When Hemphill County sheriff Nathan Lewis first got the call about a skull being discovered near Lake Marvin Road, east of Canadian, he thought it was a joke. “He’s like, ‘Quit messing with me,’ ” his deputy Pyne Gregory later recalled.
“I said, ‘No, seriously. I just found a f—ing skull.’ I’m pretty sure that’s what I said, because I was shocked.”
It was January 9, 2019, two years and two months since Tom Brown had disappeared. Gregory had spotted the skull in a thicket of cottonwood trees while searching the area for deer antlers, which he collects. He’d sprinted back to his truck and phoned Lewis. Soon after, a team of law enforcement officers arrived to search the surrounding area, moving slowly, step by step, for at least a couple hundred yards. They came across a femur, several smaller bones, a pair of tennis shoes, and some remnants of blue jeans. They picked up part of a Texas driver’s license, which looked as if it had been chewed on by an animal. The officers were barely able to discern the name on the license: Thomas Kelly Brown.
The news hit Canadian like a clap of thunder. In that week’s Canadian Record, editor Laurie Brown ran a one-word headline in 72-point type: “FOUND.” Residents drove out to Lake Marvin Road to try and take photos of the site where the skull was found. Tom’s funeral was held at the high school gym, the only place in town large enough to accommodate everyone who wanted to attend. The members of Tom’s senior class were designated honorary pallbearers. In his eulogy, Cory Campbell, the youth pastor at the Methodist church, described Tom as “one in a million.” Campbell said solemnly, “Welcome home, Tom. Welcome home.”
There was no casket at the funeral. Tom’s remains had been sent to the University of North Texas’s Center for Human Identification, in Fort Worth. Analysts there were able to use dental records to officially identify Tom, but that was about all they learned. There were no fractures or bullet wounds in the skull or various bones. There wasn’t enough of his body left to perform conclusive toxicology tests.
Officers did another thorough search around the cottonwood trees, but they found nothing significant—no weapons, no ropes or cords that could’ve been used for strangulation. If there had been any shoe prints or other potentially telltale marks on the ground, they had been washed away long ago.
After more than two years of intensive investigations conducted by four different law enforcement agencies, all that was known for certain was that Tom had gone cruising around Canadian with his friends on Thanksgiving eve in 2016; that his mother, Penny Meek, had called the sheriff’s department early Thanksgiving morning to report that Tom was missing; and that his red Dodge Durango had been spotted after the sun rose, abandoned near the town’s water treatment plant.
In January 2017, two months after his disappearance, Tom’s backpack had been found behind a barbed-wire fence, about a third of the way down the twelve-mile-long Lake Marvin Road. In October 2017, during a daylong search of that area carried out by the private investigator Philip Klein and more than a hundred volunteers, Tom’s cellphone had been discovered in pristine condition in a patch of grass right where the road began. And now investigators knew that Tom’s remains had ended up at the very end of the road, roughly two hundred feet from the pavement.
Canadian’s rumor mill went into overdrive. It seemed that everyone in town had a theory about Tom’s demise. Web sleuths from across the country, most of whom had never set foot in Canadian, chimed in, speculating on their Facebook pages and blogs. Kevin Brown (no relation), a 43-year-old Amarillo truck driver who calls himself “the ghost whisperer,” posted dimly lit videos of himself sitting or lying in bed holding his “spirit box”—a contraption the size of his palm that could supposedly communicate with Tom in the afterlife. Brown shouts into the spirit box as it emits a screechy, pulsing sound. “Thomas Brown, everyone wants to know what was the motive for your death?” A disembodied voice, presumably Tom’s, can be heard vaguely in the background. The voice claims that he has been cut into pieces.
But the hysteria over the case was just beginning. Almost two weeks after the news broke about Tom’s remains, Jeff Caseltine, the father of Michael Caseltine, one of the three teenagers who had gone cruising with Tom the night he disappeared, was found in his car at the rodeo grounds, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Jeff was a well-liked elementary school teacher. The night Tom had disappeared, Jeff had been in Oklahoma City, attending a Carrie Underwood concert with his daughter. It seemed impossible to imagine that he might have had anything to do with Tom’s death.
But according to the local gossip, Jeff had been involved in a secret romantic relationship with Tom. When Michael found out, he was so angry he murdered Tom. When Tom’s remains were found, Jeff was inconsolable and shot himself.
Michael told me that the rumors about Tom and his father were complete fiction. “[My father] suffered with depression and bipolar for his whole life,” he said. “He was very sick at the time, and he wasn’t getting better.” What’s more, added Michael’s mother, Shannon, her husband of 25 years had severe asthma and bronchitis. In January 2019, he was having trouble breathing. It got so bad he couldn’t even go for a walk. He felt like he was drowning. The day of his death, he told Shannon he was going to work at the elementary school, but he never arrived. “The last thing he said to me was ‘I love you, Shannon Caseltine,’ ” she recalled. Shannon said that in his suicide note, Jeff wrote only about how sorry he was for hurting his family.
Yet the story about Michael killing Tom kept ballooning. “There was a rumor, apparently, that I had been seen out at Lake Marvin with a shovel in my hand, digging a hole,” Shannon said. “We never got the chance to grieve. I called Michael,” who by then was at West Texas A&M University, “and he said, ‘Mom, this is going to follow us the rest of our lives. You google my name, and it comes up: ‘Tom Brown’ or ‘Jeff Caseltine suicide.’ ”
Christian Webb and Kaleb King, the other two teenagers who had been with Tom late on Thanksgiving eve, once again became the subject of residents’ accusations. One evening at the Stumblin’ Goat Saloon, a slightly inebriated man jabbed my arm with his finger and said that Christian and Kaleb were “stone-cold killers.”
“It’s like everyone in town just wanted to have someone to blame so they could feel better,” said Christian’s mother, Anita. “They didn’t care how much they were hurting the kids they were talking about.”
There was more talk about Chris Jones, who had been the star running back for the Canadian Wildcats during the years Tom played on the football team. After serving a hundred-day sentence in 2017 for assaulting a classmate, he was charged in 2018 and later sentenced to thirty years in prison for an armed robbery of a convenience store in the West Texas town of Childress. Did Jones somehow get crossways with Tom back in November 2016? Jones insisted he never would’ve hurt Tom, and he volunteered to take a lie detector test to prove it.
Meanwhile, Tom’s mother, Penny Meek, called her private investigator, Philip Klein, and re-upped his contract. Klein, a large man with a flair for theatrics, hinted to reporters that he was on the trail of a vicious killer still living in Canadian. “The people of the town are calling us and saying, ‘Do we have a monster that lives in our community?’ I wish I could give them solace. But if I was a dad and I had kids out there and I was in the community, I’d sleep with one eye open right now.”
Klein appeared on the local Panhandle radio show hosted by Chris Samples and claimed he was making progress. This time, he said, he and his team had gone back over interviews with a couple of witnesses and unearthed “nuggets” about the killer’s identity. More gossip ensued. Had Tom been killed by someone no one had previously suspected? Maybe another classmate?
“I think that Tom hid his secrets very well,” Christian said. “He wore a mask a lot of the time.”
In her apartment near the Oklahoma State University campus, Christian Webb spent a lot of sleepless nights thinking about her friend. She had adored Tom: his encyclopedic knowledge of music and movies, his goofy imitations of professional wrestlers, and his devotion to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots (his friends joked he was the only boy in the Panhandle who was a fan of the team). But as she later told me, she knew he hadn’t revealed everything that had been going on in his life. “I think that Tom hid his secrets very well,” Christian said. “He wore a mask a lot of the time.”
One night, she got on her phone and pulled up the two Avett Brothers songs that Tom had asked her to play while they were driving around Canadian that night in 2016. At the time, Christian hadn’t paid much attention to the lyrics. But now she got to wondering whether the songs contained some hidden meaning that Tom had wanted to share with her.
First, she listened to “Live and Die.” Then she played “No Hard Feelings,” one of the band’s biggest songs. “It’s about forgiving all those people that hurt you—or at least that’s how I view it—and just moving on,” Christian said. “Just forgiving all of your enemies and everyone who’s wronged you and just stepping away from all of the bad stuff.”
I asked if she interpreted the song, as some music critics have, as an attempt to make peace with dying. “I did a little bit, yes, sir,” she said.
Since Tom’s disappearance, Christian had been asking herself over and over if it was possible that he had absconded somewhere to kill himself. That year, Tom had been going through a lot. He had quit the football team. He had broken up with his girlfriend. He had told some friends he was anxious about picking a college. And he had also confessed to a handful of female friends, including Christian, that he occasionally wore adult diapers.
Maybe, speculated Christian, Tom feared that the secret of his fetish would soon get out, making him a source of mockery and humiliating his family. But suicide? Right before Thanksgiving? Yes, he had her play two sad songs that night, “but we’re all notorious for listening to sad music,” said Christian. Besides, Tom had promised to come over the next day to play pool.
I asked Christian if there was a possible scenario in which Tom had died by suicide: if she believed he could’ve parked his car by the water treatment plant where he thought no one would find it and walked into the woods to die.
Christian didn’t hesitate. “That seems highly impossible to me. He’s not one of those people who would just walk into the woods. And especially with where his body was found, that’s way too far for him to have walked just to kill himself.”
If Tom had walked from the water treatment plant to the thicket of cottonwood trees where his remains were found, he first would’ve needed to hike roughly four miles through brush and marsh to reach Lake Marvin Road. There, he would’ve placed his backpack behind a barbed-wire fence and continued east down the road for another eight miles until it came to an end.
But even if he had managed to do all that, it still wouldn’t explain how his cellphone had shown up eleven months later, in pristine condition, twelve miles away at the start of Lake Marvin Road. “The evidence doesn’t make sense,” Christian said. “Someone definitely did something to him.”
A few Canadian residents suggested that Tom had actually been trying to reach the campsite near Lake Marvin where Penny’s father had shot himself in the head in 1998. Perhaps, they said, he had wanted to die there, in a place where he might find solace. Perhaps he had gotten tired by the time he reached the cottonwood trees, which were still five miles away from the campsite, and he had decided to end his life there instead. Or perhaps he had been attacked and killed by wild hogs.
Penny, however, said she had never talked to Tom or her older son, Tucker, about their grandfather’s death. (“I didn’t want them to know,” she told me.) And her private investigator, Klein, snorted at such theories. “When the suicide theory came out,” he said, “we all looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, God, here comes Days of Our Lives.’ It was like a soap opera, with people saying, ‘Oh, Tom just couldn’t handle life. Tom was upset.’ There was no soap opera to this.”
Rachel Kading and Chris Smyth, the two sergeants from the Texas attorney general’s office who had taken over the investigation in early 2018, steadfastly refused to make the details of their investigation public. Much of that time they were in their offices in Austin, working simultaneously on other cases.
Finally, in August 2019, seven months after Tom’s remains were found, Kading and Smyth convened an invitation-only meeting at the county offices in the nearby Panhandle town of Pampa. Penny came with her husband, Chris, her older son, Tucker, and a couple of her friends from “Moms for Tom,” the Facebook group they’d started in order to maintain interest in the case. Tom’s father, Kelly Brown, brought his pastor, along with a few family members. Klein showed up with Jane Holmes, a private investigator from Georgia who specialized in interviews. Sheriff Lewis and a couple of his deputies were there, along with the Hemphill County district attorney and a Texas Ranger who had worked on the case. One of the attendees secretly taped the meeting.
Kading began by asking everyone present to please be “civilized” and not point fingers or make allegations. She then said that she was about to release a statement to the news media announcing that the attorney general’s investigation was being suspended “pending any new discoverable, credible evidence.”
One of the attendees later told me, “The air went out of the room.” Kading and Smyth said there was no reason to continue, at least for now, because they had found no evidence to lead them to believe that Tom had been the victim of foul play. Nor had they had come up with a legitimate suspect who would have had any reason to hurt Tom.
“We don’t have any evidence that we could take to a district attorney to get any type of charges filed,” Kading explained. “We’re nowhere close to that. There’s just nothing. There’s not even something to build on. I mean, we have no answers as to anything.” It was a staggering admission from the veteran investigators, each of whom had spent easily more than a thousand hours working the case.
“We do not have evidence that leans one way or another,” Kading said. “He could have died from natural causes, for all we know.”
Kading made another admission. She said she checked Facebook nearly every day to keep track of all the local gossip about the case. Not only were the rumors not credible, but they had “complicated and compromised” the investigation, she said. Kading went on to say that she and Smyth hadn’t been able to come up with credible explanations for the same questions that had plagued Canadian residents, like how Tom had gotten to the cottonwood trees. “We don’t know if he parked his car there [at the water treatment plant] and he walked all the way. We don’t know if he was with somebody else and they dropped his car off there and laid him to rest where he was laid to rest. We do not have evidence that leans one way or another. He could have died from natural causes, for all we know.”
Kading said they also couldn’t determine for sure whether Tom had died by suicide. They did say they had sent Tom’s phone to a lab, where technicians had discovered that around 9:45 on Thanksgiving eve, while Tom was with Christian and Kaleb King, he had used his phone’s internet browser to search “suicide hotlines.” But there was no evidence that Tom had called any of the numbers from his phone.
“We feel like we have exhausted everything that we can exhaust,” Kading said. At one point, Tom’s father, Kelly, began to cry. A devout evangelical Christian (Kelly once told me that during his pre-Christian days, when Tucker and Tom were boys, he drank fifteen to twenty beers a day and was “dipping snuff”), he addressed everyone in the room, reading from a note a friend had sent that morning. “No matter what happens, remember that Tom is dancing with the Lord,” Kelly said. “We don’t need to forget that.”
He continued to weep, his pastor patting him on the back.
When the attorney general office’s press release went out, many Panhandle residents were incensed with Kading and Smyth. “How could you not come to the conclusion that [Tom’s death] had to be foul play?” wrote former Amarillo Globe newspaper columnist Jon Mark Beilue on his Facebook page. “The AG and law enforcement must think there’s a whole lot of stupid in the Texas Panhandle and we hitched a ride up here on the first turnip truck to believe this absurd conclusion.”
Penny told reporters she was devastated. “I feel like almost three years later, we are on square one. I still feel like we’re on November 23, 2016. We still have questions. We don’t have answers.”
Salem Abraham, a hedge fund manager who’s known as the wealthiest person in Canadian, even appeared on Chris Samples’s radio show to offer his opinion. “I believe it’s most likely that Tom was killed, and I believe it was someone living in Canadian who did it,” he said. “When you look at the facts and you see where Tom’s body was and then where his car was left, those aren’t places that people from out of town know about. I think those are places that locals know about.”
Klein, predictably, didn’t back off his murder theory. During the attorney general’s meeting, Kading and Smyth had taken shots at his investigation. They criticized the Luminol test he had conducted on Tom’s Durango, for instance, explaining that the analysis had actually picked up yellow paint—not blood. (At the start of the 2016 school year, Tom and some friends painted yellow Wildcat paw prints on the road leading to the Canadian High Wildcats football stadium, and some of the paint had rubbed off of their clothes and onto the Durango’s seats and floorboard.) The only blood in the Durango, Kading and Smyth said, was the tiny smear that Lewis had found on the driver’s-side door.
The investigators also criticized Klein’s unfounded theories that Tom’s killer, not Tom, had been driving Tom’s Durango down the streets of Canadian in the early morning hours of Thanksgiving. Smyth conceded that killers sometimes drive their victims’ cars—in big cities. “It happens in Austin all the time, right? You kill somebody on the East Side, you go drive that vehicle to North Austin and think nothing about it,” Smyth said. “But in small-town Texas, where everybody knows everybody’s vehicle, would you kill somebody and drive their vehicle around all night?”
And the investigators debunked Klein’s claim that Tom’s final cellphone pings placed him near the high school football stadium around midnight. Kading and Smyth revealed that there weren’t enough cellphone towers in Canadian to accurately triangulate anyone’s location. Deducing someone’s location based on pings was guesswork, at best.
Despite the investigators’ criticism, Klein continued to repeat many of the same claims. He posted seven photos to his firm’s Facebook page that showed what he described as patches of blood inside the Durango that had been illuminated by the Luminol. He said he was releasing the photos “to let the public know that this is not a suicide. There is something that happened that night and somebody is responsible for this. . . . We want the killer to know we are working on this case. We want him or her to know you can’t get away with murder. We want them to know we are coming after him.”
And what did Nathan Lewis think of the attorney general’s announcement? He said he was relieved. At the meeting, Kading had made a point of saying that Lewis had not, as so many had claimed, conducted an improper investigation into Tom’s disappearance. Finally, it seemed his name had been cleared and that things were going his way. But on November 15, three months after the attorney general’s announcement, Lewis did something that no one expected. He resigned.
This article originally appeared in the December 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Tom Brown’s Body.” Subscribe today.