Rodney English knew right away that something was very wrong. He had known Alonzo Brooks all of his life. The two had grown up alongside each other in Topeka, Kansas and were more like brothers than friends.
There was, ‘no way in hell,’ that the friend that English knew would go out to a party and just not come home without so much as a call to his mother. But on April 4, 2004 that is exactly what happened.
It is 16 years since 23-year-old Brooks disappeared from a party in rural LaCygne, Kansas after confusion over his ride home saw him abandoned by the friend with whom he had traveled the previous night. One month later his body was found, tangled in brush and branches, at the edge of a creek that runs through the remote property.
More than a decade later, the mystery of what happened to Brooks has been thrust into the spotlight as one of six unsolved cases featured on Netflix’s ‘Unsolved Mysteries.’
Last month the FBI reopened the case which they are investigating as a possible hate crime and offered a $100,000 reward. Making the announcement US Attorney Stephen McAllister stated, ‘It is past time for the truth to come out. The code of silence must be broken.’
Witnesses have been re-interviewed. Hundreds of pages of the original investigation have been reviewed. And on Tuesday authorities took the extraordinary step of exhuming Brooks’s body from the grave in Topeka in which he has lain all these years.
Now, amid real hopes that the case may soon be solved, DailyMail.com has spoken to some of Brooks’ closest friends and people central to the original investigation into this death.
We have uncovered a twisted tale of conflicting accounts, identified significant omissions from the Netflix re-telling and can reveal previously unreported details that shed new light on the night of the party, its immediate aftermath and the thwarted investigation that followed.
Little is known with certainty other than the fact that Brooks got a ride to the party an hour or so south of his home in Gardner, Kansas, with his friend Justin Sprague. They were part of a group of friends who traveled in convoy that night and whom Brooks, the youngest of five, had known since his mother moved from Topeka to Gardner four years earlier.
Sprague and two other friends appeared on the Netflix show to give their sparse accounts of the evening. Daniel Fune and Tyler Broughard recalled tensions and a brief fight between Brooks and another partier in which ‘racial slurs’ were hurled. Both Fune and Broughard left the party after only a couple hours.
Sprague, who claimed not to witness any fight, stayed but stated that he got lost when he left to get cigarettes for himself and Brooks later that night. He called another friend, Adam (who does not appear on the show) to say he wasn’t coming back and to ask him to give Brooks a ride home. Somehow, he said, the two must have missed each other.
But according to Rodney English that story is ‘totally different’ from the one that Sprague told him and Brooks’ older brother, Billy Brooks Jr, the day after the party when all three drove back to LaCygne to search for their missing friend and brother.
English told DailyMail.com, ‘He didn’t say anything about getting lost. He said his car had broke down and he had to fix it at the side of the road. It was something you couldn’t even fix like that by yourself in the dark – like a broken axel or something. Justin is full of s***.’
Brooks’ mother, Maria Ramirez, also told DailyMail.com that Sprague had, ‘changed his story six times,’ since the night of the party.
Her anger towards Sprague and all of the friends who left her son stranded that night is clear and undimmed by the years.
DailyMail.com has learned that 35-year-old Sprague, an army veteran, has been the target of death threats since the Unsolved Mysteries episode, ‘No Ride Home,’ aired. But according to one close to him, though he bears no ill will towards English, Sprague feels used and let down by the filmmakers who, he has told friends, cut significant parts of his account.
According to the source, ‘The FBI have told him not to speak publicly because they’re doing their investigation but it’s frustrating for him.
‘Justin doesn’t know why Rodney is saying what he’s saying but memory is a strange thing and he doesn’t think Rodney’s lying so much as that he just remembers bits of the story.
‘His car breaking down has always been part of it as well as him getting lost. It’s what he told the cops and the FBI repeatedly down through the years. It’s on the original police report. The version on Netflix is very misleading and he gets why people think it doesn’t make much sense.
‘The truth is Justin wasn’t even alone in the car that night when he left and his story is backed up by surveillance cameras and phone records.’
According to the source Sprague did leave the party to go and get cigarettes but he did so with another friend. He was 18 years old, drunk and high. They got lost, ploughed their car into a ditch and abandoned all plans of returning that night. Sprague had just enlisted and feared a DUI might end his army career before it began.
DailyMail.com has been told that telephone records support Sprague’s claim that he called Adam – and while internet rumors questioning the existence of this friend abound, he was one of the friends who hung out at Brooks’ house earlier that day.
The source claimed that three surveillance cameras at gas stations confirm Sprague’s account of his journey as well as the fact that he withdrew $200 from an ATM when he, and the friend with him, decided to go to a strip-club from which they were ejected.
Another notable discrepancy between English and Sprague’s recollections – not acknowledged in the Netflix documentary – concerns the scene at the farm the day after the party.
According to English one of Brooks’ boots was lying in grass on one side of the highway at the end of the farm’s long driveway, and the other was found across the road next to his discarded hat.
But another source familiar with the scene that day told DailyMail.com that while Brooks’ hat was discarded where English had said, his boots were neatly lined up together, side by side across the road from the farm. Their toes were facing towards the creek below. The source said, ‘It was eerie. It didn’t make any sense.’
To this day English does not understand why Brooks was at a party so far from home in the first place. He said it was out of character and stated, ‘I don’t know how they got Alonzo there. He must have been drinking. He must have passed out [on the way there] for him to be in a car more than 45 minutes to go to some place he’d never heard of.’
In fact, DailyMail.com has been told, that Brooks and his friends had been drinking since noon and had heard about the party through a loose connection with one of the men living in the remote farm who had gone to the same high school.
The men were evicted after Brooks went missing but according to local sources the farm had become well known as a site for huge parties and underage drinking. On the night in question there were around 200 people there.
The vast majority were not locals but kids who, like Brooks and his friends, had traveled considerable distances from neighboring towns.
Brooks was one of only three black men there that night and, it is clear, that he became the target of racial slurs and aggression.
Today Sprague has acknowledged that there were people there that night who had ‘a problem with the color of Alonzo’s skin.’
But according to one close to him, ‘They wouldn’t have been there in the first place if they’d had any idea it was going to be like that.’
Sprague has always insisted that he did not witness any racial hostilities towards Brooks though he does not doubt that they happened. The source said, ‘Fighting was kind of part of all of their lives and Justin was no different. He would have gone down fighting with Alonzo if he’d seen anything. He sure as hell wouldn’t have left him if he’d known.’
Fune and Broughard, the friends who did see and hear racism directed at Brooks, claimed on camera that, ‘Alonzo wasn’t going to let it ruin his night.’
English has angrily dismissed that notion. He told DailyMail.com, ‘Somebody calls Alonzo the n-word and he’s ready to go or ready to fight. Alonzo was a beast. It would take a lot to put him down but he’s not staying there happy, partying after that. That’s b******t. Something happened that night and somebody knows and isn’t saying.’
In the absence of information rumors of a local conspiracy of silence have spread down through the years and the town of LaCygne has found itself painted a small racist enclave that harbors a dark secret.
But DailyMail.com has learned that investigators from Linn County Sheriff’s Department, the KBI and ultimately the FBI, who interviewed more than 125 partygoers had a working theory of what happened that night and believed that the secret to Brooks’s fate did not lie in LaCygne.
DailyMail.com has been told that authorities were given the names of two young men who were overheard talking about Brooks and planning to hurt him and, ‘f*** up a n*****’ that night.
DailyMail.com has also been given a name of one out-of-towner who, several different sources have claimed, was identified by multiple witnesses as a guy who picked a fight with Brooks. Law enforcement at the time knew him as someone who, ‘liked to fight,’ and told DailyMail.com that the young man in question left the party that night and made a drive of close to two hundred miles out of state. When investigators caught up with him he refused to talk or take a polygraph test and, DailyMai.com has been told, swiftly ‘lawyered up.’
He was not the only partier to refuse to speak or enlist a lawyer. One involved in the original investigation admitted that they were powerless in the face of uncooperative witnesses and their task was further hampered by the fact that the party took place on the night the clocks changed to Daylight Savings Time.
They revealed, ‘We couldn’t nail down a timeline. You’ve got hundreds of kids, most of them drunk and they have no concept of time. They give a time and they can’t say if its Daylight Savings or not. That’s an hour out, all over the place.
‘We couldn’t say for sure when Alonzo was last seen alive or who was still there. We tried to make a timeline and it was horrible.’
When Brooks’ body was found his autopsy returned no forensic evidence and a cause of death could not be determined. There were no penetrative wounds and no way of knowing whether or not he had drowned. The soft tissue of his neck was all but gone making it impossible to rule out strangling but impossible to prove it and if he had suffered a head injury it had not fractured his skull.
The Medical Examiner found that the body’s decomposition was consistent with having been in water for close to a month. Brooks’ family dispute this. They maintain that his body was kept somewhere else and then moved to the site where they found him on May 1, 2004.
Official searches had found nothing when the family were finally allowed onto the farm to conduct their own. They found him within one hour, in plain sight, at a part of the creek that had already been searched several times by both local officers with cadaver dogs and a Rescue and Dive Team out of nearby Lee’s Summit, Missouri.
None contest the fact that his body was not where it was ultimately found leading many to conclude that Brooks was kept somewhere – alive or dead – and placed on that spot by whoever caused his death.
But DailyMail.com can reveal that, according to one close to the investigation and familiar with the terrain, the creek had flooded three times in the weeks between the original searches and the discovery of Brooks’s body.
It is a crucial piece of the puzzle because, they said, ‘When that creek floods it rises out of the ground right over the road so that it cuts it off entirely – it’s impassable. When that happens everything upstream is ‘flushed’ downstream. That’s what happened to Alonzo.
‘He didn’t go in where he was found. He absolutely wasn’t there. The creek rose and fell several times and he was placed where he was found but it wasn’t by a person. It was the creek.
Now, with his body exhumed, and 16 years of medical advances, investigators hope that a second autopsy may reveal some detail that the first did not.
One involved in the original investigation told DailyMail.com that they are convinced that, ‘when all is said and done, the answer will come out of the north.’ They continued, ‘It’s not in LaCygne it’s with someone who came from out of town that night. Someone out there is looking over their shoulder and they have been for a very long time.
‘I hope for the family’s sake that their wait is about to end and that they see justice done.’
For English the pain of Brooks’ loss is only compounded by not knowing what happened and not knowing who was responsible.
He said, ‘I’ve buried many people over the years, but I know how they died, and I know it doesn’t make a difference – it doesn’t change things – but it wasn’t his time to go. He didn’t deserve whatever happened to him. What happened to him wasn’t right.’
For his part, Sprague will always carry the guilt of having left his friend behind that night even while he protests his innocence as far as any involvement in or knowledge of what led to his death. He knows he is the focus of suspicion, anger, even hatred. But that, he said, doesn’t matter.
Approached by DailyMail.com he said, ‘It is my fault. I left him. I don’t have any right to be angry about anything his family feels about me and regardless of how Netflix portrayed it and the truth not being shown 100 per cent, that doesn’t matter either.
‘Regardless of the death threats, and all the b******t, the fact of the matter is that it gets this back out into the public eye which will eventually get it solved.
‘Nothing else matters besides getting ‘Zo and his family the justice they deserve.’
Anyone with information is encouraged to call the FBI at 816-512-8200 or 816-474-TIPS or submit a tip online at fbi.tips.gov.