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An old slaying is revisited — trying to crack a cold case

Investigators thought they had a solid suspect pinned down in the 1988 killing of Aleta Browne. But new technology and methods take police work only so far.

November 24, 2013|By Joel Rubin
  • Blood stains the rug in Aleta Browne's home in South Los Angeles, where she was slain in March 1988. The autopsy revealed she was seven months pregnant.
Blood stains the rug in Aleta Browne's home in South Los Angeles, where… (L.A. County Sheriff's Department )

Aleta Browne fell hard for Fred Nixon.

She was both a sister and wife of Los Angeles cops, and worked as a clerk for Police Chief Daryl Gates. Nixon was one of the LAPD's rising stars, on his way to taking over a coveted position as the chief's official spokesman.

Their affair began on a spring day in 1985 when they checked into a Holiday Inn. Browne left her husband a few weeks later.

For three years they met regularly, often at her house during the day. At night, he'd go home to his wife in Pasadena.

Then, one morning, Browne was found beaten and strangled on her bathroom floor.

The crime scene was outside the Los Angeles city limits, so it fell to the L.A. County sheriff's office to investigate. Detectives looked at Nixon as a suspect, but they gave up on the case without filing charges. Nixon, who over the years has maintained his innocence, worked another decade before retiring and moving to Oregon.

Twenty-two years after the killing, in 2010, Robert Taylor, a cold case investigator in the sheriff's office, reopened the file.

This story is based on the Sheriff's Department's investigative file, obtained by The Times. It includes Browne's letters and personal journal, transcripts and audio recordings of interviews conducted by detectives, wiretap information, the autopsy results, investigators' field notes and internal department correspondence.

::

"Call the police! I can't get her up!" Nixon shouted. "My girlfriend is dead!"

He was pounding on the front door of a house next to Browne's home in South L.A. It was shortly after 7 in the morning, March 26, 1988.

Det. Patrick Morgan and Sgt. Dirk Edmundson, sheriff's homicide investigators, found Browne face-down on the bathroom floor, wearing underwear and an unbuttoned red nightshirt.

Her legs jutted into the hall. Her left eye was swollen nearly shut. Narrow, dark purple bruises encircled her neck.

The detectives found no sign of forced entry. On the kitchen counter was a bottle of Canadian Club whiskey, a club soda and a can of Hawaiian Punch with a straw in it.

There had been a struggle. A plant and large brass stand in the living room had been knocked over. Nearby, the rug was stained with blood. The bedroom had been ransacked, clothes and papers dumped onto the floor and bed.

Browne's 8-year-old Ford Mustang was gone, but nothing else of value had been taken. The only things that seemed to be missing were some of the final pages from Browne's diary.

The coroner concluded that Browne's killer had strangled her first with a cord or something similar, and then applied a crushing chokehold.

The autopsy revealed something else: Browne was nearly seven months pregnant. Two separate homicide files were opened — one for Browne and one for her unborn girl.

Topping the detectives' list of potential suspects was Browne's ex-husband, the LAPD cop. But he insisted he hadn't spoken to her for months. After he passed a lie detector test, Morgan and Edmundson eliminated him as a suspect.

The detectives turned their attention to Nixon.

::

From her journal, and interviews with her friends and Nixon, the investigators learned that Browne and Nixon had had a tumultuous relationship. More than once, Browne broke things off, only to reconcile.

"I've been living in a shell for almost a year and a half now. It's like I'm only alive the short time we're together once a week," Browne had written in 1986. "I'm not made to live like this. I can't go on like this … I need you so much — I really am going crazy. I LOVE YOU."

In her journal and letters, she recounted her pleas that Nixon leave his wife — and his excuses for not doing so. He claimed that his wife had attempted suicide when she discovered his plans to seek a divorce. Another time, he said his wife knew things about his past and was threatening to report him to the department's internal affairs unit if he left her. (His wife later told detectives that neither was true.)

In her calendar, Browne noted days on which she made anonymous phone calls to Nixon's wife, once threatening, "Watch your back. You can't get away with what you're doing to Fred." In March 1987, she wrote Nixon's wife a letter detailing the affair and her feelings for Nixon, including personal details, such as his habit of shaving his armpits and the type of underwear he wore. Detectives found a copy of the letter among her possessions.

Detectives learned from Nixon's wife that her husband intercepted the letter before she could read it. When she demanded to know its contents, he admitted to having an affair but told her he had already ended it.

Three months before Browne died, on Christmas Eve 1987, she told Nixon she was pregnant. At 42 years old, he had adult children and told investigators he was initially unhappy with the idea of being a father again, but came to accept it. Browne wanted to have a baby and had been unable to conceive. Now, nearing 40, she wrote that she was determined to have a child.

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