Missing Man Identified as Body Found Last December
Today, a mother in Oklahoma watches for a package carrying her son’s remains. She’s tracking its path using a shipping number as the container makes its way across the country to her home. Inscribed on the package are words she asked a Humboldt County funeral director to write down. The message addressed to all who handle the remains of Austin Cade Brown simply says, “Mama requests that you handle this package as if he were your own son.”
The mother, 69-year-old Vicki Anderson, who asked those words be written on the package last talked to her 41-year-old son one year ago on December 13, 2016. Even though he was homeless, Vicki said he never went long without reaching out to her. “My son called no matter what,” she said. “Austin had problems and I know that….He had addiction issues, [but] it wouldn’t be more than 10 days that he would go before he called me. It doesn’t matter what he was doing.”
When Christmas came and went last year, she was worried sick. “I knew something wasn’t right,” she said.
Vicki didn’t have a lot of money but she was determined. “…I got hold of two women I found on Facebook. They worked with the homeless [in Humboldt County].” Vicki explained her concern about her son to the two local women and “they made posters and put them all over McKinleyville, Arcata, and even Eureka asking him to call home.”
He never did.
For the next 11 months, Vicki worried and wept. “He’s my youngest,” she explained. “I lost my oldest when he was nine to an accident. I kept thinking it can’t happen here again.”
She also did what she could. She entered him into NamUS, the National Institute of Justice’s National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. She worked with the Nor Cal Alliance for the Missing and reached out to the news media including us.
“I called the Public Information Officer of Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office and formerly entered him missing in…January,” she told us.
The two women who helped Vicki, Megan and Annie (who didn’t want their last names used), confirmed they had searched for Austin throughout the last year. However, though Annie put her phone number on the flyers and posters no one reached out to her. “I never got one call from anyone,” she said.
But Austin was familiar to many. “A lot of people did know him,” Megan explained. “Most [street] people we talked to recognized him. Everyone really liked him.”
But Annie said that when they dealt with people in authority, “I’d get concerned that [Austin’s disappearance was] not considered as important because of his lifestyle.”
As the year slowly unraveled, Vicki said she cried almost every day. Sometimes she heard terrible stories that she didn’t know if she believed they were true or not. At one point, a woman who had known Austin told Vicki that he had been murdered, “In June, I came across an address that I had sent [Austin] some Christmas presents,” Vicki said. She found a number and called. According to her, the woman there exclaimed, “I thought you knew. Someone shot him and threw him off the [Samoa] bridge.”
Vicki called law enforcement and told them what she had heard, but they reassured her that they hadn’t found any bodies that fit Austin’s description.
Eventually, the Thursday before Thanksgiving, Vicki got a call from the Humboldt County Coroner’s Office. An officer told her that the DNA from a body that was found on December 26, 2016–13 days after she last heard from her son–matched Austin’s.
Vicki said she felt “sick..just sick…I suffered for 10 and a half…11 months knowing he was in trouble. When I was out there begging for help, he was there …Girl, they had him there the whole time.”
Lt. Mike Fridley of the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department confirmed that the body found on December 26, 2016 near the Ma-le’l Dunes was Austin Cade Brown. Fridley said that Austin’s body was “pretty decomposed–all it was wearing was shoes and socks.”
He explained that though an autopsy showed Austin died from “cold water drowning” his body was “pretty well decomposed–no teeth, no fingerprints.”
The agency sent off DNA in January, Fridley said. They didn’t get results back until late November. Then they were able to match the results with Brown.
Fridley pointed out that the DNA is sent to a lab that is clogged with cases. He said, “A rush takes six to eight months.”
Since she got the news about her son, Vicki has been struggling. In part, this is because she would never see Austin alive again, but also because she is frustrated by how long it took for her to learn of her son’s death after his body was found.
“We need a change,” she said her voice choked with tears. “People are waiting years to hear…to find out what happened to their children…People are missing their children.”
Vicki said she doesn’t really blame the local Coroner’s Office, “I know how hard it is to do jobs like that,” she said. But, she would like to see changes in the system to help the families.
“This is a horrible system,” she said. “Something isn’t right…We can’t do anything about how this was done for Austin,” but she has a list of changes she’d like to see made to help families in the future.
- She’d like for the DNA process to be sped up
- She’d like a better system for connecting those who are missing with the unidentified bodies that are found
- She’d like better communication between the Coroner’s Office and the advocates for the missing.
- She’d like the Coroner’s Office to enter unidentified bodies into NamUS.
- She’d like those deceased family members who have been identified sent home sooner.
- She’d like to see more sensitivity training for both law enforcement and the Coroner’s office in how to deal with the families of the missing and she’d like for them to get support to integrate their training into their workplaces.
But most of all, she said, “I want some perceptions changed of those who are homeless…People have no idea who is out there on the streets and why.”
Vicki said she would like to tell Austin’s story so that people’s hearts “open to those who live outside the norm… Addiction is not a disease…It is a symptom of the state of our society… .”
She would like people to show more compassion to each other. “Handle everyone you see on the street as if they were your own son and daughter,” she pleaded. “Don’t get cynical and detach so much that you don’t have a heart anymore.”
When she spoke to us on the 28th, she said, “[Austin]’s not home yet. He’s still sitting in the Coroner’s Office. We won’t have peace until he is home.” But today, Vicki’s watching as the package moves across the country from Humboldt County to Oklahoma. “When he gets home to me, he can rest in peace,” she said. “He’ll not be cold or hungry anymore.”
[Vicki and Austin’s first names were used throughout the story at the request of Vicki]
UPDATE December 1: Austin is home.
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