Mother of young gay victim alleges initial investigation botched the truth
In a middle-of-the-night online chat in 2002, Jon Brewbaker, a 32-year-old former police officer, arranged to have sex with Jonathan Shanks, a gay-20-year-old college student, according to an account provided by Brewbaker. The night would end in disaster for both men, Shanks shot to death and later on Brewbaker sentenced to 23 years in prison for second-degree murder.
On June 18, in an opinion by Judge David H. Welles, a state appellate court in Tennessee unanimously denied Brewbaker’s appeal of his sentence.
After his apprehension, Brewbaker pled guilty and avoided a trial. At the sentencing hearing, with information patched together from Brewbaker’s police statements, family testimony, and forensic autopsy evidence, the prosecutor offered his account of the fatal events of the night of October 17, 2002.
According to Brewbaker, both men drove separately to the Charleston Boat Dock, where they then agreed to travel in his car to Brewbaker’s home in nearby Athens. Once there, Brewbaker performed oral sex on Shanks. In Brewbaker’s account, Shanks then revealed that that he had genital warts. Brewbaker became incensed and a fight ensued, with Shanks cutting his head when he “hit the window.”
The fight stopped and Brewbaker agreed to drive Shanks back to his car. Upon returning to the Boat Dock, Brewbaker said Shanks grabbed his pager and threatened that he would accuse him of rape. Brewbaker reached into his glove compartment, took out his revolver, and shot Shanks in the back. After Shanks fell, Brewbaker got out of the car and shot him again in the chest and the face.
The victim’s mother, Susan Shanks, said in a telephone interview on June 23 that Brewbaker fabricated his account of what happened on the night of the murder and that in fact her son was kidnapped and raped. She denied Jonathan had engaged in consensual sex, saying that she knew the gay men he dated, and that Brewbaker was unattractive and that her son was “very vain.”
Shanks said Jonathan told her he had chatted with a 32-year-old cop online and that she warned him to avoid contact with him because “a cop can’t just be out like that in Tennessee.” She contended that Brewbaker then represented himself as a 17-year-old gay boy online after learning who her son was interested in sexually and that is the person Jonathan thought he was meeting on the night of his death.
Shanks, who said she has done a lot of thinking in the year and a half since her son’s death, said that Jonathan probably grabbed Brewbaker’s pager because he knew he was going to die and wanted to identify his killer for investigators.
“I also have reason to believe that Brewbaker may have had on his cop uniform and put the blue light on the top of his unmarked car and forced Jonathan to get in,” she said.
Shanks contended that her 130-pound son was no match for the 230-pound Brewbaker and that it was not a fight that caused her son to hit his head on a window, but rather, another assault during a night of brutality in which her son’s killer flung Jonathan through a plate glass window while he was handcuffed.
“His hands were covered in the casket and when I examined his wrists I knew he had been in handcuffs,” she said.
Shanks conceded that her son once suffered from genital warts, but that the condition had been cured by surgery six months before his death.
“If he told Brewbaker he had genital warts, it was because he was trying to avoid getting raped,” Shanks said.
The prosecutor revealed that the closeted Brewbaker told the police that he killed Shanks “to prevent his family and friends from discovering his homosexual lifestyle.”
The autopsy indicated that the first bullet, through his spinal cord and lungs, caused Shanks’ death. The report stated that the second bullet, into the chest, would also have been a fatal shot.
As of press time, it was not possible to ascertain if the medical examiner’s report also included any evidence of sexual assault.
During Brewbaker’s sentencing, his older sister testified that a stepfather had physically and mentally abused Brewbaker, and his aunt testified that Brewbaker was known to have a short temper. For seven months in the 1990s, Brewbaker served as an Etowah, Tennessee police officer. His former supervisor, Police Chief George Jorgenson, has told Tennessee reporters that Brewbaker had a chronic problem with tardiness and asked for Brewbaker resignation when he broke police procedure on at least one arrest.
According to other press reports, Brewbaker suffered from an unstable employment history, holding 17 different jobs over the previous ten years, most for only a few months.
But overall, the murder received little media coverage and Shanks said that there were aspects of the case that needed further investigation. She indicated, for example, that a break in the case came when she and her ex-husband approached the Charleston police chief and informed him that her son may have met a former police officer the night he was murdered. The parents got that information from young gay men who were online chat buddies of Jonathan’s and informed them that a former police officer who drove a used unmarked police car was cruising online for sex with young gay men.
Brewbaker pled guilty to a charge of second-degree murder, which carries a sentencing range of 15 to 25 years in Tennessee. In the only remaining issue left to be decided, Bradley County Criminal Court Judge Carroll L. Ross sentenced Brewbaker 23 years, toward the higher end of the sentencing range, in keeping with state law that provides for stiffer penalties when a defendant uses a handgun during the commission of a crime. Ross also decided that any mitigating factors, such as Brewbaker’s upbringing, were accommodated by the prosecution’s decision to forgo a first-degree murder charge.
In appealing his sentence, Brewbaker argued that Ross did not adequately consider the defense’s argument that Brewbaker was provoked into committing murder after Shanks revealed after the fact that he had genital warts and then threatened to report Brewbaker, a closeted man, to the police.
According to the hearing record, Ross had stated “I don’t think the proof here shows anything that would be subject to finding a mitigation factor based on any provocation here.”
Ross indicated that there were actually two “separate assaults,” and that after driving Shanks back to his car, Brewbaker had no compelling reason to produce a handgun and shoot the victim.
Typically, in a criminal case of deadly force, the kind of provocation necessary to provide a defense would involve a defendant’s reasonable fear of serious injury or death. The psychological trauma of being exposed to genital warts, being outed to family, or having to speak with the police about a false allegation would not justify the resort to deadly force.
Appellate Judge Welles agreed with that initial conclusion.
“Nothing the victim did or said constituted strong provocation,” he asserted, and, “even if the Defendant had been acting under provocation initially, said provocation was in no way sufficient to justify him getting out of his vehicle and shooting the victim, who lay helpless and wounded on the ground, twice more.”
According to Susan Shanks, however, the official court transcripts do not accurately document why her son was murdered. She said that she pushed for a trial and a first-degree murder charge, but prosecutors arranged for a plea deal. Shanks said that the assistant district attorney who handled the case botched the investigation and that without vigorous media scrutiny, law enforcement officials never have adequately challenged the veracity of Brewbaker’s account.
“For example, they never tried to subpoena America Online to find out who was the person on the screen name who arranged to meet my son,” said Shanks, asserting that it was Brewbaker posing as the 17-year-old.
She also said that Brewbaker’s arresting officer, a member of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, “talked down to the family” and was very uncomfortable discussing the homosexual aspects of the case.
“It just seemed like nobody cared,” Shanks said. “The local television station did some initial reports, but then that was it.”
She characterized Brewbaker as a violent sex offender who is trying to free himself from prison based on spurious excuses.
Shanks said Jonathan’s gay friends maintain contact with her and that helps alleviate her tremendous sadness.
“The funeral parlor was so packed people couldn’t get in,” she recalled. “One of his friends still comes by on Saturday nights to play spades. Can you imagine that?”
Shanks said that she learned of Brewbaker’s June 18 appellate denial from the press interview—that the county prosecutor’s family liaison officer had not contacted her.
Mick Meenan provided additional reporting for this article.