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.
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.
The search went everywhere in the neighborhood:
Two days after the fire, the third time investigators returned to the scene, police and firefighters expanded their search to the area two blocks in each direction around the Browns’ home.
Large storm drains, or culverts, in the neighborhood were built with iron bars wide enough for a toddler to squeeze through at the time, so Mendoza said Chief Morris ordered his detectives to open them all up.
“We opened up what we could open to see if there was a location where a body had been dragged by an animal but there was no signs of Ramona,” he said.
The neighborhood around Memorial Park Drive looked much different in 1984 that it does today.
New Orleans’ historic Sanborn maps are the result of a detailed survey the city conducts periodically to plot every property. Sanborn maps of Algiers were completed in 1983.
The maps show at least 13 of the properties surrounding the Browns’ had no homes built on them.
The Brown children described the area as “all wooded”, leaving plenty of places Ramona could have crawled or where her body could have been dragged.
With pressure to find the girl from top brass in both the police and fire departments, Mendoza recalls extensively documenting his investigation.
“A huge amount of photographs were taken to support the actions we were taking,” he said.
While public records requests turned up the initial and supplemental reports that were completed by the NOPD and the Orleans Parish Coroner, negatives for the forensic photographs had been housed at the NOPD Crime Lab, which went under water in Hurricane Katrina.
A spokeswoman for the NOPD said their Central Evidence and Property division could find no negatives, photographs or other evidence samples associated with the incident number assigned to the Browns’ house fire.
Did investigators miss her remains?
Firefighters seemed skeptical they would find Ramona’s remains even as the Browns’ house still smoldered.
“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 then-Fire District Chief Roy Songy in an interview with WWL-TV in 1984.
But Mendoza said the pressure was on to continue to try.
After the third search of the scene, the police report notes that Superintendent Morris suggested Mendoza consult with local funeral home Hope Mausoleum to find out if Ramona’s body could have been burned to the point that there was nothing but ash left.
“It would have took 1,800 to 2,100 degrees for two and a half hours to consume a body and that even after a two and a half hour exposure to fire, there would still be bone fragments, bones that would be identifiable as human,” Mendoza said.
News coverage of the fire said the fire department brought the Brown fire under control in about 30 minutes.
Newspaper clippings from the search for Ramona Brown
Deputy Louisiana State Fire Marshal Brant Thompson said there are a lot of unknowns about the Brown house fire, but it’s likely there would have been something left of Ramona for investigators to find.
“It's really inconceivable to think that in a house fire, all that existed of a human being, even a child between the ages of 3 and 4, would be completely consumed by that fire,” Thompson said.
Nationally-renowned forensic fire expert Dr. John DeHaan, owner of Fire-Ex Forensics, agreed.
“I would have expected the hips, the pelvic region to survive,” DeHaan said.
But both Thompson and DeHaan said if Ramona was killed by the fire, the damage to her remains could have made them difficult to find.
“If the fire department came in and used their straight stream in their attack, if a body is badly damaged by fire, the fire department could scatter the body pieces,” DeHaan said.
And both experts said the extent of damage to Ramona’s remains would depend on several factors, including how close she was to the point of origin of the fire and how hot the fire burned.
“An average house fire burns at temperatures of 1100 to 1400 degrees. There are certainly peak times within that fire event when you have a full flashover and I think likely in this case we did have a portion of the house that went into flash over. However, the duration of a, peak temperatures, is short-lived,” Thompson said.
Where was everyone when the fire broke out and where did it start?
The night of the fire Ramona was last seen sleeping in the girls’ bedroom, the room where her sisters Pam and Tiffany Nickerson told investigators they first saw flames.
While the Brown family heard Aubrey Jr. and Kevin screaming until the fire silenced their cries, they never heard a sound from Ramona.
According to the police report, Mendoza and Pfister determined the fire did, in fact, start in the girls’ room, although they never could determine what started it.
Family members say there was no functioning heater in there, however, there was a gas wall heater in the bathroom. The bathroom was located two rooms away from the girls’ bedroom.
“They got me to talk to me because they wanted to know if I started the fire because I was up, because it started so early. They asked if I smoked or some questions like that, but I never smoked or anything like that at the time,” Pam said.
A week after the fire, after 4 extensive searches turned up no sign of Ramona, the NOPD report says Mendoza informed the family that investigators had stopped looking for the girl.
But the community, and even the family, stepped in where investigators left off, a desperate, morbid search as Ramona’s loved ones sifted through delicate debris looking for something solid to hold on to.
“They had all kind of teachers and all kind of people out here lookin’ in woods and stuff. Because they said if the fire department used their hose they could've hosed her away. People were all over the place, but you know, nothing,” Pam said.
When asked, Mendoza said he didn’t believe the NOPD or the NOFD had access to cadaver-sniffing dogs in 1984. He said he knows definitively that they didn’t use them to search for Ramona’s remains.
The La. Fire Marshal did have cadaver dogs in 1984, and even though state law required them to launch an investigation into every fire that killed two or more people, Thompson said there are no records to indicate the agency was ever contacted about the Browns’ house fire.
“It was like, there was a fire. Kid was burnt up and that was it,” the children’s grandmother, Dorothy Nickerson said about the hopelessness they all felt at the time.
My sister got out
But Simona Brown, who was 6 at the time of the fire, has been telling a different story about what happened to her sister for decades.
Did Ramona survive?
“My little sister Ramona, she was with us. She was with us,” Simona said.
Simona recalls seeing Ramona in the street after the fire.
She was one of five children who had been sleeping huddled around a furnace in the dining room when the flames roared through the home.
Pam, who was 14, had been on the phone with a boy in the kitchen and first saw the fire coming from the girls’ bedroom.
“We all got up and we was just bumping into each other. We was trying to get out the front door, but it was almost like it was jammed,” Simona said.
Once Pam unlocked a side door, five of the children scrambled out of the house behind her.
Simona said she remembers first seeing Ramona alive in the street after things calmed down and firefighters worked to put out hot spots.
The other siblings said they didn’t remember seeing Ramona alive after the fire.
According to Simona, the surviving children, including Ramona, all traumatized by the events of the night, took a walk down the street to escape the smoke.
“My little sister Ramona, she was with us. She was with us. And this car pulled up,” Simona recalls, “A bronze looking old Cadillac just pulled up… an old black man and an old white lady offering to help us out. They'll watch her for us. I was like, ok, cool. So, when [Ramona] got in, that was it. Gone,” Simona said.
Johnnie Mae Brown, the children’s mother, said Simona first told her the story alleging Ramona had been kidnapped a day after the fire.
Simona admits she never told police about it, just her mom.
“It wasn't on my mind at the time. I just lost two siblings in a fire. I had seen the people bring two body bags out. It was just too much,” she said.
Mendoza admits the destruction of the fire was so intense, he never really considered the possibility Ramona had been kidnapped.
“No one ever told me that they saw her after the fire. And to be totally candid with you, extraordinary things have happened. At the time, I don't recall ever thinking that she had survived that fire,” he said.
While Simona is the only one who has said she saw Ramona after the fire, she’s not the only one who has said she heard from the little girl.
“It's been so long but I know. I have a sharp mind. The telephone rang. This was about two, three days later. The telephone rang. I pick up the phone, I say, Hello,” Nickerson said.
She has said for decades now that she believes Ramona called her on the phone.