Candles were burning inside Murphy Brown's darkened house when he arrived home shortly after 2 a.m. Saturday.
The electricity had been cut off earlier in the week for failure to pay the bill. He could see the glow of solitary flames through the windows as he crossed the yard and let himself in the back door.
The first thing he did was check on his two sons, Zander and Zayden. Peeking into their room, he saw that the boys, ages 9 and 5, were tucked in their beds, quiet and still beneath the covers. "It looked like they were asleep," Brown recalled Sunday.
Moving through the candlelit house, he entered another bedroom. There he found his wife, Dawn Brown, hanging by her neck from an electrical cord attached to a ceiling fan.
He grabbed her. Her body was stiff. He struggled to unwind the cord from its hideously tight grip, but couldn't. "I tried to unwrap it, but it was too late," he said.
Brown's wife, the mother of his children, was dead. Shock submerged him, a powerful wave, but he rose for air and reached a moment of clarity filled by one thought: I hope she didn't do anything to the kids.
Mothers kill their children. There are strange, brittle women whose names and faces were made famous by a crime the mind balks at understanding: Susan Smith, Andrea Yates, Dorothy Dianne Rose. Tampa mother Julie Schenecker has been charged with first-degree murder in the shooting of her 16-year-old daughter, Calyx, and 13-year-old son, Beau, in January last year.
Dawn Brown's name is poised to be added to the list.
According to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, the 34-year-old is suspected of killing her two sons and then taking her own life sometime between Friday night and early Saturday morning, when Murphy Brown, 36, discovered their bodies at the house on Sidney Street in unincorporated Clearwater.
The Sheriff's Office is awaiting the results of autopsies before declaring the boys' cause of death.
Some who knew Dawn Brown, while allowing she was emotionally unstable, expressed shock that she would involve her sons in the unexpected spasm of violence that ended her life. In the maelstrom of financial and legal problems that bore down on her in recent months, Dawn largely protected her children, continuing to care for them even as she and her husband had trouble caring for themselves, relatives said.
"She loved them two kids," said Byron Brown, the children's paternal grandfather. "Murphy did, too. That's one thing I can say: They took good care of the kids. But their home life wasn't the greatest."
In his first remarks to the media since discovering his family dead Saturday morning, Murphy Brown told the Tampa Bay Times that his wife, while she grappled with severe depression, was a good mother — and a good person, once you got to know her.
"She was a good mom," he said. "She was very organized, smart. If you talked to her, she was very friendly to you, but she was shy. She didn't like to initiate conversations. You'd have to get to know her before she opened up."
He said he wished reporters had found a different photo than the one they used in their stories and broadcasts, a mugshot in which Dawn fixes a wan stare at a police booking camera.
The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office charged Dawn last year with welfare fraud, a felony. Murphy Brown said the case arose because Dawn did not report to authorities, after a period of unemployment, that he had obtained a new job as a bus driver for the Pinellas County School District. The government checks kept coming, and they needed them, he said.
"It caught up with us," he said.
Dawn believed the felony charge, pending in court at the time of her death, would spoil her dream of becoming a schoolteacher. She sank into a depression exacerbated by financial woes. The couple began missing mortgage payments, bringing on a foreclosure.
On Thursday, Brown said, Progress Energy cut power to the home because his utility payments were behind. They faced it with equanimity, he said, and he planned to obtain $1,600 by today to get the lights turned back on. The boys thought it was "cool," he added, to spend a few days roughing it.
On Friday, however, he talked to Dawn about wanting to leave her. He said he wanted to take the kids. He and Dawn had been married since 2004.
"I'd been wanting to leave for a while," he said. "She was angry about a lot of things, and she was pushing me away."
Friday night, Murphy went out with friends. He had a lingering feeling that Dawn had been hurt by their conversation about splitting up, though he had no idea how deep the wound would be.
"She wanted to hurt me, because I wanted to leave," he said.
• • •
Nobody can talk about the boys without crying.
Zander, Murphy Brown said, was a gentle baby, the sort who makes life easy for parents by being born without the widely inherited tendency to scream and squall. He and Murphy shared a birthday.
"He was the perfect baby, man," Murphy Brown said, his voice thick. "We thought Zander was such a good child, we decided to have another child."
That led to Zayden, who learned from Zander how to ride his bicycle and love the outdoors.
"They was a throwback, because they liked to play outside," said Byron Brown, who last saw the boys when he took them to the sprinkler playground at Dell Holmes Park in St. Petersburg about three months ago. "Most kids these days like to stay inside."
Four counselors will be available today at McMullen-Booth Elementary School, where Zander was a student, said Pinellas County schools spokeswoman Melanie Marquez.
The boys had a dog, Shadow, who is now staying with Byron Brown. Sunday, Brown sat on his front porch in south St. Petersburg, smoking a cigar, squinting at the street. Shadow began howling.
"That's the dog," he said, managing a small smile through his tears. "I guess it's missing them, you know? They played with him every day."
• • •
Murphy Brown tries not to think about what happened after he found his wife dead. But the memory repeats itself, an unwelcome guest barging again and again through a door in his mind he can't quite shut.
When he realized Dawn was gone, he went into the boys' bedroom. They lay peacefully beneath their sheets, no signs of injury. "Whatever happened, they were nice and clean in bed," he said.
Murphy drew back the covers and shook his sons.
"They were lifeless," he said. "Their arms and legs were stiff."
He ran into the street. A friend had returned with him in his car from the bar where they had spent the evening. The friend called 911.
Murphy is now staying with relatives in St. Petersburg. He says he'll never return to the house in Clearwater, and has asked relatives and friends to retrieve his possessions.
He is a tall, heavyset man. Recounting the events to a reporter Sunday at the house he has moved into, he stared straight ahead, looking at a memory more vivid than the morning sunshine or the cigarette in his hand.
He answered questions. He paused for long moments. He wept. After a while, he had a question of his own.
"You're a reporter," he said, his gaze snapping into focus. "Have you ever seen anything like this before? Do people ever recover?"
Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.