With his right hand in the air, left hand on an imaginary Bible, former New Orleans firefighter Al Juno vows he believes 3-year-old Ramona Brown did not die in the 1984 house fire that killed her two brothers.
Al Juno was part of the second company of firefighters who responded to the fire at 2631 Memorial Park Drive the morning that Aubrey Jr., 4, and Kevin, 2, burned to death in their home.
Search crews found the boys’ remains badly burned among the remnants of the house, but they never found a trace of 3-year-old Ramona.
Twelve family members were inside the single-story house when it caught fire on Mardi Gras morning, March 6, 1984.
A series of investigative reports by WWL-TV has revealed to investigators, 33 years later, an allegation of a kidnapping that one of the surviving Brown children has been telling family members for decades.
Simona Brown consistently recalled Ramona getting into a bronze-colored Cadillac-type car with an older, interracial couple inside in the chaos after the blaze.
The children’s grandmother also said she received a phone call from Ramona a few days after the fire, a call that ended abruptly, as if someone took the phone away from the girl, but police said they were never told about the car or the call.
Since the series of investigative reports first aired, many people who either worked, or volunteered with the search for Ramona have provided new details about how it all unfolded in 1984.
One of them was Al Juno.
Al Juno’s job on New Orleans Fire Department in 1984 was to get the people and water where they needed to go.
Juno was the operator of Engine 33, the fire truck that called the New Orleans Fire station on General Meyer Avenue home.
He said Engine 33 was the second company of firefighters that was called to Memorial Park Drive to help put the fire down.
“There should've been something there, but there wasn't,” Juno said about the remains he expected to find of Ramona, and with more than a decade of experience as a firefighter at that point, Juno had seen his share of fatal fires.
“From the time from my station on General Meyer Avenue to where you crossed General De Gaulle, you could see it was a working fire. There was no doubt. You could see fire and smoke,” he remembered, “The problem was, this house was hideously involved by the time we got there and I’m sure we got there less than 7 minutes.”
Brown family members still remember how fast the fire devoured their wood-frame home.
“Whatever it was, the roof, the ceiling, it was melting, melting, melting,” described Johnnie Mae Brown, the mother of the ten children, who had to jump out her bedroom window to escape the flames. She describes desperately trying to get to her young sons, who she could see running back and forth in front of the window, screaming for help until the fire overtook them.
“I kept telling them to get down to the floor. Crawl to the door. But I don't think, they were young. They didn't understand,” Johnnie Mae said.
Pamela Nickerson, the oldest of the Browns’ daughters, woke most of the family up that night.
“I was right there by them, right there, but I was so scared because it was coming fast. It was chewing it up fast, you know,” she said.
A teenager at the time, Pam, as she’s known, had been on the phone with a boy just before 3 a.m. when she noticed the smoke and flames coming from the girls’ bedroom.
That’s where Ramona was last seen sleeping.
As the engine operator, Juno said he was responsible for running the hoses from the closest fire hydrants, to the truck to get the water where it was needed to put the fire down.
“Not only did we have [the Browns’] house, but we had another house it was trying to spread to and getting it under control took maybe a half hour,” he said.
The dozens of firefighters who responded could not stop the fire’s spread. Like a slithering snake, the flames snuck under the eaves into Ralph Adams’ house next door, at 2619 Memorial Park Drive.
In 1984, Adams was interviewed by a WWL-TV reporter at the scene, “Their house was totally engulfed. There was no chance to even get back inside it,” he said.
In a recent interview, Adams, now 72, described the damage to his Algiers home.
“The fire went right into my daughters' bedroom window and engulfed our house,” he continued, “It's one of those situations where everything happens so fast and it's a blur. Safety is paramount and get my children out and everybody that was in our house to be safe.”
Adams had house guests at the time of the fire.
“It was a night that you won’t ever forget,” said Gary Olson.
Olson and his now-wife were visiting from Florida.
“It seemed to go so fast, I mean it was not something that took hours to do,” Olson recalled.
He had laid out his suitcase like an open book, and when the fire and water from the hoses attacked the ceiling, wood fragments, insulation and debris fell right into it.
The Olsons had to buy new clothes and find a place to stay the night before heading back home to Florida. But their loss pales in comparison to that of the Browns’.
“We did hear that they didn't find one of the bodies,” Olson said.
Like wiping condensation off a storefront window on a humid day, Al Juno’s memories of the fire fight became more clear as he watched recent WWL-TV reports about Ramona Brown.
“Walls had collapsed. The roof had came down (sic). It was basically like a big box on fire,” he said.
But Juno said his memories of the search for Ramona were never hazy.
“Parts of the floor were there. Parts of the wall were there. But not the entire structure. It had just incinerated itself that fast,” Juno said.
When asked what it is about the Brown case that has stuck with him more than other fires over his long, 43-year career as a firefighter, he replied, “The child wasn’t in the house.”
A district fire chief seemed less-than-confident his crew would find Ramona’s remains in 1984 news coverage of the fire.
“Just have to uncover whatever's here and just go ahead through the whole building and everything's so consumed it's a slim possibility if we can find anything at all but we're gonna give it our best shot,” said NOFD District Chief Roy Songy.
“Man, we took this like a puzzle. Took it one section at a time,” Juno recalled.
“At one point, we had cut out the entire floor of the house. There was no spots left to walk on of the house because we had cleared it,” said now-retired New Orleans Police Department arson investigator Harry Mendoza.
Mendoza was partnered with NOFD Inspector Karl Pfister on the Brown case. Mendoza, too, remembers the intricate search vividly, especially since he was ordered to resume it three times.
Both police and fire investigators were taking orders from their respective superintendents about the Brown investigation, an unusual level of micromanagement, but one not entirely unexpected for such a high-profile investigation.
“From what I can remember, nothing was moved unless someone from authority said move this. Move this. Move this. It was that methodical to get it done,” Juno said.
With that intricate of a search conducted for Ramona, Juno said it has always made him question the theory that Ramona’s remains were too burned to find.
It's, to a degree, inconceivable that even a small child would be completely consumed by the fire, however, that said, the body could be reduced to fragments and could've undergone damage through suppression efforts.
The straight-line pressure of fire hoses can cause significant damage to a human body once body has undergone the effects, the thermal effects of that fire and depending on duration there,” said La. Deputy Fire Marshal Brant Thompson.
Even though Ramona is believed to have been sleeping close to the point of origin of the fire, Juno still doubts the dozens of searchers would have missed her remains.
“There was something there that indicated there was a dog or a cat. Why wouldn't there be a human being there,” he said. Firefighters thought they had found 3 bodies at one point, but the Orleans Parish Coroner quickly determined that the third body was an animal, not a human.
“They had a lot of people in the woods helping out but it never was nothing that they say that they found of her that was in the house that should've been there,” Johnnie Mae said.
“We took each section in the street like the square block like a square. We did this square and you could eliminate it. If there was a trash can, we looked in it. If there was a log, we rolled it over. If there was a ditch, we went through it. High weeds? We walked through it. Whatever we could do to figure where would a 3-year-old child go to,” Juno described.
“People were all over the place, but you know, nothing,” Pam said.
The outpouring of help didn’t just encompass the search. Rev. Donald Crockett, who was assistant pastor at Second Good Hope Baptist Church in Algiers at the time, helped coordinate volunteer search efforts and donations for the Brown family.
“The Lord spoke to me and he said get up and go help,” Crockett said.
His health has now taken its toll making walking difficult, but not impossible, for him. But in 1984 he said he walked blocks and blocks to try and find Ramona.
“I asked for volunteers that they would come out and we would look through the chalk ashes,” Crockett remembered dozens combing the neighborhood several blocks around the Browns’ tattered home.
“He was there with us from the beginning to the end, all the way through,” Johnnie Mae said, fondly remembering the pastor.
Crockett helped the Brown family raise more than $60,000 to rebuild their home.
“We built back on the same property. And the reason for that is because if she ever decides to come home, we're here,” Johnnie Mae sobbed.
But Crockett said he believes Ramona is resting in heaven.
“I believe that the child was cremated,” he said.
A 1984 Times Picayune article featured the memorial service Crockett held for Ramona after the boys had been laid to rest in a family grave down the street from the Browns’ home.
Loved ones sat on folding chairs facing one of the few photos the family had left of Ramona.
Crockett said then-NOFD Superintendent William McCrossen had convinced him Ramona was gone.
“His belief were because of the child being so young she was consumed, cremated, you know,” Crockett said.
While fire experts today said Ramona’s remains could have been damaged, and difficult to find, the likelihood is some evidence of her body would have remained in the ash and debris.
“I'm no medical doctor, but I would expect that the bone matter becomes much more rigid and dense between the ages of 3 and 4 and we would expect to find larger bones,” Thompson said.
“I just could never give an answer. I can't give an answer today. Where is Ramona,” asked NOPD investigator Mendoza.
“If I had to testify, put my hand on the Bible, the child wasn't in the house,” Juno said.