FBI: most wanted fugitive hiding among Mormons?
Jason Derek Brown craved attention. He sure has had it the last eight years.
In 2004, police allege, he shot armored-car guard Robert Keith Palomares in the head, killing him, outside a movie theater in the Phoenix suburb of Ahwatukee, then fled on a bicycle with $56,000 in cash. He and his grin made the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list, but investigators are still looking for the Mormon missionary turned accused murderer who, after a lavish life of parties, expensive cars and the spotlight, vanished.
"With the commonness of his name and how he looks, like a surfer dude in California, we've had more tips [about this] fugitive than any other on 'America's Most Wanted.' It's caused us to chase leads all around the world," said Lance Leising, the lead FBI agent on the case.
The FBI suspects that he could be hiding among Mormons. Good at lying and convincing people that he's someone else, Brown could be taking advantage of a gullible member's philanthropy. His ability to blend is one reason Brown's on the Top 10 Most Wanted, Leising said.
Phoenix Police Detective Paul Dalton won't divulge much about their strategies to find Brown. But it's going to be "outside-of-the-box" thinking that takes Brown off the FBI list, he said.
Dalton suggested law enforcement is looking to Brown's past for clues about his present. Dalton suspects Brown could be the perpetrator of any number of unsolved petty thefts and home invasions prior to Palomares' murder. Identifying traces of Brown in such past crimes may be the break that law enforcement is looking for.
"This was not his first rodeo, I'm gonna be honest," Dalton said, speaking from 15 years of investigating homicides. "How do you graduate from petty theft to cold-blooded murder?"
Brown, now 43, lived in Sugar House just months prior to the murder. Two weeks before the crime, he bought a .45-caliber Glock semiautomatic handgun and expensive high-powered rounds from Totally Awesome Guns and Range in Kearns the same gun and ammo that killed Palomares and took a shooting class from W. Clark Aposhian, now-chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council.
Aposhian remembers Brown. The photo that the FBI uses for the wanted poster Brown grinning at the camera in a hoodie with spiked blonde hair was the one Aposhian took while Brown was earning a concealed weapons permit.
Brown pulled up to the store in a new BMW 3 Series, and was persistent that he take a class that day. He did not know how to handle a pistol, Aposhian recalled. Brown was a cocky, laid-back California "surfer dude" concerned about his appearance, he said.
By the end of the four-hour class, Brown had honed his accuracy to a small cluster on the targets, hitting within about an inch and a half of the intended spot. He bought a gun with ammunition and walked out the door.
On Nov. 29, 2004, Brown didn't miss, police say.
That morning, Palomares, 24, arrived in front of the Arizona movie theater at an outdoor mall, like The Gateway in Salt Lake City, in a Dunbar armored car. Investigators believe Brown made routine stops in the mall as well, sitting in the parking lot timing the arrival of the armored car and stopping by a mall coffee shop where he asked a barista about the vehicle.
Brown waited for the courier to leave the AMC theater with its Thanksgiving weekend box office. As Palomares exited the theater with the bag full of money, police suspect Brown, dressed in all black with a hood, walked up to him in broad daylight and shot him five times in the head. Brown then fled with the loot to a back alley, where he had stashed his getaway mountain bike.
Palomares was pronounced dead at a hospital. He had been married a little more than a year.
"This poor victim didn't have a chance," Dalton said.
There was a lot of planning involved, but as Dalton puts it, the perfect crime isn't perfect all the time.
The day before the murder, Brown practiced shooting and hit a man's vehicle with the same type of top-of-the-line bullets that killed the guard. He even left his name with the vehicle owner.
Police believe after Brown committed the murder he fled on a bicycle that he later ditched on the side of the road, but he failed to wipe it clean of his fingerprints, which were already on record from when he bought a gun earlier that month.
As Aposhian pointed out, Brown taking one of his classes made him easier to track.
"You're looking at a guy who planned it very well but made a lot of mistakes along the way," Dalton said.
Investigators hope for another mistake to help them catch Brown. But so far, it's been a lot of dead ends.
In the past few years, officers and FBI agents have confronted at least six men on suspicion that they were Brown. But they were a lot of look-alikes.
Twice tips have led them to a body double for movie star Sean Penn, with whom Brown bears a resemblance. Ninety-nine percent of the FBI's leads have gone nowhere, though Leising said there are still a few people they have not been able to rule out as Brown.
The FBI finally caught James "Whitey" Bulger, a former organized crime boss who used to share a spot on the FBI list with Brown, after about 16 years in hiding after they received a tip from a woman who recognized his face on TV.
"It took a good tip from someone who saw the photos â¦ That's what we're hoping here," Leising said.
Wherever he is, Brown probably has given up the party-boy lifestyle to stay hidden. He had been so over-the-top before the robbery, if he kept it up after, he'd be in handcuffs, Leising said.
Brown was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Orange County, an affluent beach-lined section of southern California that's home to Disneyland and celebrities. It's the sort of county where TV shows like "Laguna Beach" were filmed.
Brown, an avid golfer, snowboarder, skier and dirt biker, was used to a certain level of excitement and pleasure. According to the FBI, Brown lived a lavish life of frequenting nightclubs and showing off his high-priced cars, boats and other toys. He enjoyed being the center of attention.
FBI Special Agent Manuel Johnson once said of Brown that this violent murder isn't normal for someone with Brown's background. The same man who once appeared on the same list as Osama bin Laden served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in France. Brown later earned a master's degree in international business. He started two businesses, Toys Unlimited and On the Doorstep Advertising, in Salt Lake City.
But a lot of it was appearances, Leising said, describing Brown as a "$30,000 millionaire." His Salt Lake City businesses were store-front scams, and acquaintances said that he may have never worked a real job a day in his life, he added. Leising suspects Brown though he has never been charged ran check and bank fraud scams for years in order to finance his self-image.
Dalton suspects that at some point, Brown was running low on money.
"He wanted this lifestyle and suddenly it stopped. So bam," Dalton said, he robbed and killed a man.
Dalton sees the suspect as "just another thug," a criminal who slipped up.
The last hard trace of Brown shortly after the robbery was his car, ditched in the parking lot of the Portland International Airport. It seemed extremely likely then that he'd gone overseas, with his fluent French and international business degree, Leising said. But the agent suspects Brown is back in the states.
In August 2008, an old friend of Brown said he spotted the fugitive at a stoplight near the Hogle Zoo. But the familiar face drove off. That made one of several sightings of Brown in the prior weeks, and the last confirmed one.
Aposhian said that nothing about Brown stood out as a murderer. In fact, if he could do it all over again, he wouldn't change a thing.
In the years since the two parted ways, Aposhian has kept a closer eye on his students, keeping an ear out for unusual remarks and weighing them against Brown. He's told people to leave his class.
One morning, soon after the armed robbery, the phone rang at Totally Awesome Guns and Range. It was Palomares' mother.
He was apprehensive about taking the call. He didn't know what to expect on the other end. But they didn't talk about Brown once. She had some questions for him about guns and told him about her son.
"She just wanted some closure," he said.
About Jason Derek Brown
Born • July 1, 1969
Charges • He is charged with first-degree murder, armed robbery and unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.
Stats • Brown is 5-foot-10, weighs 170-180 pounds, is white and has a medium build. He also speaks fluent French.
He may be armed • The FBI warns that Brown might have a Glock 9 mm and a .45-caliber handgun.
$100,000 reward • The FBI is offering a $100,000 reward for information that would lead directly to Brown's arrest. Anyone with information should call the Salt Lake City FBI office at 801-579-1400, the Phoenix FBI office at 623-466-1999, or their nearest U.S. embassy or consulate if they are outside of the United States. People can also submit tips online at FBI.gov.
R Brown hasn't been brought to trial, but his older brother, David John Brown II, pleaded guilty in 2007 of lying to the FBI. Court records show agents asked David Brown, now 46, about storage lockers the fugitive had in Las Vegas. David Brown claimed he didn't know of any storage lockers, but prosecutors were able to show he did. A federal judge in Arizona sentenced David Brown to three years of probation.