Eight years before Ken Brennan took the case, before the heartbreak and the false accusations and suspicions split family and community in Jackson, Tennessee, it was a typically frantic night at Spanky’s Bar and Grill.
It was actually very early morning on Sunday, December 7, 2008, when Angela Bond saw her husband, Euhommie Ollie Bond, enter the bar and shot him the evil eye.
Together they ran the place. Spanky’s, a square redbrick building with a windowed front at one end of a small strip mall, was open until three and tended to fill in the wee hours after other bars closed. In the kitchen, Angela was working fryer baskets with both hands, trying to keep up with orders, when she spotted her husband out by the bar. Bond was a deputy with the Haywood County Sheriff’s Department. His shift had just ended, and he typically dropped in near closing time.
“Homie,” as he was known to his family, “Ollie” or “Chief” by those in the community—he had served as police chief in nearby Bradford—was a man people noticed. A dedicated body-builder, he was striking. He had once been named the sexiest man in America on The Ricki Lake Show, a title he enthusiastically embraced. He had a broad square chin, a magnetic smile, and charm that he kept at full throttle. On each of his bulging deltoids was tattooed a big red rose.
Much of Bond’s magnetism was directed at women, which had caused friction in his marriage, but on this night Angela’s ire concerned something else. One of Bond’s cousins, whom she had asked him to fire, had showed up again to work that night. It was too loud and too busy for her to raise the issue just then. The look said, You and I will talk later.
It was a conversation they would never have.
A fight started. Dustups were not unusual at Spanky’s. People were drinking and some were using drugs. There were friends and enemies, lovers and haters, romantic rivals, near and distant cousins, straying husbands. Some of them were armed; Jackson was home to at least three violent street gangs. Bond bridged many of these divides and usually managed to keep trouble at a low boil. Both host and bouncer, he was known to all, was mostly well liked, and didn’t intimidate easily. When the fight started that night he leapt over the bar to break it up. Angela saw her husband with his big arm in a choke hold around one of the combatants while another cracked Bond over the head with a bottle. Bond shouted for everyone to stay calm as he forcibly moved the man out the front door.
The brawl scattered the crowd. Some raced out to the parking lot, others to back rooms and a wall by the bathroom. Angela ordered the kitchen to halt work and, still holding two baskets dripping hot oil, ran to the cash register to protect the night’s earnings. Then came gunshots. Angela felt something whiz past her. She dropped to the oily floor. Someone shouted, “Chief’s been shot!”
Eric Cobb, one of Spanky’s security guards and an old Bond-family friend, raced in waving a handgun. He jumped on a table, as Angela recalled it, bellowing, “Where’s the motherfucker at?”
Someone else shouted for her to call 911.
Angela had misplaced her cell phone. By the time she had found the bar phone and dialed, the dispatcher told her that responders were already on their way.
The shooting had stopped. The crowd was now mostly outside. Cars were pulling away, fleeing the scene. Angela found her husband unconscious in one of the empty parking spaces. One of her customers, Lawanda Williams, a nurse, was applying CPR, trying to revive him.
“Baby, I’ve done all I can do,” Williams told Angela. “Only God can pull him through from here.”
Bond was still breathing when the ambulance took him away. He died in the emergency room a short while later.
Bond’s violent death was shattering for his family and for many in Jackson’s African-American community, a pain prolonged when the mostly white Jackson Police Department failed to catch his killer. Eight years on, the sadness had turned bitter. “We were still grieving in a really bad way,” said Bond’s aunt, Debra Perry. She and Gwen Sanders, one of Bond’s sisters, had put up a $10,000 reward, which they advertised on city buses, for information that led to an arrest. Angela put up another $5,000. It hadn’t helped.
“I’m a forensic person,” says the 57-year-old Perry. A retired postal worker who spends a lot of time doing church work—“I’m one of Jehovah’s Witnesses”—Perry is a devotee of true-crime programs on TV, marveling at the tactics and techniques of modern law enforcement. She couldn’t fathom why the Jackson police hadn’t solved her nephew’s murder. The only answer, it seemed to her, was that the department didn’t care enough to really try, a suspicion, for Southern black folks, which is not without historical foundation.
Bond’s peculiar name had been his mother’s attempt at christening him after Muhammad Ali, and, like the boxer, Bond was not shy about his gifts. Spanky’s was just another stage for him; he would wade in late and take charge. Even though he never drank or used drugs himself, he loved to entertain those who did. He would invite a crowd over to his house for a football game, furnishing drinks and snacks, and then fall asleep in his recliner as everyone else drank, ate, and watched the game. He was so assertively friendly that some found it off-putting. “People either loved him or hated him,” said Gwen Sanders. He showered compliments on women indiscriminately—old, young, fat, slender, pretty, and plain. At the drive-through window of a McDonald’s, waited on by a young woman with bright-blue hair—“She looked a hot mess,” recalls Sanders—Bond told her, “You know, not everybody could do blue hair, but blue hair looks good on you.”
The fact that Bond had been a cop made the suspected indifference of the Jackson police particularly galling. He had worn the badge in Memphis and Murfreesboro before becoming chief in Bradford and then a deputy sheriff. He had served in the navy and then as a captain in the Army National Guard, deploying frequently, including tours in both Afghanistan and Iraq. At 41 he had spent more than 20 years in various uniforms. The long line of official mourners at his funeral stretched around the block, representing all his old units and others from across western Tennessee. Some police came from as far as Memphis. But from Jackson, his hometown, the force he had most wanted to join, there were none. The family noticed—and they thought they knew why.
Bond had “ties” with known criminals, gang members, and drug dealers—it was why, despite his repeated applications, the Jackson police had rejected him. Spanky’s, which thrived partly by staying open late, attracted some unsavory characters and employed convicted felons. Reports of gunfire at the location were common. The bar was considered a nuisance by local cops. And don’t think they didn’t notice the Bonds’ nice home and the expensive cars in its driveway. The fact that Bond had been killed close to four A.M. outside Spanky’s seemed a far cry from the “line of duty.”
The long line of official mourners at Bond’s funeral stretched around the block, representing all his old units. But from his hometown, the force he had most wanted to join, there were none.
But to those who loved him, there was another way of seeing it. The Bonds were ambitious and industrious. They were an attractive couple—Angela had the lean look of an athlete, although she was not inclined to work out like her husband, and wore her long black hair swept to one side and straight down to her shoulders. They glowed with health and energy. Angela owned and operated a beauty salon by day on top of her nightly duties at the bar; typically, she didn’t head home until four in the morning. Bond’s salary on the Bradford force had been supplemented by a grant from the N.A.A.C.P. because he was the first African-American police chief in the town’s history. The impressive house and the cars also reflected Angela’s willingness to borrow. “I was guilty of having a lot of debt,” she told me. “That’s how we bought a lot of stuff.” And, yes, Bond did have ties with known criminals, but so did many in his large extended family, a number of whom had themselves been in and out of jail. He employed a number of relatives with felony convictions at Spanky’s, and also old family friends, like Eric Cobb. Bond was intent on preserving those ties, keeping close to those who, as his sister Gwen Sanders put it, “had chosen a different path.”
“He had this soft spot, like, I can help them,” she says. “I can point them in the right direction. He always thought people deserved a second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth chance, thinking, Eventually he’s gonna get it right. His thing was, If I can’t help him, then who can?”
The case had seemed simple. A 9-mm. round was recovered from Bond’s body. Shell casings were found scattered near where he had fallen, and a nearby spent round had apparently struck the front door frame, taking a gouge out of it. Another round had partly shattered one of the big front windows. Witnesses named two shooters, Michael Robinson and Steve “Black” Thomas, young men with criminal pasts and gang connections. Accounts differed slightly—some had heard two shots, some three, some five—but three witnesses placed the blame for the killing shot squarely on Robinson.
Bond’s uncle Charlie Reeves, who was working security, said that his nephew had been fighting with both men. “Michael Robinson shot Euhommie,” he told police, emphatically. “I saw his white shirt and dark gun. Black told me I was next.” Reeves said that Bond had named Robinson as his shooter as he lay bleeding. He added that Thomas had threatened him, saying, “We should have got both of y’all.” Most of his story was backed by another uncle, Wilbert Bond.
Arthur Hunt, who was also working security in the parking lot outside, said he saw his nephew and Robinson fighting, and placed himself between the two. Some in the crowd tried to pull Robinson back, but he broke free and Bond stepped from behind Hunt to confront him. Then came three gunshots, Hunt said, “from behind Mike.” None hit Bond, who was still standing when Hunt heard a fourth shot, and his nephew fell. He said he saw both Robinson and Thomas running away, and that Robinson had a gun. He said the two left together in Thomas’s car.
Natalie Allen said she was sitting in a car in the parking lot when the fight spilled outside. She saw Thomas run to his car, pop the hood, remove a handgun from underneath, and walk into the crowd around the fight, where she lost sight of him. She heard several gunshots, and then saw Thomas run back with several others to his car and leave.
The Bond family was convinced. Before the preliminary hearing, outside the courthouse, Angela was speaking angrily to her father about Lala Long, Robinson’s mother.
“She knows her son did it!”
“You don’t have the right to say that, because you didn’t see anything,” said Long.
“You just keep on moving,” said Angela. “Right now I’ve lost everything. You haven’t lost anything.”
It seemed clear enough. Within hours after Bond’s death, Jackson police arrested Robinson and charged him with murder. Days later they arrested Thomas, charging him with aggravated assault and being an accessory to murder. The story got a lot of play in the local press, and the police department looked to have handled the case efficiently. The department’s chief told reporters confidently that the case, handled by one of its up-and-coming detectives, Tyreece Miller, had been wrapped up.
But when the witnesses were grilled by defense lawyers at a preliminary hearing a few days later, with the other witnesses out of the courtroom, their stories collapsed into a jumble of contradictions.
Reeves, who said he had been standing so close to his nephew that one of the rounds fired had passed through his own jacket, told the lawyers that he had seen Robinson fire the killing shot. He insisted he had seen Robinson and Thomas fleeing together and that his dying nephew had fingered Robinson as the shooter.
Wilbert Bond, who had also named Robinson as the killer, now made it clear that he had never stepped outside the bar. Natalie Allen repeated her story: she’d seen Thomas pop the hood of his car, remove a gun, and then melt into the crowd before the gunshots. But Allen said that Robinson was not one of the two men who had fled with him. On further questioning she also revealed that she was currently Robinson’s girlfriend, something she had not told the police—it threw suspicion on her account, which, by leaving out Robinson, might have been an attempt to exonerate him.
When the witnesses were grilled by defense lawyers at a preliminary hearing, their stories collapsed into a jumble of contradictions.
Arthur Hunt sat through a recitation of his criminal past while answering detailed questions about the night of the shooting. He now said that the first three shots he heard had come from behind him, not, as he had told police, from behind Robinson. He said Reeves had not been close to Bond, and that Robinson had been wearing a coat with a fur-lined hood, not the white T-shirt Reeves had described. He said that he saw Thomas fire, only to contradict himself seconds later, saying he’d seen Thomas pointing a gun but had not seen him shoot it. Hunt said he had stayed close to Bond as he lay on the pavement and, contrary to Reeves’s testimony, that Bond did not name his killer.
“You sure about that?” asked Robinson’s attorney, Joe Byrd.
“I’m positive. He didn’t say nothing.”
Defense lawyers then called their own eyewitnesses, three of whom testified that Thomas alone had been fighting with Bond, and that Robinson had been inside the bar when the gunfire started. Erica Woods, Robinson’s second cousin, described hiding behind a table with him when a man—who fit Angela Bond’s description of their security guard, Eric Cobb—ran in waving a gun and shouting, “Where’s that nigger at? Y’all know what nigger I’m talking about!” She confirmed that Thomas left with two other men, neither of them Robinson, and that Thomas had been the one wearing a white T-shirt. Others then took the stand to corroborate these accounts. Robinson, they said, had not fled with Thomas; he had left in a separate vehicle driven by one Wesley Cox, which Cox confirmed.
Then Robinson testified. He acknowledged previous criminal convictions—“I done served my time and ain’t been in no trouble”—and gave his own version of events. He had come in with his cousin and friends. He had fought with neither Thomas nor Bond. He had not been armed. He was inside when the shooting occurred.
“Did you kill Mr. Bond?” his attorney asked.
Judge Blake Anderson did not even wait for the defense to sum up. He referred the charges against Thomas to the grand jury, and dismissed all charges against Robinson. Angela ran from the courtroom, crying.
Detective Miller, who had put the case together, slipped out before the hearing concluded, leaving his younger associate, Chris Chestnut, who was working his first homicide, to face the Bond family. The blame for Bond’s death devolved into a family feud, the Bonds versus the Robinsons.
And from there the case languished. Thomas, still insisting that he had spent that entire evening at home with his girlfriend, was sent to jail after police found a weapon and drugs when they raided his apartment. But the weapon seized was not a 9-mm., and the witness accounts were too confused to support a charge. The strongest testimony against Thomas was from Robinson’s girlfriend, Natalie Allen, and even she had not seen him shoot. One witness had testified that he saw Thomas shooting in Bond’s direction from a distance, but this meant he could not have fired the killing shot. There had been stippling on Bond’s body, burned-powder marks left by a weapon fired at close range.
A Sign from God’s Holy Spirit
Tyreece Miller, who would eventually be promoted to deputy commissioner, dropped the case into Chestnut’s lap. A gung-ho cop, with his shaved head and muscular arms sleeved with colorful tattoos, Chestnut tried hard to crack it, without success. He tried re-interviewing the witnesses, which got him nowhere. Reeves was reluctant to talk to the police. The detective had Thomas transported back for further questioning, but the man just sat across the table and smirked at him. He knew he hadn’t killed Bond, and that the police knew it, too. The thick case file sat on a shelf over Chestnut’s desk like a black mark on his career and on the entire department.
The Bond clan was fed up with the Jackson police; just as they had spurned Euhommie Bond in life, they were dissing him in death. It also sent an ugly message to the black community. If the police wouldn’t aggressively investigate the murder of a fellow officer, what did that say about other black victims?
Angela sold her businesses, collected her husband’s insurance and death benefits, and moved with their two sons to Atlanta. But that very windfall threw suspicion her way. There was plenty of motive, it was said, even beyond insurance money, pensions, and death benefits. Bond, after all, had not worked hard to hide his relationships with other women. Some believed he might have been killed by an angry husband or boyfriend.
“All the ugly stuff they’re saying, that another guy killed my husband ’cause he was dating his baby mama, you know, it was just so hurtful for me,” Angela says. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying my husband was innocent, but at the end of the day, he took care of his family.... You’re going to hear all that stuff, too, about how we were going through a divorce. I hadn’t signed any papers, and I had no plans to do it.”
Perry, for one, believed the couple were going to divorce, and that Angela was the aggrieved party. And Angela’s payoff had been considerable. She wasn’t proud of her suspicions, but she had them.
If the police wouldn’t aggressively investigate the murder of a fellow officer, what did that say about other black victims?
Perry had become a surrogate mother to her nephew after his mother fell victim to Alzheimer’s. She loved him and admired what he had made of himself, and she was protective of him. She hadn’t liked Angela from the start.
“I think she’s a gold digger,” she had told Bond after he’d first introduced Angela to her.
“But I don’t have anything, Auntie,” he had said.
“I know, but she’ll find a way to make money off of you.”
As Perry saw it, she had.
This is how things stood when Perry, watching one of her true-crime shows, saw Ken Brennan—a retired D.E.A. agent and former Long Island cop turned private investigator—solve a mystery that had long stumped police in Florida. A muscular man with a shock of white hair, a gold chain around his thick neck, and rings on his fingers, Brennan was like someone out of central casting, with his sunglasses, leather jacket, motorcycle, cigar, and gruff, plainspoken style. Impressed, Perry found his Web site online. Sanders made contact by e-mail and sent some information about Bond’s case. Then Perry called Brennan and grilled him so much about his background and experience that he grew peeved.
“Look, lady,” he growled, “you reached out to me. I didn’t reach out to you.”
He said he would get back to her. The sisters thought they’d never hear from him again—until he called to say he’d take the case.
Brennan was expensive. Just to retain his services cost Perry and Sanders as much or more as they had spent for the reward and the posters. They sought help from the rest of the family, without success, so Perry and Sanders put up the money themselves. Perry saw Brennan’s acceptance of the case as nothing less than miraculous—as she put it, “A sign from God’s Holy Spirit.”
Brennan gets many requests. Articles and TV reports of his successes, like the one seen by Perry, ensure a steady stream of random calls and referrals from law enforcement. By necessity, he turns most away, either because they fail to sufficiently pique his interest or, after a preliminary review, because he concludes that he wouldn’t be able to help.
As he saw it, the Bond case was cold as cold can be. But one thing grabbed him about it. He told Perry, “I can’t believe this guy was a police officer, and he was shot eight years ago, and nobody has been convicted for it.” That alone was enough. The fact that Bond had served in both Iraq and Afghanistan clinched it.
Brennan told himself, Some asshole has been walking around the state of Tennessee for eight years bragging that he shot a cop and got away with it.
Mark Bowden is the author of 13 books, including The Last Stone: A Masterpiece of Criminal Interrogation