CLEARWATER — William Lavold thought it was a bad joke or a poorly worded expression. Anything other than what it really was.
"I need your help," the text message said. "Dawn killed the kids."
It came from his best friend, Murphy Brown. And it meant exactly what it said.
Sometime Friday night, Brown's wife, Dawn, killed their two children — Zander, 9, and Zayden, 5 — authorities believe. They say she then wrapped an electrical cord around her throat, tied it to a ceiling fan and hanged herself.
Lavold said Pinellas County sheriff's investigators told him she drowned the children in a bathtub. Officials said they would not release a cause of death until after an autopsy.
Some neighbors said the killings were unthinkable, something they never expected. Others had seen it coming for months.
A series of setbacks and wrong turns — punctuated by an arrest and financial ruin — had ripped the family apart.
Dawn Brown, 34, had always wanted to be a teacher. But years ago, she lost her scholarship and dropped out of college, said neighbor Rob Petryszak. That changed her.
"She fell into a depression," he said, "and really just never came out of it."
Dawn Brown, charged last year with welfare fraud, was scheduled to go before a judge Oct. 1, records show. The couple also faced a looming foreclosure. Their electricity had been shut off for weeks.
They began cooking meals on a charcoal grill. To heat up frozen dinners in a microwave, they ran an extension cord to a neighbor's outlet.
Murphy Brown, 36, works as a freelance mechanic. No one in the neighborhood could remember the last time his wife had a job.
Dawn Brown's haven from her troubles had long been the darkness of her bedroom, where she spent hours on her computer reading romance novels.
"With the power out, she couldn't read her books anymore," said Petryszak, 39. "It forced her out of her little comfort zone. It forced her to deal with the kids."
The stress of their situation didn't seem to affect her husband the same way. Petryszak said Murphy Brown had told him he was happy the electricity had been cut off. It would make his kids better appreciate air-conditioning.
With money from somewhere, friends said, Murphy Brown played poker two or three nights each week at local bars and restaurants. On Friday night, when authorities say Dawn Brown murdered their children, he was at Stroker's Sports Bar & Grill playing cards. He found them when he returned home at 2 a.m. Saturday.
One neighbor after the next said they know Murphy Brown well, and most of them like him. He is a friendly guy who often fixes people's cars, even if they can't afford to pay him.
But Dawn Brown was different. She was an enigma to people here. Neighbors saw her occasionally walking with the kids. They waved and smiled. She waved and smiled back. But she seldom talked to anyone.
"She seemed like the type of lady who had something wrong with her. She showed no love," said Shanna Fowler, 24. "She just didn't care."
Even Lavold, who met her years ago, said he didn't know her well. "I absolutely hate her now," he said.
The couple began dating more than a decade ago. Around the same time, in 2000, Murphy Brown was arrested and convicted on a misdemeanor charge of domestic battery. It's unclear who the victim was.
On Nov. 2 of that year, Murphy Brown paid $75,000 for a simple, two-bedroom house at 2015 Sidney St. A lender soon after initiated foreclosure, but those proceedings were later dropped.
The couple got married in 2004. Murphy Brown later told friends that was a mistake.
In 2006, the Browns took out a $123,000 mortgage on their home. Their financial woes soon worsened. Dawn Brown was arrested in June of last year on a charge of welfare fraud. Petryszak said Murphy Brown told him the crime had something to do with Social Security checks.
In October, a judge ordered Dawn Brown to undergo pretrial intervention, a rehabilitative service that provides defendants with an alternative to traditional punishments.
Four months later, the Browns' home fell into a second foreclosure.
Meanwhile, records indicate, Dawn Brown didn't pay court-ordered costs related to the fraud case, and — less than three weeks ago — her opportunity to receive pretrial intervention was revoked.
She entered a plea of not guilty and a criminal hearing was scheduled for next month.
Murphy Brown, Petryszak said, had considered divorcing his wife but was afraid she would get custody of the children.
Zander and Petryszak's 10-year-old son, Zachary, were best friends. The Browns' children came to his house nearly every day. Sometimes, he said, they complained about their home life.
The Browns' house, Petryszak said, was a mess. The floors were stained and trash was strewn everywhere. The dishes were usually piled so high in the sink that the kids couldn't fill glasses of water.
Petryszak had for weeks considered calling the Florida Department of Children and Families to report the situation.
He never did.
Saturday afternoon, the remnants of that morning's horror had all but disappeared. The homicide detectives were gone, and the yellow tape had been stripped away. Lavold searched the back yard for the Brown's black dog, Shadow, who had been missing since Friday night.
The home, from the outside, looked much like it would any other day. The grass stood shin high, and vines of ivy hung from the worn vinyl siding. Near their front door was the charcoal grill over which the family had roasted marshmallows days earlier.
On each side of a lowered basketball hoop, the boys' bikes lay on their sides in the grass. A yellow volleyball with a smiley face was nearby.
At the same time, in a neighborhood known for the number of children who play in its streets, parents explained to sons and daughters that their pals, Zander and Zayden, couldn't play with them anymore. That they were in heaven now. That in this world, sometimes, people do bad things for no good reason.
Times researchers John Martin and Caryn Baird and staff writer Kameel Stanley contributed to this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at [email protected]