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When the news broke in April that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had suddenly discovered thousands of previously missing documents in the case of Oklahoma City federal building bomber Timothy McVeigh, Dale Brown stopped what he was working on at his home office in San Leon. Unlike many Americans, Brown wasn't shocked. He was nauseated. To him, it was more like déjà vu, an ugly reminder of his own lengthy battle with the federal government, which he claims contributed directly to his stroke and heart problems.
"To me, it was par for the course," says Brown. "I had thought that my case was an isolated one. But [after hearing the news], I realized it was the whole FBI. I don't support what McVeigh did, but it wasn't proper what they did to me. And even though McVeigh is a mass murderer, it's not right for them to do it to him, either. It made me sick to my stomach."
Make that sicker to his stomach. In the early 1990s Brown and several of his business associates got caught up in an ethically questionable FBI undercover sting known as Operation Lightning Strike, which targeted subcontractors in the Johnson Space Center aerospace community. Brown was never convicted of a crime, but he might as well have been. The episode shattered his personal life, ruined his health and destroyed his professional reputation. It also left him extremely bitter and obsessed.
"It think about it every morning, and it pisses me off," says Brown, who has double vision and is unable to use the right side of his body as the result of a blood clot in his brain. "It took my health. It took my wife. It took my baby. My home. It took everything in my life."
Such frustration obviously colored the news Brown heard back in April. But to him, the McVeigh snafu confirmed what he already knew from experience: The feds don't always turn over information in a timely manner. In Brown's case, he was regularly thwarted in his attempts to obtain exculpatory information important to mounting a defense. Attorney Dick DeGuerin, who represented Brown in the case, got a firsthand taste of what it's like dealing with an uncooperative governmental body.
"At the very best it's incompetence," DeGuerin says of the feds' propensity not to hand over all pertinent information to defense teams. "In this day and time, they ought to be able to retrieve every piece of paper with a scrap of information, electronically or otherwise, they have on a case, and turn it over."
Officials with both the FBI and the Houston U.S. attorney's office deny that they often fail to comply fully with the discovery process. If there is any foot-dragging, they say, it is the other agency's fault. The FBI will point a finger at the U.S. attorney's office, which will point right back at the FBI. But the blame game provides little satisfaction for criminal defendants who find themselves squirming under the weight of a federal investigation.
Eight years ago Dale Brown could have been a poster boy for the young man on the move in the Johnson Space Center subcontractor community. Handsome and trim at the age of 35, Brown ran daily. He swam, skied and climbed mountains. And he had dreams.
These days, Brown's speech is still rapid-fire, and ideas bounce around his head like so many pinballs. His senses of humor and outrage and fascination with the world remain the same. Just about everything else, however, has changed after two surgeries on his heart and one on his brain in the past seven years, procedures he is convinced were the direct result of his dealings with federal authorities in Operation Lightning Strike. Now overweight with shoulder-length hair, Brown occasionally rails at the right side of his body, which refuses to cooperate with the rest of him, the result of the stroke five years ago. (Most of Brown's physicians did not respond to interview requests from the Houston Press. The one who did, orthopedist Dr. Ian Reynolds, says he has no proof that Brown's legal problems were the cause of his health woes. He adds, however, that the extremely stressful legal battle did nothing to improve Brown's physical condition.)
The year before his stroke, Brown found himself in federal court facing a charge of bribing a government official. He was a long way from where he thought he would be.
A native of Indiana, Brown grew up an Eagle Scout and straight-A student. Since his father worked for Lockheed in the jet propulsion lab, Brown was a NASA brat. "When I was three years old," he recalls, "I went to my first test-firing. I saw rocket firings in the desert, and I saw rocket firings at my dad's work."
As a result of that early exposure, Brown developed a bad case of the space bug. After obtaining a bachelor of science degree from Eastern Illinois University, Brown moved to Houston in the mid-1980s and obtained a master's in business from the University of Houston-Clear Lake. He also arrived here with the dream of starting his own NASA-related company.