Man gets 2nd chance after encounter with detective

awomack@macon.comJuly 7, 2012 

Carey Brown has never expected handouts.

His philosophy? Anything worth having is worth working for -- no matter what.

Despite living out of a tent for most of his 54 years, he’s never considered himself homeless. His tent was home.

Earlier this year, Brown pitched his well-traveled hiking tent in the woods behind Walnut Creek Plaza on Gray Highway.

Macon wasn’t his destination. It was just a place between hiking trails where he could earn money and catch a bus to north Georgia.

He’d planned to start hiking in Rome on the Pinhoti National Recreation Trail, a 335-mile path through Alabama and Georgia. A network of footpaths connect it to the Appalachian Trail, which Brown has traversed several times.

In Macon, he got a job helping turn an old Pizza Hut on Riverside Drive into a car lot and evangelism school.

The man who hired him said Brown was friendly and dependable.

While working, Brown had told him about his trail adventures. He’d also said he lived in a tent.

The man offered to drive Brown to Rome when Brown had socked away enough cash for his trek.

But he never got the chance.

One day in early March, Brown sat at a bus station and read in the newspaper that another homeless man had found human bones close to the Wal-Mart in east Macon. It was near where Brown lived.

When Brown went home for the night, he found his campsite ringed with crime-scene tape. Scared, Brown started packing his stuff.

“I was sure they were going to come arrest me for some kind of trespassing or something,” he said.

For Brown, living in a tent wasn’t just a way of life. Although he felt more comfortable in the woods, he didn’t feel he could go back home.

Divorced, he left his family more than 20 years ago.

He didn’t know it that night while packing, but someone still cared and had been searching for him.

* * *

The next morning, Brown went to work as usual and asked his boss for a ride to pick up the things he’d left at the campsite: his tent, a stove, a few changes of clothes.

His boss, Ken Ryner, said Brown was up front and told him that police had found a body, but he denied having anything to do with the person’s death. (Police still haven’t identified the bones. It’s an unsolved case.)

That March morning, Ryner drove Brown the 6 miles to east Macon and parked in front of a strip mall near the woods where Brown had been living.

Several police cars were there. Police were searching for more remains.

Brown got out and walked into the woods. He had planned to work that day and then set up a new camp somewhere off Riverside Drive.

Brown was headed down a steep embankment behind the stores when police swarmed him. They took him downtown to the detective bureau.

After three hours of interviews, police didn’t think Brown had anything to do with their discovery.

Still, it was important to confirm Brown’s identity, to be sure he wasn’t wanted for a crime. He wasn’t carrying a driver’s license or any other ID.

Sitting at his computer, Macon police Lt. Robert Spires typed Brown’s name, birthday and Social Security number into a database.

He found the name and phone number of a possible relative -- about 1,600 miles away in North Dakota.

Janette TeKippe, a hospital housekeeping supervisor, was on break when her cell phone rang. She didn’t recognize the number, but she answered anyway.

Spires asked if TeKippe could help identify Brown, the man sitting in front of him.

“She goes ‘Oh my God. We haven’t seen Carey in 22 years,’” Spires recalled. “You could hear the smile through the phone.”

TeKippe told Spires that Brown used to have her name tattooed on his arm.

Spires checked the scruffy-faced man’s arm and found the tattoo: a heart with a cross inside -- and Janette’s name.

By then, TeKippe was sobbing.

The detective asked Brown to talk with her, but he was too upset.

“I just couldn’t do it,” he said. “I broke down and cried like a baby.”

It had been nearly 23 years since his alcohol abuse had wrecked the couple’s marriage. They divorced, and he left town when his daughters were 8 and 9.

He hadn’t been back.

Spires kept talking with TeKippe on a speakerphone so Brown could hear both sides of the conversation.

Brown feared that after so many years gone by there would be nothing left but hate.

He was surprised that his family still wanted to hear from him.

“Man, this is finally over,” he thought. “I can go back home.”

* * *

In his 23 years as a policeman, Spires has dealt with lots of homeless people, many of whom had lost their way.

But there was something about listening to TeKippe that made him want to help Brown.

After hanging up the phone, Spires offered to pay for a bus ticket to take Brown back to North Dakota -- if he wanted to go.

Brown needed time to think.

He sat in the lobby of the detective bureau while Spires and other officers went to lunch.

Replaying his ex-wife’s words in his head, Brown decided he would get on that bus. Knowing his daughters wanted him back tipped the scales.

“To me, it was an awfully big step, a big step in my life,” he said.

In North Dakota, meanwhile, TeKippe called her youngest daughter, Kristin.

Kristin, now 30, had been married and divorced. She goes by the last name Walter and has three children.

In the years since her father left, Walter and her older sister had scoured the Internet searching for him.

Jennifer Brown, now 32, said Walter went to her office at a Bismarck-area Catholic Church after getting the call from their mother.

Walter was crying as she said, “They’ve found dad. They’ve found dad.”

Jennifer Brown never expected to see her father again.

“It’d been so long and so many years and so much alcohol that I thought he’d just drink himself to death,” she said.

It was hard to believe.

“How do you wrap your head around something after 22 years, that all of a sudden you know where your dad is? ... I never thought it would happen.”

She wasn’t sure she’d want to talk with her father, though. She didn’t know how to feel or think.

Brown remembered her father as a loving parent -- when he wasn’t drinking.

“He played with us all the time,” she said. “He involved us in all his little hobbies and just really made a conscious effort to be a great dad.”

Kristin Walter and her father were close.

“I’d help him fix cars,” she recalled. “We’d go out to the junk yard together. We’d build model airplanes together. We played sports.”

Within a few hours, Walter was driving to Georgia.

After so many years, she wasn’t sure whether her father would stay on a Greyhound all the way home.

“He might have gotten scared or nervous,” she figured.

Spires and several police officers chipped in about $200 to pay for Carey Brown’s bus ticket.

Knowing Walter was on her way, Spires used the money to put Brown up at a motel on Riverside Drive. It was near Interstate 75. There was a convenience store and drug store within walking distance in case Brown needed anything.

His first night there, Brown took a three-hour shower. He watched TV.

It had been at least a decade since he’d slept somewhere other than a tent.

“I was almost in shock,” he said. “I was just in awe from the generosity. ... I’m just a no-good hiker living in the woods.”

* * *

Before he came to Macon, Brown spent most of his life on his own.

As a 10-year-old growing up in Rapid City, S.D., he finally ran away after trouble at home.

He spent the next few years bouncing from one foster home to another until his temporary family’s home was destroyed in a flood.

Instead of moving in with another family, the teenage Brown hitchhiked across the country. He worked as a welder in Idaho until his boss discovered he was under 18.

While most teenagers were finishing high school, Brown was working as a ski bum, washing dishes and working on ski patrols at resorts.

“They never checked to see how old you were,” he said.

Brown didn’t graduate from high school, but he did earn a high school equivalency credential.

At times the life was good, but he didn’t have a home, and he couldn’t tell anyone he was living in a tent in the woods.

Brown later enlisted in the Air Force, but he was discharged after about a year.

“It was just a little bit too much structure for me,” Brown said. “I just couldn’t conform.”

About that time he spoke to a childhood friend from Rapid City who was working in Bismarck, North Dakota roofing houses.

Soon Brown had a job at a welding shop in Mandan, just across the Missouri River from Bismarck. He worked on boilers at power plants.

In 1977, he met Janette, the woman who would become his wife. She was 17 and he was 19. She was drawn to his easy-going personality.

They married the next year. Jennifer was born in 1980, and Kristin followed in 1981.

At some point, Brown started drinking alcohol with his co-workers.

“All the guys at work drank, so I drank,” he said.

Janette said she came from a family where no one drank.

“The longer we were married, the worse it got,” she said.

In the end, the drinking led to the couple’s divorce.

“I messed that up all by myself,” Brown said. “I don’t have anybody to blame.”

Jennifer Brown can’t recall many details of the day her father left, but she remembers her parents fighting. In a way, she was glad when her father left.

“We didn’t have to worry about mom anymore,” she said. “I remember my mom changed the locks and he was gone.”

It was Nov. 27, 1989.

Janette ignored a few calls from her husband after he left. Soon they stopped.

She moved on and remarried in 1992, but she wondered what had become of Carey Brown.

“I always thought maybe someday he’d show up again.”

Meanwhile, the newly divorced Carey Brown headed to Washington state, then California and Nevada.

“I just traveled around. I’d be on a vacation. When I got low on money, I’d get a job and work for a couple of months.”

After about three years, Brown started hiking. He trekked the Pacific Crest Trail that stretches from the U.S.-Mexico border through California to Canada. He walked the Appalachian Trail at least four times.

He was still drinking, though, and at times he ran afoul of the law.

He said he can’t drive now because of an alcohol-related driving incident in North Carolina 15 years ago.

He’s been sober for three years.

Long before he found his campsite surrounded by crime tape, he’d been praying for God to bring about a change in his life.

“I had been praying to the Lord to do something,” he said.

* * *

In his Macon motel room, Brown contemplated his reunion with his youngest daughter as she drove to pick him up.

“A million things were running through my mind,” he said. “How is she? What kind of person is she?”

His daughter, Kristin Walter, drove all the way to Missouri before pulling over at a rest stop for a few hours. Unable to sleep, she got back on the road.

Nervousness didn’t set in during the drive.

“It didn’t hit me until I parked right outside the motel,” she said. “The picture in my head was of a big fat guy with a black beard (who was) bald on top, because that was the last picture I had of him. I didn’t know what to expect.”

There was a knock at his door about 10 p.m.

Two days had passed since he’d packed up his campsite, afraid he’d be carted off to jail.

Brown opened the door and looked at the woman his little girl had become.

They shared a long hug and spent hours in the room talking, catching up on lost time.

The next morning, Spires, the police lieutenant, dropped by the motel on his way to work.

Walter had just gotten out of the shower when he knocked. She came running out of the bathroom -- soaking wet, but clothed.

“She gave me a great big hug and thanked me for putting her and her daddy back together,” Spires said. “It made me feel really good. People are people. Not everybody’s a bad guy. It felt good to help somebody.

“For whatever reason, we got put into each other’s path.”

* * *

On their way home to North Dakota, the father and daughter toured Ruby Falls and Rock City near Chattanooga, Tenn., to make new memories.

They spent hours in the car talking, joking and telling stories about their years apart.

Brown learned that his daughter was studying to become a nurse.

“I was just proud,” he said. “She’s got life going on.”

Back in North Dakota, they drove into the parking lot of a Denny’s restaurant.

Jennifer Brown and her mother had been waiting in their cars. Both were nervous about the reunion.

“I was shaking so bad,” Janette TeKippe said. “It was just really emotional.”

Standing in the parking lot, Carey Brown took TeKippe’s face in his hands. He traced it with his fingers.

Jennifer Brown, the couple’s oldest daughter, noticed that Brown was thinner. He was wearing a skull-cap bandanna, similar to the ones she remembered from all those years ago.

Carey Brown spent his first night in North Dakota at a motel. His father had called and arranged for the room. Brown had spent years not knowing if his parents were still alive. He hadn’t seen his father since before he married Janette in 1978.

That weekend, Walter drove her father around town to see how much it had changed.

Businesses and housing developments had sprouted up. There was a new bridge across the Missouri River. There had been a housing shortage in the area as oil workers moved to town for jobs.

The next Monday, Brown applied for a construction job -- and was hired.

Soon, Jennifer Brown found her father an apartment in Bismarck. Relatives showed up with towels, dishes, household supplies, everything he needed to set up housekeeping.

“It’s really, really nice to have a home, the first home I’ve had in a real long time that I can call my own,” Carey Brown said.

Each work day, a co-worker gives Brown a lift in exchange for gas money.

The balding, rugged man with glasses said he still pinches himself when he thinks about the new start he’s been afforded.

He realizes he has a lot of time to make up for.

“Twenty-two years is a long time. You can’t just get that back just like that.”

Jennifer Brown is glad to have her father back in her life. They exchange text messages each morning and night.

“To see him so different and not be drinking and to repair relationships with me and my sister and my mom, it’s really cool to see that,” she said. “He’s showing he wants a second chance with his family.”

Four months ago, on his first night back in North Dakota, Carey Brown had a conversation with his girls.

There at the Denny’s, he made a promise.

It’s one he won’t break.

“I’m here to stay.”

To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.

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