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The brazen murder made headlines across the country--and so did the search for a motive. "I can't say absolutely that it was a professional hit," says DeKalb district attorney J. Tom Morgan, "but it was obviously a planned assassination." For a man so well liked, investigators have learned, Derwin Brown had plenty of enemies. Theories and motives abound as two grand juries prepare to hear evidence. Corruption at the jail was supposedly so prevalent that Brown campaigned on auditing the books, firing the culprits and replacing three decades of cronyism. "Clean it up," his supporters had shouted into bullhorns the year before as they drove slowly through the towns of Decatur and Lithonia, taking Brown's homespun, outspoken style and reformist message to predominantly black neighborhoods. He was the kind of man who spoke his mind, but he did not think anyone would kill him for it. Says Phyllis: "The scary thing about this is anything is possible. It could have been somebody who was just pissed off about a job. It could have been somebody who had a hand in the cookie jar and was going to get it cut off."
DeKalb County has one of the nation's most affluent black populations. This is not backwater rural Georgia but an urbanesque suburb of Atlanta. In fact, part of the city dips into a corner of the county. It is home to Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Increasingly, DeKalb is the Atlanta area's most racially and ethnically diverse county, with white residents along the northern boundaries seeing power shift to upscale blacks.
DeKalb is one of those rare counties in which law enforcement is handled by two separate agencies. The sheriff oversees the jail, serves warrants and provides courthouse security, while a countywide police agency conducts criminal investigations, writes traffic tickets and makes arrests. Brown came up through the police department, where for 22 years he was a popular but controversial crusader. He grew up in Lakeview, a suburb on Long Island, N.Y. His father George was a probation-officer training specialist in Nassau County. His mother Burvena was an executive secretary who quit working to raise kids. They encouraged their four kids to read and to appreciate their black heritage. His younger brother Ron says Derwin cherished memories of a visit Martin Luther King Jr. paid to their church. As a teenager at Malverne High School, Derwin worked to launch an African-American studies program. He later earned a degree in sociology and criminal justice at C. W. Post college and attended the FBI Academy.
In the mid-1970s, he came to Atlanta to visit his aunt, who owned rental property across the street from the grandmother of his future wife. Phyllis, an Atlanta native, was not impressed by their five minutes of chitchat. Still, a few months later, when Derwin returned to look at Atlanta University's graduate program, he asked her to show him around. Phyllis took him to a college sorority party. "It was love at second sight," she says. They married in 1977, and two years later, Derwin went to work for the DeKalb police department.
The Browns bought their house on Glasgow Drive for $10,000. There, they raised a daughter and four sons and, through the years, celebrated Derwin's promotions, from street cop to narcotics detective to lieutenant to captain and eventually to assistant precinct commander. Derwin passed on his sense of racial pride and civic duty to his kids. His son Michael, 17, says his father "understood, just like Malcolm X, that you're going to lose a soldier in a battle. He took that in, and he wasn't afraid. Yet he still pressed forward."
Their home on Glasgow Drive was also where the Browns hunkered down whenever Derwin caused one of his fire storms. Not long after joining the police force, he helped lead efforts to add more black officers to the ranks. Then, two decades later, he helped the push to unionize the department. In the 1990s, his wife and family say he became increasingly critical of the sheriff, Pat Jarvis, a retired Atlanta Braves pitcher, who eventually pleaded guilty to accepting kickbacks in a deal that sent him to jail for 15 months.