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The search for Ramona Brown: The Investigation

Katie Moore

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By sunset on the day of the Brown family house fire in 1984, investigators believed they had sent the bodies of three children to the Orleans Parish Coroner, according to reports they wrote about the fire. They were wrong.

The discovery marked the start of an extraordinary investigation in which dozens of firefighters and detectives raked through ash and debris for days trying to find a trace of 3-year-old Ramona Brown.

Two young boys died in the fire at 2631 Memorial Park Drive in Algiers, Aubrey Brown, 4, and Kevin Brown, 2.

“All you could hear was mom! Dad! Help me please,” described their sister, Simona Brown, who was 6 years old at the time.

“I wish they would've stayed with me,” cried Dorothy Nickerson, the children’s grandmother.

The three children played at Nickerson’s home the afternoon before the fire broke out around 3 a.m.

“They found them. They found Aubrey, which was older than Kevin, found them 100 percent bones and Aubrey was hugging Kevin, I guess, because he was trying to protect him from the fire,” Simona said.

The supplemental investigative report filed by New Orleans Police Department arson investigator Harry Mendoza, now retired, confirms Aubrey’s body was found face-down and Kevin’s face-up in the living room where the boys had initially fallen asleep on the sofa.

Photos show Det. Mendoza today and in 1984, as an NOPD officer.

The Orleans Parish Coroner’s office reported “100 percent charring body burns” on both boys.

3 bodies were sent to the coroner, only 2 were human

“We were comfortable that morning that we had sent three bodies in. The original morning, we felt quite comfortable that part of the investigation was complete,” Mendoza said.

Then-NOPD Superintendent Henry Morris called Mendoza to meet with him at NOPD Headquarters the morning after the fire.

“It's very unusual for a superintendent to call on individual investigators. I didn't know what I was walking into,” Mendoza said.

Chief Morris broke the news to Mendoza that the third body the coroner’s office recovered was, in fact, an animal, not Ramona.

A child was missing.

“Immediate orders were to return to the scene and bring all the resources I had available to me. To do excavation of the scene to determine where that child's body was,” he said.

Mendoza and New Orleans Fire Department investigator Karl Pfister were partners on a joint arson task force. They took the lead on the investigation into the Brown fire, including the search for Ramona.

The two lead search teams of dozens of detectives and firefighters four times to comb through the fire scene to try and find flesh, bone, any piece of Ramona they could find to confirm she died in the fire.