BY COLIN KRIEGER
(This article consists of a great deal of information gathered on scene, as well as information directly from the Columbus Police Department. Further, I spoke with a close family friend of the Browns who provided specific details about the incident at the hospital that only someone present could have known. The amount of rumor and conjecture in both social and traditional media regarding the incident was astonishing. I have done my best to clarify as many issues as I could, while attempting to treat both the family’s and the authority’s versions of the events with equal respect-Colin Krieger, Publisher)
A New Hope family is dealing with unimaginable grief after a weekend ATV accident on Magby Creek in East Columbus led to the tragic drowning of their two young sons.
Operators from Lowndes County E-911 dispatched Columbus Fire and Rescue personnel and officers with the Columbus Police Department to Magby Creek around 2:51 p.m Saturday afternoon after receiving a frantic call that a jeep had flipped in the river. CPD officers raced to the scene and met up with a witness to the accident, identified on scene as David Garner, at a nearby gas station. Garner directed the authorities to the main crossing of the Magby Creek spillway, where they found a Polaris Ranger Crew all terrain vehicle completely overturned in the creek about 100 feet west of a cement and gravel crossing commonly used by ATV’s as a crossing. (I’ve heard several people around town questioning why someone would have six people riding on what some media outlets reported as a 4-wheeler. As you can see by our attached picture, the Polaris Ranger is a very large ATV is designed to carry six adults-CK)
The Polaris that was overturned was reportedly carrying a total of six people, and both the witness and a family member reported that all six were wearing their seatbelts. The father, Billy Brown, had invited a family friend, identified by sources as Austin “Weasel” Strickland, to join him and four of his children for a ride. In the front seat with their father were: Jacob, 6, and Justin, 9. In the rear were daughter Elizabeth,16, and son Trent, 8.
Witnesses told police that the family was trying to cross the creek and were headed south when the large ATV was suddenly overcome with rushing water. The extremely high water, caused by torrential rainfall in the area Friday, caused the vehicle to float momentarily and drift downstream before getting caught up on the creek bed. Once the vehicle briefly stabilized, Billy Brown began unbuckling his children to begin to attempt an escape. (The Columbus area was soaked the day before, with WCBI Meteorologist Maddie Kirker reporting 1.85 inches of rainfall. The extra precipitation caused the Lux to crest at over 6’8″ Saturday, according to Kirker, with a current in the Lux on Saturday that some rescue workers compared to Class 3 whitewater rapids-CK)
Billy Brown had grabbed his son Trent and was beginning to get a hold of Justin when the ATV dislodged and flipped end-over end and toppled down the creek. Passenger Austin Strickland was thrown from the vehicle along with Elizabeth Brown and both Justin and Jacob were instantly submerged. Garner, who witnessed the accident from the shore, quickly drove his 4-wheeler down the creek and rushed in the water to grab Elizabeth. Garner then reportedly dragged her to shore and told her to stay there as he quickly rode for help.
Billy Brown then frantically ran along the creek bed, searching for his sons. A family friend said that Billy had a hard time distinguishing objects in the water, as there were several items from the cargo bed of the Ranger that had been thrown into the creek during the accident. Brown searched the creek and its junction with the Luxapalila for nearly 20 minutes while his friend went for help.
When CPD Officer Canyon Boykin arrived on scene, he immediately pulled Elizabeth Brown all the way onto shore. The teenage girl had apparently broken her ankle in the crash, and Boykin stayed with her until a fire and rescue crew arrived minutes later. Firemen on scene radioed in for the special rescue boats to be brought to the scene to start searching the river for the boys.
Officers began to question Billy Brown at this time, shortly after a blue cooler was pulled from the creek bank that contained several empty bottles of beer. It became apparent that the CPD had information that the cooler belonged to Brown and convinced the father to accompany them to Baptist Memorial Hospital — Golden Triangle for a blood-alcohol test shortly after 3:30 p.m. Several CPD sources said that Brown admitted having one beer earlier that day, an accusation the family strongly denies. Several family friends with intimate knowledge of the situation said that the cooler was not Brown’s.
Further contradictions in the story arise in regards to Brown’s visit to the hospital. Just as rescue boats were being loaded in the water and droves of rescue workers began lining the banks, Brown was being escorted into BMH-GT for testing. The Brown family contends that, upon arrival at the hospital, Brown was told that the blood test was voluntary and that he would need to pay up front for it. A family friend said that he told the staff that he didn’t have the $180 required to pay for it. CPD sources insist that Brown was already being prepped for the blood to be drawn when he acted nervous and attempted to walk out of the hospital. Both parties agree that it was at this point that the father was detained and the police then attempted to secure a search warrant to draw the blood. Billy Brown remained at the hospital well after 6 p.m., with family friends saying he was held there till nearly 10 p.m — after the Columbus Fire and Rescue had abandoned the search efforts for the night (Both the Commercial Dispatch and WCBI reported Tuesday that Columbus Police Chief Selvain McQueen had already obtained the results of the blood test, but denied releasing the results. Chief McQueen had a terse response when asked about that assertion Wednesday: “They’re lying.” McQueen replied. He went on to say that he had not spoken with the Dispatch about the incident and that, if he had, he would have told them the blood tests were at the state crime lab, per procedure. WCBI corrected their article online Wednesday morning-CK)
Rescue teams scoured the river throughout the afternoon and a base command center was set up at the intersection of Highway 182 East and Gardner Boulevard. Represented on scene were Columbus Fire and Rescue Water Team, CPD, Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office, Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks as well as Lowndes County Volunteer Firefighters. The CPD were called to the railroad crossing over the Luxapalila shortly after 7:30 pm. after receiving reports that children could be heard screaming from the banks. Several volunteer search teams told police it was more likely them communicating with each other than the actual victims. Officers and deputies searched the immediate area for nearly an hour to no avail. (The response by the CPD was sharply criticized by Columbus Facebook Watch Administrator and Brown family friend Tracey Morrison in a public post Sunday morning. In response to an article about a suspect surrendering to Columbus police for the Saturday morning murder, Morrison posted, ” I guess that is why there was very little CPD presence at the command center looking for the two missing children?!”. When I questioned the nature of her statement, she continued, ” I understand our chief took our mayor to Starkville & then to a church function….. It’s all about priorities I suppose.” Morrison went on to say that she was personally on scene from when the search began to after it was over Saturday night. Columbus Police Chief Selvain McQueen was in Starkville for the Columbus High Graduation at 10 a.m. Saturday, along with Mayor Robert Smith. Both men reportedly attended a funeral on Southside around 1p.m. as well. Although I do not normally go out of my way to defend either of these men, I can tell you that Chief McQueen signed out over the radio along the banks of the Lux shortly after 3 p.m. Furthermore, we had a rough head count of 11 CPD officers along the river that afternoon, which, by most accounts, would be a significant presence. I find it abhorrent, even in the heat of the moment, for someone representing what is supposed to be a public forum to spread rumor and lay blame during such a sensitive situation. Morrison did spend the following days deleting other posts about the incident and scolding participants who spread rumor, so maybe she got the message. It is worth noting that there was not one post on the site from Sunday to Tuesday about either of the shooting victims from the weekend. Morrison removed herself as an administrator Tuesday, but remains a member of the group.
We have added the original conversation between myself and Morrison below this story*
Columbus Fire and Rescue teams began the search again around 7:30 a.m. Sunday morning, this time assisted by a steady stream of volunteers as well as a MedStat rescue helicopter.
Six-year-old Jacob Brown’s body was discovered late Sunday afternoon just North of the Green Hill Bridge.
Hundreds of volunteers continued the search throughout Monday and into Tuesday, trying to provide the Brown family some closure and peace of mind.
Nine year old Justin Brown’s body was found Tuesday afternoon around 5 p.m. further downriver from where his brother came to rest. Columbus Assistant Fire Chief Martin Andrews was explaining the difficulties of performing such a large recovery effort to the Columbus City Council at the moment the young boy was found. He was carefully explaining that sometimes volunteers can cause more harm than good, by disrupting diving efforts and interrupting sonar searches. At the very moment Andrews was explaining this, sources said a volunteer on the river discovered the missing Brown child and removed him from the water and brought him down to the Luxapalila Park. Moving a body, especially one in such delicate condition, could cause damage that could hamper Coroner Greg Merchant’s investigation.
“Because the body was removed by volunteers, we don’t know exactly where it was located,” Merchant on Wednesday said. “We heard it was about a quarter of a mile from the Green Hill Bridge, which is where Pickensville crosses the river, but we don’t know for certain.
Merchant said Jacob Brown died of fresh water drowning. Although he said he expects the same results in the death of Justin Brown, he is not making a ruling until an autopsy is conducted.
The tragedy has sent shockwaves through the community. A prayer vigil was held for the family Monday night and approximately 100 people attended the service in front of the DMV on Airline Road.
Columbus Mayor Robert Smith said the city would be praying for the family.”The Mayor’s office, the Council, and the entire city staff is deeply saddened by the tragedy that befell the Brown family on Saturday,” Smith said. “Our thoughts and prays will continue to go out the entire family. I would like to commend all of the rescue workers and volunteers who have searched tirelessly in search of young Justin and Jacob. Their efforts speaks to the great asset of the City of Columbus, and that is the love and compassion of our citizens. May God comfort and keep the family, will be our constant prayer.”
Arrangements have been made for the children at Pleasant Hill Baptist Church for Saturday at 2 p.m. Those wishing to make donations can visit Cadence Bank in Columbus as well as the Cookie Store in Leigh Mall, where the mother of the children, Kristy Brown, is employed. Several donation buckets have been set up at over 15 businesses in East Columbus and New Hope to help the family.
Colin Krieger is the Publisher of the Columbus Packet. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
*Transcript of Facebook exchange referenced above:
Tracy Harper Morrison — I guess that is why there was very little CPD presence at the command center looking for the two missing children?!
D. Krieger — I’ll need to jump in on that on, Tracy. We were at the Lux all day and there were CPD everywhere. Most of the day shift stayed late walking the banks, and several were called in to help. Plenty of Sheriffs did the same before you take a cheap shot at them, too. (Colin from The Packet.)
Tracy Harper Morrison — Not a cheap shot. I was there with the mother. I understand our chief took our mayor to Starkville & then to a church function. If this is incorrect, please correct me.
Tracy Harper Morrison — I appreciate the efforts of any & all who were there. It’s a tough job & I couldn’t do it. I’m not disrespecting the CPD who were there. But this is in the city. Where was the presence. I saw only a few. & not our chief. I hope I just missed it. If so… My apologies.
D. Krieger— The Chief was in starkville already when it happened. You said CPD, not the Chief. It’s fair to crticize the CPD when they screw up, but there were 12 other officers working yesterday, and they all spent time out there
Tracy Harper Morrison — It’s all about priorities I suppose….
D. Krieger — I’ll work on getting the timeline for you, 911 keeps track of who signs out on scene. We’ve got a lot of pics When I talked to Chief McQueen that morning before the accident, he was headed to the graduation ceremonies in Starkville. I saw him again around 7pm when the murder guy surrendered, I’ll see where he was between then.
Tracy Harper Morrison — Thats not necessary. I was there until the last boat came back & after. I’m headed that way soon. It was an observation. LCSO chief deputy was on scene the entire time. I didn’t see the CPD chief or assistant…. I hope I just missed it. Vision blurs when the tears flow…
Additional photos may be found here. (additional photos added 29 May)0