GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The voice on the other end of the line could barely be heard.
“I need help,” whispered the 911 caller.
“Hello?” asked the emergency dispatcher.
“I need help,” the woman repeated.
“OK, where are you located?” asked the emergency dispatcher.
The caller’s response was too muffled to make out.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, I can’t hear you,” the 911 operator said.
“I know,” whispered the woman.
The call came in to Grand Rapids police dispatch at 10:25 a.m. Wednesday, March 13, 2019.
“553 Sheldon Avenue SE… Please hurry now,” the woman pleaded, her whisper a little louder and more urgent now.
“553 Sheldon. OK. Can you tell me what’s going on there?” asked the 911 operator.
“Can you just hurry up, please,” the caller said. “I’m fittin’ to die… He’s tryin’ to kill me. He already killed my auntie. Can you hurry up, please?”
“Okay, ma’am. I’ll start the police that way. Can you tell me what your name is?” asked the dispatcher.
“Keyona,” she whispered, seconds before the call disconnected.
March 13 will mark the three-year anniversary of a horrific double murder at 553 Sheldon Avenue SE in Grand Rapids.
WHERE IS DERRELL BROWN?
In the days after the killings, the Grand Rapids Police Department released a transcript of Keyona Griffin’s desperate 911 call hours before the murders, but GRPD denied access to the call’s actual audio.
In October 2021, Target 8 investigators tried again. We used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the 911 audio and the police report in an effort to spotlight the nationwide manhunt for the killer that is entering its fourth year.
In July 2021, U.S. Marshals “intensified” search efforts by declaring Derrell Demon Brown, 47, one of the nation’s 15 most wanted criminals.
But Brown still walks free, likely hiding in plain sight.
“He looks very unassuming and could literally be standing behind you in a grocery checkout lane,” said Bruce Nordin, acting U.S. marshal of the District of Western Michigan.
The federal agency believes Brown, now 48, fled the state after the murders and may be receiving assistance from family or associates. He grew up and graduated high school in Grand Rapids, but he also has relatives in Ohio, Wisconsin, Arizona and Georgia.
There’s currently a $25,000 reward for information leading to his arrest.
POLICE RESPOND BUT THINK NO ONE’S HOME
Seven minutes and 41 seconds after Keyona Griffin’s call disconnected, three police officers arrived at 553 Sheldon SE, a mile south of Grand Rapids’ bustling downtown.
The officers who responded that morning had no way of knowing their actions over the next three minutes would soon become the target of intense scrutiny.
One of the officers knocked on the front door, three times with his fist and once with the door knocker. No response. He jiggled the doorknob. Locked.
The officer asked dispatchers to try to get the woman back on the line, but dispatch said the caller did not pick up.
Another officer, knocking on a side door, found it, too, was locked.
“You can see it looks like a little dining room or something in there. It’s empty,” said the officer, peering through a window.
A third officer peeked around the back of the house.
“There’s nothing in the back here,” she reported.
Three minutes and 42 seconds after they arrived, the officers left the scene having not made contact with anyone.
“THERE’S BLOOD EVERYWHERE”
The second 911 call came two hours and 18 minutes later.
“Come to 553 Sheldon… There’s blood everywhere, and my sister’s not moving,” pleaded Sanford Cummings II.
He had found his beloved, bubbly and fiercely loyal sister lying dead on the floor of an upstairs bedroom.
Keyona Griffin had turned 25 years old just five days earlier.
Someone had shot her four times, including once in the face.
“553 Sheldon SE. It’s a yellow house. Please hurry up. My sister’s not moving,” Cummings cried.
“Oh, my Lord, please. Keyona, please wake up. Please,” he wailed.
Seven minutes later, Grand Rapids police returned to 553 Sheldon for the second time that day.
In another upstairs bedroom, officers discovered a second body.
Keyona Griffin had said they would.
“He already killed my auntie,” she had whispered two and a half hours earlier.
Police found Keyona’s aunt, Cherletta Baber-Bey, lying on her bed under a blanket. It appeared the killer had shot the 47-year-old in the back of the head as she lay watching an iPad, propped up on a pillow beside her. The tablet was still playing when police found her, earbuds still lodged in her ears.
Two of the home’s four residents died that day.
Jacqueline Baber-Bey, who owned the home, had been at work since 8 a.m.
The fourth resident was unaccounted for. Cherletta Baber-Bey’s boyfriend was missing.
ORANGE NIKE SHOEBOX HELD CRITICAL CLUE
The boyfriend had lived in the home for at least two years by then, but the family knew him only as “Jay.”
Family told police that Cherletta Baber-Bey, whom they described as sweet, trusting and nurturing, had never been social. “Jay” was her first real boyfriend and the couple kept to themselves, spending most of their time in their bedroom.
“What we were gathering was that most did not care (for) ‘Jay’ and did not speak to him often,” GRPD Detective Kelli Braate wrote in her report.
“We were told Jay did not have a job, he did not use Facebook as far as they knew, they did not know any of his family, and they did not have a phone number for him,” wrote Braate, noting the family knew only that “Jay” had gone to jail for failing to pay child support.
It turned out to be one of “Jay’s” stints in lockup that helped reveal his true identity.
“While searching Cherletta’s closet, I observed an orange Nike shoebox on the upper most shelf in the closet,” Detective Amanda Johnson wrote.
“As I began to go through the items (in the box), I found some old ‘jail mail’ letters to Cherletta from a man named Derrell Brown. I read a few of the letters and in one of them Derrell tells Cherletta that his name is Derrell, but he goes by ‘Jay’ and all of the letters were signed ‘Jay,'” Johnson continued.
Detectives obtained a mug shot of Derrell Brown and a neighbor was among those who confirmed Derrell Brown was, indeed, the man who called himself “Jay.”
A STOLEN GUN
While searching an alley northwest of 553 Sheldon hours after the murders, a detective captain spotted a hastily tossed box of ammunition.
“There on the ground next to the very ‘fresh’ box of ammunition was a white plastic bag, with what appeared to be the muzzle of a gun sticking out and visible,” Capt. Kristin Rogers wrote in her follow-up report.
According to another detective’s narrative, tests later matched the 9 mm Hi-Point pistol to casings found at the crime scene.
Detectives also reported that officers searching Cherletta Baber-Bey’s bedroom found an empty Hi-Point gun box in a dresser that contained men’s clothing. Inside the cardboard box, they said, police found the gun’s serial number and purchase permit, which included the name of the pistol’s buyer — a woman.
When officers ran the name and serial number, they came up with two valuable records. The woman listed as the gun’s buyer had reported it stolen in July 2017. Additionally, police discovered that same woman had filed a complaint in 2018 about harassing texts she’d been receiving.
“In that report, (she) complains that her ex-boyfriend, known as ‘Jay’ had been harassing her by cell phone,” GRPD Detective Sgt. John Purlee wrote.
Not coincidentally, according to the police report, the woman’s gun was stolen around the same time she dated “Jay.”
“This information provides a connection of Derrell Demon Brown to the Hi-Point pistol found at the scene,” Purlee concluded in his report.
The woman had reported that “Jay” had been very “commanding” during their relationship.
“SHE COULD HAVE BEEN TIED UP IN THERE”
The victims’ family, speaking to Target 8 in 2020, called out GRPD for its response to Keyona’s initial 911 call.
“You got someone calling you saying, ‘Someone’s trying to kill me,’ you won’t knock the door down?” questioned Onyah Griffin, Keyona’s mom and Cherletta’s sister.
Cherletta Baber-Bey’s brother told Target 8 police had failed his sister.
“She could have been tied up in there,” said Sanford Cummings Sr.
GRPD defended the officers’ actions that day, as did Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker.
“It was quiet. The doors were locked,” Becker explained, noting dispatchers and police respond to voluminous calls daily.
“There was no blood. It’s a shut-up house. The house is a very protected — Fourth Amendment. You’ve got to have some pretty good reason to go in. There has to be something that drives them more than just a phone call because there’s people out there who prank call to get people, unfortunately,” Becker said.
The victims’ family told Target 8 it wonders if police would have spent more time trying to reach residents if the 911 call had come from a richer, whiter zip code.
“I know people will say, ‘Oh, you want to pull the race card,’ and I don’t know their (the officers’) motives,” Onyah Griffin said. “It could have been because of the color of her skin. It could have because of the geographic location of where it happened.”
“That is patently not true,” GRPD Sgt. John Wittkowski wrote in a recent email exchange with Target 8.
“We take and answer every call for service based upon the information that is provided to us, and we investigate those calls based upon the facts in hand and the follow-up that entails,” he continued. “We simply cannot make entry into a house, short of a warrant, without cause. The officers did not see or hear, nor did they have any additional information, that would suggest exigent circumstances existed for them to make entry into the home.”
“HE’S BEEN ABLE TO JUST COMPLETELY DISAPPEAR”
The victims’ relatives said police essentially gave Derrell Demon Brown a three-hour head start in his quest to evade capture.
According to the police report, in the days after the murders, officers canvassed the area for surveillance cameras and found multiple videos showing Brown’s path of travel that afternoon.
Even as detectives scoured 553 Sheldon for evidence, cameras subsequently captured Brown on foot a mile north of the crime scene two hours after the bodies had been discovered.
Among his post-murder stops was the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum on Sheldon at Fulton Street. The museum’s internal cameras showed Brown entering the building at 3:24 p.m. the day of the murders and exiting 12 minutes later at 3:36 p.m.
An employee told Target 8 Brown had told the front desk he knew someone inside the building. Museum staff reportedly made it clear to Brown that he could not wander the museum.
Around 20 minutes after the Children’s Museum stop, a business’s surveillance camera captured Brown walking in the area of Leonard Street and Turner Avenue NW. Police later discovered one of Brown’s former girlfriends had dropped him off in that neighborhood.
Soon after, it seems Derrell Demon Brown vanished.
“The unusual part about it is how he’s been able to just completely disappear,” Becker, the county prosecutor, told Target 8. “Usually we have something, and the police are very good at tracking (suspects) down, especially in homicide cases… especially in double homicide cases.”
Target 8 tried to contact Brown’s family in Grand Rapids. When we knocked on the door of the family home, a woman told us, “get your (expletive) away from my house.”
Becker told Target 8 Brown has long lived off the grid, which makes finding him more difficult.
“People have social media, they have phones, they have things that you can connect, that you can trace,” Becker explained. “But even when Brown was here, he didn’t have a job. As far as we know, he didn’t have friends. So there were no phones, no social media.”
DEADLY FIRE HAD HEARTBREAKING CAUSE
Three years after the double murder, the alleged killer is not the only thing missing from the 500 block of Sheldon Avenue SE.
The home at 553 Sheldon is gone too.
It was bulldozed after a deadly fire tore though it in July 2020.
The fire was fueled by the heartbreak that had come before.
“9:02 a.m., the call came in,” Capt. Paul Mason of the Grand Rapids Fire Department recalled. “The first arriving crew found a heavy volume of fire on the front of the house. There was no one standing out front, yet there were cars in the driveway. So it’s a bad sign right from the start.”
Firefighters found Jacqueline Baber-Bey, 65, and her grandson, Emareyon Cummings, 5, in a second-floor bedroom at the back of the house. Both died of smoke inhalation.
“They tried to get out but were unable to and were sheltering in that bedroom,” Mason explained.
“It affected us all. Had a big impact on us,” he added. “It’s just so sad… The incredible loss on top of the previous tragedy. That’s just the great sorrow of this whole event, and our hearts just go out to the family. It’s just terrible.”
Mason said the official cause of the fire was “unintentional.”
“The candles were in an enclosed front porch,” he said. “The investigators conclude they were left burning and that’s what caused the fire.”
The candles had been lit for a vigil held the night before to honor Cherletta Baber-Bey and Keyona Griffin.