followed the career of Brown, one of the most accomplished basketball players to come out of Harford County.

"He's the last person in the world I would associate with something like this," says Bruce Parkhill, former coach at Penn State, where Brown remains one of the top all-time scorers. "Until it's proven otherwise, I have to believe he's not involved."

Brown, 27, has denied the charges.

"I don't know anything about it. They've got the wrong person," he said Thursday.

But police say he was a key link in a ring that included several of his high school classmates and at least one teammate.

The other kingpin named in the indictment was Aberdeen classmate Aaron N. Mathis, 29, whose home phone, business phone, cell phone and pager were tapped by police.

Also indicted was Gary Leroy Dennis, 27, who teamed with Brown at Aberdeen and in an AIDS benefit tournament in 1989, a year after graduation.

Basketball has long been big in Aberdeen -- but Brown was one of the few from the town with enough talent to support a sports career beyond college. As Brown grew up in a middle-class household in Aberdeen, his aptitude for basketball was apparent early.

As a youngster, he showcased his skills in an NBA arena during a dribble-and-shoot competition before a Washington Bullets game. By the eighth grade, he was an emerging star.

"He was head and shoulders above everyone else," recalls Bob McCone, who would later coach Brown at Aberdeen High. "I'm not sure he was great at any one thing he did in basketball, but he was better than average at everything. It was his understanding of the game that set him apart."

Brown led Aberdeen to three of the school's 10 straight Harford County titles, and many considered him the top player in the county at the time. On the court, he was unselfish, as content to pass the ball as he was to lead the team in scoring. In the classroom, he was serious and solid, earning mostly B's.

"He was a role model," McCone says. "He was exactly what you want a high school student to be."

At Penn State, he became known for his defensive play but still managed to score 1,244 points, seventh on the school's all-time list.

He also helped the team gain a rare NCAA tournament appearance in 1991 -- and a celebrated upset over UCLA.

After graduating from Penn State in 1992, Brown worked for a year in private industry in Chattanooga, his former coaches say. But he was eager to return to basketball, and he took a job as a part-time assistant coach at Penn State -- for about $13,000 a year.

"He had to scrape to make ends meet," Parkhill recalls. "One time he had a dent in his car, and it was really a struggle for him to get it taken care of."

At the same time, Brown helped run summer basketball camps for youngsters at Havre de Grace High School, say officials in Harford County's parks department.

During those summers near home, he would sometimes chat with old friends.

"He told me he was working hard and doing well," McCone says.

For Brown, the Penn State job was an entry into coaching, but it was confining. Last year he took a full-time job as assistant coach at Marist College, a 3,000-student Catholic school that is the alma mater of Indiana Pacers star Rik Smits.

"I want to get out on the road and recruit," he told a newspaper at the time. "This is my opportunity to do that, to advance my career."

Brown recently turned to his home turf to recruit, trying to snag a star player at Edgewood High, a Harford County school just a few miles from Aberdeen.

According to police, he was also phoning home -- and his conversations with Mathis were on the 169 reels of tape accumulated during the wiretap that is the backbone of investigators' drug case.

As they reviewed the tapes, the detectives didn't recognize Brown's name, but one of them with relatives in upstate New York noticed something else: the 914 area code of Brown's phone number.

How, the detective wondered, did a guy in Poughkeepsie, N. Y., know someone in Edgewood, Md., more than 200 miles away?

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