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State expected to take over Barnson case from federal prosecutors

Oct 9, 2013 - By Katie Roenigk, Staff Writer

The man's skeletal remains were found March 10 on the Wind River Indian Reservation east of Riverton; he had been missing since 2006.

A federal judge is likely to dismiss the first-degree murder charge filed this year against Alan and Vernon Brown in connection with the 2006 death of Tad Paul Barnson in Fremont County.

Court documents indicate that the State of Wyoming will pursue the murder case instead, while the United States will prosecute the brothers for allegedly kidnapping Barnson.

Barnson's skeletal remains were found March 10 on the Wind River Indian Reservation east of Riverton. He had been missing since 2006. Officials said he died of blunt-force and penetrating trauma, and his mother told The Ranger that he was pushed over a cliff.

It is alleged that Alan Brown, 61, and Vernon Brown, 54, caused serious injuries to Barnson through violent assault on or about May 6, 2006. The two are believed to have left Barnson injured on the reservation in a remote area with no means to access medical care. They were arrested May 28 in Riverton, and they have remained in custody since then.

Lack of jurisdiction

On Sept. 20, the defendants moved for an order to dismiss the federal charge against them -- of first degree murder and aiding and abetting -- for lack of jurisdiction.

According to the motion, the alleged murder took place in the "Double Dives" area east of Riverton. Officials initially thought the crime scene was on the Wind River Indian Reservation, but further investigation revealed the area in question actually belongs to the City of Riverton.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kerry J. Jacobson conceded to the defendants' motion Oct. 2. She wrote that Colleen Brown -- Vernon Brown's daughter and Alan Brown's niece -- had showed investigators the spot where Colleen Brown had witnessed "the brutal assault Barnson suffered."

Veteran officers at the scene said the location was in Indian Country and had been treated as Indian Country for years by federal and local law enforcement. But investigators later discovered that the title for the land in question went from the United States to the City of Riverton in 1926 as part of an act of Congress from Sept. 30, 1890, entitled, "An Act to authorize entry of the public lands by incorporated cities and town [sic] for cemetery and park purposes."

"Since the land was never held in tribal ownership or held by the United States in trust for Native Americans, the land described does not fall within the Wind River Indian Reservation or within the definition of Indian Country as is required to prove a (federal) violation," Jacobson wrote.

She added that the Fremont County Attorney's Office has been made aware of the matter, and local prosecutors have indicated a willingness to move forward with charges against the Browns in state court.

On Oct. 4, U.S. District Court Judge Scott Skavdahl signed an order granting the motion to dismiss the federal murder charge. A hearing on the motion was set for Oct. 29 in Casper.

Death penalty

First-degree murder is punishable by life imprisonment or death, but Jacobson in earlier reports said she would not seek the death penalty in the case against the Browns. Federal officials said the United States couldn't seek the death penalty because the crime allegedly occurred on the Wind River Indian Reservation, where tribal leaders have not opted into death as an option for punishment.

Kidnapping

The second federal charge against the brothers, alleging that they kidnapped Barnson, will not be affected by the land status issue, according to Jacobson. She wrote that the activities in connection with the alleged kidnapping took place at 21 Pronghorn Lane on the reservation and progressed within the reservation, "merely coming to a conclusion -- the victim's death -- outside of Indian Country."

In July, Skavdahl scheduled the Browns' trial for 9 a.m. Nov. 12, with two weeks allotted for the proceedings. The trial initially had been scheduled for Aug. 5.

Jacobson also responded Oct. 2 to a motion regarding references to the defendants as the "Killer Browns."

In her response, she agreed that she would not elicit testimony about the brothers being known as the "Killer Browns," or similar names. But Jacobson said the United States plans to call a number of witnesses who will discuss their relationship with the brothers, including various statements made by the defendants regarding having killed a man. She also anticipated that several witnesses would indicate they were "fearful and wary of the defendants, based upon their personal observations and interactions with the defendants." A hearing on the motion was set for Oct. 29 in Casper.

More motions

On Oct. 7, Skavdahl signed an order excluding Vernon Brown's prior convictions from the case, as well as an order to exclude cadaver dog evidence and to exclude and sequester government's witnesses. The hearing for this motion also was set for Oct. 29 in Casper.

According to court documents, Alan Brown was convicted of manslaughter in 1974, and Vernon Brown was convicted of an assault in 1985. Both charges were made in the U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming.

Skavdahl also ordered that Grand Jury testimony be made available to the defendants. He wrote that counsel and defendants will be prohibited from revealing the contents of the material, and sanctions will be imposed upon proof of violation of that prohibition.

Earlier reports state the Browns are Northern Arapaho Tribal members and inhabitants of the Wind River Indian Reservation, but they are not thought to have a permanent residence. Barnson, 47, originally was from Idaho Falls, Idaho, but he resided in and around Riverton at the time of his death.