Elegy of a Snitch

Sam Brown was a gospel singer, drug dealer, and police informant. That last job apparently got him killed.

AT 55, SAM BROWN was one of the city's elder drug dealers and likely one of the few who also made a partial living on the streets singing gospel music for donations. It was apparently singing that got him killed, too, when he turned snitch for Seattle cops and helped bust a fellow dealer. The previously convicted supplier, Bobby Joe Lyons, 54, known as Slim, is being held on $1 million bail, accused of luring Brown to a meeting near the International District in September and executing him with a shot to the back of the head.

Coincidentally, Lyons was arrested with the help of another snitch, whose life Lyons also threatened, police say. Authorities are not anxious to discuss what they did or didn't do to protect Brown, an easygoing, chronically homeless man who recently got tossed from subsidized city housing for failing to pay $52 in rent. But Lyons likely knew who ratted him out. Brown's reputation was an open secret on the streets.

"All the time I knew him, he never said he was an informant," recalls one of his closest friends, taking a break last week from his duties in the clattering kitchen at the Union Gospel Mission in Pioneer Square. "But other people told me he was a snitch. That's risky business." For similar reasons, the friend asked that his name not be put in the paper. "The streets are crazy, you know what I'm saying?"

Over at the Bread of Life Mission on First Avenue South, the man at the front desk says the familiar Brown was enrolled in its rehab program. Others say he was trying to step away from the drugs—marijuana and cocaine—he sold and used for several decades. Short and spare, divorced, the Midwest-born Samuel Howard Brown worked odd jobs and was the sweet-voiced lead baritone for the Apostles, a quintet of homeless men who met on the streets and began singing there, becoming regulars at Pike Place Market. "He was a loud, funny guy," says an Apostles member who asked not to be named. "We've got two CDs and a tape out, and just sang a soundtrack for a little movie. Things were picking up."

BROWN, WHO HAD a half-dozen drug convictions dating to the 1980s, signed on as a criminal informant in March to help bust Lyons—and perhaps others. An imposing 6-foot-4, "Slim" Lyons was a familiar figure to undercover cops. But after eight felony drug convictions, he wasn't selling to just anyone these days. Enter friendly fellow dealer Brown. On March 5, police say, Brown purchased 1.3 grams of coke with a roll of marked police bills. He later made another "controlled buy" of 0.7 grams from Lyons as police watched. When charges were filed March 18, police didn't name Brown as their setup guy, but they detailed how a "cooperative witness" made the buys. If Slim could add two and two, Sam was four.

What was the recruitment deal, and why did Brown make it? Did he righteously enlist, or was he busted anew and agreed to trade Lyons for jail time? That "can't be discussed, for obvious reasons," says police narcotics captain Jim Pryor. He couldn't recall a modern case in which a Seattle police informant had been murdered by the person he fingered. He indicated this killing could chill the recruitment of other snitches. "It's in their and our best interest that we protect our sources," Pryor says, "and we try to do that to the fullest extent possible." Prosecutor's spokesperson Dan Donohoe says his office "will reserve any comment for trial."

In April, Lyons was released on $600 bail in the drug case, with only one condition—that he not use controlled substances "without a prescription." There was no restriction to bar him from making contact with his accuser, Brown. Community activist Michele Marchand worries that Brown was especially vulnerable to retaliation. "Here's a man who was homeless, with no safe place to stay at night, and took a big risk to do a buy-bust deal," she said last week. A member of the Women in Black group that performs memorial rituals for the homeless, Marchand recently wrote a piece for Real Change, the newspaper published by Seattle's homeless, about the death of Brown and another homeless man, budding rap singer Phillip Griffin, 23, who was shot to death in August about six blocks from the scene of Brown's slaying. Though their murders were apparently unrelated, she notes that both men "were African American. Both were singers. Both had been small-time drug dealers who were trying to get their lives back on the track."

That life ended for Brown Sept. 13 on a pathway near the 12th Avenue South Bridge. According to police and King County prosecutors, Lyons sent word he wanted to meet Brown to discuss drug debts. The record indicates Brown was back in the drug game—if he ever got out—and was carrying two crack pipes on him that day. He was homeless again as well, having been bodily removed by the sheriff from the city-subsidized Morrison Hotel for a $52 debt—onto which was tacked a $521 legal fee. (The hotel says Brown had a history of nonpayment and had agreed to move on July 1, then had to be tossed July 30.)

"I DON'T KNOW what the man was thinking," says a member of Brown's gospel group on why Brown agreed to meet his snitch target. Lyons' ninth drug trial was just a few months off, and he faced 10 years thanks to Brown. When Brown arrived for the meet, Lyons came out of the bushes, said something, then shot Brown in the head and chest, prosecutors say. They have an alleged eyewitness to the shooting—the man who summoned Brown to the meet. He went to police afterward and boldly snitched on the alleged snitch killer. The man, Edward Denet, said in a tape-recorded statement that he had run drugs for Lyons and thought Lyons intended to beat up Brown, not kill him. He agreed to wear a wire during a subsequent meeting with Lyons, at which Lyons allegedly discussed the killing and Brown's squealing. He warned Denet not to do the same: "Look what happened to Sam," Lyons allegedly told him. Denet is publicly named in the prosecutor's case, and Lyons knows his identity. He couldn't be reached for comment.

At Brown's memorial service last month, members of his gospel group remembered their former baritone with a musical tribute. "We sang the songs that Sam sang for us," says a member. One of Brown's favorites was "Trouble in My Way."


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