Former professor's tumultuous life ends with suicide

Prostitution charges only part of troubles

January 30, 2007|By Melissa Harris and Tyrone Richardson | Melissa Harris and Tyrone Richardson,SUN REPORTERS

Accused of prostitution and scheduled for trial next week, Brandy Britton faced an additional indignity: losing her more than half-million dollar Howard County home.

The eviction notice was still taped to the door when police announced yesterday that Britton, a once-promising sociologist whose research had attracted federal grants and the respect of colleagues, had apparently committed suicide. A relative found the former University of Maryland, Baltimore County assistant professor dead Saturday afternoon inside the two-story, brown and beige home in the 10200 block of Shirley Meadow Court in Ellicott City and called 911, according to Howard County police.

The eviction, which was scheduled for Thursday, was another sign of the circumstances Britton was grappling with days before her jury trial on charges that she ran an upscale prostitution service from her affluent cul-de-sac.

In the home where neighbors once noticed men pulling up in fancy cars and staying only briefly, Britton, 43, apparently hanged herself, police said. Yesterday, the driveway was empty except for single copies of two newspapers.

Police declined to release additional information, including whether Britton, who had two college-age children, left a suicide note.

"Her death underscores an important question: Was the public benefited at all by the resources spent on her arrest and prosecution?" her attorney, Christopher Flohr, wrote in a statement. "As we ponder the apparent senselessness of her passing, we must openly wonder about the purpose, necessity and utility of a criminal justice system that seeks to punish a person rather than to heal them."

Her home was sold in foreclosure for $561,000 in November, according to property records. But Britton refused to leave, and the new owners initiated eviction proceedings, said Byron L. Huffman, their attorney.

Meanwhile, Britton's prostitution trial was set for Monday. Britton faced four counts of prostitution stemming from an undercover bust in January 2006. Police were alerted to the case by an anonymous caller, who pointed them to a Web site that advertised the services of "Alexis" and included photographs of a scantily clad woman, allegedly Britton.

The site described her home as a "discreet, upscale location in Howard County" and Alexis as "sophisticated, refined, educated and articulate," with undergraduate degrees in biology, sociology and "a Ph.D. from an elite university."

The disclaimer on the now-defunct Web site said that Alexis took money only for companionship at rates of $300 an hour and up. But when an undercover vice and narcotics officer scheduled an appointment, Britton led him upstairs, told him to undress and leave $400 by the bedroom door, police alleged.

"On a first-time offense, she probably would have been given probation before judgment, meaning she wouldn't have done time and it would have gone away after a year," said Wayne Kirwan, a spokesman for Howard County State's Attorney Timothy J. McCrone.

Sheigla Murphy, who attended graduate school with Britton at the University of California, San Francisco, said her former friend was a woman of wonderful first impressions but raging, disruptive departures.

"She was a very remarkable single parent who was working, supporting her two kids, and going to a very demanding graduate school program," Murphy said. "She was very, very smart. ... I'm not really comfortable speaking about how our friendship ended. This is one of the last things that her kids, who I was close to, will have of her."

Her death marks the end of a life that began with much promise - a warm and brilliant student determined to achieve what no one in her family had and to make a difference in the lives' of abused and drug-addicted women.

In the end, however, marital troubles, foreclosures, bankruptcy, and sexual harassment and gender discrimination lawsuits swirled around Britton.

Sheila Cordray, a professor emeritus of sociology at Oregon State University, remembers the Britton of 20 years ago. Cordray described Britton as a driven undergraduate student. Cordray was hesitant to accept Britton in high-level research course, thinking the workload would overwhelm the expectant mother.

"She had the baby over the weekend and was back in class on Monday," Cordray said. "I never remember her skipping a day."

Britton established the campus' "Safe Ride" program at Oregon State. Women would call drivers to escort them home to avoid walking around campus alone at night, Cordray said.

Britton's "good work persists to this day," she said. "In spite of her being so driven, she was a warm person. She cared about people. She was passionate about the causes she was involved in. She was passionate about rights for women and women's safety."

Signs of distress, however, began to show shortly after Britton earned her doctorate in sociology in 1993 from the University of California, San Francisco.

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