NEW ORLEANS -- “My little sister went missing in a house fire in 1984. Can you help me find her?”
That question from Simona Brown to WWL-TV Investigative Reporter Katie Moore started it all.
In 1984, a fire broke out at the Browns’ Algiers home on Mardi Gras Day. Two of the ten children at home at the time died, Kevin Brown, 4, and Aubrey Brown Jr., 2. Search crews never found the body of 3-year-old Ramona Brown.
In the decades since the fire, their sister Simona Brown has told family members she remembers seeing Ramona get into an old, bronze-colored Cadillac-type car with an older white woman and an older black man. But investigators were never told about the possible kidnapping. No one else remembers seeing Ramona alive after the fire.
Simona said she told her mother about the alleged kidnapping, but Simona was only 6 at the time and her mother had a nervous breakdown while trying to deal with the horror of it all.
32-years-later, Simona told Moore about the story after they worked together on another investigative story about a real estate scam that had victimized Simona.
33 years later
The search begins again
WWL-TV’s search began with the extensive use of public records to find any and all documentation about the investigation conducted by police and fire.
For 33 years, New Orleans Police have kept the substantial incident and supplemental reports on the Brown fire on the second floor of NOPD Headquarters. That elevated location saved the records as the basement of NOPD Headquarters flooded during Hurricane Katrina, destroying evidence in the process.
New Orleans Fire Captain Edwin Holmes said that department lost many of its historic records during the storm. As the city flooded, the NOFD supply house caught fire, leaving older reports and records either burned or soaked with the water used to battle the blaze.
The same goes for the Orleans Parish Coroner. Spokesman Jason Melancon said records of the autopsies conducted on the bodies of Kevin and Aubrey, Jr., were nowhere to be found, likely because of Hurricane Katrina. Fortunately, the coroner’s basic autopsy reports were in the NOPD’s records.
The lead investigator on the fire retired from the NOPD in recent years. Both the NOPD and Capt. Harry Mendoza said his investigative file on the fire was not kept.
Before the transition to digital photography, crime scene photographs, including the ones of the Browns’ house fire, were stored as negatives at the NOPD crime lab, according to sources in the NOPD.
While they could have been thrown away because of their age, the negatives containing the pictures of the ashes were likely lost when Katrina’s flood waters inundated the Crime Lab on Tulane Avenue.
Now, nearly 12 years later, the negatives and/or photographs could not be found by NOPD records or evidence custodians.
WWL-TV also requested any information the La. State Fire Marshal had about the fire. Deputy Fire Marshal Brant Thompson said his agency had no records of it and despite a state law that required the State Fire Marshal to investigate every double fatal fire in the state at the time, they were never consulted.
Newspaper archives from the Times Picayune newspaper provided significant clues about the investigation that were lost in the fire department’s reports. The joint arson task force that Mendoza and NOFD inspector Karl Pfister worked on never determined the cause of the Brown fire, and they never ruled out arson.
Newspaper reports documented the progression of the investigation in the week that followed the tragedy and the search for Ramona’s remains.
Using public records and basic reporting techniques, WWL-TV tracked down neighbors and witnesses to the fire. Three of them, including one of the firefighters who sifted through the ashes, lived out of state, so Moore and photographer traveled out of state multiple times to get those first-hand accounts.
Other experts were consulted during the reporting of the story, including John DeHaan, a law enforcement consultant who is an expert in fire’s impact on the human body.
Moore also searched through permit records for the Browns’ home to try and create the layout to demonstrate where the family members said they escaped the flames. The city of New Orleans does not keep original drawings older than a handful of years. The Browns rebuilt their home in 1985, the year after the fire.
Historical maps, called the Sanborn maps, kept by the city of New Orleans gave a clear view of where houses were located in the Algiers neighborhood at the time of the fire. Moore used the empty lots to give viewers a glimpse of the empty lots where Ramona could have crawled to escape the flames.
The greatest source of information for the story were human. From a neighbor who is now in a nursing home to the Brown family members themselves, recollections of people who survived the fire were key to helping understand how this tragedy, this mystery, could have happened.