Crime

South KC murder spree could bring death penalty

Brandon B. Howell headed into a Kansas City police transport van en route to his arraignment on Thursday morning following his arrest on charges of a triple homicide on Tuesday in south Kansas City.
Brandon B. Howell headed into a Kansas City police transport van en route to his arraignment on Thursday morning following his arrest on charges of a triple homicide on Tuesday in south Kansas City. The Kansas City Star

“Help at address, shotgun.”

That furtive telephoned plea for help on Tuesday afternoon summoned Kansas City police to a scene of carnage where they found three people shot dead and two others severely beaten.

But on Wednesday, barely 24 hours and an “all-hands-on-deck” police investigation later, authorities announced that they had charged a 34-year-old former convict in the crime.

Brandon B. Howell, acquitted five years ago in the killings of two teenagers, now faces a potential death sentence for Tuesday’s spasm of violence against three separate families in a quiet south Kansas City cul-de-sac.

“All punishments are on the table,” Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said in announcing charges at a Wednesday afternoon news conference. She vowed to seek justice for the families of the slaying victims: Susan Choucroun, 69; Lorene Hurst, 88; and her son, Darrel Hurst, 63.

Another couple living on the same block, George and Anna Taylor, were found beaten inside their home, and on Wednesday authorities said they were in the hospital “fighting for their lives.”

Howell was charged in Jackson County Circuit Court with three counts of first-degree murder, four counts of armed criminal action, two counts of first-degree assault, burglary, motor vehicle theft and being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Baker said Howell was being held without bond.

He was arrested late Tuesday night while walking along Interstate 29 near Northwest 72nd Street, about one mile from where a vehicle stolen from the scene of the killings was found abandoned Tuesday afternoon. According to court documents, Howell had a 12-gauge shotgun concealed in a pants leg when he was arrested.

Kansas City Deputy Police Chief Randy Hopkins said Wednesday that a tip from the public led officers to Howell.

Despite the charges, officials said there was much more investigation to be done. It was still unclear how Howell got to the cul-de-sac area and exactly how the crime unfolded, they said. Also, testing was underway to determine if the shotgun Howell was carrying was the same one used in the killings.

Court documents allege that Howell burglarized the Taylor home at 1 E. Woodbridge Lane. That’s the address from where a woman made the 911 call about 12:50 p.m. Tuesday.

When officers arrived, they found Choucroun dead in the driveway of her home, 3 E. Woodbridge, next door to the Taylor residence. They went into the Taylor home and found both critically injured in the basement.

Officers then began a house-to-house search and found the bodies of the Hursts in the front yard of Lorene Hurst’s home at 7 E. Woodbridge. She and her son may have just returned from the grocery store when they were shot.

Witnesses at the scene told police that after hearing several gunshots, they saw the Taylors’ Toyota Highlander driving down the street. One witness said the driver stopped in front of Choucroun’s house, got out and shot her before getting back in the vehicle and driving away.

A few hours later, police were called to a Motel 6 at 8230 N.W. Prairie View Road, where they found three victims, one with several cuts on his head. The victims told police that a man had followed them to their room and asked for a cigarette. After assaulting two of the victims, the man fled on foot.

Police searching for the motel assault suspect soon found the Highlander abandoned in a restaurant parking lot a few blocks from the Motel 6.

Shortly before midnight, officers acting on the tip stopped Howell. Besides the shotgun, the keys to the Highlander were found in his pants pocket, according to the court documents.

On Wednesday, Platte County prosecutors charged him with multiple crimes related to the motel incident.

Wednesday was not the first time Howell has been accused of murder. A Jackson County jury in 2009 acquitted him in the killings of Johnson County teenagers Tabitha Brewer and Nick Travis.

Howell also spent time in prison for a 1999 home invasion robbery in Gardner in which a pet cat was beheaded. He was paroled in 2011.

Brewer, 16, and Travis, 18, were last seen by their families in April 1998.

Several days later, Brewer’s partially burned purse was found near 55th Street and the Paseo. Four months after they disappeared, Travis’ body was discovered buried in the yard of a duplex in the 5400 block of the Paseo. The duplex was being renovated at the time by Howell’s father, according to later testimony at his trial.

Brewer’s body has never been found.

While Kansas City police continued to investigate that case, Howell was arrested by Johnson County authorities in connection with an October 1999 home invasion robbery. In that case, three men forced their way into a Gardner apartment, threatened the residents and demanded drugs and money.

One of the victims suffered a cut on the hand. The assailants killed the cat, a tabby named Tony.

Just before he was scheduled to go to trial, Howell pleaded guilty to charges of aggravated kidnapping, kidnapping, aggravated assault, attempted aggravated robbery and animal cruelty.

A Johnson County judge sentenced him to 12 years in prison.

In 2006, Jackson County prosecutors charged Howell with two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Travis and Brewer.

A high school acquaintance of the teens, he was the last person seen with them before they were reported missing.

Several witnesses who testified at trial said Howell implicated himself in the killings. But after hearing the evidence, the Jackson County jury found Howell not guilty of the charges.

Tom Brewer, Tabitha’s father, pursued his own investigation in the decade after his daughter’s disappearance. Brewer said that he saw pictures of Howell on television Wednesday and knew it was the same man acquitted of killing his daughter.

Jurors from his daughter’s case, he said, likely are second-guessing their verdicts.

“I feel sorry for the jurors who acquitted him the last time because that is going to be hard for them to live with,” Brewer said. “Justice is always served one way or another. I hate to see more lives shattered by this man. He’s a bad person and he shouldn’t be out.”

He said the events Tuesday and Wednesday have reminded him of how bitter Howell’s acquittal was five years ago.

“It was hard,” Brewer said. “You want to find some kind of justice for what has been done. I believe the old saying from the Bible that you reap what you sow. This man has repeatedly sown violence.”

The Star’s Glenn E. Rice and Mark Morris contributed to this report. To reach Tony Rizzo, call 816-234-4435 or send email to trizzo@kcstar.com.

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