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The Mystery of the Missing Deckhand: Accident? Suicide? Foul Play?

Puzzle: Steven Brown was last seen on a ferry on Puget Sound. Investigators don't know if he committed suicide, was killed or faked his death.


SEATTLE — The night he disappeared, Steven Lance Brown was working on the car deck of a ferry as it made the six-mile run across Puget Sound.

A few minutes into the trip, Brown was asked to go up to the second mate's office to sign his pay docket.

He never got there.

The 41-year-old deckhand was last seen going up a flight of stairs on the ferry, which makes 14 round trips a day between Seattle and Bainbridge Island.

At least two passengers later said they heard yells of "Help! Help!" One said she saw a light "resembling a flashlight" in the water about 25 feet from the boat.

Investigators are still trying to determine what happened to Brown the night of Feb. 18.

Did he jump? Did someone force him off? Did he perhaps fake his death?

And was his disappearance somehow connected to a murder-for-hire plot in which he was implicated back in 1986?

Investigators haven't ruled anything out, but ferry officials say it's nearly impossible to fall off the 460-foot boat, which has 4-foot railings.

"We've never lost a deckhand off a ferry--ever--and we've been in existence since 1951," said Washington State Ferries spokeswoman Susan Harris-Huether.

"There's only two ways off that boat that I can see--getting thrown off or jumping off," said port Capt. Jim Malde, who is involved in the investigation.

Brown's family dismissed the possibility of suicide.

"A family's natural inclination is to think, 'No, no way--that's not the Steve we know,' " said one of his six siblings, Brad Brown. "But stepping back and looking at it realistically, without the emotion, I still stand by it, and my family does, that no, that's not something he would do."

Brown's mother, Dorothy, with whom he had been staying on and off, said suicide is unlikely because "he had so many things going on." He and a friend had started a business marketing Irish coffee and teas, and he had planned to go to San Francisco on business the weekend of Feb. 21-22, she said.

On the night he disappeared, three of the ferry's 350 passengers reported hearing cries for help minutes after the boat left the Seattle dock at 7:58 p.m.

At 8:15 p.m., the ferry captain told the Coast Guard that he was reversing course to search for a possible man overboard. When nothing unusual was spotted, the boat continued on.

Brown did not report for a roll call when the ferry reached the island minutes later. A search was mounted the next day and called off that afternoon.

The Washington State Patrol is considering many possibilities, including foul play, accident and suicide, Lt. Charlie Schreck said.

"All the doors are still open," he said.

Brown was hired by the ferry system last May. Previously he had jobs on fishing boats and dairy farms in the Pacific Northwest and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

He has also had trouble with the law. Schreck called Brown's criminal record "part of the puzzle" but said investigators have not connected it to his disappearance.

In 1986, Brown and two men were stopped in suburban Bellevue, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported. In the trunk of their car, police found a shovel, a pick, bow and arrows, a 100-pound bag of lime and an ammunition box containing knives, a disassembled shotgun and a mace--a wooden stick with a spiked ball on a chain.

One of the men, Lesley Wayne Smith, told police that the weapons were to be used to kill the third man in the car, Ural Lamarr Daniels, an acquaintance of Brown's.

Earlier that year, Brown had used Daniels' birth certificate--bought from Daniels for $150--to open a bank account. Brown then deposited a stolen check for $10,000 and began withdrawing money.

The murder-for-hire plot apparently emerged because Daniels wanted some of the money. Smith--who said Brown paid him $1,500 to kill Daniels--was convicted of attempted murder and is serving a 20-year prison sentence.

No charges were filed against Brown in the alleged plot--there was insufficient evidence, said spokesman Dan Donohoe in the county prosecutor's office. But in 1987, Brown pleaded guilty to theft of the check placed in the Daniels account. He got 90 days in jail.

As for the intended victim of the murder plot, Daniels later died in a shootout with police.

In 1991, Brown pleaded guilty to theft in a separate case and was sentenced to 30 days in jail. He also filed for bankruptcy about that time, claiming $46,506 in debt, the newspaper reported.

The ferry system requires job applicants to say whether they have been convicted of a crime in the previous seven years. Brown did not list the 1991 conviction on his 1997 application, Harris-Huether said.

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