Burvena Brown is still haunted by an early December conversation with her son Derwin, a veteran police officer who was about to become sheriff of DeKalb County, outside Atlanta. Driving her to a medical appointment, Derwin suddenly gave his mother a somber look. "He said, 'Mommy, I just want you to know this,' " recalls Burvena, 70. " 'I am not afraid to die for what I believe in.' "

A week later, on the night of Dec. 15, Derwin Brown, 46, was gunned down in the driveway of his Decatur, Ga., home by an unknown assailant who pumped 11 bullets into him from a 9mm handgun, then disappeared into the darkness. The murder, just three days before Brown was to have taken his oath of office, shattered and perplexed the suburban community. A father of five, ages 17 to 26, he had been swept into office after promising to end decades of corruption in the sheriff's office, which oversees the county's jail system. "He had a powerful, bold vision," says Rev. Mark Lomax, his pastor, who compares the death to the murder of Brown's hero, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. "He was in the position to implement his vision when he was cut down."

DeKalb County was squarely behind him. Despite a shoestring campaign, Brown had won an August runoff election by a 2-to-l margin, defeating incumbent Sidney Dorsey, who is fighting allegations that he used on-duty officers to work for his own security company and arranged for jail inmates to do home repairs for supporters of his wife, an Atlanta city council member. On Dec. 15 Brown had joined his family and a few friends at a restaurant to celebrate wife Phyllis's 46th birthday and his completion of a monthlong sheriff's training program. Phyllis returned home at 9:30, leaving Derwin behind with friends. At about 11:40 p.m., according to police reports, Phyllis, who was watching television with one of her sons and some friends, heard gunfire from outside the family home on a quiet cul-de-sac in a middle-class neighborhood.

"I told everyone to get down," she says. She phoned 911, then looked out and called for her husband, finally spotting him on the ground. "When I knelt down and looked at Derwin," she says, "I knew he was gone." Within minutes paramedics arrived, but it was too late.

The murder smacked of a planned execution, fueling speculation that it was linked to Brown's plans for reform. He had already sent termination letters to 38 employees, from detention officers to top-level administrators. He had also launched an investigation of the jail system. "One of the things he wanted to promote was the merit system, up to the rank of lieutenant," adds Robert Crowder, 48, Brown's former partner on the DeKalb County force. "He wanted to restore integrity and accountability." Since the sheriff has broad authority, awarding food and medical contracts and approving bonding companies, Brown might well have made enemies far beyond the law enforcement community. "There are many people who would have reason to be angry at the sheriff," says county District Attorney J. Tom Morgan, who is convinced that Brown was shot by a seasoned gunman.

Whoever killed him snuffed out a life of promise and idealism. Born in Fort Knox, Ky., Brown was raised in Lakeview, N.Y., the first of four children of George Brown, a probation-officer trainer who died in 1979, and Burvena, a homemaker. At 13, Derwin heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak, shook his hand and thereafter spoke admiringly of the civil rights leader. Studying sociology and criminal justice at Long Island University, Brown spent summers working with juvenile delinquents. "Years later," says Burvena, "he had some of those kids come back and tell him how he changed their lives."

In 1977, after moving to Atlanta for postgraduate work, Brown married Phyllis Oliver, a secretary who later became a newspaper editor. That same year he started working as a youth-group supervisor for DeKalb County. After a stint with the sheriff's office, he joined the county's police department, one of fewer than 20 African-Americans on a force of 640 officers. Working hard to promote racial equity in the department, he was instrumental in a lawsuit to force the hiring of more minority officers. "They had their good-ol'-boys system in place," Crowder says, "and the suit opened a lot of doors to people who weren't good ol' boys." Brown was also cherished by colleagues for his warmth. Says Det. Margaret Clouden, 44: "Just him smiling and feeling good about you made you feel good about yourself."

After rising to the rank of captain, Brown first ran for sheriff in 1996, losing to Dorsey. In September 1999 Brown again entered the ring amid media reports of departmental corruption. "The more that came out," says Aileen Harris Miller, a reporter at a local newspaper, The Champion, where Phyllis Brown also worked, the more he felt compelled to run."

Until a special election is held in March, Thomas Brown, public-safety director for the county (and no relation to Derwin), is serving as interim sheriff; Derwin Brown's supporters do not expect him to push hard for reform. He is reconsidering all termination letters, but he has fired four people. No solid leads have emerged in the case, although D.A. Morgan is confident of finding the killer. Of course, nothing will lessen the pain for those who mourn Derwin Brown and the work he left unfinished. "He'd sometimes tell me, 'Mommy, I'm going to make it right,' " says Burvena. "He never got to do that."

Thomas Fields-Meyer
Kristin Harmel in Decatur

  • Contributors:
  • Kristin Harmel.