None of Karen Brown’s choices the last few weeks have been easy.
It wasn’t easy calling the Anson County, N.C., Sheriff’s Office to report that her mentally ill son had broken into a trailer at her North Carolina home and stolen her guns.
It wasn’t easy keeping him on the phone a day later as Chesterfield County authorities stood by and police in York County worked to arrest him at an Oak Street house in Clover last month.
And, it isn’t easy now, leaving him to sit in jail, where he’s charged with possession of stolen pistols and as a fugitive from justice.
Andrew Ross-Dowd Brown, 20 and without any prior criminal record, was arrested April 17 after a conversation with his mother led to a 20-minute lockdown of Clover schools. Clover school officials, reacting to an alert from the York County Sheriff’s Office, told parents a “credible threat” had been received involving at least one school.
Authorities later said Brown never threatened any school, either in Chesterfield or Clover.
Karen Brown, a first-grade teacher in Chesterfield County, said her son stopped taking medicine to treat his bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and attention deficit disorder when he was 17. Those illnesses were inherited from his biological mother, Karen Brown said.
“I have tried many things to get help for my son,” she said. “Once a young person with mental health issues becomes an adult with mental health issues...unless you have interaction with law enforcement, there’s no one there to force you to stay on medications, counseling.”
The son Karen Brown adopted when he was 8-months-old and raised in the countryside of Marshville, N.C., as a single parent is behind bars in York County, where she says he’ll have to answer for his actions.
Those actions, police say, included stealing guns from his mother last month, then driving to Clover to allegedly lure her to a community center so he could shoot her, himself and police if they interfered.
Karen Brown doesn’t believe her son’s plans were that sinister.
“When things get tough for my son, he usually tries to get to his mom,” she said. “I felt he would try to reach out and get to me...to get help.”
Getting help is why Karen Brown called police after realizing on April 16 that her firearms had been stolen.
“I’ve had more than one psychologist, therapist, counselor say, ‘get him involved with law enforcement...that may be the first step he needs as a young adult,’” she said. “Now, they’re going to force him to look at this issue.”
That issue is a lifetime battle with mental illness. It’s not an excuse for what Andrew Brown did, she said, but it is a reason.
Andrew Brown spent much of his life at a home in the boonies of Marshville, N.C., where horses and books provided entertainment.
An avid reader and history buff, he read The Diary of Anne Frank in third-grade and became enamored with the Holocaust, Karen Brown said.
“Whatever his interest was, was his addiction,” she said. “He moved on to the Civil War and got all interested in that. He can tell you about all the battles...and guns,” she said.
Karen Brown taught Andrew how to shoot guns, correctly and responsibly. She admits that he’s good at it.
“He can tell you about all types of guns, when they were developed... what they were developed for,” she said. “It’s not just an interest in getting the guns and shooting them. He has an interest in the whole history of it.”
He went to school for a few years in Charlotte, where Karen Brown worked as an educator. Distance, she said, might explain why he didn’t develop strong social skills. His friends were about 45 minutes away.
Still, he forged bonds. Alongside his mother, Andrew Brown volunteered with the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network and helped care for an elderly Anson County woman who suffered from HIV. She later died of respiratory complications.
He spent summers rebuilding and repairing homes in low-income housing areas with a Methodist church youth group.
“There is a compassionate, caring side of him,” she said. “But, because of his mental illness, there’s also something inside of him that, at times, triggers him to make bad decisions and do bad things.”
Karen Brown has enrolled her son in group counseling, in-home counseling, residential treatments, individual therapy sessions, in-home placement —“everything I think a parent can do to help their child.”
When Andrew regularly took his meds, he was focused, she said. During his senior year at Forest Hills High School in Marshville, he was on the A/B honor roll and voted “Most Improved Student,” she said.
“It looked like he had a promising future ahead of him; he wanted to go into the military,” Karen Brown said. “But, you can’t have those issues and go into the military.”
According to the U.S. Army’s standards of medical fitness —used for other military branches, as well— any mental disorder that “in the opinion of the civilian or military provider” will interfere with duty are automatic disqualifiers. These include bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders and a host of other mental illnesses.
Recruiters told Andrew Brown he’d have to prove he could function successfully without the meds for a year, Karen Brown said. He tried.
“When they got his medical records, he was denied entrance into any branch of service,” she said.
Untreated, all three disorders can result in poor focus, reckless, uninhibited behavior and impulsive decision-making, said Kim Cannon, a licensed master social worker and clinician with Catawba Mental Health in Rock Hill.
“It’s debilitating,” she said, and therapy, for borderline personality disorder at least, is usually the best option.
Andrew Brown used the Job Corps in Pittsburgh, Penn., as his next option. When he finished, he searched for a job that would pay more than minimum wage, Karen Brown said. Eventually, he found work at a home improvement store in York County.
Trouble in York County
Andrew Brown lived with one of his mother’s friends in York until he threw a party while she was away one weekend, according to a York County Sheriff’s report.
The woman told York County Sheriff’s deputies that she asked Andrew to leave, although she allowed him to occasionally shower at her house while she was home, the report states.
Sometime between April 14 and April 15, she said, Brown entered her house with a key he took from his mother’s house and stole $80 in cash and a GPS device while she was out of town, according to the report.
Deputies spoke with Andrew Brown in jail. He said he pawned the GPS, the report states, and is now charged with petty larceny.
When police arrested Andrew Brown on April 17 at an Oak Street house, they also found guns and drugs inside the home. Police then arrested four other people inside: Jason Fretz, 23; his girlfriend, Sascha Williams, 18; his mother, Tammy Fretz, 50; and her boyfriend, Robert Frye, 52.
Williams was charged with possession of a stolen pistol. Tammy Fretz, Jason Fretz and Frye were charged with possession of drug paraphernalia and possession of marijuana. Frye also was charged breach of peace.
Police believe Jason Fretz and Williams were both involved in stealing Karen Brown’s guns a day before, said Clover Police Chief Randy Grice.
After Williams and Jason Fretz were released from the York County jail on bond, they were taken to Anson County, N.C., and charged in the April 16 gun theft from Karen Brown’s property. Fretz and Williams were both charged with larceny of firearms. Williams was additionally charged with felony larceny and was released from jail Tuesday on a $6,000 bond.
Fretz, also charged with conspiracy to break-in, was released from prison on Thursday on $8,500 bond.
Tammy Fretz said her son, Jason Fretz, thought they were going to Andrew Brown’s Peachland, N.C., home to get his clothes so he could stay at Jason Fretz’s home in Clover. She said he claims he was asleep at the time. The police report only mentions one man and one woman.
Brown said she discovered the guns missing when she went into her horse trailer and realized her gun safe was torn from a cabinet. She called her son, and tried to convince him to come back.
He didn’t. But later he told his mother from jail that he was being threatened. She doesn’t know what those threats were, she said, but “he felt like if I tried to come pick him up, he would be harmed or I would be harmed.”
That same night, Karen Brown told her principal “that my son was out there and he had taken my guns.” The principal notified the school’s superintendent, Dr. Harrison Goodwin, said Ken Buck, Chesterfield schools spokesman.
Chesterfield County authorities were notified and called Karen. They told her they planned to be at the school the next morning, she said.
“We took the precaution of extra security because of the domestic situation from the day before,” Buck said “Our superintendent...specifically asked our sheriff and another deputy...if there had been a specific threat made towards the school. They indicated that there had not been one.”
Karen Brown arrived at school at 6:45 a.m. April 17. The SWAT team met her at the door.
“They already had a plan in place,” she said. “There wasn’t a sense of chaos. Everything moved like clockwork.”
Police “asked me what I felt most comfortable doing,” she said. “What I said to them was I want to do the only thing I know how to do and that’s go teach my children.”
After first period ended, her phone rang. It was Andrew.
He asked her to send him $360 so he could bring his girlfriend from West Virginia to York County, she said. She said she’d have to meet him somewhere first.
“I was the one who originally tried to set up the meeting so I could get to him; so police could get to him without him being harmed,” she said.
He told her not to bring any cops. If she did, “I will shoot at them...or shoot myself,” she said he told her. “I do not remember him saying anything about trying to shoot me.”
According to Clover police, Brown, after his arrest, told detectives he wanted to lure his mother to the community center to shoot her. Had law enforcement interfered, he would have shot at responding officers before killing himself.
Andrew Brown denied to her he said that, Karen Brown said. She acknowledged she’s not sure if he’s telling the truth, nor does she know what he could have said during a police interrogation.
But on that Wednesday, as mother and son spoke, Chesterfield County authorities listened.
“Some of it were questions that were being written down for me to ask him,” she said. “Some of it were things parents just ask their children.”
At the same time, officials in York County learned Brown was possibly in Clover with guns.
“I just kept talking to him until (police) went into that house on Oak Street,” Karen Brown said. “It seemed like an eternity.”
In York County, news about Brown was relayed by a crime intelligence analyst with the York County Sheriff’s Office, who spoke to Chesterfield authorities with a phone in one hand and to a York sheriff’s office captain with a phone in the other. Details were muffled when they were delivered to local officials.
Word that Clover schools might be endangered reached school administrators, who ordered the lockdown on all district schools. Afterwards, school officials sent a memo to parents via email, telephone and social media telling them about the lockdown. Chesterfield County schools never went on lockdown.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that my superintendent and my principal made the right call,” Karen Brown said. “The sense of urgency was to find my son. The best way to find my son was exactly how it happened.”
Andrew Brown’s plan, according to Karen Brown, was that he would get inside her car and ask her to take him to police.
“He knew how I was; he knew he was going to have to face what he had done,” she said.
Mental illness ‘invisible’
Educators aren’t immune from domestic turmoil, Karen Brown said.
“When you look at the dynamics of a teacher’s family, you would like to think it’s some perfect family,” she said. “The truth is, teachers have domestic problems...with their children. Unfortunately, we feel a bigger need to keep it under wraps because we’re teaching children.”
Karen Brown said many have questioned why Nancy Lanza didn’t seek help for her son, Adam Lanza —who last year stormed into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and killed 20 children and six adults. He also killed his mother and himself.
Nancy Lanza didn’t publicize her son’s battle with a mild-form of autism (which experts say has no connection with manifestations of violence) “because of the stigma attached to mental health,” Karen Brown said. “What most people don’t realize is that people with mental illness can be functioning, contributing members of society.”
Mental illness, she said, is “not as visible as someone with a drug addiction where you can see the needle marks, or someone with an alcohol addiction where you can smell it on their breath.
“Mental illness is invisible,” she said, “and the only way people see it is through...actions or words that don’t fit in into the norm of society.”
Face the consequences
It’s unclear when Andrew Brown will be sent to North Carolina to face charges in the theft of his mother’s guns.
No matter the outcome, Karen Brown hopes her son gets help. She hopes to speak with the Anson County district attorney on her son’s behalf and negotiate some type of “exchange” that would trade mental health treatment for prison time.
She’s been transparent with her son, still held at the York County Detention Center on a $470 bond, in their phone conversations.
“You understand you are going to be punished,” she told him recently. “I always told him that if you ever got into that kind of trouble, you’d have to face the consequences.”
Over a prison phone, Karen Brown said, Andrew Brown told her, “‘I need some mental help.’”
“Was it easy to turn my own son in? No,” she said. “Was it the right thing to do? Yes.
“It might be a turning point for him,” she said. “If he can get the mental health help he needs, then all these tears might be worth it.”