Son of Johnstown man found dead in suitcase says father was too trusting

'He grew up in the generation where your word is your bond'
Robert Brooks.
Robert Brooks.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

The son of a Johnstown WWII veteran who was found dead inside a suitcase in Arkansas said his father was taken advantage of by at least one individual who was supposed to be a caregiver.

On March 5, law enforcement in Arkansas found the body of Johnstown resident Robert Brooks, 89, stuffed in a suitcase and dumped on a farmer’s property outside Little Rock. Authorities have arrested a Gloversville man and two Johnstown women, one of whom claimed to be Brooks’ caregiver, in connection with the case. 

Virginia Lee Colvin, 56, of Gloversville, was arrested March 8 by authorities in Arkansas and charged with abuse of a corpse, a felony. Leeann Sager, 34, of Johnstown, and Aaron Rulison, 25, of Gloversville, were arrested on March 21 by the Johnstown Police Department and both charged with concealment of a human corpse, a felony. Sager was also charged with third-degree criminal possession of a weapon, a felony.

Virginia Lee Colvin, 56

Aaron Rulison, 25, and Leeann Sager, 34.

Police in Johnstown said Colvin and Sager lived with Brooks on North Perry Street, and both may have functioned as caregivers for the man. Colvin has relatives in Arkansas, and is reportedly Sager’s aunt. 

Brooks’ son, Jay Brooks, 58, of Greenboro, N.C., told The Daily Gazette he’s been in contact with law enforcement agencies in Arkansas and New York. Based on those conversations, he said, he believes his father was taken advantage of by caregivers.

Johnstown police Lt. David Gilbo said authorities are still investigating the matter and declined to comment on the case. He said three weeks ago when this story broke that police believe Brooks may have been driven to Arkansas in connection with a benefits-fraud scheme. Contacted Wednesday, Gilbo said police still believe Brooks died of natural causes two to six weeks before he was found but declined to comment on other aspects of the case. 

Jay Brooks said his father told him in 2006, the last time the two spoke, about meeting Colvin, and characterized her as “a lady friend.” 

Brooks said his father was a WWII veteran who flew missions as a ball turret gunner on a B-17 bomber with the Army Air Force, the precursor to the U.S. Air Force. A ball turret gunner was seated on the underbelly of an aircraft and the job was widely regarded as one of the most dangerous in the war. 

Brooks said his father was ideally suited for the job due to his 5-foot-1 frame and stoic outlook.

“He was not one to complain, if he was given an order to do something he would do it,” said Jay Brooks. “That’s how he was raised, you just do what you’ve got to do.”

Brooks said his father never talked about his wartime experience, and was a man of few words. He was honorably discharged from Army in 1945, three months after the war ended. 

“From what I understand of other people that are that age, they just don’t talk about the war,” said Jay Brooks, who spent six years in the Marines himself. 

He said his father grew up on a farm in Broadalbin before joining the military. After the war, he took a job as a mechanic at a Chevrolet dealership in Gloversville, and then for 20 years was a watchman at the MCA Records pressing plant, also in Gloversville. He retired from the plant sometime in the 1990s. 

Jay Brooks said his father’s stoicism in battle extended into his civilian life. He married in 1952 and his wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis sometime in the 1960s, around when Jay was born. The couple never had another child due to his mother’s diagnosis, but Jay Brooks said his father cared for his mother, who lived in a home, from the 1960s to when she died in 2004. 

“Every day he was there from the time she woke up to the time she went to bed, and he brought her home on weekends,” said Jay Brooks. “And he did that for years…and I never heard him complain.”

Jay Brooks said the last time he saw his father was on a trip to Gloversville in 1998, and in the years since has tried to get him to move down to be with his family in North Carolina. He didn’t know when his father moved from Gloversville to Johnstown, but used to periodically have the Gloversville Police Department perform welfare checks on him, he said. 

Robert Brooks also had relatives in the area who have since died but would check up on him from time to time, said Jay Brooks. 

Asked why he hasn’t visited since the last time he and his father spoke, Jay Brooks said he couldn’t afford the trip. 

“I didn’t have a lot of money to go up there, that’s why I said if I was going to go up there I’d bring him back, but he just didn’t want to come down,” said Jay Brooks. 
Brooks said he’s been told pieces of the story by authorities in both Arkansas and New York, and that he was told his father made multiple trips between the two states. 

“I know they were shuffling him back and forth between New York and Arkansas,” said Jay Brooks.

Arkansas State Police Spokesman Bill Sadler said his agency is not involved in any further investigation into the Brooks case. The only charge pending in that state is the abuse of a corpse charge against Colvin, which is being conducted by a prosecutor in Prairie County, Arkansas, where Brooks’ body was found. 

“Arkansas State Police are done with their investigation; the file has been given to the prosecuting attorney,” said Sadler. 

The prosecutor handling the case in Prairie County could not be reached for comment. Prairie County Sheriff Rick Hickman, whose office was also involved in the investigation, did not return a request for comment. 

Gilbo said police in Johnstown are still investigating the matter, including records related to any benefits that Robert Brooks was receiving at the time of his death. 

“There’s things we’re still looking into now, we’re still looking for some documents to be returned on some subpoenas,” said Gilbo. 

Brooks said his father registered Colvin as his caregiver with the Fulton County Office for the Aging.

“He put her name down on certain documents at the county as far as who he was living with and was basically helping him out as far as a caregiver,” said Gilbo. 

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