Driving toward the busy intersection of Broadway and Alhambra Boulevard on a hot August afternoon last year, Jose Ramirez saw something that disturbed him: An old woman, with wispy gray curls and a weathered face, struggling to haul her belongings to a shady spot under Highway 99.
She could have been someone’s grandmother, so he decided to pull over. “May I help you with something?” the burly construction worker remembers asking.
“I’m sleeping right here,” the woman replied.
Ramirez helped her move her things, which were stuffed into a suitcase and bags. The two made small talk. He brought her a chicken meal and a cold drink from a nearby Carl’s Jr. Before leaving, he promised to come back in the morning to make sure she would be “the first in line” for a shelter bed.
It would be the last time the two would speak.
When he returned the next day, Ramirez found Sharen Brandow, 69, face down and half naked in the dirt. He called police, crying for a woman he barely knew. He later would find out that she had been raped, beaten and strangled to death.
Nearly a year later, a trial of Brandow’s alleged murderer, Benjamin Brownlee, is playing out in Sacramento Superior Court.
Evidence presented in recent days – including witness testimony from Ramirez – pulls back a curtain on the sometimes dangerous and desperate underworld that is Sacramento’s homeless community.
Brownlee, 28, initially confessed to “choking out” Brandow in a fit of violence he said was prompted in part by frustrations over his lack of a place to live and his fight for survival on the streets.
“So much stress after stress after stress, just piling on bad news, bad news,” he said in a videotaped statement to detectives in September 2016, more than a month after Brandow’s death. “I just lashed out.”
An autopsy found that Brandow suffered a broken jaw, broken ribs and vaginal and anal injuries. In his statement, Brownlee denied beating or raping her.
“I’m telling you everything that happened,” he told investigators. “There’s plenty of homeless people in that area,” and one of them could have attacked Brandow after he left, he said.
Brownlee told investigators he suffers from mental conditions that cause him to “black out” and become violent. “I don’t have no control of that other side of me,” he said.
But his attorney, in his opening statement, suggested that Brownlee confessed to the murder because he wanted to get off the streets. He suggested that someone else is responsible for Brandow’s death, even though her Social Security card and other items were discovered in Brownlee’s backpacks.
“There was a reason he said he killed a lady under the freeway, but that doesn’t mean it was the truth,” defense attorney Alan Whisenand told jurors. “There is at least a reasonable doubt” about Brownlee’s statements to police, he said.
Prosecutor Robin Shakely acknowledged that, despite a comprehensive investigation, no DNA evidence exists that ties Brownlee to Brandow’s murder. But she said a constellation of other evidence, including Brownlee’s violent attack of a woman in New York in 2005, clearly points to his guilt.
Brownlee and Brandow had crossed paths various times as they navigated homeless life in Sacramento, court testimony shows.
“I had seen the lady plenty of times before,” Brownlee said, as she made her way to and from food closets, soup kitchens and other agencies that serve the less fortunate. He said he knew where she typically camped, though he had never spoken to her.
Brownlee had come to Sacramento in 2015 “to start over and be like brand new,” he said. He ended up sleeping on sofas, in cars and at bus stops.
By Aug. 1, 2016, Brownlee was “fed up” with his living situation, he told detectives. He was unable to get a job. Police chased him from sleeping spot to sleeping spot. The streets were filled with heroin addicts and prostitutes. His mental health was suffering.
After an argument with his girlfriend that evening, he said, he was wandering along Broadway when he spotted Brandow rustling through her belongings at her camp.
“I snapped,” he said, and began strangling her. Once he saw Brandow’s eyes roll back in her head and her body go limp, “I basically panicked and just took off,” he said.
He was silent about the crime until Sept. 18, he said, when he told a friend, LaShon Mitchell, that he had killed a woman “by the freeway.” He told her he wanted to confess, in part to get off of the streets.
“I took a deep breath,” said Mitchell, who works at a mental health center that Brownlee visited, during her testimony. “I was shocked. Why would he tell me something like that?”
Mitchell put him in her car and flagged down “the first police officer I saw,” she recalled. He was arrested that night.
Brownlee’s former girlfriend, Tracey Wilson, gave police several backpacks that she said belonged to him. Inside, were men’s clothes and other personal items, including prescription bottles and documents with Brownlee’s name on them. The backpacks also held Brandow’s Social Security, Medicare and California ID cards.
Brownlee, wearing glasses and long-sleeved dress shirts, sat mostly silently in recent days as Shakely presented evidence against him. The trial is scheduled to resume Thursday morning.
Jose Ramirez is awaiting the outcome.
In an interview after his court testimony, he recalled how the woman he knew only as Sharen had told him she had no family. He remembered that she arranged her belongings neatly next to the red blanket where she planned to sleep under a street lamp.
He wished, he said, he could have taken her home with him. But he was struggling himself at the time, living in a rented room.
At about 7:30 a.m. on the morning after they met, he drove back to Alhambra and Broadway, expecting to see her waiting for him. Instead, he saw her partially clothed body on the ground, the cup and wrappers from her last meal scattered around her.
“I should have taken her with me,” Ramirez said earlier this week, wiping tears from his eyes. “I’ve tried to put it all to rest, but it hurts. It really hurts.”