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Federal prosecutors help take on unsolved homicides in Baltimore and Prince George’s County

After Noah Smothers disappeared in Prince George’s County in 2018, federal authorities found a car that he had rented and found his blood in the trunk. The evidence led federal prosecutors to obtain indictments against his alleged partner in drug dealing. (Justice Department)

Even in a city that has experienced violence such as Baltimore, the double slaying of Jennifer Jeffrey-Browne and her 7-year-old son Kester A. Browne III in 2015 was particularly horrific. Both were shot to death in their home, the second-grader discovered in his bedroom in his pajamas.

But Baltimore has more than 300 slayings per year, and in recent years the police have solved fewer than half of them. Eventually the case grew cold. “I didn’t think nobody cared,” said Kester A. Browne II, the widower and father of the victims. “I thought I was the only one sitting around sweating about it.”

In Prince George’s County, David L. McCoy was shot and killed after coming out of a bank with cash for the daily operations at the restaurant he helped run near Upper Marlboro. But it was late October 2002, and two men had just been arrested for the murderous D.C. sniper rampage. “We tried to get more attention to it at the time,” said Kevin McCoy, the victim’s brother, “and had a hard time doing it.”

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The cases were not forgotten, but the resources to revisit them were sometimes lacking. So the U.S. attorney’s office in Baltimore, with 80 prosecutors, access to the investigative powers of federal grand juries and the backing of agencies like the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, offered to step in. Since December, federal prosecutors have charged or convicted defendants in five homicides, including those of McCoy and the Brownes, and are continuing to work with cold-case detectives in Baltimore and Prince George’s to help victims’ families find answers.

“The sad fact is,” Maryland U.S. Attorney Robert K. Hur said, “with the pace of homicides afflicting our jurisdictions, the homicide detectives have more work than they can handle. That’s when it falls to us to pitch in, to help out and be the strongest, most effective partners we can be.” Not every murder case has a federal connection, Hur noted, but many do, including those involving drugs or the killing of a witness.

“When you have the murder of a 7-year-old child,” Hur said, “allegedly so the child wouldn’t cooperate with an investigation as a witness, that is truly horrifying and shocking. That’s the kind of case we think we can be particularly effective in solving.”

Federal authorities are also mindful of combating the mind-set that crime in big cities often goes unpunished, leading to diminished trust in law enforcement. “Now is a particularly opportune time to convey to the community, to anyone,” Hur said, “you cannot commit murder and get away with it. It may take some time to amass the evidence needed to charge you, but we will get there.”

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said the partnership with the U.S. attorney’s office has been successful and the agencies will continue “to work together in pursuing the individuals responsible for the violence in our city and ensuring that they are held accountable.” Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and the Prince George’s County police also said they welcome the help.

The killings of Jeffrey-Browne, 31, and her son in southwest Baltimore in May 2015 evoked such outrage that police had hoped for a quick resolution. But four years passed, and her sister told the Baltimore Sun last year she despaired of the case ever being solved.

Kester A. Browne II said he met Jennifer in 2001 when both were teenagers, began dating her in 2006 and that their son Kester A. Browne III was born in July 2007. Browne said he was arrested and imprisoned for assault just before his son’s birth, and that he and Jennifer married in 2014 while he was still incarcerated. He didn’t allow his young son to visit him in prison, but “I talked to him almost every day, we were always on the phone,” he said.

Authorities say Jeffrey-Browne also was involved in drug dealing. Court records show that prosecutors believe Andre R. Briscoe, 35, was a heroin user, that Jeffrey-Browne was his supplier and Briscoe killed her on the morning of May 27, 2015, then went upstairs and shot her son. Browne said he believed his wife had gotten involved in drugs but she wasn’t savvy enough because “she wasn’t from the streets, she was from Catonsville. She didn’t know how to deal with these people.”

Briscoe was first charged in May 2020 with conspiracy to distribute heroin, and then in July with killing Jeffrey-Browne as part of the conspiracy and shooting her child “multiple times … in the head and mouth” to prevent him from testifying. Briscoe’s lawyer, William Purpura, did not respond to a request for comment but told the Baltimore Sun that Briscoe was in Cambridge, Md., more than 80 miles from Baltimore, on the day of the killing.

While federal prosecutors say Briscoe’s arrest came amid an effort to re-examine cases that have long gone unsolved, cooperation with local authorities is not new. Prosecutors point to the May 2016 slaying of Latrina Ashburne, a 41-year-old teacher’s aide who was shot in north Baltimore as she was heading to work at Francis Scott Key Elementary School. Ashburne was an associate pastor at the Kingdom Restoration Center church in Towson, her uncle told the Sun, and considered herself a “prayer warrior” as she preached at churches in the area.

Investigators learned that Ashburne’s next-door neighbor was a witness in a health-care-fraud conspiracy case in which another member of the conspiracy had been slain and began looking at potential links to that case. First Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Lenzner said investigators used a federal grand jury during which seven people who refused to testify were tracked down and arrested by federal agents, actions that local police and prosecutors often don’t have the time and resources to do.

Ultimately, two men were charged in connection with Ashburne’s killing, with prosecutors later telling a jury those men were trying to target Ashburne’s neighbor. The men were convicted in January of conspiracy to murder a witness and witness-retaliation murder, and they face mandatory life prison terms when they are sentenced.

A slaying that attracted far less attention but also involved an innocent victim suddenly slain, was the robbery and shooting of David L. McCoy, 50, as he emerged from a bank in Capitol Heights at 10:30 a.m. on Oct. 25, 2002. He was carrying cash for Tucker’s Restaurant and Lounge, which also sold package liquor, and his family always suspected the killing might be connected to the restaurant, his brother Kevin McCoy said recently.

“He didn’t have a bad bone in his body,” Kevin McCoy said in 2002. “He treated the busboys like big clients. He loved what he did and was crazy about life.” He was married with two children.

There were 135 homicides in Prince George’s County that year, in a county that now has between 60 and 80 slayings annually. And the day before McCoy’s killing, John Muhammad and Lee Malvo were arrested for the D.C. sniper killings. McCoy’s family thought that his slaying had gotten lost. “We thought nothing was ever going to happen,” Kevin McCoy said last week. “We offered a reward. Nothing ever came of it.”

The Prince George’s County homicide unit didn’t give up on the case, particularly after receiving a tip in 2011. Prince George’s Detective Bernie Nelson told Fox 5 News they pursued leads related to the tip for years, and in 2018 decided to go to North Carolina and interview a suspect.

“Surprisingly he provided us with a full confession,” Nelson said. The police took the case to federal prosecutors, who indicted Levy Steven Moore in October 2018 on a charge of murder with a firearm during a crime of violence, the robbery. Last November, Moore pleaded guilty. He admitted that he and an accomplice followed McCoy from his restaurant to the bank, then accosted McCoy at gunpoint, shot him in the neck, took $2,200 in cash and ran over McCoy as they fled the parking lot in a car.

Moore is awaiting sentencing. His lawyers declined to comment.

A fifth slaying involved the disappearance of an alleged drug dealer in Prince George’s County, Noah Smothers, in 2018. His body was never found, but federal agents found blood in Smothers’s rental car and on the gun of his alleged drug partner, according to court records. In December 2019, the partner, Scott A. Williams, was charged with murder and is now awaiting trial. His lawyers declined to comment.

“Our initiative to solve some of these horrific, unsolved murders,” Lenzner said, “is a component of our violent crime strategy. It is also driven by prosecutors in our office who feel a duty to hold murderers accountable, bring comfort and resolution to victims’ families, and to send the message that these crimes will not be forgotten.”