GLOBE AND MAIL
Tuesday, December 7, 1999

Peter Cheney
With a report from Gay Abbate


The Just Desserts Case: a.k.a. Brown

More than 5 ½ years ago, Georgina (Vivi) Leimonis, a 23-year-old hairdresser out for a bite to eat, was killed in an act of 'urban terrorism.' On the day of her funeral, Lawrence Brown, who had always wanted to be a household name, received more fame than he ever thought possible when he was identified as a suspect in her shooting

TORONTO — On the morning of April 28, Lawrence Brown rose early. He folded the blanket on his steel jail bunk and changed into an olive-green, double-breasted suit with no vents — a perfect choice for his tall, lean build. That was to be expected. Mr. Brown had always been a man with a sense of occasion.

It was a beautiful spring day, with a celestial blue sky and breeze scented with chlorophyll. Mr. Brown arrived at the Toronto courthouse in a van with his alleged accomplices. In the oak-panelled courtroom, their handcuffs were removed.

As the judge called for the jury, Mr. Brown checked his suit one last time. He adjusted the pants so they hung just so, then picked a piece of lint from his lapel.

It was time for the role of his life. He had decided to represent himself on a charge of first-degree murder.

To those who knew him best, there was an odd resonance to the occasion. He had always dreamed of being a performer, and now he was getting his chance — if in an unexpected way.

Mr. Brown grew up poor, but with an abiding faith in self-improvement and in the possibility of change.

As teenagers, he and his brother talked about getting MBAs and converted their bedroom into a makeshift gym, with Charles Atlas posters on the walls and a weight set made from broomsticks and cinder blocks.

Mr. Brown was a singer. Yet there was more to him than that. He believed he would be rich by the time he was 25, elevated through the success of his manifold enterprises, which included a telemarketing operation, a musical production company and a book that would tell others how to duplicate his rise from the streets to the big time. The working title was "Less Effort, Accumulating More."

He imagined the day when he would be piloting a BMW or a Mercedes, tricked out with custom alloy wheels, smoked windows and ground-hugging body flares — "skirted to the max," as he liked to say.

His options seemed infinite. "I am a man who loves success," he once said in an interview. "I wanted people to hear about Lawrence Brown."

In April of 1994, people did hear about Mr. Brown. He was everywhere. He led the evening newscasts. His face was on the front page of newspapers — a cool-eyed young man with a faint resemblance to Jimi Hendrix. Above his photo ran the headlines: "In Cold Blood" and "Suspect is Named in Vivi Slaying."

Mr. Brown was an accused killer.

There were 596 homicides in Canada that year, but the one he was charged with was like no other. The victim was Georgina (Vivi) Leimonis, a 23-year-old hairdresser who was killed during an armed robbery at Just Desserts, a Toronto café.

Those mere facts did not convey the true impact of the slaying.

It took place at a restaurant that was within minutes of virtually every national media outlet in the country, and it combined elements guaranteed to put it at the top of the news.

The crime crossed boundaries of race and class. Ms. Leimonis was white; Mr. Brown and three other young men charged in the case were black.

Just Desserts was in the heart of the Annex, one of Toronto's most upscale neighbourhoods. Next to the café was Designers' Walk, a line of high-end decorating stores that catered to the city's elite. On some days, there was a Jaguar, a Porsche or a Range Rover parked at every meter.

The accused were from what amounted to another world — Lawrence Heights, a rent-subsidized housing project known as The Jungle.

Mr. Brown was the alleged gunman, and therefore the main player in the developing criminal narrative. A national furor erupted, and he was at the centre of it.

But that spring was just the beginning of his long journey. By the time a jury finally retired yesterday to decide Mr. Brown's fate, more than 51Ä2 years had passed and a weird and unexpected chapter had been added to the life story of a young man who had always believed that someday he would be a household name.

Coming to Canada

Lawrence Brown arrived in Canada on Christmas Eve, 1976. He was seven years old, a small boy taking his first plane ride. In the seat beside him was his nine-year-old brother, George.

As their jet approached Toronto's Pearson International Airport, they stared out the window in amazement. The lights of the city looked like a treasure chest spilled onto a giant square of black velvet.

Their mother, Josephine Pascoe, was waiting anxiously for them inside the terminal. She had brought two red goose-down parkas to protect them against the unaccustomed cold.

When she saw Lawrence and George, she cried. She had spent five years in Canada working as a kitchen steward at the Prince Hotel to save the money she needed to have them join her.

"When I saw my mother, that was one of the biggest nights of my life," Lawrence said, recalling his arrival. "I missed her the whole time."

In Jamaica, the boys and their older sister, Donna, had lived with their father, Lloyd Brown, in a village of fewer than 100 people. Then, in 1974, their father left to join his wife, and the children stayed with their grandmother, waiting for their parents to send for them. Donna was the first to come up, in the spring of 1976.

The reality of life in Jamaica was different from the fašade erected for the tourists. It was an old-fashioned place, riddled with class divisions. The better jobs, such as teacher and bank manager, always seemed to go to the people with the lightest skin and the straightest hair.

Despite Draconian gun laws, weapons were everywhere. The murder rate was about 10 times that of Toronto. In the mid-1970s, blood-soaked upheavals erupted in which 100 people could die in a single day.

The educational system was strict and anything but egalitarian — after Grade 8, you had to pay for your own schooling.

Canada's charms — a booming economy, a well-funded education system and a lower crime rate — became a siren song to many Jamaicans. One of Lawrence Brown's friends described Canada as "the Ice Palace — a place where everything was clean and cold and perfect."

And that was how Mr. Brown and his brother saw it on that Christmas Eve in 1976. Driving home from the airport, the boys looked out the car windows, awestruck by the endless vistas of light and concrete — restaurants and houses, factories and strip malls, endless rows of subdivisions in layouts as ornate as the circuit boards of a huge computer.

Overhead was a maze of overpasses and power lines. Higher, like moving stars in the black night sky, were the lights of aircraft.

And then they were at their new home — a house their parents had rented on Delaware Avenue, in a working-class section of downtown Toronto. Inside, a Christmas tree was set up with presents beneath it. Someone had wrapped up a toy helicopter for Lawrence and George.

The two boys adapted quickly to life in Canada. Their lives could have been drawn from a television show.

They went to Dewson Elementary School on Ossington Avenue near College Street. They tobogganed, had snowball fights and skated at the rink next to Dufferin Mall.

On Canada Day, they sat on the grassy slopes of Christie Pits Park and watched as the fireworks went off. They would get together with relatives on weekends for a barbecue or an outing. When they went to the beach, it took three vans to transport them all.

"It was the thing for a kid," Mr. Brown would later say of this time. "Nothing better."

His mother, who continued to work at the hotel while her husband toiled as a labourer at a steel company, resumed the traditional Jamaican role of matriarch, taking primary responsibility for the household and the children.

She saved money and made sure the kids had good clothes to wear. And she forced them to operate within the family's limits. If they wanted something, she would often reply: "I have a bill to pay, we have to wait till next week."

She was loving, but strict. If they showed up wearing a new piece of clothing, she asked where they got it. If they told her they had borrowed it, she would call to check.

Sundays were church days. The family put on their best clothes, then took a long ride on the transit system to the Baptist Evangelistic Temple at York Mills Road and Yonge Street.

One of Mr. Brown's abiding memories was of his mother in the church, her face illuminated as she said her prayers. "My mother always believed in God," he said. "That's just the way it was."

The Jungle

In 1977, the Brown family rose to the top of the waiting list for an apartment in Lawrence Heights, a housing project run by the Metro Toronto Housing Co. Ltd.

They were given a third-floor, three-bedroom apartment at 5 Flemingdon Rd., a concrete low-rise. They moved in September, in time for the children to start at their new school. Their unit was close to the Allen expressway; at night, the endless drone of the traffic drifted in through the windows.

The complex existed like an island within the city, set off by chain-link fences and spreading green lawns that gave it the look of a military base.

Over the years, the neighbourhood has reflected changing patterns of migration. In the 1960s, many of the residents were Maritimers who had flocked to Toronto. In the 1970s, a huge Caribbean influx began; by the 1980s, they made up about 60 per cent of the population. Somalis and Eritreans made up another 15 per cent.

Lawrence Heights had become a black community.

Almost no one called the community Lawrence Heights. They called it The Projects and later The Jungle. The name was reputedly coined by cab drivers, who continually got lost on its winding streets.

Adults hated the name and its racist overtones. But to Mr. Brown and the other children, it had no stigma. "The Jungle was the best," he said. "It was the coolest place in the world."

For the Brown family, the early 1980s were a time of promise. "We always had Christmas presents," said Mr. Brown's sister, Donna. "We had a great family, and we had a lot of fun."

Mr. Brown and his brother believed they could change their lives through imagination and force of will. When George was 13, he sent away for a Charles Atlas course after seeing an ad in a comic book. It cost $35, and he paid it off at $5 a week.

Soon the walls of their bedroom were covered with exercise posters. The brothers rigged a chin-up bar with a broomstick and set up chairs to do dips, which would develop their quadriceps.

When Lawrence was 14, he took up tae kwon do at the Lawrence Heights Community Centre, a gym complex that was at the centre of the neighbourhood's social life. He was already well over six feet tall, with a long, lean body that was perfect for martial arts.

His sensei was Charles Peart, a local legend known as No Arms Charles. Mr. Peart had been born armless, but it had not stopped him from becoming a self-styled martial-arts master, and a man of considerable dignity and respect.

For young men from the projects, Mr. Peart was a positive role model, representing triumph over apparent disadvantage through dedication and perseverance.

Mr. Brown saw him in near-mystic terms: "Charles, he'd fly through the air, he'd tie you up with his legs. Nothing you could do. He took the toughest guys in The Jungle. Charles, he was The Man. He was using what he had to teach people. He gave kids in the neighbourhood a different outlook on life."

The Brown brothers also played basketball. There was always a game going on at the community centre, and the Bathurst Heights High School team was a powerhouse.

Mr. Brown loved watching National Basketball Association games on television and fantasizing about what it would be like to get drafted and become an instant millionaire.

His favourite players were the "old guys" such as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Among the newer guard, it was Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan. For Mr. Brown, they were templates for his own success. Like him, they had grown up tall, black and poor.

In school, Mr. Brown showed potential. His performance was erratic, but when he applied himself, he did well. One year, he made the honour roll.

Outside the classroom, he was known as an artist. He liked to write poetry, draw cartoons and create music.

He and his brother often talked about their futures. George wanted to get an MBA and become the chief executive officer of a multinational corporation.

Lawrence was not sure exactly what form his success would take, but music seemed to he a prevailing theme. He was composing, singing and working on his dance moves in front of the mirror.

As he saw it, school was a means to an end. "I was going to school because I wanted to learn how to write contracts," he said.

As Mr. Brown entered his teens in the mid-1980s, it seemed that the world was changing in his favour. Music was in transition. Rap had opened new vistas of commercial opportunity to young black men from the projects.

The prototype was provided by performers such as Eric (Eazy E) Wright, one of the founding members of NWA (Niggaz Wit' Attitude), the biggest-selling rap group of all time.

Mr. Wright grew up in a Los Angeles housing project, then got rich singing about what it was like to be poor. In 1986, he founded his own record label, using money he had made selling crack on the street. He lived in a mansion with a stable of exotic cars.

Mr. Brown pictured a similar future for himself. He had become something of a local star, singing in hip-hop clubs that had sprouted in Toronto's suburban fringe. They catered to the growing number of young blacks who were shaping a new Canadian reality, playing hip-hop, reggae and hard-core dance music known as House.

Mr. Brown dabbled in the genres, singing and performing with groups and DJ sets such as Earth Angel, Black Supreme, Stereo Prophet, High Tech and Afrique.

He moved toward a fusion of hip-hop and soul, seeking to combine a streetwise energy with a resolving melody. He had a miniature studio in his bedroom, with a Roland synthesized keyboard, MIDI samplers, a multitrack recording deck and a mixing board.

Rap was also part of a cultural free-trade movement that brought a new, harder edge to the neighbourhood, although Lawrence Heights was mild compared with U.S. ghettos.

By the late 1980s, some of the worst features of thug culture had been transplanted. Gangs sprang up with names such as Striker Posse, Jungle Massive and Maxima Boyz.

"The gang life was always there," Mr. Brown said. "You had to hold yourself above it."

He and his friends had their own particular values and interests. They saw society from the bottom up. Many of them had suffered tremendous setbacks.

The lives of some of Mr. Brown's friends could have been drawn straight from a manual on the pathology of crime. They were abused, disadvantaged young men who had grown up without knowing their fathers, then went on to become fathers themselves before they were 20.

Among them were three men who would become his co-accused in the Just Desserts case: Gary Francis, Mark Jones and O'Neil Grant.

In the projects, the drug trade exerted a gravitational pull. The business was revolutionized in the mid-1980s by the arrival of crack cocaine, which provided an instant high that wore off in minutes, forcing addicts to buy a constant supply.

There were countless dealers in Lawrence Heights. Some were small-time, like a 19-year-old who was busted for dealing out of his mother's apartment. Others were major dealers, who became criminal stars, commanding attention with their new cars and expensive clothes.

The profits were irresistible. The results were obvious on any Friday or Saturday night at many of the suburban clubs where Mr. Brown performed and socialized.

One of them was Club 560 SL, located in the rear of a dingy Scarborough strip mall. The club had created a nocturnal life of its own. Around 11 p.m., the crowd would begin to arrive — young women in tiny, revealing outfits and young men wearing enough gold for an Egyptian king. The parking lot was filled with customized Nissans, Mercedes and Lexuses, many of them sporting blade-shaped cellular antennas, chrome rocker-panel covers and tinted windows.

The scene grew increasingly edgy. Feuds and complex matters of honour created an endless series of incidents. The slightest faux pas could be construed as a gesture of disrespect, a "diss."

This was no laughing matter; if you knew the right people, a gun was easy to get. And Mr. Brown knew the right people. One of his acquaintances, Robert Charley, once sold a suitcase full of semi-automatic 9mm and .404-calibre handguns for $1,000 apiece. Mr. Charley had bought them for $200 each.

In 1991, Mr. Brown applied for a gun permit. "I like to do things in a legitimate way," he said later.

Guns were more than just weapons. They were a signature style item, a sign that you were a homeboy, a member of the ghetto elite who brooked no disrespect.

The rise of the homeboys in Lawrence Heights was paralleled by an increasing police presence. They patrolled continually. At night, the beams of their searchlights would lance through the darkness like accusing white fingers.

The police became familiar figures, as well known as a corner grocer would be. Mr. Brown and his friends had nicknames for the drug-squad and 32 Division officers who worked the neighbourhood — one was Fastboy; another was Rammer.

They thought of the police as an occupying army. Of all the professions, there was none lower than cop. "Even the black cops, they have to play the role," said Mr. Brown's brother, George. "They're not themselves any more. They're someone else. I could be a cop, easy. But I wouldn't do it."

To the young men of Lawrence Heights, it often seemed that there were two standards of justice: one for them and one for white people.

When George bought a new five-litre Mustang during his senior year in high school, he was pulled over by the police five times in the first week he owned it. "Whassup, my man?" one officer said. "You making some money in The Jungle?"

There were plenty of other examples.

One of them was Tony Morrison, who had boxed his way to the Canadian heavyweight title with George in his corner. But the championship wasn't a ticket to the good life.

Instead, Mr. Morrison found himself facing a series of charges, including one of extorting money from a prostitute. Although the charges were thrown out, they sucked up Mr. Morrison's energy and left him with a nickname: Tony the Pimp. He later ended up working as a male stripper and a shoe salesman at Athletes World.

Then there was sprinter Ben Johnson, who grew up in Lawrence Heights and went on to win an Olympic gold medal, only to be undone by a drug scandal.

But of all the downfalls Lawrence Heights had seen, none was more heartbreaking than that of Philip Dixon, the best basketball player the neighbourhood had ever produced. Mr. Dixon's gifts made him a legitimate NBA prospect. He went to Utah on a college basketball scholarship, but his promising career was ended when he was charged with sexual interference.

As Mr. Brown saw it, the forces of law and order had been waiting to pull Mr. Dixon down. "Dix was the best," he said. "Everything Michael Jordan did, Dix did too — except Dix did it when he was 14 years old. . . . But the cops made sure he didn't go anywhere. They just waited until they could get him."

Nevertheless, Mr. Brown believed his talent and his dedication would get him through. He was refining his musical vision. He always seemed to be up to something, looking for his main chance.

One year, he got a $10,000 municipal grant to run a music contest. In 1989, he signed a development deal with Warlock, a British label owned by actress and singer Grace Jones. In July, 1991, he set up New Day Development Inc., a corporation he planned to use for entrepreneurial ventures that included "telemarketing and development."

He had a wild range of schemes on the boil. He thought he might be able to turn a profit by buying 72 buses, then shipping them to Jamaica for resale. He was also considering a resort development project in the Caribbean country.

Mr. Brown seemed to believe he was on the cusp of success. He kept a Rolodex filled with the names of powerful and influential people he had met, collecting them like poker chips.

He claimed he had access to capital. He told people that he had $750,000 in one of his corporate accounts, and that he could get access to plenty more. "I had connections," he said. "I made a call, and the money would be there. That's what happens when you know the right people."

Some would have said Mr. Brown was all over the map. As he saw it, he was keeping his options open.

Mr. Brown's romantic life was as complex as his business affairs. He often juggled several girlfriends. One was a single mother. One was a cashier at Money Mart. Another was a University of Toronto student who planned to study law.

Mr. Brown had a certain charm. His voice was oddly soft, like boxer Mike Tyson's, forcing people to draw close, into the magnetic field of his presence.

His music gave him an extra edge when it came to seduction. He liked to imagine the effect his tunes had on women. "I knew what they wanted to hear," he said. "I was in the clubs. I was on records. I was on cassettes. They were listening to me on the stereo, in the jeep, on the beach."

By the time he was 22, Mr. Brown had children with three different women. He refused to say exactly how many kids he had. "Man like me, it's hard to know," he said.

Behind the bluster, Mr. Brown was a young man skating on a razor's edge.

In 1991, he went to Jamaica on a trip to "explore business opportunities." When he got back to Toronto, the police were waiting for him. Roxanne Daniels, a woman who was pregnant with his child, had complained that he had broken the door of her house into three pieces, then held a gun to her head.

The charges were later withdrawn.

Mr. Brown's lawyer on the case was John Struthers, a hip young attorney who sometimes appeared in court wearing a double-breasted suit with cowboy boots and an earring.

But Mr. Struthers was more than just a lawyer to Mr. Brown. He combined the roles of counsellor, big brother and legal champion. He eventually won Mr. Brown acquittals or withdrawals on 20 different criminal charges.

Meanwhile, Mr. Brown's mother struggled to keep her family on the straight and narrow. She and her husband separated in the mid-1980s, but she worked hard to maintain the fabric of family life. She came home from work at the hotel exhausted, but still kept the apartment scrupulously clean and got up each Sunday to attend church, although Mr. Brown had stopped going with her.

Mr. Brown's respect for his mother was undiminished, but her influence had gradually waned. No longer could she ask him where a new shirt had come from, or call to check on whether he was telling the truth.

In 1991, he bought a brand-new Toyota Camry. Mr. Brown said he earned the money for the car through his developing entrepreneurial operations. "I was making money," he said.

The police believed otherwise. According to drug-squad officers, Mr. Brown had become a crack dealer. In 1990, he fell under surveillance during an undercover operation that was run out of an upper-floor classroom in the Flemingdon Road elementary school.

Mr. Brown was later charged with a narcotics offence. The charge was thrown out at the preliminary hearing after the police lost part of the documentation.

Behind his veneer of success, Mr. Brown was sliding. His troubles were adding up. Nineteen ninety-three was a low point. The Camry was gone, replaced by a faded grey Chrysler K-car. None of his ambitious business plans had paid off. His musical career was stalled &#!51; despite all his connections, he couldn't seem to land a recording contract.

Mr. Brown made an apparent attempt to get his life back on the rails. He applied for Ontario Student Aid funding to study electronics and musical technology at the DeVry Institute. He was given $26,000, but he didn't attend the course.

His personal troubles mounted. In the fall of 1993 and the spring of 1994, he was hit with a series of setbacks. He was picked up for stealing a pair of gloves at a Sporting Life store. Then came armed-robbery charges involving a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, a beer store, two bingo halls and a Pizza Hut. (He was acquitted on all but one of the charges after Mr. Struthers argued that his appearance in newspapers across the country in the Just Desserts case made it impossible for witnesses to make an unbiased identification.)

Mr. Brown denied committing any of the crimes. "Only thing I'm guilty of is being a black man in a justice system," he said. "The police will cook up all kinds of shit."

The night of April 5

On Tuesday, April 5, 1994, as the clock counted down Vivi Leimonis's final hours, life went on as usual in the small brick home where she lived with her father in Toronto's east end.

Ms. Leimonis was preparing for an evening out with Tom Drambalas, a friend she had met in high school. She was in a good mood as she waited for him. She was preparing to go to Greece to visit her grandmother. She had put together a set of clothes for the trip; before she packed them, she modelled them for a girlfriend and her brother.

On the other side of town, Mr. Brown spent the early part of that same evening with Gary Francis, O'Neil Grant and Mark Jones, according to police files. The occasion was a birthday celebration at the apartment of Carolee Godelia, Mr. Jones's girlfriend and the mother of his baby.

Earlier that day, Mr. Brown had run into Ms. Godelia's mother, Norma. She had dropped her car off at a garage at Finch Avenue and Weston Road about 4:30 p.m. and called her daughter for a ride. She was told that someone would pick her up. A short time later, a red van appeared with three young men inside. One of them was Mr. Brown.

Norma Godelia sat in the back next to Mr. Brown. They laughed about some oddball items in a Jamaican newspaper. Mr. Brown was in a light, easy-going mood. The driver, a young man named DJ, told Mrs. Godelia that he had just bought the van as part of a plan to start his own vacuum-cleaning business.

"It's good to see you young people making something constructive with your lives," she said.

When she was dropped off, Mrs. Godelia succumbed to her mother-hen instinct. She leaned into the van and gave a good-natured warning: "You guys better stay out of trouble."

DJ responded: "Not me, Mrs. Godelia. I always stay out of trouble."

Mrs. Godelia looked at Mr. Brown: "You, too, Lawrence."

"Sure," Mr. Brown replied.

The surrender

Ms. Leimonis's funeral distilled a tragedy into a single, iconic image: She lay in her silk-lined open casket, dressed in a white bridal gown — a Greek Orthodox tradition for the funerals of unmarried women. Her parents and her brother, Tom, were in black, bent with grief, their every tear captured by the lenses of the press millipede.

The crime had a galvanizing effect on the city of Toronto. Police described it as an act of "urban terrorism." Banks of flowers accumulated outside Just Desserts. The café became a shrine to Ms. Leimonis and to a perceived loss of civic innocence. Handwritten notes suffused with grief and rage were taped to the door.

Two days after the crime, police announced that a surveillance video had captured the scene inside the restaurant. Although the killing of Ms. Leimonis had taken place off-camera, the video showed the robbery in progress: Four young black men came into the restaurant to case it out. A few minutes later, three of them returned, one armed with a sawed-off shotgun.

The video ran over and over on television newscasts. People began calling police to say they recognized the robbers. Among them were Rosa Lee Stevens and Dionne Daniels. Ms. Stevens was Mr. Brown's aunt, who had known him since he was a child. Ms. Daniels was the mother of one of his children.

On April 7, they both went to Toronto police headquarters and watched the video again with the homicide detectives assigned to the case. Both said they recognized Mr. Brown as the gunman.

Mr. Brown was publicly identified as a suspect on the day of Ms. Leimonis's funeral.

At Lawrence Heights, it was as though a warhead had been set off. As the furor went on, Mr. Brown roamed the city in his car, occasionally checking in with his sister by phone, never telling her where he was. Mr. Brown also kept in touch with Mr. Struthers, who had only his pager number. The lawyer told him to give himself up.

On April 13, Mr. Brown called and said he was ready to come in; he had visions of being hunted by vigilantes. Mr. Struthers made the arrangements. He told the police that he wanted half an hour alone with Mr. Brown before the arrest.

Shortly after midnight, on the morning of April 14, 1994, Mr. Struthers met Mr. Brown in the parking lot of a gas station near Lawrence Heights. Unknown to Mr. Brown, he was under surveillance by dozens of police officers — the lawyer had met them beforehand at a nearby variety store to co-ordinate the details.

They drove to Mr. Struthers's office, which was in the Warner Bros. building, a blue-tinted glass tower on Yonge Street north of Highway 401. There was a preview theatre on the first floor. The smell of popcorn hung in the air as Mr. Brown got in the elevator, which was lined with mirrors, allowing him a final image check. He had chosen white jeans, a purple vest and a purple bandanna for his surrender.

In Mr. Struthers's office, Mr. Brown sat in a Queen Anne chair and spoke with Tracey Tyler, a Toronto Star reporter who had been invited to witness the arrest. Mr. Brown was afraid of what might happen when the police got their hands on him. Ms. Tyler was insurance.

The mood was oddly calm. The sound of a TV carried in from the foyer. The Blue Jays were playing Oakland.

Mr. Struthers had typed out a legal document: "I respectfully decline to answer questions, except in the immediate presence of my lawyer." He had run off 50 copies. He stapled one to the front of Mr. Brown's sweater.

Mr. Brown sat quietly and waited for the police. He looked out through the plate-glass windows. Down below, the lights of the city sparkled like diamonds, as they had on that night 17 years before when he had flown in from Jamaica.

Once again, Mr. Brown was entering a new world.

The preliminary

On the morning of Nov. 15, 1994, a biting wind raked the courtyard of Toronto's Old City Hall courthouse as the black iron gates swung open to admit a prison van with steel mesh windows and a brass padlock on the back door.

Mr. Brown's day in court had begun.

The event was his preliminary hearing, which would test the Crown's case to see whether it was strong enough to go trial. There was no jury to impress — Mr. Brown was dressed casually, with his hair drawn up into a spiked topknot that gave him the look of a samurai. He was in manacles and leg irons. He and his co-accused were linked with steel chains, forcing them into an awkward shuffle, like a troupe of circus chimps.

The courthouse is a 19th-century showpiece of carved oak, marble and hissing steam radiators. Its ornate hallways were packed with hangers-on, bail bondsmen, black-robed lawyers and an unending procession of criminals, accused and otherwise, giving it the look of a Victorian mansion that was hosting a deviant costume ball.

Mr. Brown's party shuffled past a series of tiny, compressed dramas: A hooker in velvet hot pants stood screaming at a pimp; a lawyer with sweat rings under his arms yelled into a pay phone; three women with baby carriages sat watching as their spouses were dragged past in chains. One woman blew a kiss. Another silently mouthed "Fuck you," then stalked away.

Mr. Brown and his co-accused were jammed into a tiny, ancient elevator with filigreed brass trim. The operator, who sat on a wooden stool, gave Mr. Brown a double-take, obviously recognizing him after his long run in the papers.

As the elevator opened at the top floor, Mr. Brown saw his father sitting on an oak bench by the door.

As he passed, his father gave him a hopeful smile, then turned away, his eyes flooded with tears. "It hurts when you see your boy with a chain on his foot," he said. "I wish I never brought him to Canada. When he gets out of here, I want to take him back."

Inside the courtroom was a scene that bordered on bedlam. The gallery was packed. Rows of guards eyed the crowd. There were dozens of lawyers, and the press was out in force. The room buzzed with conversation. From the hallway came the sound of a crying baby and the electric screech of a metal detector.

Mr. Brown surveyed the scene with an air of boredom, then slumped in the prisoner's box and put his feet up on the oak rail, like a schoolboy testing his teacher.

The preliminary was supposed to take a couple of months. But as winter set in, no end was in sight. The case had been moved to a tiny basement courtroom with stained ceiling tiles and a faulty heating system. Here, forgotten, the case was bogging down amid a series of legal issues and personality clashes.

At the centre of it all was Judge Michael Martin. To Mr. Brown and his co-accused, Judge Martin had become a symbol of all that was wrong with the case, which they perceived through a prism of racial politics.

Mr. Brown made no secret of his hatred for the judge. The tension between the two crackled through the courtroom.

One day, Mr. Brown slammed his fist against the prisoner's box and murmured something.

"What did you say, Mr. Brown?" Judge Martin asked.

Mr. Brown, who had decorated his hair with dozens of tiny pieces of yellow paper that looked like Post-It Notes, shook his head and laughed. The pieces of paper rattled. His gold teeth flashed.

"Nothing," he replied.

The guards told the judge that Mr. Brown had called him a "white honky."

Mr. Brown denied it. "I don't talk like that," he said. "That sounds like some shit off TV."

As the winter of 1998 began, Mr. Brown had been in jail for nearly five years. He rose each day at 5:30 a.m. to shower and wait for the prison van that would take him to court.

His home was the Metro East Detention Centre, a maximum-security facility in Scarborough. To see him, a visitor passed through a series of massive steel doors that were controlled by an unseen guard. As the doors rolled back, the air of the prison carried up the passageway, heavy with the smell of sweat, steam and hot metal from a distant kitchen.

On Remembrance Day in 1998, just a few months before a jury was finally called, Mr. Brown sat in a room with a bulletproof window and talked to a visitor.

He had become something of a prison celebrity because of the latest twist in his case: He had fired his latest lawyer and announced that he would represent himself. His choice was obviously a risky one, but Mr. Brown made a show of confidence. "Don't be counting out Lawrence Brown," he said.

He intimated that he had some tricks up his sleeve. With a sly smile, he announced that he had sent the Just Desserts surveillance video to an expert in Atlanta who specialized in electronics intelligence and naval warfare. "He looks at videos of ships and shit you can't see, and finds the ship," Mr. Brown said by way of explanation.

The expert would reveal the video's hidden truth, he said. "You're gonna see what's really on that fuckin' video," he said. "And it ain't Lawrence Brown."

Mr. Brown saw his case in political terms. Because the killing was interracial, he believed the police and politicians had been under unbearable pressure to come up with suspects, no matter how weak the evidence.

"They had to get someone," he said. "I think there was an election. A lot of politicians were talking. They know they had to cook up some other stuff. They had to bring down society's temperature."

Mr. Brown's years in jail had left him nostalgic for his past life as a businessman and performer — and he was angry at the damage that the case had wrought to what he saw as a valuable image.

"From a man who's a lover of women, an admirer of ladies' companionship, I don't appreciate how, for five years, with no proof or nothing substantial, that they've said I'm the kind of man who would go out there and kill a woman," he said. "That has me more pissed off than the fact that my relationship in the business sector is tarnished."

Then he confessed his biggest disappointment: Despite all the love songs he had written and all the stage appearances he had made, there had been no upwelling of female support after his arrest.

"I sang for the ladies, you know what I'm saying? For a man who had so many women fans, I'm disappointed that the ladies haven't come out more to support me. …I thought maybe a bunch of them would be in front of city hall."

The trial

When his trial opened to the jury on April 28, 1999, a new Mr. Brown appeared. He sat at the defence table in his olive-green suit. His dreadlocks were gone, replaced with a neat crew cut. Until he opened his mouth and flashed his gold teeth, he could have passed for a young corporate up-and-comer.

On the table in front of him was a stack of papers and a stainless steel carafe of water. Mr. Brown poured himself a glass, then turned to survey the crowd, his eyes lingering on the women.

The trial was estimated to take another three to four months. But there were no guarantees. Mr. Brown's case had turned into a legal epic. Before the jury was called, Mr. Justice Brian Trafford of the Ontario Superior Court had spent more than two years ruling on a stack of pretrial motions.

Now, theoretically, all was in readiness. There had been many changes. Mark Jones had been freed after Judge Trafford had thrown out the statement of a key Crown witness. Without it, there was no case against him.

The ruling had buoyed Mr. Brown. "I saw that good things could happen," he said. "My ass has been kicked around for a lot of years over a lot of bullshit. It has to be my turn some time."

For years, the courtroom had been almost empty as the case droned on through the endless preliminary matters that had consumed it. Now, there was close to a full house.

The members of Ms. Leimonis's family sat shoulder to shoulder in the front row, dressed as though they were attending church. "We're here for my sister," Tom Leimonis said.

One lawyer close to the case had summed up Mr. Brown's decision to defend himself as "legal suicide."

But Mr. Brown had always seemed to have inordinate faith in his powers and abilities. "I know more than people think," he had said before the trial.

One of the first witnesses he cross-examined was Gord Ramsay, a 32 Division police officer who told the jury he had known Mr. Brown for years and had instantly recognized him from the security video.

After the Crown finished with Constable Ramsay, Mr. Brown went to the lectern. He adjusted the microphone, then flicked his long fingers against his lapel to get rid of a wrinkle. He craned his neck to inspect the back crease in his pants. Then he stepped to the side, as if he were modelling his suit for Constable Ramsay.

He smiled. "I have a nice job now, don't I?" he asked.

"I guess you do," Constable Ramsay replied.

Mr. Brown's questions went on for hours. Sometimes he would stand silently, lost in thought, then suddenly launch off in a new direction. No one knew where he would go next.

As the other lawyers listened in horror, he suddenly asked Constable Ramsay the unthinkable: "Before 1994, you ever hear of Lawrence Brown owning a gun?"

"Yes," Constable Ramsay replied without hesitation.

The jury was sent out. Judge Trafford warned Mr. Brown about the damage this kind of evidence would inflict, but he did not seem to grasp the significance of telling the jury that he was known as a gunman.

He asked another witness whether he was lying to get revenge because Mr. Brown had once tried to pick up his girlfriend. Judge Trafford asked Mr. Brown to explain the relevance.

Mr. Brown gave the judge a conspiratorial grin. "Come on, Your Honour," he said. "You never had a woman that another fella was jealous of yourself?"

On June 24, Mr. Brown cross-examined his aunt, Rosa Lee Stevens, who testified that she had recognized him from the videotape. Everyone was anxious to see what would happen.

Mr. Brown came close to the witness box and asked his first question in a soft, beseeching voice: "Do you love me?"

His aunt looked him straight in the eyes as she answered. "Yes."

But it did not change her testimony. As she left the box, it was as if a vise had been tightened one more turn on Mr. Brown. He returned to the defence table and riffled through a stack of documents.

As the case went on, Mr. Brown's cross-examination technique remained mystifying. He would keep some witnesses on the stand for days on end, then dismiss others with a curt "no questions."

Before long, Mr. Brown found himself in a running battle with Judge Trafford.

"The last thing you really want is a fair trial," the judge told him one day, his voice quaking with exasperation. "You intend to frustrate the process of justice."

"I'm not dealing with reasonable people," Mr. Brown replied. "This trial is biased, unfair and a miscarriage of justice."

Mr. Brown seemed bent on pursuing some private vision, and suggested that he would eventually connect the seemingly unrelated dots of information to reveal his grand plan.

He told the judge that he wanted to be released from jail so he could pursue his investigation of the conspiracy that had ensnared him, and he said he would live at the home of a female lawyer he had hired as an outside adviser.

When the judge refused, Mr. Brown launched into a tirade about how the court security staff had violated his rights, and he suggested that his jail experience had inflicted physiological damage.

"These people are raping me of my rights, my human rights, my humanism," he said. "Since I've been in prison, had to go to hospital for hearing reason. Since then, no chance to go back — security reasons. I want a 24-karat gold hearing aid and it to be frequencied to my cellular phone."

Mr. Brown appeared to be operating in his own private reality. As court opened one day, he looked at the judge, then turned to the Leimonis family with a theatrical gesture. "Before I say good morning to you, sir, I'd like to say good morning to the Leimonis family and to send my condolences," he announced.

He seemed to be on a high that day. When he returned to the defence table, he smiled and winked at Vicky Karageorge, the attractive young court registrar who sat in front of the judge's bench. She looked back in disgust.

The highs were followed by brutal lows as Mr. Brown's continuing battle with Judge Trafford deepened.

After the judge rendered a decision he disliked, Mr. Brown exploded with anger. He jumped up from the defence table, pointed his finger at the judge and said: "You're a bullshitter, judge." Then he turned and pointed to Crown counsel Sandy Kingston and yelled: "You're a bullshitter." Then he waved his hand in the air and spoke to the court at large: "Just carry on with your charade."

Mr. Brown launched into a rambling, semi-coherent soliloquy on his treatment in the courtroom: "When I choose to start something, Your Honour cuts me off. I'm a man of my own principles and a little bit of my father's and a clone could never be me. …I want to go to a different courtroom and a different judge and have a fair trial. …I want the court to hire an investigator to sit in court and take notes on the conduct of people. The media improperly influenced by Crown. The Crown is phoning reporters at home and telling them what to write."

"You're disintegrating under your own decision to defend yourself," Judge Trafford replied.

"My father is in court," Mr. Brown said. "Tell my father he raised a total fool."

On July 20, after Judge Trafford refused Mr. Brown's request for bail — the latest in a long series — the tension in the courtroom rose.

"I've told you a number of times in this trial, Mr. Brown, that you're not being granted bail in this case," the judge said. "Forget it. Don't bother bringing it up again."

Mr. Brown replied: "I'm telling you that my name is not Jane Doe and my name is neither John Dow. It's Lawrence Augustus Brown, and you and your fucking friends can fuck yourself."

That afternoon, Mr. Brown's outbursts took on a new, threatening tone.

"Your Honour, listen," he said. "…I know you fucking assholes and you assholes are in the fucking phone book."

"Mr. Brown, sit down," Judge Trafford said.

"I think I have your office number," Mr. Brown said.

"I don't care if you've got my office number," the judge replied. "You go ahead and call me, if you think you can."

Mr. Brown's voice lowered and took on a sharper edge. "I'm not going to call you," he said. "I'm going to get my friend to call your fucking white ass, you racist piece of shit."

Mr. Brown's performance was the talk of the courthouse, yet he seemed essentially unaware of the effect it was having. He often smiled and waved to friends from the defence table.

One day, a woman showed up with one of his children, a small boy who looked like a miniature version of Mr. Brown. As the guards looked on, she brought the boy to the oak rail that separated the spectators' gallery from the front of the courtroom.

"Say hi to daddy," she said. The boy gave Mr. Brown a wave and a smile. Then he left, holding his mother's hand.

Throughout the first months of the trial, as the Crown presented its case, Mr. Brown had hinted that his defence would be an ambitious one. He had told Judge Trafford that he needed a vast file of materials, and would call an array of experts who would prove it was impossible to recognize him from the video.

On Sept. 10, Mr. Brown's turn finally arrived. The moment was keenly awaited. No one knew what to expect.

But Mr. Brown's decision was a stunner: He announced he wouldn't be presenting a defence at all.

"The jury is here to listen to your evidence," Judge Trafford told him. "This is your chance."

Mr. Brown gave his contemptuous reply: "Sir, I'm telling the court that you're an unfair man and I don't want to be in no conversation with you this morning; that's what I'm telling the court, okay, sir."

For the rest of the trial, Mr. Brown did not question a single witness. Instead, he spent most of his time slumped at the defence table, his head on his arms, as if in silent protest against the forces of injustice, waiting for the trial to come to its conclusion, whatever that might be.

On Sept. 24, as Mr. Brown appeared to sleep at the defence table, the Crown expressed concern about the legal implications.

Judge Trafford asked Mr. Brown if he had anything to say.

"This trial will never be a fair trial," he replied. "Keep on writing what you're writing. You're doing it for your own interest. … I feel your obligation is to make my life a living hell. This trial has been — because of dirty rulings — have touched at obscene number of points of law. …

"It don't make a difference what the hell I say because you're still going to be going off on your personal interest, sir."

Then Mr. Brown put his head back down on the table and smiled a beatific smile.

Epilogue

One day, George Brown came to the courtroom. In his hands, he carried a foam box of Chinese takeout food he brought for his brother. He passed the box to the guards, who opened it and checked inside. Mr. Brown and his brother exchanged a brief, unspoken greeting.

The years that followed Mr. Brown's arrest had been hard on his family. His mother, who still worked at the Prince Hotel, would call him at the jail to pray with him on the phone. Her health was slipping.

Mr. Brown's father had not lived to see the end of his son's trial. He had died of cancer in August, forcing a brief adjournment.

Mr. Brown's sister, Donna, had married and given birth to a baby. She worked in the accounts receivable department of Loblaws, and tried not to advertise the fact that her brother was an accused killer.

"I don't believe Lawrence did this," she said. "I pray for him. I told him, 'Keep the faith.'"

For the first few years of the case, Mr. Brown's brother, George, had tried to pursue his childhood dream of heading a multinational corporation. He had taken economics courses at York University, but found it hard to concentrate. Now, his dream of getting an MBA was in flux; he was taking a break from school and working as a security guard at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.

George nodded goodbye to his brother and left the courtroom. He seemed confused, unable to make sense of the strange spectacle that his brother's case had become. "I don't know what to think any more," he said.

Earlier that morning, he had run into an old acquaintance in the courtroom — Paul Riley, a television reporter who was covering the case for the CBC. When they recognized each other, they shook hands.

Mr. Riley had been raised in a Scarborough housing project, under circumstances similar to George's. As teenagers, they had faced each other on the basketball court.

Mr. Riley was the very picture of success: a tall, handsome young black man who sometimes hosted the CBC evening news. In the courtroom, he wore a three-button suit and a crisp white shirt that emphasized his height and gave him an air of rectitude.

In many ways, he was what young men like Lawrence Brown had dreamed of becoming. He had lifted himself out of the projects through his talent and his force of will.

So he brought a unique perspective to the case. As a journalist, he had covered many criminal cases involving men he had grown up with.

"These weren't bad guys," Mr. Riley said. "We were like brothers. We slept in the same bed. And then, later, I started seeing the guys I grew up with on the news. I knew these guys. They weren't evil. But at some point they went down a different path."

Mr. Riley's eyes softened as he considered the heartbreaking downfalls he had witnessed. Then something seemed to click, and his eyes went steely. He looked across the courtroom to where Lawrence Brown sat surrounded by guards.

"This here, it's no big thing," he said. "Just another ghetto highlight. Nothing more."

[Toronto 2000] [News by region] [News by topic]

Created: November 9, 2000
Last modified: January 19, 2001
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