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Brothers say 'guilty' on 2006 homicide

Nov 5, 2013 - By Katie Roenigk, Staff Writer

Brothers Alan and Vernon Brown have pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in connection with the 2006 death of Tad Paul Barnson in Fremont County.

The Browns pleaded not guilty initially to first-degree murder stemming from the incident. The charge was lowered to involuntary manslaughter through a plea deal.

Involuntary manslaughter carries a penalty of no more than eight years imprisonment, while first-degree murder is punishable by life in prison.

The Browns pleaded guilty to the lesser charge Oct. 29.

During the hearing, both men said they could not remember the events of the night in question. Alan Brown said he was intoxicated and did not see Barnson's death.

Both Browns accepted the government's statements about the events that took place the evening Barnson died.

The Browns will be sentenced Jan. 9 in Casper before Federal District Court Judge Scott W. Skavdahl.

Kidnapping

Previously, the Browns also faced charges that they kidnapped Barnson, but those allegations were dismissed based on the statute of limitations.

The kidnapping allegedly occurred on May 6, 2006 -- more than seven years before the Browns were indicted for the crime. The statute of limitations bars prosecution after five years have passed, according to court documents.

On Oct. 18, U.S. Attorney Kerry J. Jacobson wrote that the Browns "lured Tad Barnson into Alan Brown's van on the premise of 'making a run' for more alcoholic beverages."

She said the men drove to a remote location and, while driving, began assaulting Barnson in the van. When they reached the remote location east of Riverton -- known locally as Double Dives -- Jacobson said the Browns "violently assaulted" Barnson with various weapons and "left him for dead."

Not reported

Because Barnson lived a "somewhat transient" lifestyle, Jacobson said no one reported him missing for about four months. An investigation later revealed that Barnson had last been seen in the company of Alan, Vernon and Colleen Brown, leaving the area of Pronghorn Lane on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

Colleen Brown is the daughter of Vernon Brown and the niece of Alan Brown.

"Investigators became aware of Colleen Brown's identity when her husband, who was incarcerated, told investigators she knew what happened to Tad Barnson," Jacobson wrote. "When interviewed, Colleen Brown told investigators she had been with Alan and Vernon Brown when Barnson joined them in their van for the purpose of getting more alcohol."

Colleen Brown said she was present during the assault on Barnson in the Double Dives area, Jacobson continued.

"Although she wanted to stay with Tad Barnson (after the attack), Alan and Vernon Brown forced Colleen Brown back into the van," Jacobson wrote.

"They left Tad Barnson at Double Dives, saying he likely would not make it through the night."

Law enforcement searched the Double Dives location in 2006, but they did not find any physical evidence tied to the crime, according to court documents.

Nearly seven years later, on March 10, 2013, a hiker reportedly found Barnson's skeletal remains about two miles from the spot Colleen Brown had identified as the location of the assault.

Deal

Investigators faced difficulty when determining whether Barnson's death took place on the Wind River Indian Reservation. At one point, federal judges seemed likely to dismiss the murder charges against the Browns due to lack of jurisdiction. The state was going to pursue that case instead, while the federal government planned to address the kidnapping charges.

John Powell, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Wyoming, said this months' plea deal addressed the jurisdictional issues; the state no longer intends to pursue murder charges against the Browns.

The brothers, who have been in custody since their arrest May 28, are members of the Northern Arapaho Tribe. They are inhabitants of the Wind River Indian Reservation, though they are not believed to have any permanent residence.

Vernon Brown, 54, only faces the charge of involuntary manslaughter, which states he knowingly, and with gross negligence amounting to wanton and reckless disregard for human life, caused the death of Barnson and did so while committing an unlawful act not amounting to a felony -- namely assaulting, striking, beating and wounding Barnson.

Alan Brown, 61, faces one count of involuntary manslaughter and aiding and abetting.

Penalties for both brothers include up to eight years imprisonment, a $250,000 fine, three years supervised release and a $100 special assessment.

Barnson, 47, originally was from Idaho Falls, Idaho, but he resided in and around Riverton at the time of his death. His case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

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Wind River Indian Reservation