Ten years ago, Jason Derek Brown gunned down an armored-car guard in Ahwatukee. Despite landing on the FBI 10 Most Wanted list, he's still at large.
At least 20 witnesses heard the pop-pop sound of gunfire outside the AMC 24 movie theater at the Ahwatukee Foothills Town Center at about 10 a.m. on Monday, November 29, 2004. Six pops in all.
One hollow-point bullet shattered the window of a box office. The other five went point-blank through the head of an armored-car guard named Robert Keith Palomares, 24.
Keith, as everybody called him, was carrying a bag containing $56,039.07 in movie and concession receipts. While he lay dying, and AMC employees tried to comfort him, the man who shot Palomares picked up the money bag and escaped – on a mountain bike, of all things. Palomares was pronounced dead at Good Samaritan Hospital about an hour later.
The victim was, by all accounts, a likable family man just doing his job. The crime was striking for its brazenness, and for the exotic background of the suspected killer – a California-born former Mormon missionary named Jason Derek Brown, who's been on the run ever since the killing. Brown – who would now be 44 years old – was placed on the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation's 10 Most Wanted Fugitives list in 2007. Last March, the FBI doubled, to $200,000, the reward for information leading to his capture, in the hopes that it would give citizens extra incentive to come forward.
Occasionally, somebody calls in a Brown sighting – from Salt Lake City, from Idaho, from Fiji. No report has yet panned out, and despite his inclusion on the world's best-known and most recognizable law enforcement PR tool, Brown remains a shadow. "There has never ever been an official sighting of Jason Derek Brown," Phoenix police detective Paul Dalton, who is leading the investigation, told PHOENIX magazine. If there was, "We'd have him in handcuffs."
Leads still come in "daily, monthly," Dalton says. Police or FBI follow up on all of them, he says. When will law enforcement catch up with Brown? "You never know," says Dalton. "It could be today. It could be years from now."
Brown is perhaps the lesser-known of two Arizona-linked fugitives on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted Fugitives list. The other is Robert Fisher, wanted for brutally murdering his wife and two children in 2001 (Where in the World Is Robert Fisher?, PHOENIX magazine, March 2011). In both cases, the list has proved integral in holding the respective fugitives in the public's collective eyesight – even as the years pass, and high-profile criminal pariahs like Jodi Arias come and go.
The first Most Wanted list was conceived midway through the reign of publicity-minded FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who borrowed the notion from a Washington, D.C., newspaper that ran an article titled The FBI's Ten Most-Wanted Fugitives Named in 1949. He made it part of the bureau's standard operations the following year, plastering Most Wanted posters across post office walls throughout the country. Recognizable and "sticky" in the manner of a good TV ad, the list was hailed as an immediate public relations success. In its debut year of 1950, eight Most Wanted fugitives were apprehended; the year after that, 11.
In those days, the fugitives selected for the list were generally "bank robbers, burglars and car thieves," according to the FBI's public affairs division. In the political upheaval of the 1960s, the focus shifted to violent subversives, saboteurs and kidnappers. Today, it often features sexual predators, terrorists and drug traffickers, along with the occasional white-collar grifter, or old-school armed thief, like Brown.
While wanton and cold-blooded, Brown's single homicide doesn't immediately present itself as 10 Most Wanted material – at least by tabloid headline standards. Unlike Fisher, Brown didn't engineer the death of his own family and attempt to conceal the crime in a spectacular blaze. Neither did he exploit and abuse dozens of children in the manner of Walter Lee Williams, the California university professor who police recently captured in Mexico one day after he was placed on the list. And he didn't sit at the helm of a transnational criminal enterprise à la Eduardo Ravelo, the Barrio Azteca cartel capo who remains on the list after debuting there in 2009.
Brown killed a man and stole $56K. As criminal tallies go, he seems like something of a Most Wanted outlier. But that's an illusion. In fact, Brown satisfies the classic Most Wanted criteria as well as any fugitive. For starters, he robbed an armored car – essentially a bank on wheels. According to its charter, the FBI is obliged to investigate all bank robberies. He was also suspected of crossing state lines after his crime, enlisting the help of family members to evade authorities. The multi-state conspiracy made it a federal matter, within the FBI's jurisdiction.
Certainly, the extreme violence of the crime also accounts for Brown's listing, though that criteria is subjective. When a space on the Most Wanted list opens up – which is to say, when a fugitive on the list is apprehended, found dead or removed from the list for other reasons – the FBI solicits replacement nominees from agents in the Bureau's 56 field offices, eventually settling on one name to add to the list. It's an informal process without a deadline, but the Bureau is thought to give preference to fugitives who are considered armed and dangerous, or a threat to the public. Brown, with his demonstrated willingness to kill for money, certainly fits the type, even if his overall profile doesn't satisfy the modern terrorist/sex trafficker/drug runner stereotype.
There's another reason Brown made the list: He seemed catchable. The FBI doesn't select its Most Wanted fugitives impulsively – it expects to apprehend them. Of the 500 fugitives named to the list since its inception, 470 have been apprehended or located, almost 40 percent of those with help from the public. Moreover, nearly 60 percent of "tenners" are caught within a year of making the list, according to the FBI website. Today, turnover on the list is less rapid than in the 1950s and 1960s – over the past decade, the FBI has apprehended an average of 2.3 fugitives a year – but tenners are almost always accounted for eventually.
Brown, with his sloppy plotting and taste for living large, had all the makings of a quick catch. So why wasn't he?
Portrait of a fugitive
Born to a Mormon family in Los Angeles and raised in Laguna Beach, Jason Derek Brown had a childhood far darker than appearances might suggest. The third of four siblings, Jason was frequently beaten by his con-man father, according to his sister Jami, who related the strange, sad family saga to journalist Paige Williams in the 2012 e-book, The Ghost: How a California Golden Boy Became America's Most Unlikely – and Elusive –
Fugitive (Amazon Kindle Single).
The father, David Sr., was a thief and a grifter who was once expelled from Brigham Young University for stealing phonograph records and collectible stamps, according to Williams. The way Jami tells it, he also racked up massive gambling debts, stealing to cover his habit, and sometimes enlisting the children in theft as well. When the Brown parents divorced, a cold war for the affections of the children ensued. David Sr., who once paid for a gallbladder operation in cash, appears to have used his larcenous lifestyle to endear himself to the son he once abused. He left stacks of $100 bills lying around the house, telling Jason to help himself. According to Williams, he also taught Jason the basics of conning.
Despite his troubled childhood, Jason managed to maintain at least the appearance of law-abiding virtue through his early adulthood, according to friends and family. He spent two years as a missionary in France, where he met his future fiancée. They married in 1991 and divorced in 1995. He also obtained an MBA in International Business.
According to his sister Jami, Jason's life took a dark turn around 1995, the year his con-man father disappeared – presumably fleeing creditors or wishing to live off the grid. According to Williams, Jason and his older brother, David Jr., assisted their father in his disappearing act, wiping out traces of his existence as he'd once instructed them to do, in case he had to flee.
Friends and family describe Jason – who took pains to project himself as a fun-loving surfer dude with a golden touch for business – as a schemer who became addicted to an expensive, showy lifestyle of drugs, gambling, $500 bar tabs, "strippers and partiers," scam businesses, and expensive vehicles. According to Williams, Jason ran several specious businesses, including a photo-modeling studio, a toy company and a golf import-export business. A friend and former business partner of Brown's from Utah, Steven Hart, told police he'd always wondered where Jason got his money, given that nobody ever saw him working.
Like his father, Jason apparently financed his high level of fun and games by grifting. "The apple didn't fall far from the tree," Phoenix detective Dalton says.
One friend, Valley resident Jared Lively, told police Brown was "a really cool guy" and "fun to hang out with." In the police report, Lively says Brown – who lived in the Valley for six months in 2003 while trying to expand his golf business – had "an endless checkbook" and "would spend three, four, five hundred dollars a night, on drinks and whatever."
"Toys," in Brown's world, apparently included the opposite sex. After the shooting, an anonymous ex-girlfriend called Phoenix police to report that Brown liked to hang with "strippers and partiers." The police report adds: "On one occasion, Jason gave the caller $5,000 in cash and told her to obtain breast implants, which she did. The caller believes that Jason also did this for a subsequent girlfriend..."
Jami blames Jason's manic lifestyle on a twin addiction to alcohol and GHB, a prescription narcolepsy treatment better known as a rave and date-rape drug, on which he overdosed twice. And before David Jr. stopped an interview with police and asked them to call his lawyer, he stated that Jason "drank a lot," and that GHB made him "feel invincible."
Several sources interviewed by Phoenix police and the FBI speculate that Brown somehow got in over his head financially. By 2004, he was broke. According to his sister Jami, Jason "was his toys and was what he had." He told Jami that without "his stuff" he'd have no reason to live. Friends noticed changes, too. About two weeks before the murder, Jason asked to crash for a weekend on the couch of Lively, who was living in Phoenix. Lively found it odd that Brown needed a place to stay. In the past, to "fork over a hundred bucks a night for a hotel wouldn't be a big issue," Lively told police.
The Friday before the killing, Lively said, Brown mentioned he had a "meeting on Monday."
An Imperfect Crime
Jason Derek Brown didn't exactly keep a low profile prior to the killing. Through carelessness or cockiness, he left a trail – a fact that emboldened law enforcement in the wake of his crime and ultimately helped land him on the FBI 10 Most Wanted Fugitives list.
Most carelessly – actually, somewhat bafflingly – Brown left fingerprints on his escape bike, found by police in a drainage ditch on the east side of 50th Street a few hours after the murder. Those prints were on record with a firearms instructor in Utah named Clark Aposhian, who sold Brown the gun and ammo that match those used in the killing.
Aposhian, now a controversial figure in Utah's gun-control debate, was not so well-known when the prints on Brown's bike led the police and FBI to him. About two weeks before Palomares' murder, Aposhian sold Brown a .45 caliber Glock semiautomatic handgun, two boxes of Corbon Pow'R Ball hollow-point bullets, a box of another type of ammo, two practice targets, and a range pass. He says he ran a background check, which Brown passed, and asked for his fingerprints, which Brown gave.
But what really excited the law enforcement officials, Aposhian says, was the news that he'd taken Brown's photograph. When Aposhian called up the photo on his computer, he says, the FBI agents practically knocked him out of his seat – probably a routine precaution against accidental or deliberate deletion, he thinks. "They were very excited," he says. The picture the agents saved to a 1 1/4-inch floppy disk now appears on the FBI wanted poster.
More jarring than the visit from the FBI, according to Aposhian, was the call he received from Keith Palomares' mother, Lina Rodriguez, shortly after law enforcement named Brown as the main suspect about a week after the murder. Rodriguez identified herself over the phone as Palomares' mother, Aposhian told PHOENIX magazine: "I remember a dread coming over me. What do I say to a woman who has just lost a son to a senseless act of violence? Mostly she wanted to tell me about Keith. I listened to her. That's all I did." He feels that Rodriguez was "grabbing for closure."
Though horrified to hear of his student's connection to a murder, Aposhian says he would not have done anything differently today. "I'd like to think that because of our actions, the FBI had a leg up." He adds that many of his students need firearms training to become armored-car guards.
Of course, Brown could have bought a gun, and maybe even shooting lessons, without getting photographed and printed. Why he didn't is a mystery.
The fingerprints and ammo-match were the best leads pointing to Brown as the suspect, Phoenix detective Dalton says, but there were others. Up to two weeks before the killing, some witnesses saw a man fitting Brown's description casing the Ahwatukee strip mall from a silver BMW. The day Palomares was murdered, other witnesses saw Brown "loitering" around the theater with an unidentified male.
Brown was also seen at the Extended Stay America Hotel near the AMC theater, where he checked in on Thanksgiving Day, four days before the murder. Hotel staff saw him driving a silver BMW and unpacking a mountain bike. And on the same evening of the shooting, witnesses at the hotel also saw Brown engaged in a long private conversation with another man, whose identity remains unknown.
Other eyewitnesses put Brown in the Valley in the days before the shooting. Shortly after Brown's identity was released, Valley resident Max Newton told police he had a close encounter with Brown in the desert near the Fort McDowell Casino. Newton had been camping with his son and friends in late November. They heard gunfire. Investigating, they encountered Brown, practicing gunnery on paper plate targets and accidentally shooting Newton's 1999 Ford F250 pickup. Newton says Brown was apologetic, and promised to pay for the damage.
In addition to the bullet removed from the truck's door, Newton also showed police a paper plate on which he had written Brown's phone number. He says he called Brown several times about the estimated $1,300 in damages, leaving one voice message around the time Palomares was shot. The next day Brown returned the calls, said he "felt terrible," and promised to get a check right out.
Newton was still waiting for the check on December 6, when he saw Brown's name and face on TV. The day after he talked to police, he got a surprise in the mail: A $1,300 check, a gift certificate for Toys R Us, and an apologetic note signed by Brown. Police kept it all as evidence.
A Lost Trail
On December 4, 2004, the Maricopa Superior Court – compelled by the fingerprint match and other forensic evidence – issued a warrant for Brown's arrest, for robbery, illegal flight and the murder of armored-car guard Robert Keith Palomares. Police held a press conference to alert the public. Some pundits remarked on Brown's physical resemblance to actor Sean Penn – such an uncanny likeness, in fact, that one of Penn's body doubles was detained, questioned, and released by authorities in 2006, a fact confirmed by FBI special agent Manuel Johnson of the bureau's Phoenix office.
Within hours of the presser, Brown's image went viral. Trouble was, the Phoenix PD did not tell the FBI they were releasing the information. With his smirking photo all over the place, he got a couple of heads-up calls. One heads-up came from Brown's friend and sometimes landlady, Ahwatukee realtor Ellen Robinson. When she saw the news, she assumed the police had the wrong person, and called Brown to warn him that he'd better clear up this trouble.
Brown – who by this time was in California at the home of his sister, Jami – got another tip-off, too. On December 6, David Jr. confronted Jason with a voicemail from a Phoenix reporter trying to track down Jason's relatives, Jami told police. According to the report: "Jason got 'a little fear in his face' and told David Jr. that he needed to leave. Jason told David Jr. that he did not want to get David Jr. 'involved in this.' Jason then left."
The authorities had good reason to believe David Jr. was an accomplice: Phone records show that Jason and David Jr. exchanged about 60 phone calls the day of the murder. David Jr. told police they were mostly chitchat, and that Jason never mentioned the murder or the robbery. He added that Jason asked for directions to the 24 Hour Fitness Center in Tempe, where David Jr., who'd spent time in the Valley, had a membership. In fact, Jason does appear on security video taken later that day at the 24 Hour Fitness Center. The cameras show him taking a duffel bag into the gym, leaving without it, and returning later to pick it up. Police and the FBI would like to know what was in that bag, and who else Jason might have been working with.
Tracing his steps, officials believe Jason drove his BMW from Arizona to Las Vegas the day after the shooting – presumably to access a black Cadillac Escalade he kept in storage. He then drove to David Jr.'s house in California. Jami told police the brothers went golfing the next day. That night, Jason phoned Jami, asked for directions to her house, and showed up later that night in the Escalade. He spent the next five days with Jami, an interior designer, and went clubbing at nights. Jami was surprised that Jason didn't pick up all the tabs like he used to.
Dalton says police and FBI agents, warrants in hand, were about an hour away from catching Jason at his sister's home when he left in the Escalade – tipped off somehow that law enforcement was looking for him. Afterward, both Jami and David Jr. were scrutinized closely by authorities. About a week after Jason's disappearance, the FBI intercepted the first of two packages from Jason addressed to David Jr. The packages included videotapes, a phone, a laptop, a hoodie, the 24 Hour Fitness membership card, and a handgun David Jr. said Jason had stolen from him.
In 2005, David Jr. – who the FBI accused of driving to Las Vegas and wiping the silver BMW clean of evidence – was indicted for abetting his brother. He later plea-bargained to a lesser count of lying to police. He served three years under supervised probation. David's lawyer, Larry Hammond of the Phoenix firm Osborn Maledon, will say little about his client, except that he lives in California and believes he was used by his younger brother.
Jason also got help from Jami, according to Williams. When the police and FBI questioned Jami about Jason, she told them he drove away in his BMW, not the Escalade. Later, she called Dalton back and admitted the lie. Unlike David, she never faced charges for lying on Jason's behalf. Dalton says it was because she came clean.
Dalton says he doesn't blame landlady Robinson for Brown's getting away: "The mistake lay with the Phoenix PD before I [took over the case]," he says. He says he doesn't know why Brown's name was released prematurely – he was not lead investigator at the time, and the decision was "above my pay grade."
FBI special agent Johnson told PHOENIX magazine the police had good reason to release Brown's identity. He was armed and dangerous – presumed so to this day. Putting his name out was for police and public safety.
Where in the World?
On December 8, 2007 – 1,104 days after gunning down Robert Palomares – Jason Derek Brown became the 489th fugitive to land on the FBI 10 Most Wanted Fugitive list. In a bitter twist of irony, the mother of his victim, Lina Rodriguez, passed away on the same day.
Brown now has the fifth-longest tenure on the list, behind child-murderer Alexis Flores, fellow Arizona fugitive Fisher, drug trafficker Glen Stewart Godwin, and armed robber Victor Manuel Gerena, who was added to the list way back in 1984 after absconding with $7 million from a security company in West Hartford, Conn. Each of the law enforcement officers interviewed for this article maintains that Brown will be caught eventually, but the hard, statistical fact remains: With every passing year, his capture grows incrementally less likely.
The last physical evidence of Brown's whereabouts placed him at Portland International Airport in Oregon, where police discovered his Escalade in January 2005.
In 2012, the most credible Brown sighting, at a traffic light near the zoo in Salt Lake City, was called in by a person who claimed to know Brown from Mormon-mission days. The FBI's lead investigator, special agent Lance Leising, told media Brown could be hiding in plain sight in Salt Lake City, maybe helped by unsuspecting Mormon friends. Phoenix detective Dalton shrugs it off as loose talk.
The most recent alleged sighting of Brown came last November in Victor, Idaho, from a couple who said they traveled with him on the French Riviera. It turned out to be a false lead, says Dalton. Teton County Sheriff Tony Liford told PHOENIX magazine that one FBI agent showed up to help him search, but the suspect turned out to be a local building contractor. Dalton also gives little credence to sightings reported in Fiji and Thailand, though he says the FBI follows up on all reports. Brown probably burned through $56,039.07 pretty quickly and may have again turned to violence to replenish his funds, Dalton says. Because of that possibility, Dalton pegs the chances of Brown's still being alive at 50-50, though Brown hasn't been linked to any other crime.
But if he is alive, where would he most likely be? Dalton's hunch: Brown, fluent in French, is in Quebec. The landscape is familiar, and Brown wouldn't be conspicuous. He must have used some of his money to buy a new ID, Dalton thinks. In fact, he says, an early false lead was from a man who claimed to have forged a new ID for Brown. There's also speculation Brown joined up with his still-missing con-man father. Dalton doubts it, but allows for the possibility.
At times, Dalton sounds like he thinks capturing Brown is all but a done deal. "That's one of the things I'm going to ask him," Dalton says, when asked about Brown's unknown interlocutor in the Ahwatukee hotel lobby.
If that and other leads fail to pan out, and Brown is never apprehended or found dead, he may eventually be taken off the list because he no longer fits the 10 Most Wanted criteria – i.e. he's no longer considered to be a "particularly dangerous menace to society," according to FBI literature. This has happened six times in the 60-year history of the list. In Brown's case, the FBI might invoke it if they suspected he was too old or infirm to commit other acts of violence – no time soon, in other words.
If he is alive today, Brown has proved remarkably adept at forging a new identity, living below the radar. Some indication of this might have been foreshadowed in his oddly contrite gestures in the wake of the murder, including reimbursing Max Newton for the bullet hole in his truck door. In one of their many phone conversations, Jason even told David Jr. he wanted to "start over" in life and be "less materialistic" – this only hours after the Palomares murder.
All this, Dalton thinks, is Brown's way of leaving his old life behind, of saying "I'm not that person anymore." It could have been mental preparation for a life on the run. Whether there's a scintilla of real remorse behind these gestures – so soon after a violent crime perpetrated for shallow motives – is a question only Brown can answer.
Places Jason Derek Brown might be, and why they're possibilities:
France: Brown did his Mormon mission in the country; his familiarity with the country would be an asset if he's living under an assumed identity.
Bali, Indonesia: An alleged sighting failed to pan out.
Thailand: Many "tenners" are found far from home, but a Brown sighting in the Southeast Asian country remains unconfirmed.
Victor, ID: People who knew Brown from France reported seeing him, and distribution of the wanted poster led to a rash of local sightings.
Salt Lake City: A person who knew Brown from his missionary days reported seeing him near the zoo.
Dana Point, CA: Brown made a bank deposit here after the murder, but it's unlikely he stuck around.
Iron County, in southwest Utah: In The Ghost, Paige Williams writes about an alleged wilderness sighting.
Quebec: Brown speaks fluent French, so he might blend in. But no sightings have been reported.
Mexico: More FBI 10 Most Wanted Fugitives have been apprehended in Mexico than any other foreign country. But no Brown sightings have been reported.