A Montrose Man's Panic Room Wasn't Enough
The criminal heart of the city, wherever it lies, does not probably lie in Montrose. Those who live there do not expect violence, and last January, when police reported an "Incident at 1320 W. Pierce," a lot of people were reduced to cliché.
"You read about stuff like this," said Randy Yost, "but it always happens to someone else." Yost, the landlord of 1320, sat in his office, a couple of miles from West Pierce, displaying pictures of a former tenant. Whitt Bruney was also a great friend, "the sweetest, shyest person" Yost said he had ever known. The photos show a white man in his 50s, smiling here with a drink in his hand, smiling there with a paintbrush. He seemed always to be smiling, said Yost, at least when he wasn't talking about a crazy neighbor who had threatened him with a gun.
Bruney seems to have been the one person who was afraid to live on West Pierce. Yost "pooh-poohed" these fears, he admits, but "just to shut him up," Yost allowed his friend to move away from West Pierce and into another of Yost's rental houses — a place on Woodhead next to his own. Together, the two houses formed "a great, big capitalistic commune," Yost explained, in which mostly men lived, mostly with some connection to Yost's business. Together they installed exotic floors all over the world — palaces in Abu Dhabi, penthouses in Vegas — "one-of-a-kind floors for rich people, basically," said Yost, "because they cost so much." They formed "a tight little family," Yost said, and when they were in town, ate together nearly every night.
Bruney, who could build just about anything, had performed every function in Yost's business. Over a span of 40 years, he had also constructed most of the compound. Moving in there, he became known, said Yost, as "probably the greatest bread and dessert maker on earth."
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Yost thought the trouble with the neighbor was long past when, a couple of years ago, looking for bugs to kill, he made his way into Bruney's apartment. Lifting a tapestry on the side of a staircase, he discovered a hidden door. Behind the door was a small room, "a cave basically," the walls and ceiling lined with limestone eight inches thick.
When Yost asked his friend, "what's this?" Bruney replied quietly that it was where he slept; he didn't want his old neighbor to be able shoot him through the windows. When Yost inquired, why the stone on the ceiling, Bruney explained that he didn't want his neighbor to be able to enter the house, climb the staircase, and shoot him through the stairs.
"That was the last time the staircase was ever mentioned," Yost said, because he could tell that Bruney was embarrassed to talk about it. He could tell that Bruney knew what he was thinking. Yost was thinking that Bruney was maybe a little crazy himself, was maybe even crazier than his crazy old neighbor.
"Boy, I wish I could apologize to him now," said Yost. "He may have been paranoid. But he was right."
The house at 1320 West Pierce is a four-plex, and Bruney had lived in the lower left apartment, a mere 10 feet from the bungalow at 1322. The bungalow, with its trim bushes and immaculate walkways, offers even now the more tidy appearance. Beside it a tall fence has been erected, and this seems to block the rental almost entirely — block it of everything but the noise.
The 57-year-old man who lives there, David Earl Brown, would not speak for the purposes of this story, but no matter. His neighbors remember him well. Michael Goodner, the young artist who occupies the upper left apartment now, recalls waking in the middle of the night about a year ago to find floodlights blazing into his room and a large industrial vacuum cleaner, placed against the fence, running at high volume. Looking down, he saw Brown pacing the property next door with a pistol in his hand. "If I can't sleep," said Brown, "no one sleeps!"
Goodner chose, in that moment, to attend to his neighbor's needs. Brown, it seemed, was a light sleeper, very sensitive to noise, and though Goodner never heard the noises that disturbed Brown, he began asking his fellow renters to be considerate of the neighbor and keep it down. He urged them especially to be quiet in the hour after 11:30 a.m., when he learned Brown enjoyed a nap. Such was Goodner's solicitude that every few days he even inquired whether the neighbor found everything to his satisfaction, and certainly his neighbor did, and brought Goodner, on his birthday, a key lime pie and a bottle of wine.
Goodner learned only the barest details about Brown — that he was retired from something or other, that he lived with his boyfriend next door and shared, with Goodner, a passion for firearms. The two made plans to go shooting together one day, and this, of course, was something that Bruney had never done. Shy and sweet though Bruney may have been, he was no pushover. He reacted to his neighbor, and the pieces of rebar still stand above the fence on which Bruney had mounted his own floodlights and from which he had conducted his own counterattack of light.
Goodner, who was around back then, remembers what happened — Brown responding with more wattage, the two neighbors going back and forth, tormenting each other. This went on until, taking a walk, the neighbors encountered each other in the flesh. "Whitt and David got into a fistfight at the dog field," Yost explained. Bruney was a little bloodied later when Yost got him out of jail, so Yost thought "it must have been a good fight for guys in their 50s." Everyone laughed about it, everyone except Bruney and Brown, who seemed afterward to have a new fear for each other. Yost recalls watching Brown install security cameras on his roof, "aimed at our house, so he could see who's coming and going." Goodner recalls a promise by Brown, relevant to nothing in their conversation, that he would shoot Whitt Bruney, if Bruney ever posed him a threat.
Bruney, for his part, moved out after the fight and into his panic room, as Yost called it. Yost doesn't think the two men had any further contact until January of this year. Bruney used to protest when Yost asked him to return to West Pierce to perform maintenance chores. "But like I said," Yost added, "we all thought he was reading more into it than was there."
On January 22, Bruney returned to West Pierce and began trying to clean out a clogged sewer line, using a very loud machine, during the hour when his neighbor was known to nap. Though Bruney was not armed, and was not working near Brown's property but was behind the high fence, on the opposite side of the four-plex, Brown's lawyer, Matt Alford, says what happened then was "a clear-cut case of self-defense."
Police have several witnesses. Eric Mees, the waiter who lived upstairs, had just come inside when he heard what he thought was an explosion, followed by a yelp. Peeping through the blinds, he saw his neighbor, David Brown, with a pistol in his hand, down in the driveway, "and what I heard was, 'don't you fuck with me! Don't you fucking threaten me!'"
"Right after he said that, there were two more shots in rapid succession. It was pretty much point blank."
Brown walked to the end of the driveway and stood there for a while with his smoking gun. Looking quickly left and right, he ran for his house, as Mees, grabbing his waiter shirts from the dryer, went to Bruney. Putting pressure on the wounds, Mees remembers of that encounter mainly Bruney's face, "these possessed, crazy eyes looking right at me."
All the neighbors began coming out, and then the fire truck, the police and lastly, the ambulance that conveyed Bruney to Ben Taub Hospital, where he was declared dead on arrival. The medical examiner later found that Bruney had been shot five times. "What slays me," said Yost, is that the next morning, Brown was back out, walking the dog.
Michael Walker, the police detective, explained that since Brown had no criminal history and had lived in his house for so long (nothing had ever enticed him to move), he wasn't considered either a flight risk or a threat to the community. That at least is how the court probably saw it, said Walker, "though I can understand that if you were a witness who happened to be his neighbor, you might feel uncomfortable." Brown is free on a $50,000 bond, his trial on charges of murder perhaps a year away.
Learning this, Mees and another resident of 1320, an elderly invalid, moved out after the killing. A fourth renter in the four-plex, another artist, stayed where he was along with Goodner, who had decided that Brown was perhaps not such a good friend after all. Determined not to let the rain wash away what Brown had done, Goodner painted in the chalk outline of Bruney's body on the driveway. He was seen marching around West Pierce Avenue in full camouflage, toting his deer rifle, and was also heard shouting at Brown whenever the neighbor rolled out his trash. As all pretense of order threatened to collapse in the neighborhood, the artist, too, decided that he had better move out, and did so just as Mees moved back in. It's a good area, Mees continued to believe, and Randy Yost had been telling him that David Brown probably won't hurt him. Mees was told the same thing when he first signed his lease — "pay no attention to the nut job next door" — and cannot believe that another shooting could ever occur on West Pierce, least of all to him.
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