Year after Detroiter vanished, no closure for family

Mark Hicks

For the past year, Yvonne Benson has agonized over when she can properly say goodbye to her son.

Larry Brown vanished late last September, and she believes he was found dead the next month in an abandoned Detroit home that allegedly caught fire twice. She and other relatives claim his body still is at the Wayne County morgue, awaiting positive identification.

Brown went missing shortly after Benson lost another child, and the lack of concrete answers about his fate has only compounded her grief as she copes with health woes.

“I wish they would go and tell me so we could put some kind of burial,” she said through tears.

Brown was 55 and coping with multiple issues when he left the family’s home on the city’s east side in 2016 — having battled alcoholism and recently losing part of his hand after an explosives mishap, said Beverly Sturdivant, who dates his brother.

He was sometimes known to sleep in vacant structures but usually returned home, she explained. So when weeks passed and Brown failed to pick up his Supplemental Security Income benefits, Sturdivant said, “everybody got nervous and we started looking for him.”

His family filed a missing person report and joined acquaintances in the neighborhood to put up posters and search for him.

Then, a woman told them she believed he had been sleeping in a house near Nottingham and Warren that reportedly burned on two occasions, Sturdivant said. They also learned that a friend said he had left Brown asleep there.

Authorities retrieved a set of remains from the debris, Sturdivant and Benson said. The charred corpse was taken to the morgue, where Benson and others recognized some of Brown’s features. But they were told a DNA test was required for identification before the body could be released, the family said.

Benson had her cheek swabbed and waited. Staffers in the medical examiner’s office said the sample had been sent to a lab in Texas that “closed because of a lack of funds,” Sturdivant recalls.

Sturdivant sought medical records from his hospital stays to help, and despite months of calling officials, has yet to learn if an identification is any closer. “It’s like it’s nothing we can do,” she said.

Lisa Croff, communications and media relations director for the Wayne County Department of Health, Veterans & Community Wellness, told The Detroit News that the morgue has not identified a body there as belonging to Brown.

As for the swab, Croff wrote: “Asking for DNA doesn’t necessarily make it a positive match. They match the DNA against many possible cases. Also, DNA can take up to a year and sometimes longer to get a match.”

County officials added the situation is not unusual, that obstacles can emerge to prevent them from doing so.

While more time passes without answers and the anniversary of Brown’s death approaches, the issue weighs heavily on Benson, who is still mourning the death of another son, Phillip.

“I can’t rest. I don’t sleep at all. I have crying spells. I have to go to the hospital,” she said. “It really bothers me.”

The death has devastated Brown’s daughter and saddened those who knew him from the neighborhood, Benson said. “He was very funny — liked to dance all the time, crack jokes. Everybody knew him.”

She and Sturdivant acknowledge Brown, who had run-ins with the law, struggled with challenges that kept him from working full-time. They also wonder whether he was killed.

The Detroit Police Department’s homicide investigators are on the case, but they cannot move forward until the medical examiner gets a positive identification on the victim, representatives said Friday.

Until an official cause of death and the identification are obtained, closure remains elusive for Brown’s loved ones.