One afternoon last week, Raleigh police Detective Zeke Morse met John Browne near the last place that Browne’s son was known to be on the night he disappeared nearly two years ago.
Browne asked Morse to meet him along Wycliff Road in West Raleigh, in front of the Lake Boone shopping center, to try to determine what direction his son might have been walking that night, in hopes of mounting yet another search.
Andrew Thomas Browne – Drew to his family and friends – vanished on the night of May 24, 2014, when he was 23. And except for the mysterious appearance of some items of his four months later, his parents, Martha and John Browne, and his older brother Lee haven’t seen or heard from him.
“At this point, we just don’t know if foul play has taken place or Drew is just off the grid or he ended his life that night,” Martha Browne said. “We just don’t have any idea.”
Drew’s disappearance was both dramatic and sudden. It prompted a massive police search, including a State Highway Patrol helicopter, in the blocks around Martin Middle School late on a Saturday night into Sunday morning. Police later widened their search for signs of Drew in the neighborhoods and woods west of the Beltline, near Rex Hospital and the N.C. Museum of Art, but have turned up nothing.
Morse says he doesn’t know what happened to Drew.
“Obviously, as time goes by, we become more and more concerned,” he said. “But until we find Andrew, we just don’t know.”
Morse is a homicide detective who also is in charge of three of the police department’s 16 long-term missing person’s cases, including Drew’s, the newest. The oldest case dates back to the summer of 1980 when Willie Darnell Kornegay, then in his mid-20s, disappeared when he was visiting relatives on North East Street. As time passes and the trail goes cold, Morse said, family members start to lose touch with police. That hasn’t happened yet with the Brownes.
A complicating factor in Drew’s disappearance is that he was a heroin addict. He was being treated for it, taking a drug called Suboxone that reduced the cravings for heroin but is in its own way something an addict can’t live without. Drew’s prescription had run out, Martha Browne says, and he was scheduled to see his doctor to get it refilled three days after he disappeared.
Martha and John had gone to the wedding of an old friend’s daughter and returned to their apartment on Thomas Road off Lake Boone Trail about 10 p.m. In the driveway was their son Lee’s motorcycle with the headlight on. Lee had been at the wedding, and his motorcycle was supposed to be at his apartment 2 miles away.
Inside, the Brownes came upon Drew who was agitated about something. He was holding a hunting rifle he had gotten from Lee’s apartment and his father’s .38-caliber handgun.
“We wanted to know what was going on, and he just kept saying that he was going to collect the money that was owed to him,” John Browne said. “He didn’t elaborate. He didn’t tell us who or why.”
Unable to get Drew to put down the guns, the Brownes retreated from the apartment. Drew followed, and when he tried to get on the motorcycle with the guns, Martha called 911. When an officer arrived, Drew took off running, still carrying the guns, into the woods behind the apartment, toward Martin Middle School.
The Brownes were able to get through to Drew on the flip phone he was carrying, trying to persuade him to come home. At one point, Drew answered a call from his brother Lee, who asked him what he was doing. Lee says Drew was winded and talking quietly, like he was on the run, and told him not to worry.
“He said, ‘Everything’s OK. I’m going to be OK,’ ” Lee Browne said. “Then I don’t know what happened. He said, ‘I’ve got to go’ and hung up.”
The last call Drew took was from his mother at about 10:45 p.m. He ended the call by saying he didn’t want the police to use the phone to track him and that he was turning it off.
Meanwhile, two of the officers who were looking for Drew reported hearing a gunshot from the woods behind Martin Middle School that sounded close enough to them that they took cover, John Browne said.
Police set up a perimeter around the school and the surrounding residential streets, and they continued searching there the next day. The gunshot, which Morse said came after the last phone call, raised the possibility that Drew had taken his own life, but police found nothing.
“At this point, nobody’s found Drew, Drew’s body, Drew’s remains, the phone, the guns,” John Browne said. “I think they’re kind of mystified that he evaded them that evening.”
Cellphone call traced
What police later learned by tracking the cellphone signal is that Drew had crossed the Beltline, beyond their perimeter. His final call was at a gazebo overlooking a pond at the Grand Arbor Reserve Apartments across Wycliff Road from the Lake Boone shopping center.
Which is where John and Lee Browne met Morse last week, to go over things one more time. John Browne knew the last call was from the gazebo, but he wanted to know if police could say where the phone was turned off, in case it gave some clue to the direction Drew was headed.
Morse said Drew turned off the phone less than two minutes after the last call, in a patch of woods just beyond the gazebo. Not much help, but John Browne noticed a set of power lines that crossed a corner of the apartment complex toward the northwest. If a man carrying a rifle wanted to move undetected, he said, the easement under those power lines might be the way to go.
“That’s a thoroughfare,” he said. “That’s where we need to spend some time.”
Obviously, as time goes by, we become more and more concerned. But until we find Andrew, we just don’t know.
Raleigh police detective Zeke Morse
Drew knew the terrain of West Raleigh. He grew up on Lewis Farm Road and went to school at Lacy Elementary and nearby Martin Middle School.
When he graduated from Broughton High School in 2009, he spent a year at home, then moved to Wilmington to attend Cape Fear Community College in hopes of eventually transferring to UNC-Wilmington. It was in Wilmington that the Brownes think Drew got started with heroin. He dropped out of school after a year and a half, but stayed in Wilmington a while longer, working in a skateboard shop downtown.
His parents had confronted him about buying prescription pain medicines, and then, in 2012, Martha noticed needle marks on his arm.
“In our wildest dream, we didn’t think we’d have a child who was a heroin addict,” she said. “You don’t start looking for something like that.”
Officially there’s an arrest warrant out for Drew, ostensibly for assaulting his family the night he disappeared. But that warrant wouldn’t be enforced unless the family presses charges, and they won’t.
“He never threatened to hurt us or anything,” Martha Browne said. “I just could not get him to put the weapons down.”
Since he disappeared, police have talked to Drew’s friends and monitored his Facebook page, which he hasn’t posted to since he updated his profile picture on May 4, 2014. Police even visited the dealer who sold him heroin, according to his parents, but had no luck. The Brownes kept Drew’s cellphone account active until about two months ago; the phone was never used again.
The police search for Drew is mostly a passive one at this point. Information about him, including dental records and fingerprints and his parent’s DNA, are in a national database called namus.gov, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, operated by the federal government. Morse says he gets a message if someone resembling Drew gets arrested or is found dead.
“If he were encountered anywhere in the country, we would be notified,” he said.
Police are also looking for the rifle and handgun Drew carried that night. Their serial numbers are also in a national database, and if they are pawned, seized or resold, Raleigh police would be notified, Morse said.
“That’s the most surprising thing to us, is those guns have not shown up,” he said. “I don’t know what to make of that at this point.”
A tantalizing clue
The Browne family holds on to one sign of hope that Drew survived the night of his disappearance. Martha Browne was getting in her mother’s car on Thomas Road one morning in September 2014 and found some items that belonged to Drew on the floor below the dashboard that hadn’t been there previously. The Brownes decline to say what those items were but say that only Drew could have put them there or had someone else do it.
“What showed up in the Honda has just got us all a little bit baffled,” Martha said.
Drew could make a friend in a heartbeat. So that’s what I’m holding on to in terms of him still being alive.
Martha Browne grew up on Thomas Road. Numerous times since May 2014 she has searched the woods where she played as a child for any sign of her own child – the guns, perhaps, or his remains. She has looked west of Blue Ridge Road, trying to anticipate the direction Drew was moving that night. The Brownes’ biggest fear is that their son somehow made it into Umstead State Park.
“How do you search that?” John said.
“You’ll never be able to recover him if he’s in there,” Martha added. “You’ve got so many coyotes in the area, if he did end it, you just don’t know if you’d ever be able to find anything.”
The Brownes describe Drew as gregarious, someone who was good with people and wanted to be with them. They doubt he would be alone. That gives his brother Lee hope.
“I see a scenario where he’s still out there, met up with someone,” he said. “Drew could make a friend in a heartbeat. So that’s what I’m holding on to in terms of him still being alive.”
This spring, Lee Browne plans to open a distillery in downtown Wendell, a family business seven years in the making. Drew, who the family describes as mechanically inclined, was meant to be a part of it.
Drew helped his brother buy the equipment and did the interior demolition work on the 100-year-old building a few months before he disappeared.
Drew wasn’t using heroin when Lee conceived of the distillery while he was a student at UNC-Chapel Hill seven years ago, and he was in recovery when the family went ahead with the project. Lee said Drew would have been the master distiller – “the go-to guy.”
“I know he would have been great at it,” he said.
The Brownes are offering a reward for information that leads them to Drew. The family isn’t really looking for “closure,” that old cliche, because when you lose a child, John Browne says, unless he comes back, there is no closure. They just want to know what happened to him.
“I don’t know where this whole thing was headed. You know, I don’t know if you can recover from heroin addiction,” John Browne said. “But he was able to be productive. And we were counting on him.”
How to help
The Browne family is offering a reward for information that leads to the whereabouts of their son Drew. If you know anything, call the Raleigh Police Department’s Tip Line at 919-834-4357 or visit raleighcrimestoppers.org for text and email reporting options.
Heroin use on the rise
Heroin, a potent narcotic that was once known as the dead-end drug of junkies in movies and songs, has seen a surge in popularity, with deadly results.
Heroin killed 253 people in North Carolina in 2014, more than triple the number just three years before, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.
The spike coincides with what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls a nationwide epidemic of overdose deaths involving opioid pain relievers, including OxyContin, methadone and hydrocodone. Public health officials say the resulting crackdown on pills has driven up the price and helped fuel the switch to heroin.
The abuse of opioids has fueled a dramatic rise in accidental poisoning deaths in North Carolina, which have increased more than 320 percent over the past 15 years, to 1,178 in 2014. State public health officials say that if current trends continue, unintentional poisoning deaths will surpass motor vehicle accidents as the leading cause of injury deaths in the state by 2017.