PINELLAS PARK — The first rays of dawn had barely crossed the sky when Connie Ellis heard someone pounding her front door. She rose from bed and took in the acrid odor of smoke that seeped through the walls from outside before she crossed to the living room.
She opened the door. A firefighter stood there. Behind him, in the driveway, a rolling inferno poured through the open windows of a 1985 Oldsmobile.
An electrical fire, Ellis thought. Her 17-year-old son, Brannon Jones, had just bought that old blue car, she told the rescue workers.
The fireman closed the door and Ellis and her family gathered at the kitchen table to drink coffee while the blaze outside was extinguished. A neighbor came by and joined them. They tried to laugh about it.
A while later, another knock.
"Ma'am, I need to know who lives here and who's not here," the firefighter said.
She looked at everyone. They were all there, except Brannon.
"Oh my God," she said, as tears welled in her eyes. "Is someone in that car?"
Someone was. Her son's charred bones lay in the driver's seat.
It was 7 a.m., the day after Christmas, 1999.
• • •
It's hard to say what happened to Brannon Jones on that chilly morning 13 years ago. A medical examiner thought it was suicide. Others thought it was an accident. Connie Ellis thinks it was murder.
Detectives aren't sure what to think. Officially, the case remains on the books as one of 12 unsolved homicides at the Pinellas Park Police Department. But that's only because no one is sure how Brannon met his fate.
"I don't know," said Detective Ken Blessing, the case's original investigator. "I'll be quite honest with you, short of someone coming forward to say 'This is what happened,' we don't have anything."
From the start, there was little to work with. An assistant medical examiner who did an autopsy initially classified Brannon's death as a suicide.
A troubled youth, Brannon had cut his wrists in the past and, another time, pointed a gun at his head. He also took medication for obsessive compulsive disorder.
Police found a gun in the car. It had been stolen from another car in the neighborhood the previous day. Some of its chambers were empty, but investigators couldn't determine if it had been fired.
Months later, the medical examiner's office reviewed hundreds of cases after the same doctor who examined Brannon's remains was found to have made mistakes in several autopsies.
Part of Brannon's skull was gone, but it wasn't determined if that resulted from the fire or something else, like a gunshot. Bruising was also noted on part of his brain, but the cause of that, too, was unclear.
Nevertheless, Brannon's death was reclassified as a homicide.
Connie Ellis thinks she knows who did it. The night before her son's death, he hung out with three young men he knew from the neighborhood. There was drinking. There might have been drugs.
None of the three came by the house that morning, Ellis said, nor did any of them attend Brannon's funeral service the following week. When she asked one of the boys what he knew about Brannon's final hours, she got no answers.
Detectives questioned the three, along with several other people who knew Brannon.
"We gave a polygraph to everyone who was a potential suspect," Blessing said. "Everyone passed."
• • •
Connie Ellis has refused from the beginning to believe that her son died by his own hand.
She knows Brannon had problems. She knows he did drugs — ecstasy, in particular, was popular around the time of his death — and that he had a tendency to get in trouble when he hung out with the wrong people.
But she knows better.
She thinks of the boy she raised — a God-fearing teen, who told her he was too scared of going to hell to take his own life. She thinks of the bright young man — a high school graduate who spoke of going to college and becoming a lawyer. She thinks of the hard worker — a stock room clerk who saved up the cash he made at Kane's Furniture store to buy the car in which he died.
She thinks of her son every time she steps onto her front porch and sees the brown imprints, seared into the concrete driveway of her home on 65th Avenue N, marking the spot where the tires melted. The tears come now, just as they did then.
"He wasn't an angel," Ellis said. "But he was mine."
Every year, she still sets up a Christmas tree in the same front room where she stood 13 years ago and learned of her son's death. She doesn't want to, but she does. Every year, family and friends ask her what she wants for Christmas. Her response, her real wish, is always the same: answers.
Until she gets them, nothing will change.
"I have to keep going … as long as a killer is still around," she said. "I would love to get out of this area. The day they catch them, that will be the day that I'll move."
Dan Sullivan can be reached at (727) 893-8321 or [email protected]