By Darragh Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
She was a former college professor who had lost almost everything -- her stellar academic reputation, her financial well-being and her anonymity in the swanky suburban neighborhood where she was accused of working as a high-priced prostitute.
With Brandy Britton's trial planned to start next week, the former University of Maryland Baltimore County professor apparently took her own life over the weekend, hanging herself in her living room, Howard County police say. A family member found the body Saturday afternoon. Police say they do not suspect foul play.
It was a grievous end to a life that friends and colleagues say was once filled with remarkable promise and ambition.
Britton, 43, was the first in her family to go to college, double-majoring in biology and sociology. Her first sociology professor, Sheila Cordray, told The Washington Post last year that Britton was "one of the brightest students I've ever had."
The woman whose looks matched her intelligence may still have possessed the long, blond hair, the glossy pink lips and the glamorous figure of her youth. And she may have still projected the warm, friendly demeanor of a small-town girl from Oregon.
But she was facing the world's toughest truth: She had no idea who she was about to become.
Her trial date on four counts of prostitution -- which she had decided to fight in a jury trial instead of accepting a plea agreement -- was set for Monday. Police would get a chance to air their version of Brandy Britton: that in her $400,000 home at the end of a cul-de-sac where children ride Razor scooters and moms drive minivans with soccer decals, Britton had been selling herself as a call girl.
She called herself Alexis, police said and advertised on a Web site that described Alexis as a "quintessential 'brick house' " and "sophisticated, refined, educated and articulate. She has two Bachelor of Science degrees, one in biology and the other in sociology. She also holds a Ph.D. from an elite university." It continued: "An athlete, cheerleader and dancer in high school, Alexis . . . is extremely flexible in excellent shape."
In a sting, Howard police sent an undercover officer to her house last January and arrested her.
Britton heatedly denied the allegations, but when The Washington Post asked her last year how she had been supporting herself since leaving UMBC in late 1999 and a subsequent job with the Baltimore public schools, she started to answer, then suddenly recommended a book: "Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry."Fighting on Several Fronts
Her attorney, Christopher Flohr, has been out of his office taking care of his ailing father and had hoped to postpone her trial date. Flohr's partner, William Paul Blackford, heard the news of her death yesterday morning when The Post called. He sat in silence for several moments, then spoke of her other recent court battle: foreclosure hearings on her home.
He talked about Britton's fears that she would lose the house where she had raised two children, now grown, as a single parent and where she had been living with her two potbellied pigs, dog and two cats.
"That is one of the most heart-wrenching processes for a person to go through," Blackford said, continuing to talk, then interrupting himself, as though the news about Britton's death had just sunk in. "This is horribly sad."
Blackford suggested that Britton's state of mind lately was comparable to a starkly clean and ultra-modern home -- as Britton had decorated her living room and den, complete with sleek black leather couches -- and then "there's a stack of magazines in the living room and then there's a hamper," and then the mess has crept across everything.
"Her house," he added, "I think it's fair to say, it wasn't impressive."
Britton was a scramble of complications: She lived in a landscaped home with leaded-glass front doors that disguised the scratched-up carpet and scuffed walls inside. She was a sharp researcher whose dissertation focused on abused and battered women who then found herself, a few years ago, filing domestic-violence charges against her second husband: "He . . . tied me up with strapping tape" and "stabbed me in the neck," she told police.
In a statement yesterday, Flohr said that Britton's death "underscores an important question: Was the public benefited at all by the resources spent on her arrest and prosecution? As we ponder the apparent senselessness of her passing, we must openly wonder about . . . a criminal justice system that seeks to punish a person rather than heal them."Confusion and Depression
"It's been a descent for Brandy," her mother, Victoria Britton, said last year from her home in Oregon. She did not return calls for comment yesterday.
Victoria Britton had cheered, she said, when her daughter earned a PhD in sociology and arrived in the mid-1990s at UMBC, where she received raises and raves from other professors, who called her work "really top-notch" and "invaluable."
But the raves subsided after Brandy Britton filed a $10 million sex discrimination suit against UMBC -- one mirroring the suit she had filed against her California employer just before joining UMBC. She left the university at the end of 1999.
"I spent my whole life working for that," she told The Post last year, as she talked about her PhD and her identity as a college professor. "It wasn't just a job to me. It was my life."
And now, she continued, she had no idea what would happen next -- or whom she could next become. Her fight with UMBC would keep her from ever teaching again. Already, she believed, "they" were tapping her phones and bugging her home.
It was too much, she said, and she found herself thinking:
" 'I'm going to lay down and die. I'm so depressed.' "