Benjamin Brownlee had been kicked out of another apartment and had nowhere to live. He had no car, no regular income and was running out of medicines to treat a variety of illnesses.
So he concocted an elaborate story of murder that would put him in jail, where at least he would have food and a bed and receive care for his mental and physical ills, he told a Sacramento Superior Court jury Thursday.
Taking the stand in his own defense, Brownlee, 28, retracted a confession to police that he “choked out” Sharen Brandow this past summer, leaving her in the dirt at her campsite under a freeway overpass near Broadway and Alhambra Boulevard. Brandow, 69, had been beaten and raped.
Brownlee told detectives about a month after Brandow’s death that he strangled her until her eyes rolled back into her head and she collapsed to the ground, and then he fled. He said he committed the crime during a “blackout” linked to his mental illness. “This other side of me comes out,” he said, and “whoever is in that path could possibly get seriously hurt.”
On Aug. 1, 2016, the person in his path happened to be Brandow, he said.
When prosecutor Robin Shakely on Thursday asked Brownlee how he knew details about the murder that were never made public, he said he learned them from a man he identified only as CC. One afternoon, he said, CC drunkenly described strangling a woman under the freeway overpass.
“I saw on the news that a lady was found dead,” he said. “I put two and two together and created my own little story” in a desperate attempt to get off of the streets before the winter rains came. He had been staying at a friend’s apartment, he said, but had been asked to leave.
Brownlee was unable to explain how Brandow’s Social Security card, California ID and other documents came to be in a backpack filled with his possessions and given to police by his former girlfriend. Defense attorney Alan Whisenand, in his opening statement last week, suggested that someone else could have put the items into the bag.
On the witness stand, Brownlee said he never knew Brandow, though the two crossed paths on occasion at food closets and other places frequented by homeless people. He said she typically hauled around a suitcase and wore a black puffy coat, two items found at the scene of her murder.
Brandow’s background is a mystery. On the night before she died, she told a man who brought her food and a cold drink that she had no family. No one has come forward to claim her remains from the Sacramento County coroner. Her ID card shows a smiling woman with gray hair, blue eyes and tanned skin.
On Thursday, Brownlee described his odyssey from New York – where he said he was in and out of group homes, mental facilities and jails for much of his life – to Sacramento. He said he came to the capital city on a Greyhound bus after his release from incarceration. He had a connection with someone who lived in the city who had offered to help him “go to school, get work, get my own place,” he said.
He never got traction, he said, and resorted to robbing and stealing to survive. He often slept in the parking lot of a light rail station, ate meals at Loaves & Fishes homeless services agency, and collected only enough welfare to pay for his medications, he said.
Brownlee has a long criminal history, dating back to his youth. On Thursday, Shakely, the prosecutor, questioned him about his violent attack on a woman in a laundry room in New York when he was 15 years old. She pointed out similarities between the assault, which the woman testified caused her permanent eye injuries, and what happened to Brandow.
A security videotape shows Brownlee striking the woman with the cast he was wearing on his arm, then wrestling with her on the ground before a patron enters the room and he flees. The woman testified last week that she pleaded with Brownlee, “Don’t kill me. I am alone with my son.” She was briefly unconscious, she said, and when she awoke her pants were down.
Brownlee told Shakely that his goal was to rob her of money she had gathered from laundry machines.
Shakely also questioned Brownlee about a hand injury for which he received treatment two days after Brandow was murdered. He said he hurt his hand fighting with gang members. Doctors treated his scrapes and gave him pain medications, an emergency physician testified.
Whisenand’s final question to Brownlee was a straightforward one.
“Did you kill Sharen Brandow?” the attorney asked.
“No,” Brownlee replied.