Philip Klein, the six-foot-six private investigator, stood in the bed of a pickup truck just outside the Panhandle town of Canadian and addressed a crowd of more than a hundred. “You don’t know how much we appreciate you,” Klein declared. “You are doing God’s work. You are here to help us find Tom and bring him home.”
It was a Saturday morning, October 14, 2017. Eleven months earlier, on Thanksgiving eve, Tom Brown, the eighteen-year-old president of his senior class at Canadian High School, had mysteriously vanished after spending a typical night cruising around town with friends. The next morning, his red Dodge Durango was discovered on a secluded dirt path beside the town’s water treatment plant. Two months later, his backpack was found behind a barbed-wire fence on a farm-to-market road a few miles east of town. But the few pieces of evidence that emerged only raised more questions about his case.
The local sheriff, 32-year-old Nathan Lewis, led the search for Tom. Only weeks after Tom’s disappearance, Lewis announced on a popular Panhandle radio talk show that he believed the teenager had left Canadian “voluntarily” and that someone he knew had helped him skip town. “Somebody does know where Mr. Brown is,” Lewis told Chris Samples, the show’s host. “Absolutely.”
But Tom’s mother, Penny Meek, an elementary school teacher, insisted that her good-natured son would never have run away. She hired the 61-year-old Klein, a specialist in missing persons cases who’s based in the southeast Texas town of Nederland, to find out what had really happened. Klein says his friends and fellow private investigators call him the Ray Donovan of Texas. (Ray Donovan was the titular character in the Showtime television series about a “fixer” for a powerful law firm that caters to the rich and famous.) After interviewing, by his count, more than fifty Canadian teenagers and other residents, Klein made his own appearance on Samples’s show, and he contended that there actually wasn’t any evidence that Tom had left Canadian. “We have a crime,” Klein dramatically alleged.
Throughout the spring and summer of 2017, Klein continued to go on Samples’s show, offering up tantalizing hints about his investigation. He initially said he was studying “possible suspects” in town who were engaged in “possible nefarious activities.” He later said he was looking at “about three persons of interest.” At one point, he claimed something had happened to Tom after he “ran into some friends or he ran into some frenemies” in the parking lot of the high school’s football stadium. Although he never offered any evidence to support his theories, his allegations nonetheless fueled sensational rumors all across the Panhandle.
Then, early in the fall of 2017, Klein said he had received an intriguing tip. He spoke to someone he later described as “a very fine young person” who was “a relative of one of our main witnesses in the case.” According to Klein, the person said, “I can’t lie. I’ve got to tell the truth.” The tipster claimed to have been told that Tom’s body was somewhere near the same farm-to-market road where the backpack had been found.
Klein was so convinced the “very fine young person” was telling the truth that he decided to launch a twelve-mile search along the entirety of what locals call Lake Marvin Road. He ordered his staffers to broadcast an “all call” on his firm’s Facebook page, soliciting volunteers. More than 500 applications came in, from which 150 volunteers were chosen. Most of them hailed from Canadian. Others came from nearby Panhandle towns. A few arrived from Oklahoma and Kansas.
And now, on that Saturday morning in October, as the search was about to begin, the volunteers squinted up at Klein. He loomed over them from atop the bed of the pickup and directed them to look for human bones. (He assumed that wild hogs or other animals had already gotten to Tom’s body, leaving just bones behind.) He also asked them to be on the lookout for items that Tom had carried with him the night he disappeared: his iPhone, glasses, and keys. And because a .25-caliber shell casing had been found in Tom’s Durango, he urged them to be on the alert for a small-caliber handgun.
Klein then introduced the crowd to Penny, who stood beside the pickup and quietly read from the book of Genesis: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done.” Several people wiped tears from their eyes. “It was amazing to see how so many still cared for Tom, so many months later,” said Laurie Brown, the editor of the Canadian Record. “And what you have to remember is that a lot of these volunteers had never even met him.”
The volunteers were divided into groups of ten and stationed in one-mile increments, five volunteers on one side of the road, five on the other. They peered beneath fallen tree branches, raked through piles of dead leaves, and climbed in and out of drainage ditches. Some of them got on their hands and knees and crawled through the brush.
Just six minutes into the search, a woman began yelling. She was part of the group stationed nearest to the start of Lake Marvin Road. She called out that she had found something in the grass.
It was an iPhone.
Klein and several others hurried over. The phone, everyone noticed right away, was in near-perfect condition. Even though that side of the road had recently been mowed, the phone had no cracks or scratches. And despite heavy rains from previous weeks, it didn’t have any signs of water damage. There was no dirt inside the ports and buttons. The phone couldn’t have been out in the grass for more than a day or two. In fact, Klein told me, he assumed at first that a volunteer had accidentally dropped it. “I took one look at it and said, ‘That’s not Tom’s phone. That’s a fresh phone. It’s, like, out of the box.’ ”
The phone was photographed, tagged, and bagged and given to a sheriff’s deputy who was attending the search. It would later be sent to an FBI forensics lab for analysis. Meanwhile, the volunteers continued searching. They collected a few shreds of deteriorated clothing and a shoe. Someone found an empty black pistol case that could have held a .25-caliber handgun.
Though the group didn’t come across Tom’s remains, Klein did his best to put a positive spin on the day’s events. “I feel very comfortable in saying that we took about five big steps forward today,” he told Laurie Brown late that afternoon. “I think we were able to take some things off the board, and we definitely added some stuff onto the board.” Klein said he was more determined than ever to find Tom. “Let’s just get it solved. Let’s bring Tom home. Let’s put him in the ground. Then let’s prosecute the people that we have to prosecute.”
“People think that we just have tons of money,” said Anita Webb. “So immediately it went to ‘Well, they have money, so they’re covering up for their kids.’ ”
The rest of that fall, Klein continued his investigation. In November, he made yet another appearance on Chris Samples’s radio show to talk about a tip he had received: allegedly, a brown or copper-colored Ford F-250 pickup had been seen tooling around the streets of Canadian at about the time that Tom had disappeared. Klein asked that anyone with pertinent information call his tip line.
Klein also performed a Luminol test on the interior of Tom’s Durango, which had been parked in the garage of Penny’s home. Luminol is used to detect trace amounts of blood, and the sheriff’s department had not done such a test. Klein said that when he sprayed the chemical in the Durango’s interior, it “lit up like a Christmas tree,” indicating “extraordinary amounts of positive hits of blood” that weren’t visible to the human eye. Klein became even more resolute in his claim that an act of violence had taken place in Tom’s Durango.
Sheriff Lewis, meanwhile, was also getting inundated with tips, many of them patently ridiculous. One man called the sheriff’s department and said he’d heard that Tom had been killed and fed to pigs. An inmate at the county jail arranged a meeting with Lewis and his chief deputy, Brent Clapp, to tell them that a gay meth dealer had stuffed the senior class president into a wood chipper after having sex with him.
“There were a hundred million thousand stories going around about what could have happened to Tom,” said Katrina Adcock, the owner of Trina’s Treasures, a resale shop on Canadian’s Main Street. Adcock went on to tell me that she had heard Tom was being kept in a cage at a vacant motel some twenty miles outside of town and being periodically shot up with heroin. She also heard that Tom had been killed and frozen. I asked how, precisely, he might have been frozen. “In a freezer,” Adcock explained matter-of-factly, while her five small dogs (Sassy, Sandy, Julie, Fifi, and Rosie) yipped in the background. “Same way you do any kind of meat.”
Tom’s friends Christian Webb and Kaleb King, who had gone cruising with Tom the night he disappeared and were later interrogated by a Texas Ranger and an FBI agent regarding his whereabouts, continued to find themselves the targets of ugly gossip. At Oklahoma State University, where she was now a sophomore, Christian attended a party at a friend’s apartment. The moment she walked in, a guy looked at her and jeered, “Where’s Tom? I bet you know where he’s at.”
One weekend when Christian was at home visiting her parents, she went to the town’s flower shop with her mother, Anita. One of her favorite high school teachers was there. “That teacher basically snubbed her: didn’t talk to her, turned her back, and never gave her the time of day,” Anita said. “It was heartbreaking.”
Kaleb was so troubled by the constant online hearsay that he stayed away from social media entirely. “It was just interesting how quickly you could see a town turn on somebody that they don’t know, and just the nasty crap that they would spout,” he said in an interview with Laurie Brown. “It just made me think, ‘Well, we like to advertise ourselves as this clean country: We’re all friendly folks here in this town. And that’s just BS.’ ”
At one point, Canadian’s gossip circuit even falsely implicated Christian’s and Kaleb’s parents. “Kaleb’s dad is a state representative,” explained Anita, “and my husband’s family has been ranching here forever. People think that we just have tons of money. So immediately it went to ‘Well, they have money, so they’re covering up for their kids.’ ”
None of the slandering led anywhere, of course. In fact, as 2017 came to a close, the investigations of both Klein and Lewis once again stalled. Either Tom was living off the grid far from the Panhandle, or he was dead. And if he was deceased, no one had any idea how it had happened or where his body was.
Then, on January 12, 2018, news arrived about the iPhone that the volunteer had stumbled upon while searching Lake Marvin Road back in October. Because of a backlog of cases, the FBI lab technicians had delayed their analysis of the phone. Finally, they’d opened it up.
The phone belonged to Tom Brown.
Of all the bizarre twists in the case, this was perhaps the most confounding. It made absolutely no sense. Someone had Tom’s phone and had kept it hidden from investigators for nearly a year? And then that person had decided to plant it near Lake Marvin Road only a day or two—maybe only hours—before Philip Klein launched his search?
“I was shocked, absolutely shocked,” said Klein, recalling the moment he learned about the phone. What was especially perplexing, he added, was that he had ordered his staff not to publicly reveal where the search would be taking place. He didn’t want rubberneckers (“lookie-loos,” as he called them) potentially tampering with evidence. Klein said he had gone so far as to tell his staffers to withhold details of the search (including the specific location) from the volunteers until early that Saturday morning. The only people who had been briefed beforehand, he said, were members of the sheriff’s department and volunteer fire department, and that had been just 48 hours before the search began.
Klein told me he called a meeting with his staff and a couple of other private investigators he had hired to work part-time on the Tom Brown case. By the end of the meeting, everyone agreed that “someone inside law enforcement” had either planted the phone or arranged for someone else to strategically place it there.
Who did Klein think that law enforcement insider was? His primary suspect, he said, was Hemphill County sheriff Nathan Lewis.
Klein told me that he hadn’t trusted Lewis from the moment he met him. He sensed that Lewis still resented Tom’s mother, Penny, for the complaint she had filed against him in 2015 for allegedly harassing Tom outside Canadian’s movie theater. Klein was also suspicious about the supposed mistakes Lewis had made while examining Tom’s Durango. He was particularly exasperated that Lewis sent the Durango back to Penny’s house only a few hours after it had been processed, giving other people the opportunity to rummage through the vehicle. Klein said he couldn’t help but wonder whether Lewis had deliberately tainted the scene.
There was something else that bothered Klein. Whenever he came to Canadian, he said, Lewis had gone out of the way to be unhelpful. Klein said that during a meeting earlier that year, he had asked if Chance, the cadaver dog Klein had flown in from Georgia, could sniff Tom’s backpack for any scent of human remains. He was told no. At that same meeting, Klein said, he tried to offer his reasons for why Tom had not, as the sheriff’s department had claimed, run away. According to Klein, Lewis and a Texas Ranger who was also in the room leaned back in their chairs and chortled.
When the meeting ended, Klein said, he and three staffers who were with him stood on the steps outside the sheriff’s department, “and we just looked at one another, speechless. We said, ‘These guys are fools. They don’t know what they’re talking about, or they’re covering something up.’ We started saying, ‘We’ve got to figure out who’s involved in this thing. Is it a muckety-muck in town who got in trouble and killed Tom? What in the hell are we looking at?’ ”
The recent revelation that Tom’s phone had been planted seemed to offer further verification—at least for Klein and his staff—that Lewis shouldn’t be trusted. Maybe, Klein said, the sheriff had placed the phone at the beginning of Lake Marvin Road (or had ordered someone else to put it there), hoping it would distract Klein’s searchers from discovering potentially damning evidence, such as Tom’s remains, farther down the road.
When I called Lewis, he confirmed that he’d refused to cooperate with Klein. But that was because he didn’t trust the private eye any more than Klein trusted him. Since Klein’s arrival in Canadian, Lewis said, he had done nothing but “spill out rumors and lies and speculation and theories with nothing to back them up. He puts things out there for people to latch on to. ‘Oh, there’s suspects.’ ‘Oh, we’ve narrowed it down to three persons of interest.’ ‘We’ve got good information.’ ‘We’re hot on a trail.’ He says stuff like that and keeps things hopped up like there’s truly something going on, when in reality there is nothing going on at all.”
Lewis said that when he learned about Tom’s cellphone, he became suspicious himself. Perhaps Klein had planted the phone so that he would, in Lewis’s words, “look good” when it was found, bolstering the reputation he’d so persistently touted. Although Lewis and Klein were, at that point, no longer talking to each other, Lewis did mention his suspicions to Penny during a meeting at the sheriff’s office. “I said, ‘You know, it’s kind of strange that your investigator calls this search, and, lo and behold, right after he starts this search, a cellphone is found.’ I said, ‘Isn’t that strange?’ ”
When Klein learned about Lewis’s accusations, he became incensed. He wrote to Lewis, demanding an apology. “In my thirty-one years in the business, I have never been accused of planting evidence,” Klein told me. “I mean, come on. Why would I risk my reputation and career to do something as stupid as that? It’s just silly. It’s just beyond silly.”
In his letter, Klein also wanted Lewis to explain how he could have come into possession of Tom’s phone. Well, there was a simple explanation for that, Lewis told me. It’s possible that Penny had secretly had the phone all along and that she had given it to Klein before the search began.
Lewis explained to me that a few weeks after Tom’s disappearance, Penny had done something he found peculiar. She had texted Kaleb King’s mother, Robin, and asked if Kaleb or his friends knew the four-digit password to Tom’s iPhone. Why would Penny want to know the password unless she had the phone?
When I talked to Penny, she explained that she’d received a call from Clapp, Lewis’s chief deputy, asking for the password. “I was kind of irritated with [the sheriff’s department]. I was frustrated, and I just didn’t feel like they were doing a lot. And so I said, ‘I’ve already told you that I don’t know his passwords.’ ”
Penny said she asked Clapp why he needed it, and he replied, “Well, we’re just trying to tie up loose ends.”
“I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to make an effort,’ ” Penny continued. “ ‘I mean, I don’t know why we need it, but I’ll try to find some kind of password for them.’ ”
I emailed Clapp and asked what he remembered about that exchange. He claimed that he had never asked Penny for the password to Tom’s phone. I went back to Penny and asked if it was possible someone else in the sheriff’s department had called her about the password. No, she said. She was certain she had spoken to Clapp.
Either Clapp or Penny, of course, could have easily confused the details of a conversation that took place nearly four years ago. But Lewis had suspected from the beginning that Penny wasn’t telling the truth. He speculated that she had contacted Kaleb’s mother in hopes of securing the password because she did, in fact, have Tom’s phone and wanted to turn it on, perhaps to read his text messages or scroll through his call history.
But if so, how had Penny gotten the phone in the first place? Had she actually found Tom in those early morning hours when she was out looking for him? Had Tom given her his phone before heading to the water treatment plant? Did Tom drive past his house that night and toss his phone into the front yard, where Penny later found it?
All of those scenarios were remotely plausible, but they seemed highly unlikely. And Penny certainly wasn’t behaving like someone who was hiding evidence. If she was guilty of a crime, why had she hired Klein to investigate the case and potentially expose her? Why had she called a press conference back in July 2017 to ask that the sheriff’s department be removed from the case so that law enforcement officers with better resources could be brought in to hunt for evidence?
In late January 2018, shortly after the FBI revealed that the phone belonged to Tom, Penny took further action. She and the other members of the Facebook group “Moms 4 Tom” posted an online petition demanding that a state law enforcement agent take over the investigation. The petition went online at 2:30 on a Thursday afternoon. The next day, more than 5,400 people—twice the population of Canadian—had signed it.
By that point, Lewis told me, he was tired of what he described as “all the bull crap and Facebook crap.” The sheriff had become a consistent target of Canadian’s rumor mill. There were suggestions that he had been involved in a sexual relationship with Tom and that he had murdered the teenager to keep his own secret life concealed. He was called a drunk and a drug addict. (“I believe you are completely medicated or heavily drinking from the time you wake up to the time you go to bed,” someone declared on the Moms 4 Tom page.) A rumor emerged that a group of local teenage boys had called Lewis and told him they had accidentally killed Tom on the football field and that Lewis had buried Tom’s body. At one point, the story resurfaced that Tom had been stuffed into a wood chipper. Only this time it was Lewis, not a meth dealer, who had done the stuffing.
“I just thought, ‘Good Lord. This is absolutely insane,’ ” Lewis said. “I was being slandered like you wouldn’t believe.” Lewis said he could handle the criticism just fine but that it had started to affect his family. “I had to worry about my kids going to school and hearing this crap.”
And so, after the Moms 4 Tom petition was posted, Lewis faxed a letter to the state attorney general’s criminal investigations division, in Austin, asking it to “formally assume responsibility” for “this missing person’s case.”
In February, the attorney general’s criminal unit sent word that two veteran investigators, Sergeants Rachel Kading and Chris Smyth, had been assigned to the Tom Brown case. When they arrived in Canadian, they reinterviewed residents all over town. (Kading and Smyth declined requests for comment.) They studied sheriff’s department reports. They stayed up an entire night downloading the department’s digital files, including call records, photos, and videos.
It didn’t take them long to surmise that someone was withholding key information. The investigators came up with a short list of people they wanted to put “on the box”—sources they wanted to submit to lie detector tests. Lewis was on the list, as was Klein. But at the top was Penny and her husband, Chris.
This article originally appeared in the November 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Tom Brown’s Body.” Subscribe today.