The FBI ruled this 17-year cold case in Kansas a homicide, but still no answers for Alonzo Brooks' family
Despite a hefty reward and an "Unsolved Mysteries" episode about his death, there is still no closure for Alonzo Brooks’ family.
Maria Ramirez thinks about her son Alonzo Brooks every day.
“I’ll go outside and — little things, you know — it just could be the wind, and I think that’s him messing my hair,” Ramirez said.
Brooks was living with his mom in Gardner, Kansas, in 2004, when he went with friends to a house party in La Cygne, about an hour away. He never made it home.
In the days after Brooks vanished, authorities from Linn County, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Bureau of Investigation became involved.
A month passed without answers. Finally, Brooks’ family found his body on a pile of broken tree branches that had collected in Middle Creek, just east of La Cygne and less than 650 feet from the party house.
“When the family found him and saw what he looked like, we knew that there was foul play,” said Angela Cox, one of Brooks’ aunts. “We could tell.”
Investigators have said that Brooks’ body got tangled among the branches, and was submerged because of heavy rain that flooded the creek. When the water receded, his body was revealed.
What no one has figured out is how Brooks ended up in the creek in the first place.
Cox and Ramirez both think race played a part in his killing; the 23-year-old was Latino and African American, and one of the few people of color at the party. Seventeen years after Brooks’ death, his mother and aunt are still unhappy about that first investigation.
“We got nowhere with the local authorities — they didn’t even want to talk to us,” Cox said, at her home in Topeka. “And then when … family members would call them, they told us that we're calling too much.”
A second chance
Brooks’ case got a second chance in 2019, though, when Stephen McAllister, then the U.S. District Attorney for the state of Kansas, decided to take another look.
“I first heard about it when ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ made an inquiry of our office, and indicated they were going to do an episode about it,” McAllister said. “So I gathered up some information about it and started reading about the case.”
It wasn’t long before McAllister, who now teaches law at the University of Kansas, requested that the FBI reopen the case.
In that initial investigation, McAllister said, “There was a lot of activity, all kinds of interview reports, but no strong coordination.”
“It just led to a kind of, I think, throwing up their hands when they didn't end up with an obvious suspect,” he said.
There were other issues, too.
For one, the coroner who performed Brooks’ autopsy, Dr. Erik Mitchell, said he couldn’t determine the cause of death.
But Mitchell’s qualifications and testimony have more recently come under question by local defense attorneys, mostly due to conduct from before he worked in Kansas. An Associated Press story from 1993 said Mitchell routinely removed organs from corpses without the consent of victims’ families, and he improperly stored body parts in his New York office.
Even without that, McAllister said Brooks’ death was a complicated investigation for any agency to handle.
“For all the interviewing of the kids, it may be that you had an actual killer at the end of the night, with not many people around,” he said, “and so we've got a code of silence among a very small group, that has not been broken all these years."
New technology, and a new incentive
After the case was reopened, the FBI offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to a conviction. In July 2020, the Bureau exhumed Brooks’ body, which was buried in Topeka’s Mt. Calvary Cemetery, and performed a second autopsy. Last April, his death was reclassified as a homicide.
For the FBI’s lead agent on the case, Leena Ramana, the reopening was an opportunity to see if new technology could turn up any old clues.
“The witnesses then have grown up, they've moved on — whether that's moved on from the situation or just grown up in life,” Ramana said. “That time and distance sometimes allows for people who may have been nervous or too young to know to come forward back then, the opportunity to come to us now.”
Ramana wouldn’t discuss the progress investigators have made over the last year and a half, or if there are any suspects, but she said the case is still a priority.
“I think everyone wants a quick solution to a situation like this,” she said, “but (a) methodical and tactical (approach) are the best ways to gather the evidence and bring justice.”
Connections to a modern movement
It’s not just the authorities who are taking a methodical approach. Josh Pratt is a documentary editor from Paola, Kansas, who has investigated Brooks’ death for years. Pratt now lives in Vancouver, Canada.
“I think that for the longest time Alonzo Brooks … he was just another Black man who had died or disappeared,” Pratt said. “There’s endless ones of them.”
In 2004, when Brooks was killed, Pratt explained, the country wasn’t thinking as much about the criminal justice system or racial discrimination. But by 2019, the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown had sparked a new movement.
“A lot of other things lined up for Alonzo's case to go on a national level at the time,” Pratt said. “Black Lives Matter movement is gaining, (and) people are questioning ways that we've been acting in society.”
From a storytelling perspective, Pratt said, the circumstances of Brooks' death are ideal for a show like "Unsolved Mysteries," which draws a national audience.
“This has all the trappings of a Hollywood movie,” he said. “It's got twists and turns, it's got possible race relations, it's got young drunkenness, bravado. It's got an isolated farmhouse that's completely dark, with no street and very little traffic around, it's got a missing body being found.”
All the extra attention has taken a toll on Brooks’ family, which is still reeling from the loss.
Brooks’ aunt Angela Cox is the family spokesperson and runs their Facebook page — a part-time job in its own right.
“It changed the whole dynamic of the family for years,” she said. “We are very cautious of our kids now.”
Brooks’ mom, Maria Ramirez, attributes her recent cancer diagnosis to the stress and sorrow she’s experienced.
“There’s days when I just can’t take it,” she said. “When I think real hard about, you know, what happened, and then I think of what they did to my son … it really gets to me.”
But she’s also just glad the case is still getting attention, and that people are keeping her son’s memory alive.
“I got this feeling that it's going to come out. I got a feeling it's going to come out soon, and I'm not giving up hope about that,” Ramirez said. “It's eating at those people, whoever did it to my son … and I know their life is not good.”
Anyone with information about the death of Alonzo Brooks is encouraged to call the FBI’s Kansas City office at (816) 512-8200, the Tips Hotline at (816) 474-TIPS, or submit a tip online at tips.fbi.gov.