Longform

Missing Leg

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For Brown, the hazy months in a hospital bed, the blurry sightings of the people around him, the fragments of memories of the events leading up to his hospitalization, the lost leg -- it had all begun to look like a 1940s noir movie, a black-and-white nightmare. As he slept, the dazed amputee in the hospital bed had somehow been transformed from an enterprising young man with a knack for getting old jalopies up and running into a police suspect. Incredibly for Brown, he had been targeted as the driver in a reckless car chase at three-digit speeds, the heedless destroyer of two other lives, a probable drug dealer.

It's still not clear what happened that day on the streets of West Palm Beach, not even to Brown, but both he and his lawyer scoff at the police scenario that will go before jurors sometime later this year. The weight of hard evidence shows that Brown, despite some significant trouble with the law in his teenaged years, was just an innocent passenger that day, says his attorney, Kristine Rosendahl of West Palm Beach. Unluckily for Brown, he has become the target of a squad of aggressive cops with a reputation for making high-profile arrests. Aggressive law enforcement can sometimes lead to misguided justice. It has become clear, Rosendahl says, that the state constructed a sloppy criminal case against Brown that rests entirely on fragile circumstantial evidence.


The crowning cinematic element to the plot is akin to a twist in a Hitchcock flick. Last May, Brown, who is slowly recovering at his sister's house in Stuart, gets a call from a relative. Brown is on TV. A special episode of America's Most Wanted titled "America Strikes Back" is rolling, and it features Brown as one of the country's most sought-after bad guys.

There it is on national television, a mug shot of Brown and the assertion by Palm Beach Sheriff's Office cops that he's considered dangerous, despite his physical condition.

Nearly a year after the accident, Brown figured the cops had decided against charging him with a crime. He left St. Mary's about two months after the accident and moved in with his parents in Jensen Beach. He goes back to the hospital twice a week for rehab, so he figured the cops would come knocking if they wanted him. Investigator King left his card on their front door one day. Brown says he called the investigator but didn't get a call back. That's all he has heard from the cops, he says.



By the time the show aired, Brown was starting to get used to his new prosthetic leg. It was too painful for him to walk with it fully, but he was starting to use crutches, and with pants on, no one could tell. He had even gotten together with an old girlfriend, Cathalina Green, an insurance agent in Stuart, and they had a baby on the way. You could say that Brown had begun to move on. The show changed that.

Brown watched the episode with the helpless, nightmarish feeling of watching an impostor play himself. The episode begins with footage of police officers, sheriff's office deputies, and Drug Enforcement Administration agents busting drug dealers in parking lots, wrestling them to the ground, handcuffing them on the hoods of cars, and then displaying bags of money for the camera. Correspondent John Turchin explains that a law enforcement "task force" had set up for just such an easy takedown on June 29, 2002. Officers that day were following a red BMW supposedly driven by a well-known drug kingpin. They tailed him to the parking lot of a Kentucky Fried Chicken, where he allegedly handed a brown paper bag out of the BMW's window and into Duane Brown's green Toyota Avalon. Cops assert on the show that Brown bought a quarter-kilo of cocaine from the BMW's driver.

Officers then radioed West Palm Beach police for help in stopping the Toyota, which had ducked onto northbound Interstate 95. The show splices shots of West Palm police and an African-American actor playing Brown with real-life footage from a radio car's on-board camera. Officer Regina Wood explains how it went down: "I got behind the vehicle, activated my blue lights. He pulls over to the slow lane like he's going to pull over, like a... a traffic stop. But all of a sudden, he basically gunned it." The camera in Wood's patrol car shows the Toyota pulling away on I-95, and the show cues guitar-heavy rock music. "I backed off because we have a no-chase policy," Wood explains. "We don't just chase vehicles that are just taking off from us."

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Eric Alan Barton
Contact: Eric Alan Barton