Brooklyn Family Values

Brooklyn Family Values

Rashawn Brazell’s Mother Presses for Justice for Her Two Sons

For the first time in years, one Brooklyn woman finally had her two children together under the same roof on Mother’s Day.

Sunday, though, was less a celebration of Desire Brazell’s motherhood than a cruel reminder that woe often comes in heaps.

In February, 19-year-old Rashawn Brazell, Desire’s younger son, was murdered and his dismembered remains were found in two different locations in the borough. “There he is,” said Ms. Brazell, nodding at a bronze funeral urn perched on a shelf in the family’s comfortable living room, “what’s left of him.”

Police have recovered two legs, an arm and a torso. Rashawn’s head and an arm are still missing.

The cause of death is not known, nor is the location where the dismemberment took place.

“Some days are good, some bad,” Ms. Brazell said, clasping her hands on her lap. “Mother’s Day was the worst. Not having him burning up some pancakes in he kitchen making his annual breakfast for me,” she continued, with a warm smile so clearly meant for no one but the young man so irretrievably gone.

Last month, Jenata, the 27-year-old soft-spoken, older brother, who moved to Massachusetts as a teenager in the not-so-distant days when gunfire crackled around the clock in Bushwick, was arrested in Brooklyn for felony possession of a loaded firearm.

Jenata, whose name, mentioned his mother, means strength in Swahili, is the father of two and engaged to his long-term girlfriend, the same women who began a new life with him when the neighborhood basketball star fled north—a fresh scar on his left temple from a flung schoolyard bottle—not to attend some elite New England boarding school, but just to even the odds a bit and live long enough to get a driver’s license.

Rashawn did not even complete two years as an adult, though his 19 years was nevertheless a benchmark of survival for a young African-American man—not to mention a young, black, gay man—but for a heartbroken mother, so scant a lifetime nonetheless.

“How is all this cruelty arising?” Ms. Brazell’s expression seems to say in the moments when she allowed herself to sink back into a sofa and stop trying to figure out who murdered her son.

Ms. Brazell last spoke to Rashawn on the morning of Valentine’s Day, the day of his disappearance and three days before a transit worker stumbled upon a bloody garbage bag of limbs in a Brooklyn subway tunnel.

A week later, Rashawn’s torso was discovered in a recycling plant.

Early on the morning of February 14, mother and son discussed getting together after her shift as a caseworker at a homeless agency. Her given name is evocative of the day that she planned with her son, the satisfaction of accompanying handsome Shawn—her preferred nickname for her baby boy—on a shopping spree or to a favorite restaurant apparent in her smile.

“Last year, I finally talked him into getting his first pedicure,” Ms. Brazell said sheepishly, as if Rashawn was there to tease.

Yes, Ms. Brazell knew Shawn dated men and was relieved when she found condoms in his room. Maybe he was bisexual. Cleaning out his room, she discovered a letter, a pact he made with a female childhood friend, that if by the age of 30 neither were married they would wed each other.

For Christmas, Rashawn got his first cell phone, but carefully used his daytime minutes, so the home phone was never truly liberated, his mother recalled. At a celebrity event at Tower Records, Rashawn had walked the runway as a model, earning instantaneous fashion credibility. The apartment became a social command post, where the confident, outgoing Rashawn advised, on the telephone and in person, many newfound friends, some of whom were openly gay.

“He would help them with their confidence to do things in their own lives,” said Ms. Brazell. “He would say, ‘I’m smart, I’m confident.’ You could not destroy him if you tried.”

Twice on Valentine’s Day, the cell phone went directly to voice mail, said Ms. Brazell, triggering unimaginable fears.

“After 7:25 a.m., no calls? And this child has a serious phone jones,” said his mother, indicating the likely window of time for Rashawn’s disappearance. The following day, Ms. Brazell notified the police and they told her not to panic, maybe her son simply lost his cell phone.

By Thursday, Rashawn was no longer missing. The police identified the bloody limbs as Rashawn’s, from a fingerprint for a January misdemeanor arrest.

By the time Ms. Brazell and her husband, Reginald Jones, a construction worker, returned home to Bushwick that Thursday, the police had already entered the apartment through a window.

“They told me that finding a body like that, they were worried maybe all of us were killed like that, so they had to come in,” she said with a hint of annoyance.

Jenata, a baby-faced man with a much slighter frame than his six-foot-two younger brother’s, but with an athleticism that eluded Rashawn, knew about his brother’s sexuality, partly because of the street’s rumor mill. On one rare weekend when he visited Brooklyn, said Jenata, “a dude called to say, ‘I saw your brother with so-and-so,’ and I told him, ‘Don’t worry about it, son. I got it.’ It was never a problem with me and my brother.”

“I didn’t push it, but he knew he didn’t have to sneak,” added Ms. Brazell.

As she has with other reporters, Ms. Brazell insisted that Rashawn’s murderer knew him—either romantically or socially.

“No way a stranger did this. No psycho killer. No snatching away on the street,” she said. As she did at a March town-hall meeting, Ms. Brazell, a South Carolina native and an Army veteran—politely, but firmly, declined to provide her age—called on those withholding information about the murder to contact the police.

Questioned as to her certitude that the murderer knew her son, Ms. Brazell became circumspect, but not evasive. The police, she said, cautioned her to avoid giving reporters specific information.

“A friend did this, no stranger,” she insisted.

According to the Brazells, the mother’s outspokenness may be the cause of a death threat.

One afternoon, Jenata answered the telephone. “Hello,” he said. There was a pause, before a male voice said, “Oh, I didn’t know that he had a brother that was supposed to be a gangster. Don’t worry about it—you’ll be dead too before the summer.”

Jenata admitted to the rashness of his next decision. After calling his mother at work to tell her he would pick her up, the older brother walked to Bedford-Stuyvesant and bought a gun on the street.

The following day, leaving the apartment building to once again meet his mother, explained Jenata, a Jeep backed down the street and three plainclothes police officers jumped out. “They told me if I had anything on me to tell them,” said Jenata. “I said, ‘I have a gun. You know who I am. They killed my brother and now they’re threatening my family.’”

The police booked Jenata at the 81st Precinct and over a week later, not able to afford the bail, he was released from Riker’s Island.

In the Brazell apartment, the shades drawn and three new locks installed on the front door, Jenata was restless, his face etched with worry. He disappeared into a back bedroom and then returned. Asked about the clothing he wore on the warm day of his arrest, he left again and returned, wearing a light-blue, short-sleeve button-down over an oversized T-shirt. He patted his left hip area where the gun was tucked into his jeans. Any precinct cop worth his gun detail promotion would have seen the bulge.

Jenata denied that he bought the gun to shake out information on the street about the murder. He said that his arresting officer has offered a deal: if Jenata cooperates as un undercover informant to get more guns off the street, the district attorney will drop the charges.

“He called the house and said that my defense attorney agreed to the deal,” said Jenata.

The defense attorney, Linda Hoff, of Brooklyn Legal Defenders, vociferously denied making such a deal. “I would never work with the police, first of all, and any agreement would be with the district attorney, anyway,” she said. Hoff said that as far as she knew, the case had not yet gone before a grand jury, but she was not sure. Asked if she intended to have the charges dismissed, she replied, “We’re just not there yet,” and said Jenata’s next court appointment is May 31.

In another bizarre twist to the case, a spokesman for the Brooklyn district attorney said that his office has no record of the arrest and suggested that the arrest may have been in another borough.

As for the murder investigation, Ms. Brazell said that she is confident that homicide detectives are diligently investigating every lead. “In the beginning, I had my doubts, but I really feel they are on it,” she said. “They are going back and starting from the beginning.”

A Brooklyn homicide detective said that additional detectives are working on the homicide.

“It is being given a lot more attention than a regular homicide, not that any of them are regular,” the detective said, before acknowledging that “nothing’s breaking” with an imminent arrest.

The detective said that he was aware of Jenata’s gun arrest, mentioning that he understood Ms. Brazell’s urge to fight for her family. As if to help lessen the woe, he added that the death threat is being investigated and that police are taking steps to protect the Brazell family.

“Guns are all over Brooklyn,” said the veteran investigator resignedly. “You do have less guns, but people are still getting shot.”

“I’m not stopping. I lost one son and they want to take away the other one. If I get hurt behind this, I’m not stopping,” said Ms. Brazell, from the sofa’s edge where she had sat ramrod-straight for over an hour.

Suddenly, Jenata again appeared, this time in a black T-shirt embossed with a memorial photo of a very young Rashawn, lanky in his formal attire on Desire’s and Reginald’s wedding day. Silently stood the big brother, his plaintive expression seeming to say, “This was my skinny little brother, before his arms and legs grew thick and strong.”