Ken Brennan visited Jackson, a nondescript city of about 65,000 roughly halfway between Memphis and Nashville, for the first time in April 2015. The site of a notable Confederate victory in the Civil War, today it is home to a few big factories, two of the largest being an aluminum-mill subsidiary of Toyota and one that produces Pringles. With its blocks of small, one-story houses with tiny yards and lots of open ground, it feels more like a sprawling town than a city. It is about half white, half black, and mostly lower-middle class. Its main avenues, like Hollywood Drive, where Spanky’s was located, are lined with strip malls.
The private detective’s first stop was to see Sergeant Chestnut and two of his colleagues, Lieutenant Phil Stanfill and rookie detective Nick Donald. Brennan assured the detectives that he was there to help them, not to show them up.
The local detectives were star-struck at first—and skeptical. On first meeting, Brennan can seem over the top, with the tan, the muscles, the jewelry, the sunglasses. But over lunch Chestnut warmed to him. Brennan was respectful, and he talked and thought like a cop. He said he had “no fucking interest” in the past failures of the Bond investigation. “I’m looking strictly forward on this.”
Brennan struck Chestnut as cocky—in a good way. “It’s O.K. to be arrogant,” he says, “if you’ve got something to be arrogant about.” The private investigators he’d encountered previously tended to be lazy, slippery, and ill-informed. Brennan had done his homework, and Chestnut could tell that he wasn’t just in it for the money.
Back at police headquarters, the sergeant pulled the stubborn file folder from his shelf and shared old crime-scene photos, hand-drawn maps, physical evidence, and piles of witness statements. There were pictures of Bond, newly deceased, stretched out supine on the operating table, eyes open, clothing torn away. Other than a small cut over his right eye and single, clean bullet wound in his upper-right abdomen, he looked sturdy as a decathlete. The killing round had a downward trajectory and had not exited, coming to rest in an iliac vein. He had bled out internally.
On first meeting, Brennan can seem over the top, with the tan, the muscles, the jewelry, the sunglasses.
Chestnut gave his overview. A fight had broken out in the bar, and Bond had pushed it outside, where he had been tussling with either Robinson or Thomas. Shots were fired. One 9-mm. round hit Bond, another ricocheted off the metal frame of the front door and was found on the ground nearby. The big window to the right of the door was partly shattered. Two 9-mm. shell casings had been recovered on the pavement. He explained how witnesses’ accounts had shifted and described his frustration at trying to re-interview them.
Brennan listened politely, taking it all in. Then he told Chestnut to forget all of it.
“Let’s go take a look,” he said.
The building that had housed Spanky’s was at the southeast end of a sad, nondescript strip mall inaptly named Hollywood Plaza, with a line of unadorned storefronts: a beauty salon, a vacuum-cleaner store, and a consignment clothing shop. The faded siding above bore dark patches where signs for now defunct businesses once hung. Across the street was a lumberyard. The old Spanky’s building was now home to a catering service but looked the same as it did in the crime-scene photos. Before it was an expanse of uneven, sunbaked black pavement.
Chestnut set the scene. Bond had fallen in an empty parking space just outside the front door. Beside him had been a parked car. They noted where each of the 9-mm. shell casings had been found: one close to the front door, the other downhill from Bond’s feet. The metal frame on the left side of the front door still had the hole made by the round the police had found on the pavement a few feet away.
Brennan paced. Across the lot, the crime-scene photographer had snapped pictures of spent .40-caliber shells, some of them bent and scuffed. These had been collected but were not considered important. It was not uncommon for Spanky’s customers to discharge their weapons—often at the sky—and given the scuffed appearance of the shells, it was assumed they were old. Bond had, after all, been hit by a 9-mm. round.
The .40-caliber casings had all been discovered within a dozen feet of each other, about 50 feet from the victim. Brennan stood at that spot and looked toward the building. An unskilled right-handed shooter would find that the gun’s kick, unless actively corrected, would pull his aim to the right. They had come upon a round that hit the doorframe. To its right was the broken window, and beyond that was a patch of woods where other spent rounds would likely have landed, though none were located.
Brennan walked around the building toward the woods, thinking. Chestnut and Stanfill watched him curiously.
“Something ain’t sitting right with me here,” he told them. He said he wanted to go back and see the reports again.
Later that day, reviewing the files, Brennan came across Natalie Allen’s statement. She had seen Thomas retrieve a gun from under the hood of his car, and then run to a spot in the crowd near where the shells were found. Chestnut pointed out that Allen had been Robinson’s girlfriend, and that her story had been considered nothing more than an effort to shift the blame from him to Thomas, but Brennan disagreed.
“I think she’s telling the truth,” he said. “She’s very specific about where the gun came from. Somebody who has been arrested, he knows that if cops pull him over they might toss his car, but they’re not going to bother pulling the fucking hood up. That’s something a gang member would do. She ain’t making that up.”
They went back out to the crime scene a day later and pulled out all the stops to oblige Brennan. Chestnut got the fire department to bring out a ladder truck so they could search surrounding rooftops for spent rounds. They used a laser pointer to confirm the shooting angles from where the shell casings had been found to the damage on the building’s front. The day was sweltering, and the work took hours. In the end, while they didn’t find any of the other rounds, Brennan was certain.
“I think there was a shoot-out here,” he said, standing where the .40-caliber shells had been found. “I think there were two guys shooting. Chris, you know that round you recovered that hit the doorframe? Do you still have it?”
“What caliber is it?”
“Let’s just check. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think that it’s a 9-mm.; I think it’s a .40. I know the property clerk is going to be pissed off, digging this shit up from seven years ago, but let’s just do it. Humor me.”
It was a .40-caliber round.
When Chestnut had inherited the case from Miller, he’d been told that the round in evidence was 9-mm. He had never checked for himself. When he looked back at the file, he saw that even the old evidence sheet had noted that it was .40-caliber. He felt foolish, and said so.
“It wasn’t even your fucking case to begin with,” Brennan reassured him. “But one thing I learned a long time ago: Don’t rely on what some cop told you somebody said, or what somebody says they did. Find out for yourself. Then you know it’s done, because you did it.”
Bond had not simply been shot at close range by a single gunman. There were two shooters: one near the victim, the other across the lot. Since there was no evidence of a 9-mm. round in or around the building, Brennan’s hunch was that whoever fired those shots had been shooting not at Bond but at each other.
Brennan made six trips to Jackson over the next year and a half. He tracked down dozens of witnesses, and sought out Bond’s relatives and friends, including cops who had served alongside him.
He developed a deeper sense of the victim. He knew that Bond had been a ladies’ man, and that he loved attention, and he heard the suspicions about his ties with criminals and drug dealers, but his own impression of the man ran deeper. Bond had clearly loved being a cop, and his race and upbringing made him a uniquely valuable one, able to bridge the wall of hostility between police and community, even if his hometown force hadn’t recognized it. Bond had disliked wearing his gun, often leaving it in his patrol car, which is where it was found the night of his death. He could hold his own physically with anyone and did not hesitate to show it off. Once, reporting a robbery in progress, he had said the suspect was fleeing on foot. “Give me 30 seconds,” he said. Half a minute later, he had returned, winded, with the suspect in cuffs. Bond believed, as his sister said, in giving people the benefit of the doubt. He was a peacemaker. His instinct was not to confront people but to reason with them. It was the role he played at Spanky’s when things got out of hand. Brennan could picture him jumping over the bar to break up a fight, absorbing some punishment while shouting for everyone to calm down, and then steering the troublemaker out the door.
Only in this case, the confrontation had not been defused.
Brennan didn’t just interview witnesses; he brought them back to Hollywood Plaza to walk him through their memory of the night. This would prove, to Chestnut, the most useful of Brennan’s tactics, because being at the crime scene not only helped them remember more clearly; it corrected what they misremembered. They could see, for instance, that only certain things could have been observed or heard from where they had been standing. It also allowed Brennan to more confidently match their stories with the physical evidence.
“One thing I learned a long time ago: Don’t rely on what some cop told you somebody said, or what somebody says they did. Find out for yourself.”
It helped that Brennan was not a cop, but it also helped that he approached everyone calmly and respectfully. He was fact-finding, not cross-examining. If someone’s story didn’t make sense, he didn’t accuse them of lying or threaten them. He would, rather, show them, fact by fact, why they had to be mistaken.
Charlie Reeves, who had testified with such certainty against Michael Robinson, had been hard to track down. So when the detectives went to his house, they stayed in the back seat of Brennan’s rented black Cadillac and sent the P.I.’s assistant, a woman, to the door.
A jittery, hyper-expressive man, Reeves didn’t answer. When Brennan’s assistant walked back out to the Caddy, Reeves stepped out, eyeing them nervously. Chestnut felt certain he was about to bolt, especially when he and Brennan stepped out of the car. Reeves had a history of drug use, and it looked to the sergeant like he had reason to be paranoid. But torn between flight and curiosity, curiosity prevailed.
“Holy shit, man, they told me my uncle won the lottery!” he said when Brennan and Chestnut approached. “I seen a brand-new Cadillac and a white lady at my door, so I figure it must be my uncle. That’s the only reason I answered the door.”
Reeves had said all along that he had been standing right next to Bond when he was shot, and had holes in his jacket to prove it. But when they took him to the parking lot, Brennan contradicted him.
“There’s no way you could have been right next to Euhommie,” he said. He showed him a photo from the crime scene in which Reeves’s sunglasses and bandana were visible next to the front wall of the bar, about 10 feet or more from the victim. Brennan knew that one of the .40-caliber rounds fired by Thomas had hit the front doorframe, while a second had partly shattered the window before coming to rest on the pavement nearby. Given where Reeves’s things were found, it made sense that this was the round that had passed through his jacket.
“We know you had to be by the fuckin’ window,” Brennan said.
Reeves admitted that this made sense and adjusted his recollection accordingly. He now said that the only person close to his nephew had been Eric Cobb.
Brennan traveled with Donald to interview another witness, Daniel Cole, who was serving a prison term. Cole told Brennan that his father had been murdered when he was a child, and the police had done nothing about it. He said, “Why the fuck should I help you?” When Cole did speak, it was to offer snide comments about the other witnesses.
As the two detectives drove away, Donald remarked, “That was a complete waste of time.”
“No, it wasn’t,” said Brennan.
“He didn’t tell us a thing!”
“Yes, he did.”
“Remember when I brought up Eric Cobb and said that some people remembered that he had a gun that night? Cole said, ‘If fuckin’ Cobb had a gun, he was shooting it.’ Meaning, Cobb is a trigger-happy son of a bitch.”
Angela Bond had told of Cobb on a table in the bar, waving a handgun, shouting, “Where’s the nigger at?,” or words to that effect. Others had also remembered this. If Cobb had been the only one standing close to Bond, could he have fired the mortal round? Cobb did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Although he was wary about answering questions, Cobb didn’t know he had become Brennan’s prime suspect when he was invited back to the crime scene. A stocky, middle-aged man, he had been a friend of the Bond family for years. Bond had overlooked his felony conviction to employ him as a security guard. As he paced through his movements that night, he confirmed the account he had given police right after the shooting and placed himself just two feet from Bond when he fell. But he insisted that he had been unarmed. As a convicted felon, he was not allowed to possess a handgun.
“What are you talkin’ about?” said Brennan. “There’s people who saw a gun in your hand!”
Cobb admitted that he did have a gun that night, but only later, after Bond had been shot. He said he had called his wife to tell her there was shooting at the bar and that she had driven over immediately to bring him the gun.
Brennan left Cobb with the other detectives, walked across the parking lot, and phoned Cobb’s wife. When she pulled up a few minutes later, he hustled over to greet her before she spoke to her husband, and quickly asked if she had brought her husband a gun that night.
She said she had not.
On Tuesday evening, July 19, 2016, Brennan met with Bond’s aunt Debra Perry and his sister Gwen Sanders, along with several other Bond family members, in a conference room at the city’s DoubleTree Hotel, to deliver his report. Chestnut, Stanfill, and Donald were there, as was Jody Pickens, the city’s district attorney. Angela Bond couldn’t make the trip from Atlanta. Cobb initially said he planned to attend, but never showed up.
There was tension in the room. The family aired its resentment of the police, the police their complaints about the family. Brennan lost his patience.
“Hey!” he shouted. “I need all of you to be quiet and listen to what I have to say. I don’t want to be interrupted, not once. I’m going to tell you what happened to Euhommie. After the end of it, you’re going to know exactly what happened. When I’m done, you can ask me anything you want.”
The room quieted.
Brennan walked them through step by step, pointing out how he had reached each of his conclusions.
There was a fight inside the bar, which Bond had steered outside. Thomas went to his car and retrieved a gun from under the hood. The .40-caliber shells found in the parking lot showed that shots had been fired from there. The damaged front of the bar building showed that a round had hit from that direction.
“I’m going to tell you what happened to Euhommie,” Brennan told Bond’s family. “After the end of it, you’re going to know exactly what happened.”
Cobb had then stepped out of the bar and saw Thomas shooting. Despite Cobb’s denial, Brennan was convinced that Cobb had a gun with him—a 9-mm. Standing near the building, alongside Bond, he shot at Thomas. Bond, the peacemaker, then tried to stop the shooting. Everything Brennan had learned about the victim suggested this is what the victim would have done. He reached for his friend’s gun—Reeves had said he heard his nephew say, “Give me the gun,” just before he was shot—and it went off. This explained the stippling around the death wound; Brennan had double-checked with the medical examiner to confirm the exact nature of the powder and burns. “The gun would have to have been fired from no more than two feet away,” he said.
This also explained the trajectory of the killing round, which had traveled downward through Bond’s torso. If Robinson or Thomas or anyone else had fired the shot from further away, the trajectory of the bullet would have been upward, and there would have been no stippling. It also explained why one of the 9-mm. rounds was found below Bond’s feet as he lay on the pavement. It had been fired where Bond had been standing, and then rolled downhill.
It was not clear that Cobb even realized in the moment that he had shot his friend, but Brennan was sure that Cobb eventually knew. He was not surprised that Cobb had not showed up that evening.
“It’s the only way it could have happened,” Brennan concluded.
The room was silent. “O.K.,” he said, “do you have any questions?”
They all just looked at him. His explanation fitted the facts, and made sense.
“I just want to know why that motherfucker never said anything!” one of the brothers complained, referring to Cobb.
“This ultimately ends up being an accident,” Brennan said. Cobb “thought he was doing his job. He was there for security, and he was trying to protect the club and protect Euhommie.”
“That’s a good theory,” said Pickens, the D.A., “but it’s just a theory.”
“Hey, listen,” said Brennan, addressing the family. “I understand where the district attorney is coming from, but this ain’t no theory. This is exactly what happened.”
And then something occurred that floored the Jackson detectives. One by one, the family members present said that they had known it all along. Someone had heard that Cobb had told someone else that he knew who shot Euhommie. Another had heard that Eric had admitted it years earlier. Brennan had confirmed what they now said they had known all along.
“I was so taken aback,” Chestnut said later. “Jody Pickens, he about fell out of his chair. Like, Wait a minute, you’ve known about this the whole time?”
They hadn’t. The story about Cobb’s “confession” had been nothing more than a rumor until Brennan’s careful reconstruction. If they had all known, Perry, Sanders, and Angela Bond would never have put up a $15,000 reward for tips, paid for posters on city buses, or hired Brennan.
Brennan tells all of his clients that whatever their motive in hiring him, and whatever outcome they desire, he will attempt only one thing, to tell them exactly what happened. The rest he cannot control.
None of Bond’s relatives or anyone on the Jackson police force doubts that he delivered in this case. Perry told me that she and Sanders feel Brennan was worth every penny. Angela told me that she had heard the rumor about Cobb but had never believed it.
Some in the family left the DoubleTree meeting disgruntled, especially after Pickens explained that there could be no charges brought against Cobb. The state’s statutes of limitation had run out for both involuntary manslaughter, the most appropriate charge, and illegal gun possession.
Cobb has never admitted it, despite efforts to persuade him. “I texted him, and he said he would meet me, and he didn’t,” says Perry. “We’re not vengeful. I wouldn’t do anything to him. But he won’t meet with us because he knows that we know.”
Perry regrets her early suspicions of Bond’s wife, Angela. “It is not something I’m proud of,” she says. For her part, Angela regrets the “ugly things” she said to Michael Robinson’s mother at the preliminary hearing—“I probably shouldn’t have said what I said.”
The Bond case will remain officially unsolved until Cobb admits what happened. Chestnut recruited a prominent African-American judge to reach out to Cobb in an effort to reassure him that there will be no criminal consequences for telling his story, to no avail.
The detective has his own suspicions about why the family never told him of the rumors about Cobb. “The only mention of Eric Cobb is he’s on the other end of the parking lot working security and hears gunfire. None of the other witnesses put him anywhere around the shooting. I think it’s because they knew. I think the whole reason they came up with the Michael Robinson story was to protect Cobb. He’s known the family for years.”
It is more likely that with only a vague suspicion about Cobb, the family was reluctant to share the idea with the police. He had been, after all, a friend.
There will be no legal reckoning for the shooting of Euhommie Bond. The cop, the veteran, the celebrated ladies’ man, the bar owner, brother, nephew, husband, and father, the determined peacemaker, was killed trying to stop a gunfight, victim of a violent world that he didn’t have the heart to leave.
Mark Bowden is the author of 13 books, including The Last Stone: A Masterpiece of Criminal Investigation