New Evidence Suggests Teenager's Conviction in Triple Homicide Arson Case Is Based on Junk Science
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Without giving specific names, Abdullah said that as Brown’s trial date approached, he told ATF agents that “he didn’t want to be part” of the trial – and that he even attempted to escape lockup while the state held him for trial – but that he was given no choice. He claimed that, among other pressures imposed on him to testify, ATF agents placed him alone in a room with the Bricelyn Street fire’s victims families for as long as an hour, while the families urged him to testify.
“I didn’t want to testify,” he said. “My back was against the wall.”
Valentine’s Day Fire in the Alley
It was 15 degrees outside and around midnight on Feb. 14, 1995, when Darlene Buckner said she cajoled her son, Greg Brown Jr., into riding along to get ingredients for a dish she was to prepare for a family wake the next day. Neither of them dallied at the Giant Eagle grocery store at Waterworks Mall as they searched the aisles for macaroni, tuna, dressing, relish, green peppers and onions. Buckner would later produce a receipt for $35.91 in purchases time-stamped 12:37 a.m.
In line to pay for her groceries, Buckner made small talk with the cashier about Valentine’s Day plans while Brown walked alone to the front of the store to flip through magazines. After money and receipts changed hands and the groceries were bagged, the pair exited the store together and began the 10-minute drive home.
As they approached the hillside Bricelyn Street, they noticed smoke billowing into the frigid night sky. By the time they reached a nearby alley, Exley Way, it was clear the smoke and growing number of emergency vehicles were responding to a fire at their house – 8361 Bricelyn Street – where they assumed the rest of their family was asleep.
Buckner would later tell investigators her son jumped out of the still-moving car near Exley Way and ran up the embankment of their yard to find a fireman who told him everyone was out of the house. Meanwhile, a cop on traffic detail witnessed Buckner, two months pregnant at the time, alone in her car when she parked near his patrol car and ran toward her home. The cop did not see Brown, and later testified that he saw an infant’s car seat in the front passenger seat. Prosecutors would later claim that since neither the Giant Eagle checkout clerk nor the cop remembered seeing Brown – and because a child’s car seat was seen in Buckner’s front seat – Buckner’s son was not with her. A Giant Eagle security video was erased before lawmen and defense lawyers tried to obtain it.
Buckner eventually found Brown, her husband, Ron, their infant son, Fred, and Ron’s adult daughter, Catherine, who was with her young daughter. All of them fled the house in their pajamas, leaving them with only blankets supplied by neighbors and firefighters to keep them warm.
As the family watched the fire suppression efforts, they heard whispers from neighbors later confirmed by news reports that Captain Brooks and firefighters Kolenda and Conroy had died in their family room. Coroner and independent reports said their deaths resulted from carbon monoxide poisoning and a lack of oxygen. (Read “The Deadliest Fire Fight in City of Pittsburgh History,” below.)
During one of several interviews over the past year, Darlene Buckner said the magnitude of that tragedy wasn’t lost on her or her family. But she was forced at the time to focus on her own family’s plight. She wondered how long it would take to rebuild after losing nearly everything. At least, she thought, her family recently purchased a renter’s insurance policy after a relative’s house burned down. That policy would cover less than half the cost of their losses, she said, but it was a small comfort. She hoped their family church and fellow parishioners would also offer support.