Police in New Orleans have opened an investigation into the 1984 disappearance of a 3-year-old girl who vanished in the immediate aftermath of a house fire that killed two of her brothers.
Investigators opened a missing person case on Remona Brown this week, nearly 34 years after she disappeared. Investigators released a photo of the girl at age 3, along with a composite photo aged to show what Remona might look like today at age 37, the Baton Rouge Advocate reported.
An official missing person report has been filed by one of Remona’s sisters, Simona Brown, the newspaper said. No missing person report was filed on the girl at the time of the fire and her disappearance.
The new search comes eight months after a three-part investigative series by WWL-TV in New Orleans, which looked at the initial probe into the little girl’s whereabouts.
The news station reported that Remona was one of 10 siblings sleeping in their Algiers home early on the morning of March 6, 1984, which was Mardi Gras that year in the Crescent City. Two of Remona’s sisters and her mother, Johnnie Mae Brown, recently recalled the fire that killed Aubrey Brown Jr., 4, and Kevin Brown, 2.
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“I didn’t hear nothing. I didn’t smell nothing. When I raised up, I saw the fire,” Pam Nickerson, who was 14 when her sister vanished, told WWL-TV.
Several of the children were asleep in the dining room, near a furnace, while Aubrey and Kevin slept on a couch in the living room, the family said. Remona and her eldest brother, Joseph Brown, slept separately in two bedrooms of the three-bedroom house.
Johnnie Mae Brown told the news station that she and her husband were able to jump to safety through their bedroom window after Nickerson alerted the family to the flames. The couple was also able to help Joseph climb out of the window of the boys’ bedroom.
Nickerson helped the children in the dining room escape the fast-moving blaze, but neither she nor her parents could get to the boys sleeping in the living room. Nickerson and another sister, Simona Brown, who was 6 at the time of the fire, fought back tears as they remembered hearing their baby brothers screaming for help.
“All you could hear was, ‘Mom! Dad! Help me, please,’” Simona recalled, according to WWL-TV.
Firefighters later found the boys’ burned bodies huddled together, Aubrey holding onto Kevin as though he was trying to protect him from the flames, the news station reported.
Investigators found a third set of bones the afternoon of the fire that they initially believed to be Remona’s. They learned the next day, however, that the bones were those of an animal.
“Immediate orders were to return to the scene and bring all the resources I had available to me,” retired New Orleans police Capt. Harry Mendoza, an arson investigator who worked the fire, told WWL-TV. “To do excavation of the scene to determine where that child’s body was.”
Despite four exhaustive searches by firefighters and police officers and additional searches by the Browns, Remona’s body was never found.
In Mendoza’s supplemental report on the fire, one of the only pieces of the investigative file to survive Hurricane Katrina, the detective wrote that he consulted with a funeral home director to determine if the girl’s body could have been completely incinerated. What he learned was that it would take flames between 1,800 degrees and 2,800 degrees more than two hours to incinerate an adult body.
Even then, recognizable bone fragments would remain.
Mendoza and other fire experts contacted recently by WWL-TV agreed.
“It’s really inconceivable to think that, in a house fire, all that existed of a human being, even a child between the ages of 3 and 4, would be completely consumed by that fire,” said Brant Thompson, deputy fire marshal for the State of Louisiana.
In addition, firefighters who worked the scene had the blaze under control within 30 minutes of arrival.
And Simona Brown offered a bombshell claim, one she has given since just days after the fire. She told WWL-TV that she remembers seeing her little sister outside after the survivors escaped the blaze.
“My little sister Remona, she was with us. She was with us. And this car pulled up,” Simona said. “A bronze-looking old Cadillac just pulled up. An old black man and an old white lady offering to help us out. They’ll watch her for us. I was, like, ‘OK, cool.’ So when (Remona) got in, that was it. Gone.”
Family and neighbors said they do not remember an interracial couple living in the neighborhood in 1984. During Mardi Gras season, however, thousands of visitors pour into New Orleans to participate in the revelry.
Simona is the only one of the seven remaining siblings who claims to have seen Remona after the fire. She told the news station that, in her grief over her two brothers who were killed, she never told police about what she saw.
The children’s maternal grandmother, Dorothy Nickerson, said that, although she never saw Remona again, she believes that the little girl called her a few days after the fire.
“It’s been so long, but I know. I have a sharp mind,” Dorothy Nickerson said.
The grandmother, now 90 years old, said the child on the other end of the line used the name Al, which was Remona’s nickname. Nickerson said as she tried to get the girl to tell her where she was, the phone went dead.
It sounded like someone took the receiver from the girl and hung it up, she said.
“She didn’t know my phone number,” Nickerson told the news station. “Somebody must have dialed it for her.”
The family believes that person may have obtained Nickerson’s phone number from the newspaper, which published the number three days after the fire so those who wished to help the family could reach them.
Dorothy Nickerson said she told her daughter about the phone call, but neither woman told police about it. Johnnie Mae Brown said her mind “just wasn’t right or something,” and she admitted seeking psychiatric help in the aftermath of her sons’ deaths and her daughter’s disappearance.
Mendoza said he was never told about Simona Brown’s claim that she saw her sister being abducted, or about Nickerson’s mysterious phone call, WWL-TV reported. He said if he had been notified, he would have investigated the allegations.
“I can assure you, I would’ve pursued it. From a professional perspective. From a human perspective,” Mendoza said.
Mendoza’s report on the fire indicates that, after a week of officials trying to find Remona, the investigator visited her family and told her parents they could file a missing person report. It was never done.
Now 66, Johnnie Mae Brown is fighting cancer that she recently learned has spread in her body. She prays for closure before her death.
“If I could just see her before, oh God,” Brown told WWL-TV. “Before God call on me, oh well, that would be so wonderful.”