The gunshot that rang out on a September night in 2002 near the International District left a homeless man dying on a secluded pathway. But while Sam Brown's death didn't make headlines the next day, it has become one of the city's most unconventional murder cases, now twisting and turning toward its fifth year without a trial.
A divorced Midwesterner living in local missions, Brown, 55, had eked out a small income singing for tips with a gospel group along the walkways of Pike Place Market and dealing drugs a block away at Second Avenue and Pike Street, court records show.
In May 2002, he bought two grams of coke from an imposing street figure known as Slim. Police suddenly swept in and arrested Slim—otherwise known as 6-foot, 4-inch Bobby Joe Lyons, 54—who they knew from his eight previous felony drug convictions. Brown was let go.
Out on bail four months later, Slim shot Brown to death, police and prosecutors claim, plugging him in the back of the head, supposedly over a drug debt.
It might have gone down as just another shooting in the drug underworld, where homicide comes close to being a natural death. But Brown, it turned out, was an official criminal informant (CI) for the Seattle Police Department, according to public documents. He was also the first CI in modern history to die in the line of duty, police say.
Lyons discovered Brown had been working as a police decoy, and killed him in retaliation, the government theorizes in court papers.
Cops and prosecutors rely on a system of informants to provide intelligence, pose as drug customers, and testify at trials. Many have criminal records, aren't always reliable, continue to break laws, and sometimes disappear. But CIs are formally enlisted by police and can be paid or given expenses for their information.
Solving Brown's killing thus was crucial to reassure other CIs and to keep the tip pipeline flowing. Police won't discuss their informant program. But after Brown's death in 2002, an SPD spokesperson said, "It's in their and our best interest that we protect our sources, and we try to do that to the fullest extent possible."
Police got help in solving the case, they say, from a man who had lured Brown to his death. He, too, was a police informant, and he quickly fingered Lyons.
Lyons pleaded not guilty and has been riding out the legal saga in jail, where he's being held on $1 million bail. His Seattle attorney, Pete Connick, has been working up a good sweat filing motions in a case he sardonically describes as a "fun house."
Connick claims King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng has mismanaged the case by withholding witnesses and materials and destroying evidence. Maleng's office says that's untrue, though officials admit a crime-scene shoe print was never preserved—apparently because it was immaterial—and that a recorded witness statement was accidentally erased.
Connick, like prosecutors, doesn't want to discuss the ongoing case. But in King County Superior Court documents, he says evidence such as the lost shoe print is critical to his defense—and detectives who didn't understand that must be "complete chuckleheads." He likewise calls some of the court's actions "a joke" and says some orders have been largely ignored by prosecutors.
Thing is, Connick thinks he's winning. And, at one point, he appeared to actually have won: Prosecutors recently prepared a motion to dismiss the murder charge against Lyons.
After years of setting and resetting trial dates, the court had announced a final, final trial deadline for last month. Prosecutors had to scramble to come up with some of the witnesses, many of them transients who knew bits and pieces of the story. They included a man with 36 traffic violations, a woman with several felonies and 30 misdemeanors on her record, and a man with three drug felonies who once tried to walk out of Nordstrom with two leather coats on a hanger. Prosecutors found him in work release.
But the man prosecutors are relying on most is Ed Denet, a local crack dealer with a half-dozen convictions. He's also a police informant, the one who lured Brown to the alleged meeting with Lyons and an eyewitness to the alleged crime. Prosecutors had made a deal with Denet earlier last year, allowing him to plead out in a domestic violence case, records show, if he'd testify against Lyons. Denet went along with the deal, turning a possible 20-month sentence into nine, and agreeing to stay in touch.
He did, then he vanished in July. A warrant was issued and narcotics and homicide detectives began what senior deputy prosecutor Nelson Lee in court papers calls an "exhaustive and extensive search" that came to include suburban police and the FBI's Fugitive Task Force. "Unfortunately, no one could locate the elusive Mr. Denet," Lee says.
Lee reluctantly prepared dismissal papers, though he intended to ask the court to allow him to refile charges against Lyons if Denet turned up. On Nov. 13, deadline day, literally minutes before Lee was to present the dismissal motion in court, he got a call saying that Denet had been arrested in Tacoma. The key witness had been nabbed riding in a stolen car and was now in custody.
The sputtering 50-month-old case was suddenly taking off again.
But prosecutors might have another problem. Bullets from the gun Lyons allegedly used to kill Brown (which was never found) match the bullets that killed a man on the Olympic Peninsula this year, according to a newly released state crime lab comparison. At least, the .357 caliber bullets in both crimes "can't be excluded" as coming from the same gun.
In Clallam County, a Forks man named Noe Cordova, 29, an illegal immigrant who has lived in Yakima and Chehalis, is charged with the April 4 shooting of a La Push man, Robert Coberly Jr., 46, prosecutors there say. Coincidentally, the shooting allegedly involved a drug debt, too, and a point-blank shot to the head.
Was it the Seattle murder gun that ended up in Forks four years later, and does that somehow exculpate Lyons? King County prosecutors don't think so. "Our position," says spokesperson Dan Donohoe, "is that the [ballistics] evidence does not indicate a match."
Connick, surprise, surprise, has another view. The ballistics report clearly exonerates his client, he says without elaboration.
He recently moved again to dismiss the murder charge and was denied. But a judge did grant him time for yet more pretrial preparation.
Slim Lyons' final, final, final trial date is now Jan. 16, 2007. But it's not etched in stone.