'No one should die so young'

Published November 7, 2005

GAINESVILLE - Tom Brown's fraternity brothers nicknamed him Paul Bunyan. He could fix cars and docks, build decks and bring an entire building up to fire code.

He could put himself through school and still hold his fraternity together when things were falling apart.

He was big, 6-foot-2, 195 pounds, and good with his hands. A building construction major, the Merritt Island senior planned to build homes when he graduated.

"He could fix most everything and he was really strong," his mother, Kay Brown said. "He was something of a leader among his brothers."

But Tom Brown became separated from his friends on the night of Oct. 29 after the University of Florida-Georgia football game, and he ended up alone near Jacksonville Landing, a downtown shopping and entertainment complex. Three men cornered him, and two others beat him unconscious.

The injuries proved fatal. Emergency medical technicians tried to resuscitate him but he had no pulse or heartbeat. Brown was pronounced dead at Shands Jacksonville Hospital.

On Fraternity Drive on the University of Florida campus Friday, stacks of the Gainesville Sun sat on fraternity house porches, its front page picturing Brown's Beta Theta Pi brothers dressed in somber black suits and sunglasses waiting outside Brown's funeral in pensive postures.

"It's just so far away in people's minds," said Brett Milke, 19, a sophomore Theta Chi fraternity member from Dunedin. "No one should die so young."

In Gainesville, UF students say they exist in a "bubble," where it seems like nothing could go wrong in their college town, where they can party carefree and drink alcohol in a perceived safe environment, where blue light emergency phones are always within reach, and the feeling of immortality is contagious because everyone is so young.

It's a confident feeling particularly strong among fraternity members.

That same cavalier attitude was pervasive in Jacksonville, where the festivities surrounding the annual UF-Georgia football rivalry are widely known as "the world's largest outdoor cocktail party." But Brown's death and the unanswered questions surrounding it have become a sobering reminder that there is no bubble - particularly off campus.

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Born on Sept. 11, Brown, 23, grew up in Brevard County, the oldest of two children. He often worked at his mother's Island Bar-B-Q restaurant on Merritt Island, located on Florida's east coast. Last May, he took a week off from school to fill in for his mother while she recovered from surgery.

When Hurricane Frances destroyed Kay Brown's dock, Tom Brown rebuilt it.

In Beta Theta Pi, a 75-year-old UF fraternity with 90 active members and 35 pledges, Brown was known for being hardworking and "unbelievably honest," Beta president Steve Greene said.

"When I came in, he was one of the older guys in the house, and I looked up to him," Greene, 20, said. "I thought I'd like to be like him when I'm a junior or senior."

To pay for school, Brown managed a Pizza Hut in Gainesville, often working closing shifts, his mother said. He often tinkered with a Nissan sports car he took apart and put back together in the frat house's yard. The running joke was that he was putting together a time machine.

"If people had car trouble, they called him up," Greene said. "He was as good as a mechanic."

He helped put together the fraternity's homecoming float and supervised the construction of one of the house's two sun decks.

Beta Theta Pi named him Brother of the Year in 2003-04, the same year he served as internal vice president, in charge of maintenance, fire inspection and kitchen safety. When the house was cited for health and safety problems, he brought it up to code by fixing doors and checking the fire alarm.

He also oversaw the house's judicial committee. He was supposed to decide whether a brother's conduct was "unbecoming of a Beta" if situations arose. He was charged with keeping order.

"He wasn't confrontational," Greene stressed. "He wasn't quiet, but he was nonconfrontational."

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Brown wasn't perfect. He was arrested in July 2003 on suspicion of liquor possession by a minor and possession of a fake driver's license, Florida Department of Law Enforcement records show. In August 2005, he was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

He was a huge Florida Gators football fan, and like much of the campus, headed up to Jacksonville for the UF-Georgia game, which draws more than 85,000 people to the city.

He didn't have tickets to the game but went to Jacksonville anyway, along with 50 fraternity brothers, who hung out in separate small groups at Jacksonville Landing, a downtown shopping and entertainment complex on the St. Johns River. Brown's mother thought he was at the game. He called her at halftime, excited that Florida led 14-3, Kay Brown said.

The next day he had to open Pizza Hut at 9 a.m. "He wasn't going to make a late night out of it," she said.

When the game finished, Brown and three or four fraternity brothers he was with headed to a brother's car to drive back to Gainesville, said senior Robert Pickett, a fraternity brother who was at the Landing. Moving amid the throng of people packed into the outdoor bar area, Pickett said Brown got separated from his friends.

He ended up about a block away outside the CSX Transportation Inc. building at 500 Water Street sometime before 10:40 p.m. That's where sheriff's officials said he ran into five men he didn't know, who didn't go to UF or Georgia.

Jeremy Alan Lane, 21, a 6-foot-2, 140-pound private contractor from Jacksonville had a criminal record. He was convicted twice for battery and once used brass knuckles to beat a man in a 2002 fight, according to Duval County court records obtained by the Florida Times-Union.

Jeffery Richard Gronczniak, 19, of Ponte Vedra Beach, has been arrested on suspicion of criminal mischief, larceny, and resisting arrest without violence, among other arrests, FDLE records show.

Casey Michael Schuurman, 19, Mark Tyler Foss, 18, and Alex Samuel Canzano, 21, had no prior arrest records.

Jacksonville Sheriff's Office records say the group cornered Brown, who was beaten unconscious by two men while three others prevented his escape, according to surveillance video taken outside the CSX building.

"It didn't take long, it was within a matter of, well, it was less than a few minutes," assistant state attorney Angela Corey told First Coast News after reviewing the tape. She also said it doesn't immediately appear that the fight broke out over drinking, football, women or other things usually associated with barroom brawls.

The suspects got into a taxi, which law officers stopped a short distance later. Witnesses identified the five and they were arrested.

The five were being held in the Jacksonville Jail without bail on murder charges.

Brown was pronounced dead at Shands Hospital in Jacksonville. The state attorney said he died of blunt trauma to the head.

"Nothing will bring my son back," Kay Brown said. "And the only interest I have in any of this is that this does not happen to anyone else's mother. If these boys have a pattern of doing, I hope they're stopped."

The families of Schuurman and Gronczniak declined to comment, as did Jacksonville attorney Hank Cox, who represents Canzano.

There is no known motive in the attack, and it's unknown whether Brown and his attackers exchanged words. Even Kay Brown has been told little about the circumstances of her son's death, she said.

"We don't know anything beyond what you would know," Pickett said speaking for Beta Theta Pi, saying authorities have been tight lipped.

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With so many questions, it's too early to draw conclusions, UF officials and students say. There's no plans to move, curtail or change "the world's largest outdoor cocktail party." But Brown was the second UF student in two years to die at UF-Georgia festivities. Last year, the body of sophomore David Robert Ferguson, 19, was found near a parking garage near where he had parked his car. He had apparently fallen several stories. UF officials have labeled his death alcohol related.

Like Brown, Ferguson ended up alone after participating in Jacksonville's game-day party.

"Try to avoid traveling alone: That's one theme that's come out of this," UF dean of students Gene Zdziarski said.

Keeping tabs on each other was the widespread message on Fraternity Row during weekly membership meetings at nearly every fraternity house.

"I definitely think coming from this small Gainesville atmosphere, where it's this small, quaint little town where you don't have to lock your door, it was a shock," said Sigma Chi pledge Seth Ritz, 21. "It should be reiterated that when you're in a place like Jacksonville, a major metropolis, things can happen."

A few blocks away, on the 34th Street wall, a mural of mostly Greek messages and graffiti, Beta Theta Pi members painted Tom Brown's name, birthday and death.

"Once a Beta, always a Beta," it says.

A picture of legendary lumberjack Paul Bunyan has been painted on the wall.

Beta's president doesn't exactly know how Brown got that nickname. He shrugged and said, "He was that big in our eyes."

--Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at 813 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com