ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. — Andrew Brown Jr.’s easy smile, which belied hardship, loss and troubles with the law, was memorable for his dimples, his relatives said. He was quick to crack a joke at the family gatherings he tried not to miss after losing both of his parents. He encouraged his children to make good grades even though he dropped out of high school himself. Above all, he was determined to give them a better life than he had.
The 42-year-old Elizabeth City, North Carolina, man was shot to death Wednesday by a deputy sheriff trying to serve a search warrant. An eyewitness said Brown tried to drive away, but was shot dead in his car. The shooting prompted protests and demands for accountability in the eastern North Carolina city of about 18,000. The deputy, who has not been identified, has been put on leave pending a state investigation.
Despite his hard life — Brown was partially paralyzed on his right side by an accidental shooting, and he lost an eye when he was stabbed, according to aunt Glenda Brown Thomas — “Drew,” as he was called, looked for the humor in things.
“He had a good laugh, a nice smile. And he had good dimples,” Thomas said in an interview Thursday, a day after her nephew was killed. “You know, when he’s talking and smiling, his dimples would always show. And he was kind of like a comedian. He always had a nice joke.”
His cousin Jadine Hampton said Brown often entertained relatives with his humorous stories at family gatherings, including a socially distanced celebration in October of their grandmother’s 92nd birthday, the last time Hampton saw Brown. Photos that Thomas shared with an AP reporter show him smiling at a church ceremony held to honor his grandmother as woman of the year.
“Great heart,” said Hampton, 51, who lives in Atlanta. “Everybody would just wait to hear him tell a story because it would be like a comedian telling the play-by-play about something that happened.”
Hampton said Brown was a proud father of several children.
“Although he didn’t finish school, he pushed them to finish school,” she said. “I believe a few of them were on honor roll.”
Court records show Brown had a history of criminal charges stretching back into the 1990s, including a misdemeanor drug possession conviction and some pending felony drug charges.
When he was 12 or 13, his mother was slain in Florida, Thomas said. Not long afterward, he dropped out of school around the 10th grade. She said her nephew was a good basketball player but had trouble with reading comprehension. Several years ago, his father died in federal prison after a medical procedure, Thomas said.
With his own troubles with drugs and the law, Brown had trouble keeping a job, Thomas said. But she said he still found ways to earn money to support his children, including card games and shooting pool. She said he sent his father money every month when the older man was in prison.
Another aunt who helped raise Brown in the absence of his parents, Martha McCullen, said it’s hard to find a job, especially with a criminal record, in Elizabeth City, where 1 in 5 live in poverty.
“Because they’re convicted … they can’t get no jobs,” she said. “It’s crazy.”
Despite Brown’s past trouble with the law, several relatives and friends said they never knew him to be a violent person.
“No matter what his past reflects, it still doesn’t give him (the deputy) the right to shoot him, period,” said Daniel Bowser, who said he had been friends with Brown for 30 years.
Authorities have said little about how the shooting transpired and have not revealed what the search warrant was for. The state Bureau of Investigation will turn over its findings to District Attorney Andrew Womble, who said Wednesday that he was looking for “accurate” not “fast” answers.
An eyewitness said that deputies fired at Brown multiple times as he tried to drive a way. The car skidded out of Brown’s yard and eventually hit a tree, said Demetria Williams, who lives on the same street. A car authorities removed from the scene appeared to have multiple bullet holes.
While the deputy was wearing an active body camera, it has yet to be released. In North Carolina, a judge generally has to approve release of police video, and no timetable has been given.
“We’re waiting for the bodycam footage because we really just don’t know what happened,” said Brown’s cousin Hampton. “But if this is a case where he was killed, running away, unarmed, then we absolutely are going to pursue justice in whatever capacity that can be.”
Kunzelman reported from College Park, Maryland.