Innocents Lost: In prison for manslaughter, a mom deals with regret, denial

This story is part of the Innocents Lost investigative series. Read an enhanced version of this story here.

Almost 300 miles from the cemetery where her youngest son is buried, Ina Brown sits in a North Florida prison, convicted of aggravated manslaughter for allowing her husband to beat the disabled boy to death with a belt for playing with toilet paper and failing his potty training.

Wearing her institutional blues, Brown offered a tearful narrative about her journey from nurse and mother to baby killer. Brown has time — 298 more weeks — to contemplate what brought her to the Gadsden Correctional Institution: too much faith in a charming man with a violent streak, and too little regard for Deondray Ashe, the toddler she called “Dooley.”

She was not the only one to be charmed by Marcus Brown. An investigator with the Florida Department of Children & Families had noted that he “seemed very bonded to the child and concerned for his well-being.”

Three months later, Marcus Brown beat Deondray to death.

“He always kept a smile on his face. It was like he was sunshine,” Brown said of her late son on a chilly afternoon in December. “He really was a special child.”

Born prematurely and with lungs that never quite developed, Deondray spent most of the first two years of his life in a hospital and a nursing home. He would return to the hospital again and again.

Unlike other sickly children, Deondray seemed not to want to go home.

Deondray cried in January 2010 when his parents came to retrieve him from St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa after he was treated for a bleeding brain. A nurse said he cried again at a special daycare center for disabled children when his parents came to pick him up.

He had good reason: Three weeks after DCF closed its investigation, judging the boy safe, Deondray was whipped to death with a belt or a tree branch-turned-lethal-weapon. He was 2.

Especially vulnerable

In Florida, “special” children are especially vulnerable. Deondray was among 85 children with disabilities or medical conditions who died after DCF was told they or a sibling were in danger — 18 percent of the 477 children who died of neglect or abuse since 2008 following at least one DCF investigation of their family. The children struggled with a variety of special needs, from seizure disorders to kidney disease to a heart transplant.

Among the 85 were 14 children who suffered from premature-birth complications; nine children described as developmentally delayed or disabled; seven who required apnea monitors to alert parents when they stopped breathing; seven with autism; seven with asthma, cystic fibrosis or other lung disorders; five with cerebral palsy or other neurological disorders; and four with Down syndrome.

Although such children are at heightened risk, DCF has often done little to protect them. Nineteen of the children died of preventable medical complications, such as severe infection, malnutrition, respiratory failure or cardiac arrest. Seventeen others drowned. An additional 24 died from trauma, with all but four of those ruled homicides.

Children with disabilities sometimes cannot speak up or seek help from relatives or family friends, making them easy prey. A study DCF released earlier this winter said only children who are removed from their parents due to sexual abuse are at greater risk.

Children with physical disabilities are 17 times more likely to die from abuse or neglect in Florida than their typically developing peers, according to the report, written by an Atlanta consultant.

Death by starvation

At least five disabled children starved to death or were grossly malnourished when they died. Twelve-year-old Tamiyah Audain, born with neurological and medical conditions, was so malnourished she was wasting away, and had a pressure sore so severe that her bone was exposed. She was already being overseen by DCF caseworkers, and they failed to notice.

Thirteen-year-old Romana Bones, who was seriously disabled and non-verbal, had been the subject of three prior DCF reports for medical neglect or poor supervision. When Romana died of shock from an infection in 2011, an autopsy said she was infested with ants, lice and crabs, with “bugs” in her ears, nose and torso.

Although under the watch of caseworkers, Romana and her siblings lived in a home with “little food and no water,” and no stove, refrigerator or beds.

Russell Fox suffered from life-threatening cystic fibrosis, and his caregivers had been the subject of 20 DCF reports by the time Russell was about 8, five of them allegations of medical neglect. He was permanently removed from his mother in late 2003, when she abused his siblings.

But Russell’s torment was only beginning: DCF approved his adoption by a woman they later determined had “prescription misuse and mental health issues,” a report said. DCF was told she lived with a convicted sex offender.

Russell told investigators she burned him with a spatula.

The agency tried to shelter Russell once again, but the adoptive mother fought back and prevailed.

The final report on Russell documented his death. He had missed several doctor appointments, and been left without an antibiotic his caregiver neglected to refill, DCF determined.

Drowned in a tub

Investigators were aware that Dennis and Michelle Taylor had been leaving their severely disabled daughter, then about 8, home alone with her older sister, about 10, as a caregiver. The agency was alerted to the babysitting arrangement when the girls’ younger brother almost set the kitchen on fire by trying to heat a washcloth in a microwave oven.

DCF did not discourage having a 10-year-old caregiver. Instead, investigators asked the Taylors to sign a safety plan that included a provision that a neighbor help with the supervision. The neighbor was unaware of the arrangement, a report said.

On March 23, 2013, Michelle Taylor left the children home alone, again. Natalie — who had cerebral palsy and the intellect of a 4-year-old — drowned in the bathtub when her then-12-year-old sister left her unattended.

“It was irresponsible,” the state Child Protection Team later wrote, “for the parents to leave a 12-year-old girl in charge of the care of a handicapped younger child. This was grossly negligent. Had the parents made appropriate arrangements for a responsible adult to care for their children [including the 12-year-old, who was forced into the role of caretaker] Natalie would not have died.”

“This was a preventable death,” the team added.

They called him ‘Dad’

Deondray Ashe was born at 27 weeks, and weighed less than two pounds. Frail and sickly, the Polk County boy fought for two years to stay alive.

“They loved him in the hospital,” said Thomas Pace, Ina Brown’s grandfather, who largely raised the boy’s mother and is now raising another generation.

A year later, Ina Brown married Marcus Brown. He worked in a warehouse, and his new wife said he adored her children. They called him “Dad.”

“You would have thought those were all his biological children,” she said.

Four months after his birth, Deondray was released from St. Joseph’s to a pediatric nursing home, where he remained for about 15 months . He had not lived with his mother, her husband and his two siblings for long before he began to show disturbing signs. In January 2010, Deondray was hospitalized with bleeding on his brain.

Two months later, Deondray was back in the hospital, with two broken ribs, malnutrition, sagging skin, chronic brain bleeds and severe developmental delays. During the DCF investigation that followed — the first on the boy — the agency learned about his hospitalization the previous January. While in the hospital, a DCF report noted, Deondray began putting on pounds. At home with his family, he shed them.

Deondray’s parents blamed his broken ribs on Kobe, the 10-pound family Shih Tzu dog that his great-grandfather thought was a poodle. DCF accepted the explanation, and closed the case without taking any action to protect the boy.

An agency supervisor instructed an investigator to obtain all of Deondray’s medical records, to enroll Deondray in a program for disabled children, to discuss the boy with his pediatrician, and to help obtain physical, occupational and speech therapy for him. None of that was done before DCF closed its investigation and disengaged.

Changing stories

During a prison interview with the Miami Herald, Ina Brown said “I have no idea” how Deondray got the two broken ribs.

By the summer of 2010, Deondray was on the verge of a milestone virtually all infants achieve at birth: breathing on his own, Ina Brown said. Life at the Brown home was peaceful, she said; the days filled with takeout seafood, bowling, SpongeBob SquarePants cartoons and Transformers movies.

The family liked to eat at Golden Corral, and enjoyed Tyler Perry movies — and, Ina Brown’s daughter later disclosed, kept a tree branch hidden behind the couch for purposes of discipline.

On the morning of June 14, 2010, it all ended. Ina Brown told police she woke up from an early afternoon nap to find Deondray unresponsive in bed, his breathing tube disconnected.

The children told a different story — as did Ina Brown under further questioning by police. Ina Brown told police that from 4 until 9 p.m. the night before, Marcus Brown made Deondray sit on a potty chair until he filled it. When he got up from the chair, or played with the toilet paper, his stepfather hit Deondray with a belt on his face, head, and upper back.

“Mrs. Brown admitted to law enforcement that she witnessed Mr. Brown standing over Deondray and hitting him five to ten times in frustration,” a DCF report said. She told police “she could hear him wheezing through his trachea, which indicates he was crying.”

The cause of Deondray’s death was blunt-force trauma. He was also still malnourished.

“It’s just so much, you know, to lose a child,” she said, sobbing, “and so much worse when “the world just looks at you like you’re . . . a baby killer.”

Ina Brown’s oldest daughter played a pivotal role in the criminal investigation. She told police where to find the alleged murder weapon: a stick, wrapped with tape on one end to form a handle.

“He beat me with that stick,” the girl told her great-grandfather.

“She said the stick is behind the sofa, on the floor,” he said. And it was.

“They were scared of him,” Pace said. “Whatever happened to him happened to them, too.”

Ina Brown pleaded guilty to manslaughter.

Even after Deondray’s death, she chose her man over her disabled son.

She now says that neither she nor her husband did anything wrong. Her confession, she said, was coerced. “My son had just died,” she said. “I was scared. All I could think about was getting home to my children.”

Marcus Brown’s murder trial ended with a hung jury after his wife recanted her statement and offered no explanation for Deondray’s injuries. Brown eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter, and is serving 12 years in prison.

Slowly healing

Pace now says that, in hindsight, he did not recognize the signs. Sometimes, he said, Marcus Brown would reach for Deondray to pick the boy up. Deondray would climb onto his grandfather’s lap instead. “That was an indication I never paid attention to,” he said.

Ina Brown’s rights to her three children — she gave birth to a little girl before Deondray died — were severed, and her now-79-year-old grandfather adopted them. He said the children have been slowly healing. They do not ask about their mother, and he does not bring her up.

They always remember Deondray’s Dec. 10 birthday, and, recently, they have asked to see his grave at the cemetery.

“It’s rough sometimes,” Pace said. “I had to raise her, and now I have to raise her children, too.”

Ina Brown is expected to be released from prison in December 2019, a few days before Deondray would have turned 12. She plans to wait two years after that until her husband is released, and then resume their life together. “I know that he is innocent and God knows,” she said. “Our bond has grown stronger.”

She says she does not know how Deondray died. “I’m not understanding how all this bruising came up on one day,” said the former nurse. Her grandfather, she acknowledges, does not believe her, “and that hurts.”

“I wanted to have him know how much Mommy loved him,” she said of Deondray, as her tears flowed into sobs. “But I thought I had time.”