Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Enigmatic Case of Robert Charles Browne

Heather

Mike and Diane Church moved to a remote piece of property outside Colorado Springs, in Ebert, Colo. A person would have had to have gone well out of his way to find their home and abduct one of their children, so it seemed fairly clear at once this was a local crime. Heather, 13, was one of four siblings; and she enjoyed playing outside. Responsible and studious, she gave her parents no cause to worry; she was even enrolled in a program for gifted students.

Heather Dawn Church
Heather Dawn Church

Eventually, Mike and Diane separated, and Mike moved into an apartment. That left Diane alone with the kids at the remote homestead, but she said she did not feel unsafe there. Nevertheless, when the separation came to look like divorce, the house went on the market. Her neighbor up the road was Robert Charles Browne, 38, living in a trailer with his fifth wife on property used for a tree nursery. Diane didn't know them, but apparently Browne had grown aware of her or at least of her home.

On September 17, 1991, Diane's world caved in. She had taken two of her boys to a Boy Scout meeting that evening at the local Mormon church, leaving Heather to baby-sit her five-year-old brother. Diane called at 8:30 p.m. to make sure everything was okay, meaning to tell Heather to close a window in the master bedroom she'd seen open, but she forgot. When Diane returned after the meeting, she noticed that the house was dark, and a sliding door unlocked.

At first, these details did not alarm her, but to her shock, Heather was not in her room or anywhere else in the house. Diane called everyone of whom she could think, including Mike, but no one knew where the girl could be. She called the sheriff's office, and someone came right over, but a search and rescue crew could not be sent out until daylight. The crew combed through the woods and knocked at every neighbor's door.

Diane remembered the open window in the master bedroom. They examined the window's bent screen, which appeared to have been forced, and a latent-fingerprint examiner dusted for prints. She managed to identify and lift a good one, so that if they found the person who'd bent the frame, they could make a match.

Searchers came onto Browne's property, and, while he was helpful, he refused access to a specific building, saying it was securely locked. They accepted that. The authorities believed they were looking for a wandering child, not a potential kidnap victim, and Browne seemed quiet and unassuming, just another neighbor. There was no reason to suspect him.

Many people were questioned, and the lifted print was sent to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, as well as to the FBI, but no match turned up from their computer databases of convicted offenders. At the time, though, this type of search was limited. The databases from all the states had not yet been hooked into the Automated Fingerprint Identification System, so if a match had come in from another state, the chance of identifying him with this print was low.

Heather wasn't found in the initial searches, and it was two years before someone chanced across her remains. Along Lower Rampart Range Road, where other homicide victims had been recovered from time to time, a scrap metal collector found a human skull. The still-intact set of teeth identified it at once as the remains of Heather Dawn Church. Her body had been dumped about thirty miles from her home. The hope for her safe return one day had been dashed for good.

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