Wendell Brown returns to Detroit from prison in China

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Romulus — At 5:30 a.m. Wednesday, the text came in: “He just landed.” 

That "he" was Wendell Brown. The 32-year-old was finally home almost three years to the date after a bar fight in China that changed his life.

Detroit native Wendell Brown, left, who spent three years in a Chinese prison, arrives at Detroit Metro Airport, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019 in Romulus.

Through the efforts of family, friends and diplomats, Brown had returned to the United States the previous night, landing in Los Angeles.

What Brown didn't know this morning was that a group of two dozen loved ones awaited him for the final leg of his journey, wearing T-shirts and holding “Welcome Home Wendell” signs.

Family and friends of Wendell Brown hold signs to welcome him back.

What he also didn't know was that a party bus brought them to Metro Airport, and a party bus would carry Brown to his next destination.

The plan from there, said cousin Mook Brown, 24, was to get Wendell a big meal, good company — and then some rest.

At the airport Wednesday, Brown looked down at his cousin, Raymone Brown, 27, a lifelong wheelchair user due to cerebral palsy.

“You don’t have to cry no more,” the football player said. “We’re here.”

Asked why he was crying, Raymone said: “That’s my big cousin. He’s always been a leader. And he’s still the same. Still acts the same, same intelligence. They ain’t break him.”

“I wasn’t concerned about that — after I spoke to him a few times,” said Brown’s grandfather Wendell Stone, 70. “Before that, I was.”

A Chinese court sentenced Brown to four years in prison in June 2018 for being involved in a bar fight, a punishment his lawyer and an activist called excessive.

Brown, a graduate of Detroit King High School who played for Ball State University in Indiana, had been teaching American football in southwest China when he was arrested in September 2016 and later charged with intentional assault. He has denied hitting a man at a bar and said he had raised his arms in self-defense after being attacked.

Family members and a group of people who banded under the name Team Wendell campaigned to local authorities in China and the United States for Brown's release.

Brown had one year knocked-off his sentence and was released Tuesday, Dan Redford, a family friend, told The Detroit News.

The incident occurred on the night of Sept. 24, 2016, when revelers at a nightclub threw a bottle at Brown and an altercation occurred. Afterward, a local man accused Brown of seriously injuring his eye, which had to be removed. The man demanded more than $100,000 in compensation or else he would pursue the case in court.

Brown had been detained 20 months while awaiting the verdict that came in June 2018.

Brown played linebacker for Ball State from 2004-08 and went on to play in the Canadian Football League before moving to Chongqing, China, to coach.

Similar disputes are often settled out of court in China — where the conviction rate is 99% — but Brown did not reach a settlement with the plaintiff and pleaded not guilty, the Associated Press reported at the time.

Wendell Brown kisses his grandmother, Erma Brown

Brown’s mother, Antoinette, 52, contrasted Wednesday’s happy gathering with a Skype call about a year ago, with most of the same people.

That 15-minute video chat was the first time she’d heard her son’s voice in two years. Over the last six months, they’ve been able to talk about once a month.

Redford said they were excited to have Brown return to Detroit.

"We’re anxious to see what he wants to do," Redford said Tuesday. "He’s a criminal justice major. Not sure what his plans are, but we certainly want to help him if he needs it, and I think he’s got a lot of opportunities."

After arriving at LAX last night, Brown was rushed through Customs. His mother credited government officials and the U.S. Embassy for their many efforts on her son’s behalf, including “making him feel welcomed home” Tuesday night.

“We’re better for this,” Brown said in remarks to reporters.

Her son took little interest in describing the details of his incarceration, answering simply “it’s prison” before steering the conversation back toward how happy he was to be home after all this time.

While the welcoming party gave hugs and fielded questions from reporters, the party bus outside got a flat tire.

Had the welcome home party not taken the hour it did, there would’ve been yet another delay in his journey home.