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Getting Away with Murdering Della Brown

Updated: Jul 31

Welcome to Crime Raven, real life stories from law enforcement, crimes, and issues crime fighters face. This podcast discusses crimes researched using publicly available information or personal recollections. Content may be graphic disturbing or violent, and maybe upsetting to some. Listener discretion is advised. Suspects are considered innocent until found guilty in a court of law.

Alaskans like to refer to their state as the last frontier. A label intended to invoke feelings and qualities of the old west. People who are self-sufficient rugged individuals capable of facing the challenges of climate and geography. In many cases, that's true. Alaska is the largest US state in total square miles, but has a tiny population: a little over 700,000 people. By comparison, the city of Austin, Texas has more people than the entire state of Alaska. Of those 700,000 Alaskans, about half are concentrated in and around the city of Anchorage, it's largest city. With the relatively small population, you might assume Anchorage would be a quiet, everybody-knows-everybody kind of town, but you would be wrong. Anchorage is a bustling chaotic city, reminiscent of a wild west Boomtown. It is home to Alaska's main coastal port and rail head, a large military base, and one of the busiest air freight hubs in the world. In Alaska, the road system is very limited and many communities are only accessible by boat or airplane. The transportation system is between cities and towns functioning as a series of hubs. Anchorage to the largest hub is the inevitable funnel for people as they transit to and from the rest of Alaska and in and out of the state. Many of the businesses in the last frontier are based on the state's abundant, natural resources. Those jobs usually pay well, but many are seasonal. The fisheries and oil fields allow people the opportunity to make large amounts of money in a short time. And those workers and their cash end up in Anchorage. The city is in that sense, like the old wild west boomtowns with a high transient population, looking for a recreation, medical services and supplies. A common saying is "Anchorage ain't Alaska, but you can see it from there." So the city is thought of as civilization, by many who live and work in the remote corners of the state and geography further sets this pocket of civilization apart. Anchorage is crowded by Alaskan standards. It's sandwiched between two forbidding barriers, the Cook Inlet to the west and the Chugach mountain range to the east. The inlet, an extension of the Gulf of Alaska runs gray with silt. Its tidal currents and mudflats can be deadly. Opposite the water, the mountains form the imposing Eastern barrier towering thousands of feet above the city. There are only two roads out, one highway south to the Seward peninsula, and one north toward the Alaskan interior. Like the wild west Boomtowns, Anchorage is a city with several facets. In one, the more affluent areas of town are verdant and picturesque where bears and bobcats frolic and moose calve in front yards. In this Anchorage crime rates are low and violent crime is rare. In the other Anchorage, the one recently rated as the most dangerous American city west of the Mississippi river, crimes of all categories are high and violent crime occurs as a rate high, even by national standards. Spenard, a neighborhood in the middle of Anchorage has a high, violent crime rate. Anchorage like many other Western cities is neatly laid out in the north south grid system. But Spenard, with its namesake road is odd. Spenard road snakes diagonally through Anchorage. At its north end rests the huge and iconic bar, Chilkoot Charlie's. From there, the road meanders south and west, home to business fronts and strip malls, restaurants and bars, all backing onto mixed residential areas, rundown houses, apartment buildings, and dilapidated mobile homes. If Anchorage was San Francisco, Spenard would be its tenderloin. A bustling, daytime eclectic mix of small businesses, coffee shops, and eateries that gives away at night to one of the city's seamy sides, where alcohol and drugs flow freely out of the bars and from street corners soaking into the neighborhoods and greenbelts the back the busy strip. If a predator wanted to find a victim, say one made vulnerable by overindulgence in mind-altering substances. Spenard after dark would be a good place to start that search. On the night in early September of 2000, a 20 year old named Joshua Allen wade was driving around in the Spenard area with several friends. He saw a woman, 33 -year-old Della Brown. She was laying near the roadside unconscious. Della had passed out while walking in the neighborhood. When the group stopped at a nearby house, Josh left them and walked down the block to where Della was still laying. Josh was familiar with the immediate area and confident enough, even though the area was densely populated to drag her down the street and into abandoned garage. It was dark, illuminated only by a distance street lamp. The light filtered weakly through the open door into a short corridor that allowed access the only other room, a small garage. Once Josh had Della inside, he raped her. He strangled her. He cut her body several times with a knife and he crushed her skull, hitting her head over and over again with a large rock. After killing Della, Wade spent some time with her body positioning her so that she would be fully on display. He walked back down the street and bragged to his friends about what he had done. Many of the people he told retraced Joshua's path and viewed Della's. Some even used matches to aluminate the bloody scene. One of the people attracted the scene was a streetwalker named Katie. She saw what had been done to Della and that no one was doing anything about it. She left there and immediately went and got high. Katie was shocked by what she saw, but the drugs couldn't erase that horror. So she walked to a gas station, 14 blocks away and told the clerk to call the police because someone was dead. An Anchorage police officer who knew Katie responded. He saw the Katy was extremely high. She was babbling continuously, something about the moon, something about the Aurora Borealis. And eventually she slipped in that a woman had be killed in the area and that she had seen the body. The officer was skeptical. Katie said she was afraid, but would show him where the body was. So Katie got in the police car, she laid across the back seat, ducking her head below the window frame to avoid being seen as she tried to direct the officer. They eventually ended up at the intersection of 32nd avenue and Dorbrandt, where she pointed to the Southeast corner, a small rundown garage on a tiny lot overgrown with brush and weeds. The officer found Della Brown's body laying just inside the doorway of that shack. When other officers arrived, they cleared the building. Then they called for the detectives and the crime scene team. So Katie was able to give enough information to put the investigators quickly on a Josh Wade's trail. And with pressure, some of his friends eventually agreed to cooperate. Detectives brought Wade in for questioning and he made admissions about the murder. Initially, the case seems strong. The witnesses gave statements saying that they were led to the scene by Wade. He was bragging about what he had done to the woman and to backup the witnesses versions, the detectives had run a wire and on tape, Wade talked about killing Della and killing other people. The murder case against Joshua Wade proceeded to trial in 2003. By that time, the crime scene forensic analysis was complete, but the results did not strengthen the prosecution case. No samples of Wade DNA or fingerprints were found at the scene. Worse, there was DNA taken from the scene and Della's body that did not come from Wade. Some of those samples were not identified even by the trial date. Wade, had the well-respected defense team, Cindy Strout, and Jim McComas. Their case centered on two things. First, the lack of DNA evidence tying Josh to the scene or to Della's body. As far as the DNA and trace evidence was concerned, there was nothing that helped the state's case and the unknown or unidentified samples were a problem. Their second strategy was to attack the prosecution's witness. Several of them, despite being young, had extensive criminal involvement and recent arrest for serious crimes. The defense assertion was that Josh made all of the incriminating statements about killing Della because he wanted the street credit that he was in essence, trying to prove to his friends how tough he was. So the trial lasted for 10 weeks. And after a week of deliberation, the jury acquitted Wade of all charges, except for tampering with evidence. With this conviction considering time he was in custody pretrial, he would be a free man again, sometime in 2004. so want to talk more about this case, but first this being the first episode of my podcast, I thought I would tell you who I am and about my sidekick, Marcy.


Marcy:

Hi.

Mark:

I grew up in a military family. My father was an engineer in the air force. We lived all over overseas, California, Washington state, Ohio. I went to high school in Georgia and I went to college in Fairbanks, Alaska, and I served as a member of the U S Marine reserve and was mobilized my reconnaissance unit for desert storm. I then had a career in law enforcement.

Marcy:

You didn't start out with law enforcement as a goal though, did you?

Mark:

No, my path in college was initially to be a lawyer, so I was taking justice, poly-psy type classes. Like a lot of college students, I was poor. And you suggested that I work at campus security, where there was an opening. So this is all your fault. Campus security was actually a police and fire department with a dispatch center. So all my duties were pretty much locking and unlocking buildings and checking on trouble alarms. I was spending my time with cops. Some of whom were from much larger organizations. Like one, who was a retired secret service agent. On a daily basis, I was hearing their war stories and in the dispatch center, I listened to incidents happening across the region. Over time, this police thing became more interesting than my classes. Then in April of 1993, I was working a day shift on campus when a call of a dead body in one of the dorm bathrooms was broadcast. I responded and was the first security person there. This was a sexual assault and murder scene of a young woman named Sophie Sergie. What I saw there had a profound effect on me. I couldn't believe it had happened. I was angry about the effect on what I thought was a safe campus. I wanted to know what kind of person was capable of this kind of violence towards a woman. And I remember thinking somebody has to pay for this crime. This was devastating to the university, but one of the positive effects was the aftermath I saw. And I was a participant in the work to make the community safer. And to try to identify the murderer. I saw the law enforcement was a partnership. It was a team effort like had experienced in the Marines and it made me want to be more deeply involved. as an aside note, none of us expected that justice for Sophie Sergie would literally be decades away. I'll talk more about that later in the program. So the late winter of 1994, I was hired by the Anchorage police department over the following 20 plus years, I would work on patrol as a field training officer, and as a Sergeant. I'd work in detectives in burglary and vice, which has street-level crimes and human trafficking. And as a detective Sergeant over sex crimes in major drug enforcement and in crime suppression. My crime suppression unit targeted problem, crime locations, and supported major crime investigations in homicide robbery, sexual assault, and vice units. Throughout my time as a cop, I'd always had the drive to understand the how, and more importantly, the why of a crime, basically the criminology piece. What drives people to commit the crimes they do, particularly the cruelty. How did they get to that mental place and why, why that crime? Why then? Why that particular victim? As I went through investigations, asking myself these questions, what I found motivated me to hunt the perpetrators, particularly the unknown suspects was The idea of the fictional character made up for the movie LA confidential named Rolo Tomasi. He captured my imagination in all the cases I was involved in. I was looking for Rolo Tomasi the guy who thought he got away with it.

Marcy:

So I also worked as a security guard for the university police and I also helped secure the scene of Sophie Sergie's murder. I had lived in that same dorm where she was murdered and later I worked for about four years as a dispatcher at the Anchorage police department. I left that and have been in healthcare ever since.

Mark:

What were the benefits of being a police dispatcher?


Marcy:

It was a double-edged sword. As a dispatcher, I answered nine one one calls and I worked the radio. At the time the center was set up so the city was divided into two, each with its own radio frequency and dispatcher. And there was a third radio for utility traffic where officers could run vehicles and people call for tow trucks, and that kind of thing. This was before computers were in patrol cars and before cell phones were widely used. Radio traffic was intense. So you only worked a main radio for an hour or two, and then you rotated to the phones. It was challenging and interesting work. It helped me understand what your work was like. But as a cop's wife, that's not always a good thing. I worked when officers were hurt. I went to cop funerals and memorials, and I knew the dangers. I also knew the cowboys and the shit magnets. And you were a shit magnet. So the other thing that being a dispatcher gave us was a common language that we could use with each other.

Mark:

So we've had this understanding complete with a coded language since early in our relationship. If you're unaware, many police departments use 10 and 11 codes, or maybe codes that correspond with how their calls for services are listed. For example, in Anchorage or code for homicide was 11 one, sex assault, 11 two, robbery, 11 three. So just like normal parents might with their kids spell out I C E C R E A M. We thought we were being slick it to talk about our crimes around the kids without scarring them for this.

Marcy:

What we found out later was the kids learned the cop speak and had been following along for years. We quizzed one of our sons as a teenager and he was able to go right down the list, murder, sexual assault, robbery, dead bodies. Needless to say, we were horrified. Now back to the crime, you worked nights in Spenard for years. Why was that shift and that location where you settled?

Mark:

Well, there was a lot of variety there. A lot of people ask me why like Spenard. This goes back to the mid nineties. I'd tell them it's where the wolves and the sheep meet, normal citizens residents from around the city would come to the area for late-night recreation. There are a lot of bars, the city's biggest rowdiest bar is there. Drunks gangs, drugs, prostitution, you name it and mingled with the crime were normal people. Some of whom had no idea the problems that could suddenly erupt: drunken brawls in the street. Assaults, stabbings and shootings were fairly common. Vulnerable with people being victimized was a theme throughout my career. So my role with Della Brown was as a patrol officer.

Marcy:

It was really hard to find information about Della Brown. We know she was an Alaska Native woman and she was 33 years old when she was murdered. We know she reportedly loved salmon fishing and salmon fishing is a really important thing to all Alaskans, but it's particularly important as a subsistence activity for Alaska Native communities. We know that Della had a mother who loved her and who attended the trial and cried when Josh Wade was acquitted. Della was also an alcoholic. What role does alcohol play in violence in cases like this?

Mark:

Anchorage has a significant problem with drug and alcohol abuse and addiction, and many people with those problems have unstable homes or are homeless. And many have significant mental health issues. People who are homeless and intoxicated are particularly vulnerable to violence because they are exposed unprotected and make easy targets. Anchorage has a very high rate of crimes related to substance abuse. And one of those is sexual assaults. I was a Sergeant of the sexual assault unit in Anchorage for a couple of years, I triaged all incoming cases and reviewed all reports involving possible sex crimes. There were hundreds of them every year. What I found is what people think of as a rape, a guy in a mask, hiding behind the bushes, grabbing a victim as they walk through the park. It does happen. A relative of mine was attacked just like that. From out of the bushes while she was jogging on the coastal trail, she was able to fight her attacker off and he was arrested in the area. Complete stranger rapes are a small percentage of the total number. The majority of our sexual assaults, and this is true across the country, our acquaintance or semi acquaintance assaults, where the offender takes advantage of trust and often inebriation using the opportunity to offend only when he thinks he won't be seen. And the victim is vulnerable. So Katie, her name has been changed was a streetwalker that I knew from working in the Spenard area. She had no love for cops, but she was normally calm and cooperative. When I saw her at the gas station at 36 and C, I was surprised by her demeanor. She was clearly high, but also it was hysterical. It was a creepy night dark because there wasn't any snow yet on the ground, it was cold Misty. Partly overcast. The moon had been out earlier with the Aurora, which was unusual. That was one of the things Katie kept ranting.

Marcy:

But what made you pay attention to what Katie was saying? If she was high and hysterical?

Mark:

So I'd seen a lot of bad, dope reactions, but this was different. It was what made me give, searching a try. A lot of times it was a copy. Cover your ass by checking out the improbable just so you can say you did. I admit, I did not think that we are going to find anything. So I drove her to the west. She became increasingly unsure of where exactly we were going. She was afraid and ducking down in my seat and acting a little weird. So as a surprise, we came to 32nd and Dorbrandt street, kind of by driving around aimlessly seemingly. And she just screamed. It was, she's like in my ear, there it is. There it is. Her hand thrust over my shoulder through the open cage. She said my backseat pointing to the right, just over my shoulder and she's yelling. It scared me, I hit my alley, lights jumped out of the car. You know, part of me was worried it was a setup, but there wasn't anybody around.

Marcy:

What do you mean by a set-up?


Mark:

Well from time to time around the country, police officers are ambushed. You know, and I was going where Katie was leading me. So you never know, you know, we had just passed the Hell's Angels clubhouse there at 3403 Dorbrant, which it turned out nothing to do with it, but in Spenard, you know, strange shit happens. So the building that Katie pointed was pointing at the garage, sometimes in some accounts it's described as a shed. It's kind of both. If you can imagine a one car garage with a shed attached to one side, that's what this was. It was rundown. The garage door was closed, but hanging kind of a skew. The man door on the side of the shed was open there with foliage overgrown on the lot dilapidated shed, dark Misty night, the whole effect was just eerie. I called for backup, which thankfully was not far away. So with my weapon out as announcing police, Katie stayed in the car. I told her not to get out. And as I moved to look into the open doorway on the side of the building, just inside on the partially dirt floor, I saw Della's body. She was on her back. Her bra and shirt were pushed up. One arm was above her head extended. The other kind of bent off to the side. Her chest and abdomen were exposed. Her pants were pulled down to her ankles. Her knees were positioned apart. You could see everything. I remember that first instance thinking, could she be alive? But then I looked at her head, her face and her head were pulverized. Later the medical examiner would describe her head as being crushed, like a bag of ice, describing the damage to her skull. But I knew from seeing her face that she was unmistakably dead. The other thing I knew is that her body had been left there in that position for shock value.

Marcy:

So by this time of your career, you've seen a lot of dead bodies. What was different about this?

Mark:

You know, most of the dead or dying are attended within a short period of time. They're generally in a position consistent with the action, the event, whether they, they died from natural causes or in a car wreck or from a fall, the body's positioned appropriately for what happened. You know, a body may have been worked on by paramedics, which adds its own tracks across a scene, but Della's positioning was unnatural. She was sexually displayed. I had never seen a body laid out for visual effect before, even with a sexual assault murder victim I saw my university, she had been dumped in a tub in an isolated bathroom, almost like she was hidden. Della Brown was different later in this case, there's information from the medical examiner that Della had died over an extended period of time and in a different position than how she was found. What I know is that the position she was in by the time I saw her was purposeful by the killer. I'd only read about this type of staging, but I knew that this offender was going to be unusual.

Mark:

So after the cover officers arrived, I had to step over Della's body to clear the garage with this kind of case, you know, forensics are going to be a major concern. I went in trying to disturb as little as possible while ensuring nobody was still inside the garage. In general, the shed was filthy. There was dirt, trash and debris everywhere.

Marcy:

So why do you think Katie was the only one that told somebody about Della's body?

Mark:

I think Katie was the only one who reported because she saw herself in the victim.

Marcy:

So after everything you've just told me how on earth could he be acquitted after leading all of those people to Della's body? I mean, the acquittal can only be attributed to a masterful defense by the defense attorneys, Cindy Stratton, Jim Macomas. Number one, there was lack of trace evidence. Like I said, the crime scene is filthy lots of items or samples that may or may not have been related to the crime on the, on and around. Dust and dirt or a hindrance in developing usable fingerprints. I think that the unidentified DNA samples were nothing but a big question mark to the jury. This was fairly early in the DNA days. The problem, then wasn't only a huge backlog of historic and contemporary DNA cases as it still is today. Back then, it was also a lack of comparative samples Also, this happened when this TV show CSI was a new and very popular right or wrong, that show raised the expectation there would always be trace evidence that easily identifiable that points directly to the offender. The prosecution in this case just didn't have that. Today dNA has become the gold standard convictions are being made sometimes with DNA is the only major piece of direct evidence. The second thing. The defense lawyers did was crush the credibility of the witnesses and the witnesses were problematic. Just consider that these people knew that a murder had happened. They saw the body, they did nothing. Beyond that lack of reporting, several of the witnesses were part of a gang with Wade who had successfully committed a series of armed robberies to businesses and people. One night, their luck ended when one of the gang members, his name was Crim Alexi was shot by the clerk of the Spenard motel. Crim alexi lived, but the whole gang was rounded up and sent to prison. Two of those gang members named Troxel and Beckett were the guys who wore the wire and recorded Wade's admission. All were sent to federal prison for a number of years. One of those guys named Thiele spend 10 years in prison, got out, raped a child, and then went back to prison probably for the rest of his life. So the defense attorneys were correct. These guys are scum and they were able to use that assertion to raise the possibility that one of them not Wade was Della's real killer.

Marcy:

So with the holes and the problems with the case, why prosecute?

Mark:

So prosecutor's careers are a balancing act on one side, you have the public and often the police who were pushing for prosecution. Emphasizing only the strengths of a case on the other. You have the prosecutors who rate the health of their careers and their potential for promotion by wins, not losses, they're in a competitive field. And don't want the embarrassment of taking a case that has holes in it in front of a jury where the level of proof must be beyond a reasonable doubt. My hat is off to a prosecutor, who takes a chance. Their fortunes are dependent on the work product of police and lab techs. They have to use that product to put on a show for the jury, and that show has to be far superior to what the defense can come up with. So why roll the dice? I think that despite the problems, they were confident, that Wade was the killer. And at this time in Anchorage, there were several unsolved murders and rapes of Alaska native women. So that exerts intense pressures to try and do something. So that's my take on the Della brown murder. It sadly would not be the last time Anchorage, the Anchorage police department, or I would hear josh Wade's name. I wanted to say a few words about the case I mentioned from when I was a security guard at the university of Alaska Fairbanks, Sophie Sergie a young, Alaska native woman was murdered 29 years ago. 10 years ago, I heard that the suspect in Oregon was being looked at who was at the time of the murder, a security guard. It was one of my coworkers. I really hope that wasn't the case. Well, it turned out to be that guy, his college roommate, the DNA was linked through genetic geneology. And on February 9th, 2022, Steven Downs, a 47 year old resident of Maine and the man who thought he got away with it was convicted of murdering Sophie Sergie. So congratulations to the men and women who put that puzzle together over the last three decades, you are a credit to your profession. One of my jobs as a police Sergeant was to address incoming complaints. It was surprising to me how many of those were based on our lack of communication or explanation of what we were doing or what our role in law enforcement really is. So over time I began to see the value of complaints as not only addressing when we may have done something wrong, but as an opportunity to clarify where there was misunderstanding. Likewise in this program, I want to provide insight and perspective as to what police officers and investigators do and why. So with that in mind, if you have a question about police procedure, that you want me to talk about, or I have an interesting case you'd like me to cover, please email me.

Marcy:

If you haven't already please subscribe. So you don't miss an episode and recommend us to your friends. You can email us at crimeravenpodcast@gmail.com

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