In mid-February 2018, Penny Meek left the tiny Panhandle town of Canadian and, along with her husband, Chris, and her older son Tucker, she made the seven-hour drive to the attorney general’s office, in Austin. When they arrived, they were directed to a windowless conference room where the veteran investigators Rachel Kading and Chris Smyth were waiting. Penny was carrying a binder with eleven pages of typed notes: a detailed history of the Tom Brown case from her perspective, beginning with the night Sheriff Nathan Lewis had supposedly hassled Tom at the town’s downtown movie theater.
The two investigators, Penny said, were pleasant. “We basically went through the timeline. What happened on day one, day two. What we did the night that he didn’t come home. Just things like that.”
Kading and Smyth didn’t broach the topic of lie detector tests until the end of the meeting. They promised that the tests were a routine procedure, and they arranged for them to be administered at the Department of Public Safety offices in the Panhandle town of Pampa, not far from Canadian. “We all said sure because we had nothing to hide,” said Penny. The family had lunch at the Salt Lick before heading home.
In late March, Penny and Chris arrived at the Pampa DPS office as scheduled. (Tucker, a senior at Oklahoma State University, had class that day.) Penny agreed to go first. She told me the polygraph examiner’s questions came in no particular order. At various points, she was asked if she had been communicating with Tom and if she had moved Tom’s body. She said no to both questions.
As soon as the test was over, Penny said, Kading and Smyth entered the room and began interrogating her. They didn’t tell her which questions she had allegedly passed or failed, but they did accuse her of knowing a lot more about Tom’s death than she was letting on. “They said, ‘You know where he’s at. You moved his body. You’re embarrassed because he committed suicide, and you just don’t want people to know,’ ” Penny recalled.
Obviously, Kading and Smyth had listened to a recording of the interview Penny had given at the sheriff’s department back in late November 2016, a few days after Tom had vanished. During that interview, Penny told officers that she initially feared that Tom had killed himself. She also mentioned that there was some history of suicide in her family. (Penny’s father, who suffered from depression, shot himself in the head at a campsite near Lake Marvin in 1998.)
Kading and Smyth apparently suspected that Penny was so distressed that another suicide had taken place in her family—this one involving her son—that she had improvised a plan to cover it up. According to Penny, Kading and Smyth didn’t tell her why or how they believed Tom had died by suicide. Nor did they say where they believed Penny had found Tom or where she might have hidden his body. But they seemed certain, Penny said, that “I was embarrassed and I didn’t want people to know.”
“I’m not going to put him through what we’ve already been through,” Penny said. “I’m afraid they’ll push him over the edge.”
Penny swore to the investigators that their theory was “ridiculous.” For one thing, she said, she was too small to move Tom’s body. “I said, ‘Are you looking at me? Because I’m not even five-five. There’s no way I moved someone who weighs almost two hundred pounds. I couldn’t even pick him up when he was alive. I can’t pick him up when he’s dead. I can’t move a body.’ ”
That’s when Kading and Smyth trotted out their other theory. According to Penny, one of them said, “Well, we think that Tucker or Chris helped you.”
Did Kading and Smyth, a pair of respected and seasoned investigators, have any evidence to support such a premise? Or were they simply using an old cop trick, pretending to know something in hopes of provoking a confession?
Penny certainly didn’t confess to anything. She said she scoffed at Kading and Smyth’s theory that Chris and Tucker were her accomplices in some sort of scheme to conceal Tom’s body. “I said, ‘Chris has back problems. I have my own health issues. I’m going to have surgery. So it doesn’t really make sense that either one of us would do that.’ And I said, ‘Tucker couldn’t pick him up either.’ ”
When her interrogation concluded, she was ushered out of the room, and Chris was brought in. He too denied knowing anything about Tom’s death or the whereabouts of Tom’s body. Kading and Smyth eventually told them both they could go home. On their drive back to Canadian, Penny told Chris she didn’t want Tucker taking a polygraph. “I said, ‘I’m not going to put him through what we’ve already been through. I’m afraid they’ll push him over the edge.’ I was like, ‘I’m not doing that.’ ”
When I asked if she was concerned that Tucker might end his own life, Penny was forthright: “I thought it was very possible. He was struggling, I felt like he was depressed, and I was like, ‘I’m not going to lose both my kids.’ ”
Tucker is a wiry, intense, intelligent young man. At OSU, he was majoring in political science, and he planned to work for the government, perhaps the FBI or CIA, after graduation. He was also contemplating running for public office someday. But Tom’s disappearance had upended his life.
“It wasn’t exactly a walk in the park, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “I was trying to get through school. I wanted to be a normal kid through all of this, so I did the normal college thing: I drank all the time. I smoked I don’t know how many cigarettes. It wasn’t fun, but I tried to party and get away from it.”
After seeing that his mother and Chris had been “physically ill” after their interrogation, Tucker decided against ever participating in a polygraph. “I mean, they couldn’t sleep,” he said. He also figured he was already so distraught about Tom’s disappearance that a polygraph wouldn’t be “a very accurate way of measuring truth or a lie.”
In fact, lie detectors are widely regarded as unreliable, and their results aren’t permitted in court as evidence. But many law enforcement investigators still believe polygraphs can be an effective tool. After Kading and Smyth examined Penny and Chris, they called in another source.
Next up was Sheriff Lewis.
Lewis admitted to me that he felt “nervous as a son of a bitch, just sitting strapped in that damn chair.” He got especially anxious when the examiner asked if he was involved in the disappearance of Tom Brown.
“I took this lie detector test because I was trying to clear my name,” Lewis said. “And then I get the question ‘Are you involved in the disappearance of Tom Brown?’ Well, hell yeah, I am involved in Tom Brown’s disappearance. I am wrapped up in this damn case. This whole case is running my damn life. It’s eating me up. But my answer had to be no because I wasn’t involved in the way that he was asking the question.”
Lewis said that, as he feared, when he answered no to the inquiry about his involvement in Tom’s disappearance, the examiner registered his response as deceitful. Lewis was steamed. “I said, ‘This is bullshit. I’m done with this. I ain’t doing this crap anymore.’ I’ll never take another lie detector test in my life.”
Kading and Smyth moved on to the next person on their list: the private investigator Philip Klein. He said that during his polygraph exam, he was asked multiple questions about the discovery of Tom’s cellphone on Lake Marvin Road. “I knew they were going after me,” Klein told me. “They were convinced—convinced!—that I had planted evidence.”
But Klein said he passed every question. When he got off the box, Klein recalled, he overheard someone saying, “He’s righteous.” Klein said he then looked at Smyth (Kading wasn’t there). “I said, ‘Let me tell you something. Y’all need to pull your heads out of your asses. I’m tired of being treated like the bad guy here. I’m the good guy. My team are the good guys. I got people from all over the United States that are top in their careers. I don’t have fly-by-night people that I hired yesterday and say, ‘Go investigate homicide.’ ”
Klein then marched out the door.
As the months passed, Kading and Smyth didn’t seem to be making much progress on the case. They double-checked the alibis of various teenagers, and they even reinvestigated, of all things, the wood chipper allegations. They studied the security camera footage that had captured Tom’s Durango driving up and down Canadian’s streets. And they subpoenaed records from Fronk Oil, the gas station where Tom had filled up on Thanksgiving eve, to see who else had purchased gasoline around the same time. Still, it seemed like they couldn’t catch a break.
In October 2018, eight months after Kading and Smyth had arrived in Canadian, Penny went on Chris Samples’s radio show. Samples asked her what she was picking up from the attorney general investigators. “I do not hear a lot from them,” she conceded. “They just say, ‘We can’t tell you anything, but we are working.’ They are very tight-lipped, and all I know is that they’re working.”
Sheriff Lewis wasn’t privy to the investigators’ work either. But he went on Samples’s show to implore local citizens to be patient. “I’m still hopeful that we’re going to have a good outcome and something is going to get solved,” he said. “I wake up every day praying that something happens. I pray for the attorney general. I want them to figure the mess out and get it dealt with.”
Lewis’s prayers, though, seemed to go unanswered.
Then on January 9, 2019, one of his deputies, Pyne Gregory, parked his patrol vehicle at the very end of Lake Marvin Road, twelve miles from where Tom’s cellphone had been found during Klein’s search. Gregory was on duty, but he had taken a break to hunt for antlers that had been shed by deer, which he collected. Gregory stepped out of his truck and followed a deer trail west, away from the road, for about two hundred feet.
He walked toward a thicket of trees. “And I see what looks like a white ball laying up under the thicket,” Gregory told me. “I’m like, ‘What in the heck is that?’ So I walk around some shrubs, and as I get closer, I can see that it kind of looks like bone. I step up to it, and I lean over and look at the front side, and I see what appears to me to be two eye sockets and some teeth.”
Gregory sprinted back to his car and dialed Sheriff Lewis. He shouted that he had come upon a human skull.
Read Chapter 7: The Wake
This article originally appeared in the November 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Tom Brown’s Body.” Subscribe today.