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Shocked Family of O.C. Sniper Says He Was 'a Sweetheart'

June 16, 2004|Mai Tran, Kevin Pang and H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writers

Unable to hold a job, Henry Lee Brown drifted across the country for about 20 years, living in homeless shelters and serving jail time in mental hospitals for bizarre crimes that grew increasingly violent.

Brown's troubled life came to an end Saturday in a four-hour shootout with officers that left three people wounded, including two Orange County deputies.

Officials do not know what prompted Brown, 52, to hunker down on a local mountain with a .22-caliber rifle and shoot it out with a well-armed force of officers.

But his life had been unraveling since the 1980s, when he began leaving his home in Port Gibson, Miss., for months at a time, not telling relatives where his bus ticket was taking him.

His mother, Esther Archie, said voices would tell Brown where to go. During these trips, he would stop taking medication for schizophrenia, a condition that his son believes may have led to the fatal shootout.

"If he takes his medications, he's fine. He's a people person, a sweetheart," said Paul Jackson, Brown's 26-year-old son in a telephone interview. "When he doesn't, he's in relapse, and he just gets up and vanishes."

Brown, an Air Force veteran, never served in Vietnam but was traumatized by the war, Archie said. During his enlistment from 1970 to 1974, he was stationed for a time at Travis Air Force Base near Sacramento.

According to Archie, his duties included unloading coffins containing the bodies of U.S. servicemen killed in Vietnam.

"He lost control after seeing those [coffins]," said Archie, 74, from her Oak Park, Ill., home.

Brown's mental illness and run-ins with police are documented in arrest records across the country.

In 1982, using the alias Horace Lightfoot, he was arrested on suspicion of battery in Maywood, Ill., but never charged. Between 1984 and 1999 he was arrested numerous times by officers in Claiborne County, Miss., said Sheriff Frank Davis. Brown was hospitalized in a Mississippi mental institution at least four times, Davis said.

Brown's crimes often were destructive. Davis said he broke the windows of a police cruiser, destroyed unspecified private property and once barricaded himself in a relative's house and threatened to burn it down.

"Each time we had to deal with him, he became more and more violent," said Davis.

In May 2002, it took four officers to subdue Brown when he created a disturbance at a Salvation Army shelter in Columbia, S.C. He threatened officers with a metal bar and spent 121 days in jail. After his release, he stole a truck in Leesburg, Ga. The truck was recovered at a rest stop in western Ohio, where state troopers arrested Brown. The officers also found a sawed-off shotgun.

Brown presented a very different personality to his family and most others who knew him, however. Jackson said family members were concerned about his father's mental illness, but they never regarded him as violent. Everyone was shocked by Brown's gun battle with police, he said.

Rebecca Ferguson, the prosecutor in Preble County, Ohio, also said Brown showed no sign of violence during his trial after the truck theft. She said she was "flabbergasted" when told he had died in a shootout with police.

"He didn't strike me as the kind of guy that would do that sort of thing," Ferguson said. Brown spent 11 months at an Ohio mental facility.

After leaving the Air Force in 1974, Brown attended junior college and studied television repair, his mother said.

He worked at a veterans hospital delivering supplies while he attended school. After dropping out of college, he drove a cab for a while and got into drugs, said Archie.

"He had quite a bit of skills. My son was a very brilliant young man before he got into the [Air Force] and drugs," she said.

Archie said she learned to live with her son's wandering lifestyle over the years, but worried about him.

"He traveled because he heard voices telling him to leave and where to go," she said.

"He did some funny little things, but this violence of getting a gun and shooting at people is absurd."

Before arriving in Orange County, Brown was in San Antonio, where he was picked up by police and taken to a state mental facility.

He was hospitalized for two months before he ran away, Archie said.

Last Thursday night, Brown called her collect from Orange County. "He was happy and laughing about how he was enjoying himself and then he went blabbing, just crazy," she said.

Archie encouraged him to seek medical help and come home. Brown abruptly ended the conversation, the last she would have with her son.

Jackson said he remembers his father as a benign but somewhat mysterious figure.

"I'm thinking of you. Don't waste your life like I did mine," he told his son in a letter in 2002 that included $100 to help Jackson, a theater student at Columbia College Chicago, buy textbooks.

"Take care of your mother," Brown wrote.

"He was always a caring person, but he just never stuck around," Jackson said.

"I've never known him to be like this [violent], and that is the upsetting thing about it. We're just confused. This is mind-boggling to us."

Jackson said his parents never married, and separated before he was born in 1979.

During the school year, Jackson said he lived with his mother, a postal worker, in Chicago and spent the summers with his father at Port Gibson, where the two fished, hiked and hunted in the wilderness by the Mississippi River.

Brown left Port Gibson for good in 2001, leaving a note for his brother that said he loved him.

Jackson said he learned about his father's death Sunday night. He is scheduled to arrive in Orange County today to identify the body and begin planning a funeral. "There was always this hope that he'd return, because that's what he usually did," Jackson said. "He was a wanderer, but we always thought he'd come back."


Times staff writer Scott Martelle contributed to this report.

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