The Enigmatic Case of Robert Charles Browne
To identify the perpetrator of this crime, the difficulty lay in gathering evidence. Two years after the kidnapping, retrieving a skull from among a heap of junk meant there would be little if anything in the way of trace evidence. By this time, many men had been questioned as suspects, including Mike Church fathers are always initial suspects in the abduction of a child, especially during a period of separation. But no one had been implicated. America's Most Wanted had devoted part of an episode to the case, without producing fruitful leads.
Yet even the discovery that the girl had been killed and her body dumped nearby failed to advance the investigation, so the case went cold. In 1995 Lou Smit, who would later become famous as an independent investigator in the JonBenet Ramsey case, was a captain of the county's detective force. He set to work on the case file, creating a time-line and looking for possible clues that others had missed. He re-interviewed certain people and looked at the burglaries in the area at the time. He also checked and re-checked alibis. It was painstaking work, but he was known for his persistence. This was often the way a good detective broke cases that others had given up as a lost cause.
A lab worker suggested re-running the lone fingerprint. It was always possible that the perpetrator had been picked up for another offense and his print was now in the automated system. Some cold case cops ran unmatched prints every day for years, on the hope that finally on this day the perpetrator had been arrested on some other charge. This kind of dogged devotion had paid off several times, helping to generate more interest in other cold cases.
Smit made up a package with a blown-up image of the print to send out to 52 jurisdictions. Two months later, in March, he received good news from Louisiana a match to a man convicted for burglary and car theft in that state. The man they were looking for lived within half a mile of the Churches: Robert Charles Browne. It was disheartening to have been that close to the perpetrator even to have searched his property and yet to have missed him. But nonetheless he was still there.
Despite his protests of innocence, detectives brought Browne in for questioning. First they wanted to know if he'd ever done work on the Churches' home, to eliminate this possible reason why his fingerprint would be at the scene. He denied it. When he learned about their evidence, he insisted they run the print again. He was certain it was a mistake. But the print was good, and it was his. At his arraignment, he pleaded not guilty.
The investigators had little else and they knew a case for kidnap and murder would be difficult to make, but they got to work looking into his background. To their surprise, two months later, Browne changed his plea to guilty. According to his story, he had entered the home through a window, and Heather had surprised him. He strangled her there in the house and took her body out to dump it in a remote location. For this murder, he received life in prison.
Smit believed Browne had made this unexpected admission because investigators were looking into the disappearance of another woman. She'd been his neighbor in Louisiana, and, if extradited to face trial for her death, he could face the death penalty. Since he was now behind bars, there seemed little reason to continue to investigate, especially outside their jurisdiction. It was Browne himself who revived interest, but five years later. Once more, it took the work of cold case detectives to open it up.