TAMPA — A month before David Brownell was to stand trial on insurance fraud, accused of faking a respiratory illness and bilking the state of $2.7 million, he died at Florida Hospital.
Cause of death: lung failure.
He was 48 and leaves a wife, Candace Brownell. Amid her grief, she wants people to know her husband was not a liar.
"I'm very angry because he was only 48 years old," Brownell, 55, said. "It didn't have to be like this."
Authorities arrested David Brownell in November, saying he misrepresented his physical abilities, all the while collecting more than $2.7 million in claims payments since 1995. It stemmed from a workers' compensation claim in which he said his work at Glades Correctional Institution exposed him to rats and rat feces, which gave him breathing problems.
However, video surveillance over several years showed that Brownell was not oxygen-dependent, according to the Florida Department of Financial Services' Division of Insurance Fraud.
He was able to play guitar in a band, attend a concert, drive and smoke cigarettes, the agency said.
The cigarette claim is a lie, Candace Brownell said. "He never smoked a day in his life," she said.
And, yes, he was able to occasionally go out to dinner, drive, watch bands and even play his guitar, she said. He didn't need to be on oxygen 24/7. In fact, his wife says, his doctor advised him to not use his tank all the time.
"We didn't realize they just expected you to lay in bed and die," she said.
In a written statement, the Division of Insurance Fraud said the issue was not David Brownell's diagnosis but instead the untruths he told his doctor. He told his treating physicians he needed oxygen 24/7, according to Brownell's arrest affidavit.
"We were saddened to hear of Mr. Brownell's passing and our sympathies are with his family," the division's statement reads. "The investigation was never about whether he was ill or not, but rather the contrast between how he was representing his physical limitations to doctors and what he was actually capable of doing."
Candace Brownell said any discrepancies were because of confusion and the effects of all his medication, not ill intent.
She married David Brownell four years ago, back when he thought he could give her a good 20 years together. Their marriage was marred by more than a dozen hospital trips.
The final one lasted about three months.
Though he had originally been diagnosed with a rare type of pneumonia, during the last stint a doctor also said he had idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis — a scarring of the lungs — Candace Brownell said.
Doctors put him on a lung transplant list but he died on Oct. 16, just 10 days later.
His trial was scheduled for Dec. 2.
David Brownell faced up to 30 years in prison for one count of workers' compensation fraud, a felony. He was worried about the upcoming trial, but his wife told him to relax.
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"He has a nerve stimulator in his back, a port installed in his chest, a feeding tube hanging out of his stomach," she said. "How would you be able to convince a jury he was faking it?"
His attorney, Octavio Gomez, said it is clear Mr. Brownell was a "very sick man who was trying to have a normal life."
Surveillance videos showed him going to dinner and movies, calm activities compared to what he had to give up because of his illness, his wife said. He used to sky dive and drive a motorcycle.
"They edited the (surveillance) tapes and only showed ones of him without oxygen," she said. "Where's all the videotape of him with oxygen or throwing up in the front yard because he couldn't quite make it home — or all the trips to the hospital?"
She also resents how the state made it appear David Brownell got rich off his claims. Most of the money went to medical providers, she said.
It is possible, she said, that the state could try to go after her late husband's assets — even though the criminal charge will have to be dropped because of his death.
"They could try, but he has nothing," she said. "His car is 10 years old, mine is 11. We lived in my little home. He lost his in foreclosure.
"We wanted just a very simple life. We just wanted to be able to spend what time we had together in peace and quiet."