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Browne eluded cops

Victims' families lament lost chances to catch serial killer

Published July 29, 2006 at midnight

Self-professed serial killer Robert Charles Browne dodged capture at least three times, allowing him to kill - and kill again.

In 1983, the day before 21-year-old Wanda Faye Hudson was poisoned with ant killer then bludgeoned with a screwdriver, she told her uncle she was afraid. Browne, who was working as a maintenance man in her building, had changed her locks. She feared he had her key.

She was right.

Police interviewed Browne after the killing, but he said he'd been out drinking with his wife.

In 1985, a Colorado Springs family allowed Browne to stay at their home. Years later, after Browne was arrested in the death of 13-year-old Heather Dawn Church, the family told police he had sexually assaulted their daughter.

Had they made their allegations earlier, Browne might once again have come under police scrutiny.

Finally, in 1987, when Browne killed a 15-year-old mother in Colorado Springs, a security guard caught him walking out of her apartment carrying her television.

The guard thought the scene was suspicious enough to ask Browne if the TV was his, the confessed killer recalls, but the guard let him walk on by.

Browne's confessions, almost two decades later, are haunting, both because of grisly detail and missed opportunities.

Time and time again, there were pivotal moments when authorities, friends or relatives could have stepped in and saved lives.

Possible cover-up

Wanda Faye Hudson's family members suspect a cover-up. Browne was related to numerous law officers in Coushatta, La., where Hudson died.

Immediately after the killing, they told authorities that Browne might have had a spare key.

According to court records, Hudson's uncle provided a handwritten statement in 1983. The eerie note read: "Wanda Faye Hudson told me the day before she was killed . . . that Robert Browne changed the locks on her apartment that day. . . . She told me that she thought Robert Browne had a key to her apartment."

Now, Hudson's cousin, Rusty Watson, believes officials deliberately bungled the investigation.

"This is strictly my belief. I say there were folks there who knew he did it all the time. I think they covered it up purposely. I really do," said Watson, who now lives in Petal, Miss.

Family members said sheriff's officials led them to believe that Hudson's boyfriend killed her, but said there was not enough evidence to file charges.

According to Watson, the sheriff at that time was known for an excessive number of unsolved murders. The sheriff is no longer alive to defend himself against the allegations.

"If they would have put a stop to it then, look at all the people that wouldn't have had to die," Watson said Friday. "Wanda Faye went through a horrible death. I wouldn't want my worst enemy to go through what she went through.

"We never got any kind of answer," he said. "She was like a sister to me. It was like people said, 'To hell with you all.' We were poor people, poor white trash, and they didn't care."

On top of the anger, Watson has tortured himself for years. He believes he might have saved his cousin, if only he had stopped in for a visit.

The night of Hudson's death, Watson was out drinking. He drove by Hudson's place and noticed the door was partially open. Instead of popping in, he decided he should go home to sleep and sober up before work the next morning.

"For a long time, I thought maybe I would have gotten there in the middle," he said.

'Opportunity arose again'

There were haunting twists of fate for other victims as well.

Browne has told investigators that he killed one woman, Melody Ann Bush, only after a bartender urged him to help Bush find her husband. The couple had stormed off to two different bars after a fight.

Browne said he originally declined the bartender's request but later changed his mind.

Instead of taking Bush to the other bar, he brought her back to his motel room, where he had sex with her then killed her.

"She was just actin' like a slutty, low-life woman," he told investigators. "And so, what the hell. Opportunity arose again."

Investigators have since spoken with the bartender, who denies asking Browne to escort Bush anywhere. Either way, the encounter gave the killer the chance he needed.

Detectives believe Browne targeted strippers, prostitutes and runaways who made easy prey. But the killing that landed him behind bars is among the most haunting.

Dan Zook prosecuted Browne for the slaying of Heather Dawn Church.

Now in private practice, Zook keeps a photo of Church in his desk drawer. Her glasses sit a bit askew on her head. She still looks like an innocent kid, not a polished teen.

"There's something about this case. She was just this little girl. One minute, they're sitting with you on the couch, and the next, they're up there in some ravine and who knows what's happening to them?" Zook said. "We know that one of the neighbors heard some screams. You just can't imagine what she might have been going through."

Zook credits investigators for not giving up until they got a match on a single fingerprint left at Church's home.

Zook considers himself lucky to have obtained a life sentence in the case because the evidence was not particularly strong. He believes Browne deserved execution, but Colorado's death penalty had been temporarily ruled unconstitutional.

Zook and fellow investigators always suspected Browne had committed other murders.

They dragged a pond near his home expecting to recover bodies, and they hunted for links to the unsolved murder of a woman named Faye Self.

Self was Browne's neighbor in Louisiana. He has now confessed to that killing.

The team that worked the Church case noted several examples of strange behavior.

"He torched his place in Louisiana. Why would he do that unless he was trying to hide something?" Zook asked.

Even though the prosecutor knew Browne was disturbed, he was shocked to learn how extensive the inmate now says his killing spree was.

"It's sad he wasn't stopped sooner," Zook said Friday. "At least we got him then. If our investigators hadn't kept working at it, there's no telling how many people he would have killed."

Near misses in spotting a murderer

If some of the people who came into contact with Robert Charles Browne had been less trusting, or had acted on their fears or suspicions, his killing rampage might have been cut short:

May 28, 1983:

Wanda Faye Hudson, 20, was found stabbed to death in her apartment. Browne, who worked as a maintenance man at the Louisiana apartment complex owned by his brother, told investigators he did it after letting himself in with a key.

The day before Hudson died, her uncle told a Louisiana investigator, "She said she was scared to stay there by herself because of the people who had lived in the apartment in the past. She told me she thought Robert Browne had a key to her apartment."

Sept. 17, 1991:

Heather Dawn Church, 13, was baby-sitting her 5-year-old brother, Sage, on Sept. 17, 1991, but had vanished by the time her mother and two other brothers returned home.

Two years later, her skull was discovered on a road west of Colorado Springs.

At the time of Church's disappearance, Robert Charles Browne lived a half-mile from her home. Browne was arrested for Church's murder in 1995. He confessed to killing the girl when he burglarized her home.

Nov. 15, 1987:

Rocio Delpilar Sperry was reported missing. Her body has never been found. Browne pleaded guilty Thursday to her murder.

Browne stole a television from her Colorado Springs apartment after killing her.

"He took the television, and as he was leaving the apartment he was confronted by a security guard for the apartment complex. The security guard asked him if the television was his. Mr. Browne replied 'yes' and returned to the victim's Grand Am."Source: El Paso County Sheriff'S Office Arrest Affidavit

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