Prime suspect

Decades later, a daughter's DNA enables German police to charge a Baltimore man in a 1984 killing -- as two families struggle to heal

March 13, 2007|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,Sun Foreign Reporter

MARPINGEN, Germany -- The snapshots show a family across an ocean in a foreign city called Baltimore. There is Denise Brown, thin and pretty with her dark hair pulled back, alongside her father, Robert L. Brown Jr. There is Denise's aunt, cheek to smiling cheek with her uncle. There is a gaggle of cousins, and her grandmother, in a silly purple wig.

It was about a half-dozen years ago when Denise Brown, now 25, last saw her American father, a man who was in and out - but mostly out - of her life since childhood. He had lived here once, with her and her German mother. In the early 1980s, Robert Brown had been stationed as a private first class at a sprawling Army base in Bad Kreuznach, not far away.

Then something terrible happened. On a summer night in 1984, a 19-year-old German just days into nurse training in Bad Kreuznach was raped and killed, her body dumped in a grove of beech trees off a two-lane highway in an affluent suburb of Frankfurt. Within days, authorities said, Robert Brown left Germany, apparently for good.

Twenty-three years later, Brown was arrested by FBI agents last week in Baltimore, where he had been living and working as a maintenance man at the Wellington Gate apartment complex. The whole time, authorities said, he was the prime suspect in the killing of Nicola Stiel, a thin, curly haired woman who had planned to practice nursing in Africa, but the evidence against him was hardly enough.

Jutta Wegmann, Brown's former wife, said her daughter cried after hearing of her father's arrest from an aunt that Denise had come to know during her one and only visit to Baltimore, a trip he financed.

After all, it was she who provided what turned out to be the crucial new piece of evidence against him: The DNA in her tissue sample matched the pattern of that found in semen on the victim's pants. Denise Brown had given the sample voluntarily, but reluctantly.

"She doesn't want to hear it," Wegmann said. "She had a positive picture of her father."

A search for peace

In two quiet villages in Germany's wine country are two families that, for more than two decades, have been caught in separate, private struggles between a need to confront the past and an equally compelling desire to forget it.

Wegmann, her present husband and Denise Brown live in a plain, pastel-colored building on one of two main streets in Marpingen, near a pharmacy and a tanning shop. Barely 50 miles away is Mengerschied, where Nicola Stiel grew up and which her parents and two of her brothers still call home.

On a hill overlooking Mengerschied is the cemetery where Nicola Stiel is buried with a simple headstone engraved with a dove and a cross. On a hill overlooking Marpingen is a tiny chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

It's a sought out, if not quite famous spot, where three girls claimed to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mother more than a century ago.

Candles burn inside the chapel and out. The inscription on the altar says: "Thou Shalt Pray And Not Commit A Crime."

The long, cold road

Robert Brown is scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court in Baltimore today in another of what is likely to be a series of hearings on Germany's request to extradite him for trial. He first appeared before a Baltimore judge on Thursday, hours after his arrest, dressed in a blue sweat shirt and baggy blue pants, answering each question the same: Yes, he understood the proceedings. Yes, he understood the extradition process. Yes, he understood the charges against him.

It has been a long road here for German authorities; Case No. 33/78 Js 22312/84 had been considered cold since 1989. But, in recent years, it had joined the ranks of a growing number of cases being revived by police and prosecutors because of advances in DNA technology. In Germany, there is no statute of limitations in murder cases, a result of the desire after World War II to prosecute Nazi war criminals, however long after their crimes they were found.

"When that happened in 1984, they didn't have this method" of DNA testing, said Doris Moeller-Scheu, spokeswoman for the public prosecutor's office in Frankfurt, which has jurisdiction in the case because of where Stiel's body was found. Robert Brown, she said, "was a suspect at the time, but we didn't have enough evidence to prove he was the murderer."

What they had were fibers from Stiel's shirt, found in his rented Volkswagen Golf; matching tire tracks found near where Stiel's body was discovered; fibers from a blanket in the car found on her body; even a statement from a former cellmate in Pennsylvania that Brown had confessed to, and boasted about, the crime (in an interview last week, the cellmate denied having been an informant).

What they needed was a sample of Brown's DNA, which they are still seeking, and testing techniques that did not yet exist.

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