WWII vet found dead in suitcase gets dignity he deserves

Robert Brooks, of Johnstown, was gunner on a B-17
Members of the Arkansas Patriot Guard Riders transport the remains of WWII veteran Robert Brooks.
Members of the Arkansas Patriot Guard Riders transport the remains of WWII veteran Robert Brooks.

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Before they stopped seeing each other and eventually stopped talking a decade ago, Jay Brooks spent years trying to coax his father away from the solitude of Upstate New York.

He pleaded with him to join the family in South Carolina, where his grandchildren lived, the hunting was better and the fish were plentiful.

But Robert Brooks was not fond of change, and except for his time as a gunner on a B-17 in World War II, he had lived only in Upstate New York. That’s where he wanted to stay.

So Brooks let his father be and with time the two grew apart.

Then on March 11, Jay Brooks got a phone call from police.

A farmer in Arkansas had discovered a suitcase among some trees in his field, police told him. Stuffed inside was the body of a small man.

The man, police believed, was Jay’s father.

In the days since then, Jay Brooks, now a 58-year-old mental health nurse in North Carolina, has been consumed by what happened during the years when he and his father shared only silence.

Robert Brooks had been a devoted husband, a caring neighbor, a veteran, a simple man but proud man who grew his own vegetables and hated the spotlight. He would have turned 90 at the end of March.

How, Jay Brooks wondered, did the life of his father end so undignified, 1,300 miles away from the home he hated to leave?

It was a question that troubled not just Jay Brooks, but law enforcement authorities in two states and veterans’ groups across the South, who, after they read about it, demanded justice for the elder Brooks.

They never knew him, but they knew this: He had served his country; his life mattered; he deserved better.

In Des Arc, Arkansas, where the suitcase was found, the Prairie County Sheriff’s Office and the Arkansas State Police tracked down two suspects – Brooks’ apparent caregivers – and later charged them with abuse of a corpse. Weeks later, up north in Johnstown, where Brooks was living when he died, police arrested two more people.

Together, the agencies began investigating.

Was it Social Security fraud? Elder abuse? Did these people take advantage of Brooks? Or did he trust them? If so, why?

Prairie County Sheriff Rick Hickman took it personally.

“We’re talking about a WWII B-17 belly gunner,” Hickman told The Washington Post. “He didn’t deserve to be dumped in a suitcase in the woods.”

Robert Brooks. (Courtesy of Jay Brooks)

Robert D. Brooks enlisted in 1944. Military records list him as both 5-foot-5 and 5-foot-1. Jay Brooks figures he stood somewhere between the two.

Brooks’ small teenage frame made him a perfect candidate for one of the military’s most dangerous assignments: a “belly gunner,” whose job it was to shoot from inside the ball turret of the B-17.

The “Flying Fortresses” were primarily deployed in daylight strategic bombing campaigns against German military and industrial targets. The belly gunners wore thick coats to fend off frigid temperatures along with their oxygen masks. Only a layer of glass separated the gunner inside from the anti-aircraft fire below.

The job was considered a suicide mission.

But Brooks survived, was honorably discharged in 1946 and returned to Upstate New York, where he married his wife, Antoinette, and eventually had a son. Soon after Jay’s birth, though, Antoinette was diagnosed with a relapsing-remitting case of multiple sclerosis, and the family’s life from then on revolved around her care.

Jay Brooks would abandon his paper routes to give her shots so they could avoid hospital bills. Robert Brooks worked as a mechanic and then a night guard at MCA Records in Gloversville, New York.

When Jay Brooks graduated from high school at 16 with college credits and joined the Marine Corps, Robert Brooks disapproved but signed the waiver anyway. His son served in South Carolina, where he eventually settled with a wife and children of his own.

Robert Brooks remained in Gloversville, shoveling snow for neighbors and taking care of Antoinette, whose deteriorating condition forced him to move her into a nursing home. He was there when she rose each morning and stayed until bedtime. On weekends, as long as he could, Robert took Antoinette home.

As Jay Brooks’ family and technology business grew in South Carolina, his visits up north dwindled. Antoinette got sicker, Robert more stubborn.

Then in 2004, Jay’s 19-year-old son, Ryan Anthony Brooks, was killed in a car accident on his way home from work. Jay Brooks was paralyzed with grief.

“I lost my business. I lost everything. I gave up,” Jay Brooks said. “That’s when everything began to fall apart.”

Jay Brooks was so despondent, he said, that when Antoinette died, his father shielded him from the heartache. He withheld the news for months, making excuses for why his mother couldn’t talk when Jay would call.

Remembering it now makes Jay Brooks cry.

“He kept that from me with a good heart,” he said. “Not out of meanness.”

He once again tried to persuade his dad to move south, but again Robert balked. So from South Carolina Jay Brooks occasionally dispatched distant relatives still living in New York to check on his father.

The two would still talk on the phone, and it was during one of those conversations that Robert told Jay he had befriended a nice woman who took care of him.

The next time Jay Brooks called, though, his father’s phone line had been disconnected.

It wasn’t until a decade later, when police told Jay Brooks that his father had moved to Johnstown, that he began theorizing about who the woman was and whether her intentions were sinister.

Police told Jay Brooks his father had moved to Johnstown, a city a few miles south of Gloversville, to live with his longtime caretaker, Virginia “Ginger” Colvin. But then a few years ago, the two moved south to Arkansas, police said, where Virginia had family. Robert stayed there with her for several years, returning to Johnstown at the beginning of January.

They moved into a white apartment on Perry Street and were joined by Colvin’s boyfriend, Michael Stivers, who came with them from Arkansas, police said.

It was there in Johnstown, at that apartment, police told Jay Brooks, that his father probably died of natural causes – in January or February, months before his body was found in the field.

Authorities said it was Colvin and Stivers’ plan to dispose of Robert’s body in Arkansas, where they planned to bury him in an unmarked grave.

And they might have succeeded, if not for some curious teenagers and the tightknit community where the two chose to commit their alleged crime.

On the afternoon of March 5, police got a frantic 911 call from the Arkansas home of Stivers’ relatives.

The couple’s blue Toyota Tundra was parked in the driveway, stuffed full with furniture and knickknacks they intended to sell, the caller said. Some teens at the house were rummaging through the truck bed when they discovered a large, rolling black and gray suitcase. They zipped it open, authorities said, and out fell an arm.

They screamed, spooking Colvin and Stivers, who jumped inside the truck and fled, according to police.

Prairie County Sheriff Rick Hickman was among those who responded to the call. As they searched, in came a second call to the sheriff’s cellphone from a neighbor who had spotted a blue Toyota Tundra driving away from a cluster of minnow ponds on a farm stretching for thousands of acres.

Within 20 minutes of the first 911 report, the sheriff had tracked down the truck. Inside were Colvin and Stivers, but the suitcase was gone.

[More: Son of Johnstown man found dead in suitcase says father was too trusting]

A quick check revealed Stivers was wanted in a neighboring county for unpaid child support and Colvin was driving with an expired license. The sheriff arrested Stivers and wrote Colvin a ticket, then sent the truck to the impound lot. Colvin used the sheriff’s cellphone to call for a ride.

On his drive back to the office, Hickman called up the farmer with the minnow ponds – the property where a neighbor had spotted the blue truck.

Hickman gave the farmer specific instructions. Go out there, he said, and look around. Don’t touch anything.

There were wheel tracks for about 150 feet, from the minnow pond levee back into the woods. Beside a stump, the farmer found the suitcase.

“You wouldn’t have seen it unless you were really looking for it,” Hickman said. It could have stayed there for a long time unnoticed had the farmer not spotted the truck and had the sheriff not made the connection.

The sheriff had Stivers in custody, but Colvin was missing. She had already left the impound lot so Hickman tried to use her expired license he had confiscated to entice her back to him. He found the number she had called from his phone and dialed back.

Then, Hickman said, she began to cry and hung up.

“She knew she was caught I’m pretty sure,” the sheriff said.

Days later, authorities found her hiding out near Little Rock. Hickman rode along to bring her in.

“If she was going to dump this guy in my county,” the sheriff said, “I was going to make sure I was the one to arrest her.”

Colvin and Stivers were both charged with felony abuse of a corpse and authorities in Arkansas and New York opened a Social Security fraud investigation.

Weeks later, authorities in New York arrested two more people in connection with the case. Leeann Sager, Colvin’s niece, and Aaron Rulison also had ties to the Perry Street apartment and were charged with concealment of a human corpse.

None of those taken into custody could be reached for comment.

In states across the South – from Arkansas to South Carolina – chapters of the Patriot Guard, a charity that attends the funerals of service members and veterans, readied their motorcycles and American flags for a processional that would take three days and stretch 700 miles.

After weeks of fundraising by Jay Brooks, the Arkansas Patriot Guard secured his father’s ashes on March 30 and a week later commenced the cross-country motorcade with a cluster of 65 riders.

Each time they crossed a state line, the Patriot Guard captains performed what they call a dignity transfer, passing over the urn and flag and signing their names inside a new King James Bible.

It’s a rite Patriot Guards have been performing for years, one that felt especially somber this time.

“You don’t do something like this and put him in a state known for standing up for their veterans,” David “Dirty Water” Cone, captain of the Arkansas Patriot Guard, told The Washington Post. “This is a black mark, and we’ll do everything we can to erase it.”

Robert D. Brooks’s journey to South Carolina began early Sunday morning to the sound of Taps.

More than 65 bikes lined up in Little Rock to salute the urn that carried Brooks’ ashes and escort him to the Tennessee border, where a fresh batch of Patriot Guard Riders joined the procession.

And so it went, through Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, toward their final destination, Fort Jackson National Cemetery in South Carolina, where the remains, an American flag and Bible signed by the Patriot Guard captains who carried him there, will be given to Jay Brooks, in a reunion 10 years overdue.

Jay Brooks is still short the funds necessary to give his father’s ashes a proper resting place in the plot near Jay’s son, Robert’s grandson. But Jay Brooks is okay with the delay: “I’m going to keep him home with me for a while.”

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