The residential lot that Miranda Morris and her husband bought needed thousands of dollars worth of grading — a cost she found herself discussing with her new neighbor, Cecil Brown.
“I’ll do it. Just rent the machine,” Brown suddenly told her, a gesture stunning for both its generosity and timing, Morris recalled. She and her family had moved in just a few weeks earlier.
That was 10 years ago, and to Morris was typical of what she would come to see in Brown time and again: a quiet soul helping people he knew along Colby Avenue in Takoma Park. And it makes what happened this week that much more difficult to understand.
Someone attacked Brown, 73, behind his house and beat him to death with a weapon police have yet to find.
“This was a guy who worked hard and kept his nose clean,” Takoma Park Police Chief Alan Goldberg said Tuesday, describing his department’s investigation into the killing as wide-open.
Detectives are pursuing leads but hope to develop stronger ones, Goldberg said. They have yet to find any indication someone would have a reason to hurt Brown.
On Monday, the day his body was discovered, Brown had planned to spend the afternoon working on his wife Larlane’s car after she got home from work, Goldberg said.
Brown had retired from the construction business. He doted on his grandchildren and constantly toiled on his home and yard. He could have a gruff exterior, but that gave way to warmth the longer you knew him, said neighbor Barbara Brown, who is not related to Cecil Brown.
“One time I told him, ‘Cecil, I look at you working so much that I get tired,’ ” she recalled Monday.
To many residents in the Washington region, the city of Takoma Park stands out for its far-left politics — the Maryland suburb that long ago declared itself a nuclear-free zone. Within the city’s border is a two-block stretch of Colby Avenue that has its own history, one far less known.
It is a secluded street, with only one way in — off of a low-lying road along a creek. Decades ago, according to Colby Avenue residents, the patch was known as “The Bottom” because of its location in Takoma Park — a place where African Americans raised families.
Recent years have brought changes and gentrification.
Miranda Morris and her husband, Dennis Lucarelli, were among the newcomers, finding a piece of property on which to build their house. Whatever fears they had about acceptance or tensions quickly melted away in large part through their friendships with Brown and his wife, Larlane.
“I saw them as the matriarch and patriarch of a very small neighborhood,” Morris said.
The couple always hung the most lights at Christmas. When Halloween approached, they bought straw so neighbors could bring their children and old clothes to build scarecrows. Larlane organized block parties.
The closeness of the neighbors and seclusion of the street have provided a sense of security, residents said. Outsiders stand out since only those who live on the dead-end street have a reason to be there.
About 12:30 p.m. on Monday, police received two calls about a disturbance in the area of the Browns’ home. One of the callers heard yelling, but Goldberg, the police chief, said it wasn’t clear if what was heard was the altercation or a family member discovering Brown’s body.
Detectives believe Brown was attacked in the back yard, and they are trying to figure out how the killer got there. One possibility is he was followed while working in his yard.
Residents also struggled to understand how violence could erupt without anyone seeing anything amiss.
“It’s just so bizarre that somebody came into our neighborhood that nobody saw or knew and killed Cecil," said a longtime resident whospoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her privacy. “Cecil is not a person that bothered anyone.”
Morris said that even though Brown was 73, it would be a mistake to consider him more vulnerable than men even half his age. “He was a strong and fearless man,” she said.
Morris said she spent much of Monday with Larlane, a special education instructor, as she grieved for her husband. In recent years, Larlane has lost a daughter and sister, Morris said.
“She keeps coming back,” Morris said. “She gets hit hard, she gets up and she manages to forge ahead with a purpose to her life.”
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