April 12, 2013 10:31:39 AM
SUWANEE, Ga. -- A gunman who lured firefighters to his Georgia home with an emergency call, then held four of them hostage for hours before being shot to death faced a series of personal and financial calamities before he lashed out.
Lauren Brown's life apparently reached a crisis this spring. With his power, cable and other utilities cut off because of nonpayment, the 55-year-old had half a dozen guns in his house and spent weeks planning the kidnapping, targeting firefighters rather than police Wednesday so he wouldn't be shot, authorities said Thursday.
"We knew he wasn't quite normal, but this is a real shock," said David Books, a former colleague of Brown's and a friend until they had a falling out years ago. He said he never noticed any signs that Brown could be violent.
The specific reasons that Brown chose to lash out aren't known, but Brown experienced personal and financial difficulties. He had separated from his wife years earlier, though he still lived across the street from her, her new husband and his two children, according to neighbors and people who knew the family. The living arrangement had long caused tension, said Books, who helped Brown move.
Books said Brown's mother eventually bought the house across from her son's ex-wife so her son could afford to live there.
"Having been a father myself, I can understand his desire to be as close to his children as possible, but given the acrimony between him and his wife -- regardless of who might have been at fault -- it looked to me like a situation that was going to turn out not to be very healthy," he said.
Brown worked long hours as a system engineer at IBM in the 1990s, Books said. Brown told his colleagues that he developed fibromyalgia, a chronic condition characterized by widespread pain, and left work on a medical retirement.
"For a while, he was in so much pain that he couldn't even think about working," Books said.
By 2002, Brown described himself as disabled in federal bankruptcy filings. He said he owed more than $100,000 to the Home Depot, banks and credit card companies. The records suggest that Brown was tapping into his retirement savings to make ends meet. A series of tax liens had been placed on his home, which slipped into foreclosure in recent months.
"He bragged about being an outstanding money manager," Books said. "I never really saw any evidence of that."
An insurer for IBM eventually refused to make disability payments to Brown, who was forced to return to the workforce, Books said. The two men last met at a business lunch around 2003 or 2004, though they kept in touch on Facebook since then. Brown had a live-in girlfriend for a time and wrote online of becoming a born-again Christian.
More recently, there were signs of trouble. Brown was arrested and booked into the Gwinnett County jail in 2010 after he failed to appear in court on a charge of striking an unmanned vehicle.
Brown called 911 Wednesday and said he was suffering from chest pains, and five Gwinnett County firefighters arrived at 3:48, believing it was a routine call, said Police Chief Charles Walters. Brown was lying in bed and appeared to be suffering from a condition that left him unable to move. But when they approached the bed to help him, he pulled out a handgun, Walters said.
He let one go to move the vehicles from the front of his house but kept the other four.
That began a 3½ -hour standoff. At about 7:30, police were convinced that even if they met Brown's demands, he had no intention of releasing his hostages, Walters said.
Brown had requested items from a fast food seafood restaurant for himself and his hostages, and a SWAT officer carrying the food approached the house in Suwannee, about 35 miles northeast of Atlanta.
Other SWAT members set off a stun blast to distract Brown and stormed the house. Brown opened fire on the first officer as he entered the bedroom. The man was hit in the left arm by one of the shots, but managed to return fire, killing Brown. Before Brown fired, police told him to drop his weapon, Walters said.
Exposed wooden beams could be seen through a gaping hole in the side of the house Thursday and debris littered the yard. Public records indicate the red brick house with white siding is in foreclosure and has been bank-owned since mid-November.
Next to Brown's home, another brick house with tan siding appeared to have even more damage. A large area of the side was missing, again with wooden beams and insulation exposed.
Jasmin Gutierez, 12, was at home with her family in that house Wednesday afternoon. They huddled in the master bedroom at the other end of the house.
"We started, like, at least trying to get in a group hug to save ourselves because we got scared," she said. "I mean there was a lot of people, like the SWAT teams and the police."
After a while, they heard a loud bang and then they heard shooting and black smoke started to fill their home and police knocked on the door to make sure they were all right.
After the hostage-taking was reported, dozens of police and rescue vehicles surrounded the home and a negotiator was keeping in touch with the gunman, police said. The situation remained tense until the blast rocked the neighborhood of mostly two-story homes and well-kept lawns.
"The explosion you heard was used to distract the suspect, to get into the house and take care of business," Gwinnett County Police Cpl. Edwin Ritter said in a news conference minutes after the ordeal ended. He said the situation had gotten to the point where authorities believed the lives of the hostages were in "immediate danger."
"It's an unfortunate circumstance we did not want to end this way," Ritter said. "But with the decisions this guy was making, this was his demise."
Firefighters were able to use their radios to let the dispatch center know what was going on and that's how negotiators communicated with Brown initially, Walters said. Once they got his cellphone service turned back on, they were able to speak to him by phone.
Fire officials did not believe there was any danger in responding to the initial call that seemed routine and dispatched the usual one engine and one ambulance to the house.
This was the second time in recent months that firefighters have been targeted.
On Dec. 24, a man in upstate New York set his house ablaze and shot and killed two firefighters as they arrived, then himself. Two other firefighters and a police officer were wounded.