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Regina Brown Disappeared 20 Years Ago-Book Seeks Answer To Mystery Of 'The Other Pilot's Wife'



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Regina Brown Disappeared 20 Years Ago—

Book Seeks Answer To Mystery Of ‘The Other Pilot’s Wife’

By Nancy K. Crevier

Anyone who has lived in Connecticut for more than a few years is familiar with the Richard Crafts case — better known today as the “Wood Chipper Murder” — in which an Eastern Airlines Pilot was convicted of the murder of his stewardess wife, Helle Crafts. The Crafts were residents of Newtown at the time of the infamous murder, making the case that much more sensational to local residents.

In 1986, Lisa Peterson was a reporter at The Newtown Bee. Part of her beat included police reports, most of which were mundane details of fender benders and trucks butting heads with the overpass on Church Hill Road. It was, however, the year that the Richard Crafts case broke, changing the face of Ms Peterson’s police reports and possibly, she surmises, changing the face of news reporting overall.

“The wood chipper case was, to me, a turning point to that tabloid, sensational ‘news’ that has become prevalent,” said Ms Peterson. It was also a turning point in her career, as the Crafts case eventually consumed so much of her time that she left The Bee to continue as a freelance writer focusing solely on the Crafts case.

What she left behind, along with her job at The Bee, was another case she had reported on in 1987 that she hopes to put to rest with her book, The Other Pilot’s Wife: The Untold Story of the Disappearance of Regina Brown, for which she is currently seeking a publisher.

“If Regina Brown had disappeared at any other time than during the Crafts murder,” said Ms Peterson, “there would have been a different outcome.”

Regina Brown, a flight attendent for American Airlines, was the mother of three children living in Sandy Hook in March of 1987, just as the Richard Crafts probable cause hearing began to reveal details of the grisly murder of Helle Crafts. Her home, where she lived with her children, but not her estranged American Airline pilot husband, Willis Brown, was less than five miles from the Crafts home.

Her married life was not a happy one, with more than one report of domestic violence recorded, said Ms Peterson, who covered the story for The Newtown Bee of Ms Brown’s sudden disappearance that spring. “We later found out that Regina had become obsessed with the Crafts case. She had cut out all of the articles about it and kept them. She told a friend that she feared the same outcome for herself.”

A divorce was in progress and because of threats he had made against her, Regina had a restraining order against Willis. Her two older children were in Texas with her mother by mid-March of 1987, said Ms Peterson. Then on March 26, 1987, Regina Brown put her third child on a plane to Texas at LaGuardia Airport in New York City and was never seen again.

Her car was found in front of an apartment in New York City, the key still in the ignition. But that was not until after a neighbor reported Regina missing in early April.

The night she disappeared, the Browns’ dog, locked inside a breezeway in the house, barked for hours, prompting neighbors to call the police. For reasons that are unclear, the barking dog was not followed up on that night or in subsequent days. Not until the police received the call from a concerned acquaintance reporting Regina missing, as well as a call from American Airlines that reported her missing from two flight assignments, did they begin an investigation. It was not until after the police heard from Regina’s employer that Willis Brown called to report his wife missing. Neighbors later reported that Willis had appeared at the house about that same time with a bag of dog food, and then left. The dog, however, was left there, the food bag unopened.

“It was six weeks from the time she disappeared before the state police, upon Newtown’s request, even obtained a warrant and searched the house. The Newtown Police were going strictly by the books on this disappearance,” said Ms Peterson. In the meantime, Regina Brown was just a missing person case, with not enough compelling evidence collected by police for further investigation. “The local police department was still stinging from what had happened with the Crafts murder case,” said Ms Peterson.

Unanswered Questions

Of Competence

Helle Crafts disappeared in November 1986. In December 1986, the Newtown Police Department was removed from the Crafts case by the state attorney and state police took over the investigation. It was a slap in the face to the department, said Ms Peterson, and along with the mystery of Regina Brown, another reason she is writing her book.

“An investigation of the Newtown Police Department never took place. The Newtown police never had a chance to prove that they had not handled the Crafts case incompetently, as they were accused. And one of my questions is, if the state claimed the Newtown Police Department was incompetent, why didn’t they feel the same about the Regina Brown case and pull them off of it?”

Little information came to light from the search of Regina’s home, and police felt that they needed a body to pursue the investigation as anything beyond a missing person case, said Ms Peterson. Caught up in the grind of reporting on the Crafts case, Ms Peterson’s life took another direction and for the most part, she forgot about Regina Brown.

In November 1987, Ms Peterson filed another story for The Newtown Bee, when police dogs were brought in to search the Brown property. It was exactly one year from the date of Helle Crafts’ disappearance.

When the Brown divorce case came before Judge Howard Moraghan, the same judge trying the Crafts murder, Ms Peterson briefly discussed with her editor whether or not it should be covered. In Connecticut, only one of the parties to a divorce has to be present in court. Regina was still missing, so Willis was going ahead with the divorce. “It was being held in family court, not a usual Bee beat, so we decided not to cover it to avoid sensationalism,” said Ms Peterson. It is a decision about which she has some regret, if only for the fact that it was just one more step away from possibly finding out what had happened to the young mother, whom neighbors swore would never have abandoned her children.

By 1989, Ms Peterson had gone to work for a private investigator worked for the defense attorney for the Crafts trial, taking her further away from the mystery of Regina Brown. “I was very involved in the Crafts trial at this point,” recalled Ms Peterson. “It pretty much took up all of my time.”

No one else followed up on the Brown disappearance, and aside from a 1989 newspaper article that Ms Peterson read about an investigation by Newtown Police Department on Block Island, where Willis Brown had a trailer, she heard no more for years about Regina Brown. No evidence was uncovered during the Block Island search to warrant further investigation, and life went on. But what of Regina?

When the Crafts trial resolved itself with the conviction of Richard Crafts, Ms Peterson returned to freelance writing and another love of her life, dogs. She currently writes a regular pet column for The Newtown Bee and is involved in speech writing as spokesperson for the American Kennel Club in New York City. It is a long way from investigative reporting, and a long time since Regina Brown disappeared.

So why, 20 years after the fact, is Lisa Peterson reviewing a cold case and writing a book? “There are a few reasons,” she explained. A series of events in 2004 put her back in touch with the Newtown detective who had been her contact for the Regina Brown story. “We were at lunch, talking, and he said to me that it was a shame no one had ever followed through on the Regina Brown case. I started thinking about it again, and realized there had never been any closure for the family or the detectives on the case. I wondered if I hadn’t given the case the justice it required at the time.”

A Fresh Look

She began to poke around and before she knew it, one little file had grown into several boxes. “I thought it was time for a fresh look at the case. Cold case units have cropped up all over. There have been new forensic advances and new ways of collecting DNA evidence [since Regina’s disappearance]. I think the book is an interesting look at the forensics of the time,” she said. “I think it looks at the cause and effect of law enforcement and criminal justice. The story is old enough that it is an historical look back, as well.”

She raises questions in the book concerning the Crafts and Brown cases. Even though Helle Crafts was considering a divorce, there was no previous evidence of domestic violence in the Crafts case, and while bits of human remains, never even conclusively identified as female, were uncovered, according to Ms Peterson, Helle’s body was never produced. The Browns’ history was rife with violence. Regina had confessed to a confidant that she feared for her life. Yet the investigation was hung up on the fact that there was no body, and not enough evidence for an arrest.

The one case, the Crafts’, resulted in an arrest and conviction of a white pilot for the murder of his white wife. The other pilot, Willis Brown, is black, as was his wife, which invites the question as to whether race played a part in how vigorously the Brown case was pursued. The book, said Ms Peterson, is very character driven and delves into the peculiar parallels of the cases. “What I hope is that the book will bring closure, that the case will be solved, and that the person responsible is found and that they come to justice. I hope, too, that I give my due diligence as a journalist,” said Ms Peterson.

What she discovered as she researched the book is that many remains found go unidentified, even today. “We need to establish a bigger DNA bank for evidence in missing person cases. When people do go missing, it is important to get DNA early in the case. With DNA, we could match up remains. Maybe we would find out what happened to Regina and other missing people.”

She sees fans of the television show Law and Order and mystery readers as her audience for The Other Pilot’s Wife. But beyond that, she is hopeful that readers in situations similar to that of Regina Brown might take action to prevent the open-ended outcome that has been Regina’s. “I think that families of missing persons will know that they are not alone,” Ms Peterson said of her unfinished book.

There is truly no ending for her book. “Not really, not yet,” said Ms Peterson. “I could feel that the investigators and the people I interviewed are haunted by this. It needs some sort of ending.” As she wraps up the final chapters, she hopes that someone, somewhere, will remember something new about the day that Regina disappeared and contact her or the police.

“Wouldn’t it be lovely,” she said, “to have an ending for the book?”

(Lisa Peterson can be contacted at lisa@lisa-peterson.com.)

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