News 5 Investigates

Oct 18, 2013 1:05 AM by Andy Koen

News 5 Guardians: Family seeks answers in mother's death

COLORADO SPRINGS - The body of a 72 year old Colorado Springs woman lay hidden in the stairwell of her home for weeks. By the time she was discovered, Jo Ann Brownlee's remains had decomposed to a point that it was a challenge for medical examiners to even identify her, let alone determine how she died.

Ten months later, her family is reaching out in hopes that by making their story public, new leads might be generated for investigators.

The mystery began for David Brownlee on the afternoon of January 26 when he received a voicemail from someone saying they'd found his mom's purse at a Chick-Fil-A restaurant near Powers and North Carefree.

His mother, Jo Ann, had been blind since 1997 and couldn't have easily gotten to the restaurant on her own. David was immediately worried and headed for the restaurant while his wife Robin went to the Stetson Hills Police Substation to file a missing persons report.

"You can't have a 24 hour (wait) when you're an elderly person that's blind," Robin said. "I thought, I have got to go and find this out and the lady said no we can get this started right now."

Jo Ann lived in a home in 1400 block of Tweed Street where she was cared for by her live-in daughter Debbie. After leaving the police station and restaurant, David and Robin say they called Debbie and went to the house to help search.

"The police discovered my mom's body at about 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning on January 27th," David recalled. "At that point they ruled it a crime scene and said no one could go back in the house."

Debbie, David and Robin were all taken to the Police Operations Center downtown for questioning. David and Robin were asked for DNA samples and consented. That sample would later be used to positively identify Jo Ann's remains.

"The dental records didn't match, fingerprints wouldn't match," David explained. "Her fingers were just decomposed and they couldn't match them."

Jo Ann had been buried beneath a pile of clothes in the stairwell. There were candles nearby, and the only door into the space was blocked by the dryer.

After the coroner released Jo Ann's body in February and David says they scattered her ashes along Mt. Culter trail.

The coroner classified Jo Ann's death as undetermined. However, Doctor Daniel Lingamfelter gave his opinion in the autopsy that the findings were "suspicious for homicidal violence."

Jo Ann had fractured ribs, bruises on her head and neck and broken blood vessels in her eyes known as petechiae. There were also paint chips in her back.

After reading the report, David grew suspicious that his sister knew more than she was saying.

"How can you have a dead person in your house and not realize they're there?" he asked.

He remembered other inconsistencies like when his mom was absent from Debbie's birthday two weeks before her disappearance. Debbie told David their mom went to a blind conference in Denver with friends. He later learned no such conference was held that weekend.

David also received text messages from Debbie's phone that were signed "Mom."

"I think, as much as I hate to say it, my sister and mom probably got into a spat and my sister just lost it."

We called Debbie's cell phone multiple times a day for the past three days and even reached out to people she knew to try and get her side of the story. She never returned our calls.

Debbie has no previous criminal history. The only cases we found searching her court records were lawsuits for unpaid debts in 2007 and 2008.

City code enforcement officers also went to the home in February of 2012 on a complaint of trash being left in the yard. David admits the home was unclean and bordered on the point of hoarding.

"I'd gone over there several times and tried to clean up the house and get it organized and it would just fall back the way it was and I just got tired of doing that," he said.

David and Robin considered moving Jo Ann to assisted living shortly after she lost her sight. They say they hesitated because of the shouting and fighting such a move would have caused.

"We were so trusting in Dave's sister," Robin added. "Probably too much trust."

As a matter policy, officers with the Colorado Springs Police Department do not comment on open cases. Public Information Officer Barbara Miller said in an email that their homicide detectives work with the district attorney's office and the coroner's office to thoroughly investigate all suspicious deaths until they can either file charges or rule out that a crime occurred.

"We want justice for Jo Ann Brownlee and we want to be her voice that she does not have," Robin said.

The El Paso County Coroner's Office has conducted 2,223 autopsies this year. Of those, only nine are classified as undetermined.

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