Tom Brown’s Body, Chapter 1: A Pretty Little Place
In 2016 a popular teenager disappeared in the tiny Panhandle community of Canadian. Two years later, his remains were discovered beneath a tree outside of town. But to this day, no arrests have been made, and it seems that nearly everyone involved in the case has fallen under suspicion.
When I first drove into the two-stoplight town of Canadian, it reminded me of a lot of small Texas communities I had been to. Canadian is a pretty little place, hidden away in a remote northeastern corner of the Texas Panhandle, set next to a shallow river, surrounded by rolling hills and miles of prairie. As I came into town, I passed by a feed store, a water well drilling company, and an oil well service shop. Canadian is dotted with churches and a couple of cafes where the locals drop in for coffee and greet each other by name. There’s a well-kept rodeo arena and a downtown theater reminiscent of the movie house in Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show. The high school football stadium seats 3,059 spectators, about 360 more than the entire population of Canadian.
But when I turned onto Main Street, I came across an empty lot with two identical signs, four feet tall and eight feet wide, planted in the ground. Written at the top of each sign, in bold red letters, was “JUSTICE for TOM.” Below that were two sentences: “There is a killer among us. Please pray that Tom’s Killer is found and brought to justice.” There was also a photo of a teenage boy. He was wearing glasses. His brown hair was brushed over his forehead, and he was giving the camera a gentle smile. That was Tom. Tom Brown.
In the fall of 2016, Tom was eighteen years old. He was one of the most popular kids in Canadian: president of his 71-member senior class, a standout in the school’s theater program, and an offensive lineman on the football team, which had won the Class 2A, Division 1 state championship the last two years.
But on the night of November 23—Thanksgiving eve—Tom vanished. Residents spent days—on foot, on horseback, on four-wheelers—searching for him in and around Canadian. A couple of local pilots flew their helicopters over nearby pastures and prairie, hoping to spot Tom. But he stayed missing for the next two years and two months—until January 2019, when a sheriff’s deputy came across Tom’s skull and a few of his bones scattered under a dead cottonwood tree east of town.
By that point, four law enforcement agencies—the Hemphill County sheriff’s department, the Texas Rangers, the FBI, and the criminal investigations division of the Texas attorney general’s office—had looked into the mystery of Tom’s disappearance. Determined to find out who would have reason to hurt Tom, officers had interrogated everyone from a former Canadian High School valedictorian to a running back on the football team. Lie detector tests had been administered to Canadian’s sheriff, to a globe-trotting private investigator who had come to Canadian to look into the case—even to members of Tom’s family.
Still, no arrests had been made. And in August 2019, seven months after Tom’s remains were discovered, Rachel Kading, a sergeant with the attorney general’s investigations unit who was then in charge of the inquiry, announced that she and her partner were unable to determine the cause of Tom’s death and that they would be suspending their work in Canadian “pending any newly discovered credible evidence.” In other words, the case, for all practical purposes, was closed.
I had been following the story from afar, reading articles about Tom in the Amarillo Globe-News and the weekly Canadian Record, and occasionally perusing a Facebook group called Moms 4 Tom, which had been created by Tom’s mother, Penny Meek, and a handful of her friends. I had talked to the Record’s editor and publisher, Laurie Brown (no relation to Tom), keeping track of all the gossip that has flourished surrounding Tom’s death: that he had committed suicide; that he had been killed accidentally in a fight with a member of the high school football team; that he had been kidnapped by sex traffickers; that he been ground up in a wood chipper by a local methamphetamine dealer; that he even had been murdered by the county sheriff.
“It’s nasty, this thing, a complete nightmare,” said Laurie, whose family has owned the Record since the forties. “You want to believe that over the last couple of years people have wised up, but apparently not. The conspiracy thinking is rampant.”
During one of our conversations, Laurie told me that she wasn’t sure she’d ever get the chance to write a final article laying out exactly what happened to Tom. There were too many unanswered questions about the night he had vanished, she said—too many unanswered questions about why his remains had ended up under a tree.
But this past January, a new rumor started making its way around town. Kading, from the attorney general’s office, reportedly had been calling people in Canadian and telling them she would be returning to conduct more interviews. Apparently, the investigation was back on.
That’s when I decided to come to Canadian. Surely, I figured, someone eventually was going to tell the truth about Tom’s death. Someone was bound to reveal what he or she had witnessed, or done. As Laurie Brown told me, “I don’t think you can do a damn thing in Canadian without somebody seeing you.”
Like a lot of Panhandle communities, Canadian, which is named for the Canadian River that runs north of town, started out as a railroad stop in the late nineteenth century. It’s far away from just about everything. The Panhandle’s only city, Amarillo, is a hundred miles to the west. As a result, Canadian’s 2,700 residents are somewhat cloistered. They mostly entertain themselves. The community maintains a public library, swimming pool, skate park, disc golf course, and performance hall for country music concerts and dances. There’s a fall foliage festival, a Fourth of July rodeo, and an annual calf fry. Canadian even has an art museum that has featured works by the likes of Marc Chagall and Rembrandt.
“Most little towns, people don’t go back to, but in Canadian, it’s a nice enough place to grow up,” Salem Abraham, who’s known as the richest person in town, told me. “It’s got great schools. And you say, ‘You know what? Canadian’s not so bad.’ We’re all a bunch of folks that have grown up together. Our parents grew up together, and our kids have grown up together. We’re all friends.”
I met Abraham the day I arrived in Canadian. He’s a trim, energetic man in his mid-fifties, a fourth-generation Canadian resident whose great-grandfather, Nahim Abraham, emigrated from Lebanon, passed through Ellis Island in 1913, and made his way to the Panhandle. He opened a dry goods store in Canadian to serve the area’s cattle ranchers and cotton farmers, and the family prospered.
Salem Abraham graduated cum laude in finance from Notre Dame University and considered heading to Chicago. Instead he returned to Canadian to marry his high school sweetheart and raise a family. He launched a hedge fund, which in time became a sensation, with more than $600 million in assets. When I went to see him at his offices, which take up the second and third floors of a renovated century-old former downtown hotel, he was wearing a $300 blue Brioni dress shirt, blue jeans, and hiking boots. He had a list of phone calls he needed to make to his multimillionaire clients. But he gladly dropped what he was doing and gave me as much time as I wanted to talk about Tom.
“I don’t think we have grieved yet,” Penny said. “We’ve had a memorial, but we don’t have an autopsy. We don’t have a forensics report. We have nothing.”
“Tom was a good kid, a sweet kid, a kid that was well-liked,” said Abraham, who first got to know Tom while coaching his flag football team back when Tom was a boy. Abraham was clearly upset over Tom’s death. He told me that when members of Moms 4 Tom asked him if they could erect the “Justice for Tom” signs on the empty lot he happens to own on Main Street, he immediately said yes—even though he knew they would cause a stir.
“Clearly there’s a group of people in town that do not like those signs,” Abraham said. “They want to move on, and they think, ‘Well, this won’t define Canadian. You know, we just need to move on.’ But my way of looking at this is, this is part of our history. It’s happened and it’s a big deal. And now I think as a community, we need to deal with it. We need to figure it out. We need to solve it. But until then, we can’t move on.”
Before I left Abraham’s office, he logged onto his computer and pulled up Google Maps to show me where Tom had last been seen, and where his body had been found. He then gave me one piece of advice—that I shouldn’t believe everything I was going to hear about Tom and his death. “There’s a lot of lying going on,” said Abraham.
“Lying, or just misinformation based on the wrong evidence?” I asked.
“Someone is lying,” he replied. “And it’s hard to know who’s lying and who’s not.”
Salem Abraham in downtown Canadian.
Photograph by Nick Simonite
Laurie Brown in her office at the Canadian Record.
Photograph by Nick Simonite
When I dropped by the offices of the Canadian Record, Laurie Brown told me the same thing. “I’ve seen a lot of people pointing fingers in the other direction, trying to cast suspicion,” she said. “It quickly became obvious to me that a lot of people weren’t telling the truth, that their stories changed and became very self-serving.”
Laurie, who’s in her late sixties, is a bit of an anomaly in conservative Canadian. Hanging on the wall of her office is a framed front page of the New York Times announcing Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 presidential election. But regardless of her political leanings, Laurie is fiercely devoted to her hometown. When we walked inside Alexander’s, a combination convenience store and deli, to grab lunch, she seemed to know everyone there. She chatted with one woman who promised to send photos of her cattle to accompany an article on livestock in an upcoming issue of the paper. She asked the cashier how her family was doing.
When we sat down, though, she admitted that the Tom Brown story had taken something out of her. “I’ve covered this for over three years,” she said. “And I’m still pretty baffled by the whole thing. I just never have felt like I can get anywhere close to what really happened. The more time that’s passed, the more frustrating it is that we still know so little.” She sighed. “It’s been hard. I’m tired.”
I headed off to meet Tom’s mother, Penny Meek, a computer technology teacher at Canadian’s elementary schools. When I arrived at her ranch-style home on the edge of town, she had just gotten home from work. She was dressed casually, in a blouse, blue jeans, and tennis shoes. Her white-blond hair fell to her shoulders. She introduced me to Tom’s older brother, Tucker, who’s 24 and an information technology specialist at a nearby school district, and to her husband, Chris Meek, a quiet man with thinning hair who works as a line locater for an oil field supply company. (Penny and Chris married in 2012 after she had divorced Tom and Tucker’s dad, Kelly Brown, in 2006.)
As I sat down at the kitchen table with Penny and Tucker, Chris served us glasses of tap water. I explained that some of my questions were going to be painful. “Are you okay with that?” I asked.
Yes, Penny quietly said.
She told me that she hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep since Tom disappeared more than three years earlier. One reason she couldn’t sleep, she explained, was that Tom’s remains were still in possession of the attorney general’s office, which meant she hadn’t been able to give Tom a proper burial. “I don’t think we have grieved yet,” Penny said. “We’ve had a memorial, but we don’t have an autopsy. We don’t have a forensics report. We have nothing.”
Penny described Tom as kind, smart, funny, outgoing. As a little boy, he loved pretending he was a pirate. “If I was making dinner or whatever, he would just go off by himself and make up all these little plays,” she said. “He would be all the characters. It was kind of comical.”
Penny also told me that Tom was one of Canadian’s good kids, the kind of teenager who always said “yes, sir” and “yes, ma’am” when talking to adults. At school, he didn’t skip classes, and he never caused trouble. He didn’t drink much at the high school parties out at Lake Marvin, a small sixty-acre reservoir east of town, and his friends said he refused to drink at all when he was the designated driver. He got along with everyone: the football players, the theater students, the farm and ranch kids who were members of the Hemphill County 4-H club. One of his favorite books was The Great Gatsby. He fancied himself a film buff; he loved the edgy classic, A Clockwork Orange. He played Xbox Live with friends, and he religiously watched Monday Night Raw, the professional wrestling television show. Tom, who was six feet one and 180 pounds, told his friends—and he was not completely joking—that he might someday go to a wrestling school and become a professional himself, combining his athletic and dramatic skills.
“He was quirky,” said Christian Webb, a former Canadian High valedictorian who was one of Tom’s best friends. “He knew how to make people laugh, and he loved to do it. And I think that’s what attracted people to him. That’s what attracted me to him. He was just a sweet, charismatic guy.”
“I don’t think I knew a single person that truly said, ‘I just don’t like that guy,’” added Kaleb King, who comes from one of Canadian’s most prominent families. (Kaleb’s father, Ken, runs an energy service company and is a Republican member of the Texas House of Representatives.) “I never knew anybody who had an issue with him. He was our president.”
Tom was wearing a thin black pullover, a black Canadian Wildcats T-shirt, faded jeans, and tennis shoes. As they strolled across the bridge, Christian took his photograph. Tom smiled.
Indeed, in the fall of 2016, Tom seemed to have everything going for him. Besides being elected senior class president, he had been selected to play a leading role in the upcoming school play, The History of Tom Jones, based on the comic English novel by Henry Fielding. He was taking a full load of classes and filling out college applications.
In October, he did raise some eyebrows when he quit the football team. Tom, who had been a backup lineman during the previous two state championship seasons, had been named a starter for 2016, but after a few games the coaches had demoted him back to second string. Tom didn’t seem particularly upset. He told the coaches he was sorry, but he didn’t want to stand on the sidelines for the rest of the year.
And in November, he broke up with a Canadian girl he had been seeing named Saige Pennington. But as far as anyone could tell, he didn’t seem particularly upset by that either. Saige was a year ahead of Tom in school: a freshman majoring in education at West Texas A&M University, in Canyon, a two-hour drive away. Tom explained to his family that it was hard to keep up a long-distance relationship. But he said that he and Saige had promised to remain good friends. He insisted there were no hard feelings.
Then came the evening of November 23. Tom made plans to cruise around Canadian with his friends. Before he left home, he borrowed his mother’s debit card so he could fill up his red 2009 Dodge Durango. He drove to the Canadian Middle School parking lot, where he met Kaleb King and another high school buddy named Michael Caseltine. Kaleb and Michael piled into Tom’s Durango, and Tom coasted around town, following his usual route, a series of streets that his friends had coined “Tom’s Loop.” Michael told me it was a typical night, and “nothing seemed out of the ordinary.” The boys talked, listened to music, and stopped at Alexander’s for a quick dinner.
At 8 p.m., they returned to the middle school parking lot to meet Christian Webb. Michael said he was calling it a night, and he left in his car. Tom and Kaleb climbed into Christian’s silver Dodge Charger. Christian had graduated from Canadian High the previous spring and was attending Oklahoma State University on a scholarship, studying microbiology and playing the piccolo in the marching band. That Thanksgiving weekend was the first time she’d been home since the fall semester began. She noticed that Tom was in great spirits. “He seemed really happy,” she told me.
Christian Webb, Tom, and Macy Patterson at the Canadian High academic awards banquet in May 2016.
Courtesy of Penny Meek
Kaleb King and Tom
at the homecoming senior bonfire in September 2016.
Courtesy of Penny Meek
At one point that night, Tom asked Christian if he could play a couple of songs by the popular Americana band the Avett Brothers. One song was called “Live and Die.” The other was “No Hard Feelings.” Later, they stopped by what locals call the Walking Bridge, an old wagon bridge just outside of town that was now part of a hike-and-bike trail. It was cold, in the upper thirties. There was a brisk breeze coming from the southwest. Tom was wearing a thin black pullover, a black Canadian Wildcats T-shirt, faded jeans, and tennis shoes. As they strolled across the bridge, Christian took his photograph. Tom smiled.
The three teenagers returned to the middle school parking lot between 11 and 11:15. Kaleb left for his house. Christian and Tom lingered, making plans for Tom to come over to her house the next day to play pool. They also talked about Tom visiting her sometime at Oklahoma State. “I told him that it was really good to hang out with him, and he said the exact same thing to me,” recalled Christian.