Kathy Byars figured her mom was still out there somewhere, sleeping in shelters, searching for food, living the scary and desperate life of a transient.
“We knew that the streets would claim her eventually,” said Byars. “We figured we would get a call some day, telling us she had died.”
The call never came. But last week, Byars saw a newspaper article about the murder trial of a man accused of strangling and raping a mysterious homeless woman a year earlier under a Sacramento freeway.
The victim was her mother, Sharen Brandow, whom she had not seen in years. “No one contacted us,” Byars said. “We had no idea this had happened.”
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On Monday, Byars and several other family members made their way to Sacramento Superior Court to listen to closing arguments in the murder trial of Benjamin Brownlee. Brownlee, 28, is accused of choking Brandow, 69, to death and raping her during a fit of rage after a friend kicked him out of her apartment.
Brownlee, who had been homeless off and on after moving to Sacramento from New York in 2015, confessed to the murder six weeks after it happened in August 2016. He has since retracted those statements, and said in court that he concocted the murder story because he preferred jail to life on the streets.
Prosecutor Robin Shakely on Monday argued that Brownlee, “for one brief moment, was able to take something off of his conscience” when he told detectives that he strangled Brandow until her face turned “beet red,” her eyes rolled back into her head and her body became limp. Now, Shakely said, he just wants to stay out of prison.
Brownlee described a mental condition that he said causes him to “black out” when he is under extreme stress. When it happens, “I lose control of me,” he told detectives, and “I could hurt somebody because I’m really mad at somebody else.”
He never knew Brandow, he said, but recognized her from shelters, food closets and other places frequented by homeless people.
Following his confession, a former girlfriend gave police a backpack that contained some of his belongings, as well as Brandow’s Social Security card, California ID and other documents. No DNA evidence or fingerprints have been found that link Brownlee to Brandow.
Brownlee has denied ever seeing or handling Brandow’s paperwork. His attorney, Alan Whisenand, suggested in his closing argument Monday that someone planted the items in the backpack given to police.
His client’s confession, he said, was “motivated by anxiety and fear” of being on the streets again. He was looking to escape to “a place where each day would be basically predictable: food, medical care, a place to stay,” said Whisenand.
Shakely argued that Brownlee was not “some poor, downtrodden homeless guy” simply trying to survive. She noted that Brownlee has a violent background, including an attack on a woman in a laundry room in New York when he was 15 years old. He admitted to “robbing and stealing” to survive in Sacramento, she noted, and had been “eighty-sixed” from two homeless shelters because of violent behavior.
“It doesn’t take a DNA profile or Sherlock Holmes” to understand Brownlee’s history and link it to Brandow’s murder, she said.
Prior to Monday, Brandow’s back story was largely a mystery. On the last afternoon of her life, a stranger, Jose Ramirez, saw her struggling and offered to help her move her things to her chosen sleeping place under the Highway 99 freeway near Broadway and Alhambra boulevards. He brought her food and a cold drink, and promised to return the next day to transport her to a shelter. When he arrived, she was dead. He phoned 911 and allowed police to take fingerprints and DNA scrapings to rule him out as the killer.
Sacramento County coroner investigators failed to find a family member to claim Brandow’s remains.
Nearly every day since the trial began on July 20, Ramirez has roamed the halls of the courthouse. On Monday, he attended closing arguments. As he stood outside Judge Donald J. Currier’s courtroom after the jury left to begin deliberations, a woman approached him.
“Mr. Ramirez? I’m Kathy,” she said. “I’m Sharen’s daughter.”
Ramirez began crying, and the two hugged for a long time. “Thank you for what you did for my mother,” Byars said.
Later, Byars and other family members lingered to talk to Ramirez and share a bit of Brandow’s story.
Byars said her mother, originally from Southern California, was a single parent who raised two children and worked as a waitress. Later in her adulthood, she became mentally ill, though she never received a diagnosis or treatment. She has been transient “for years and years,” living in shelters and outdoors in various parts of the country.
“She couldn’t function as part of a family,” Byars said. “But even though she was transient, she was not a product of her environment. She didn’t drink, smoke, or do drugs. She was not a criminal. She didn’t suck the system dry. She just lived a very transient life.”
Byars, who lives in Fair Oaks, said the last time anyone in the family heard from Brandow was in a letter about two years ago. She never said where she was sleeping, and the letter had no return address.
“We thought about her all the time,” said Byars. “But we’d only see her when she showed up, and then she’d disappear.”
She said the family has contacted the coroner, and will take custody of her remains.
“We didn’t hate her,” she said. “We weren’t angry at her. She came and went because she had her mental issues. But no one deserves to die the way that she did. She deserves some respect.”
Ramirez said Brandow’s death still haunts him. He cannot fully explain why he stopped that hot August day to help her, he said.
“God puts you where you need to be.”
Byars smiled and touched his arm. “You’re our family now,” she said.