Md. trooper's killer still sought; restaurant dispute blamed

By David Nakamura and Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 12, 2010; A01

It was early Friday morning when off-duty Maryland State Trooper Wesley Brown left the Applebee's restaurant in Forestville, where he worked as a part-time security guard. Half an hour earlier, he had thrown out a disorderly patron who had refused to pay his bill.

Now, things seemed calmer as Brown -- wearing a bulletproof vest and a jacket marked "police" and carrying his police-issued handgun -- stepped toward the brown Maryland State Police cruiser parked just beyond the front door. He was talking on his mobile phone.

Moments later, Brown, 24, was dead, gunned down shortly before 12:40 a.m. by an unknown assailant in the dark. The gunman ran away, while Brown, covered in blood, stumbled into the restaurant and collapsed as patrons frantically dialed 911.

This was the scene police described Friday as they combed the restaurant, its parking lot and surveillance video for evidence in a case that one officer described as the "cold-blooded killing" of a young officer whose life seemed full of promise. Brown had recently asked his girlfriend, a District police officer, to marry him, family members said, and on Friday he was scheduled to lead a youth group on a tour of New York as part of a mentoring program Brown founded three years ago.

The gunman "took a whole lot from this family," said Brown's father, Sylvester, who sat with family outside his Northeast Washington home Friday afternoon. "If my son had arrested him, this wouldn't have happened, but that's not how my son is. He just told him to leave."

Investigators do not know how an argument over a restaurant check could have escalated into the ambush of a police officer and are trying to make sense of the killing. "It is something that is unfathomable. It shocks the conscience," said Maj. Andy Ellis, a spokesman for the Prince George's County Police Department, which is overseeing the investigation.

The shooter "knew this was a trooper," Ellis said. It wasn't clear how many times Brown had been shot, but police found several shell casings in the parking lot. The customer who failed to pay his bill is considered a "person of interest," Prince George's County police said, adding that they believe he returned and shot Brown. During a review of surveillance tapes from the restaurant and a nearby bank, police released images of that person. They also have interviewed at least 50 patrons and restaurant workers.

"It doesn't appear [Brown] even had a chance to draw his weapon," Ellis said. "It appears he was ambushed from the outside."

Although Brown was wearing a bulletproof vest, the bullets somehow entered in a way that allowed at least one to pierce his heart, Ellis said.

Police described the suspect as a black male between 5-foot-6 and 5-foot-8, about 130 pounds, and having short hair and a bit of a beard. He was wearing a Hugo Boss jacket. Ellis said the identity of the shooter is "a mystery at this point -- we don't have a name or know who this guy is" but is considered armed and dangerous.

Brown, the youngest of nine children, had overcome a youth marked by occasional trouble, family members said.

"He was a remarkable young man. He was on his way to becoming a fine trooper," said Maryland State Police Sgt. Rodney Morris, his supervisor. "All he wanted to do was serve Prince George's County."

Brown was a 3 1/2 -year veteran of the State Police and an active member of the Seat Pleasant community. He had attended Crossland High School and studied criminal justice at Prince George's Community College in Largo. He was the youngest cadet in his police academy class to graduate.

In 2007, he founded Young Men Enlightening Younger Men, a mentoring group that would take teenagers on field trips throughout the Washington area, including to the National Zoo and museums, and bring in professionals to give talks.

Brown described the group's mission on its Web site as helping kids who struggle academically.

"What happens to those who try, but who just don't make it because of poor school systems or a lack of support from home? Where does he go?" Brown wrote. "We believe that if a young man is trying to make himself a better man and a productive member of society, then we are PROUD of him."

Sylvester Brown said his son's interest in mentoring stemmed, in part, from a difficult experience he had growing up. When Wesley Brown was in high school, he stepped in to help a friend who was in a fight and Wesley was stabbed, Sylvester Brown said.

Anthony Johnson, 15, a cousin of Brown's who played police- and karate-themed video games with him, said Brown kept a close eye on him and other young family members. One time, Johnson recalled, back when he was about 5, he intended to set fire to a trash can when Brown spotted him.

"He said, 'What are you doing?' " Johnson recalled. "I said, 'I'm doing nothing,' and tried to hide the matches behind my back."

His cousin ordered him to hand over the matches, Johnson said, and they went inside for a sit-down about the dangers of setting a fire.

The last Maryland trooper to die in the line of duty was Mickey C. Lippy, 34, a paramedic whose medevac helicopter crashed in bad weather in Prince George's in September 2008.

Brown had finished his most recent state trooper shift early Wednesday and was not scheduled to work again until Monday afternoon, said State Police spokesman Gregory Shipley.

Authorities had roped off the crime scene yesterday morning, with Brown's police car still parked in front of the restaurant. Dozens of members of the State Police academy combed the grounds in a grid search for evidence.

"There are a small number of brutal, cold people that would take another's life without thinking about it," said Gov. Martin O'Malley (D). "That's what happened here."

Brown had wanted to enlist the Army, his father said, but the family was worried that it was too dangerous, so he decided to become a state trooper instead.

"I'm going to miss that smile," said Theresa Brown, an aunt. "He'd smile all the time, before he even talked."

Staff writers Ruben Castaneda, Stephanie Lee, Mike McPhate and Matt Zapotosky and staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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