Family files complaint against officer over 1994 death

Sheriff describes investigator's treatment of victim's family as 'inexcusable'

By James Pinkerton
Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON (AP) - Last April, after a jury sent her daughter's killer to prison for 60 years, Wendy Majewski filed a formal complaint against the detective she once fruitlessly hounded to pursue the case in 1994.

Today, that investigator, Sgt. Curtis L. Brown Jr., is fighting a 10-day suspension handed down by Sheriff Adrian Garcia after an internal investigation.

The Houston Chronicle reports Garcia characterized Brown's conduct and treatment of the family as "inexcusable" and said it demonstrated a neglect of his official duties. Brown had threatened to arrest members of the victim's family for leaving a flower at the home where the shooting took place and for speaking to witnesses, a prosecutor confirmed.

"To lose your daughter, and not only being put on the back burner but being accused of a crime yourself, it was like 'The Twilight Zone,' " said Wes Rucker, the veteran Harris County prosecutor who handled the case last year. "It was embarrassing. I was heartbroken for the family, who were punished twice."

Brown's case is not the only one in which an experienced investigator failed to do his job and was suspended, but not fired, by Garcia.

In 2012, the sheriff suspended Jeremy J. Thomas for not completing 20 DWI crash investigations over a six-year period, including 13 in which suspected drunken drivers escaped potential prosecutions, according to disciplinary records obtained by the Houston Chronicle. Thomas' unpaid 10-day suspension included a demotion that resulted in a $14,000 yearly pay cut.

Garcia, through a spokesman, said he would not comment during Brown's appeal of his suspension, which includes a 180-day disciplinary probation.

The man for whom Brown could have sought a murder charge went on to collect a lengthy criminal record, including three arrests for family violence, according to evidence introduced at trial. He was accused in 17-year-old Ruth Majewski's death only after a cold case squad got involved.

At one time, Brown was the head of a squad of county homicide detectives featured on the police reality show "The First 48," but now he is assigned to the burglary and theft detail. He admitted he had not even consulted the medical examiner's report or a ballistics expert's analysis, according to documents obtained by the Houston Chronicle in an open records request.

Instead, the investigator believed a boyfriend's account that the girl shot herself.

The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, and in later testimony agreed with a police firearms expert that the distance of the gun to the body - based on the pattern of gunshot residue and entry wound - proved she could not have held the gun at arm's length and shot herself.

Brown testified last year that if he had reviewed the reports, he would have sought charges against the boyfriend.

"I tried to get an answer to what he was doing, or not doing," Rucker said, "and I've heard everything from him that he was overworked or didn't know which way to go with the case."

Brown, 59, who has been with the sheriff's office since 1977, would not comment on his conduct in the 1994 case or recent suspension. He referred questions to Andrew A. Wright, an attorney provided by the Harris County Deputies Organization. Wright criticized the investigation by the Sheriff's Office of Brown's actions, saying it wasn't thorough, and called his client "an exemplary investigator" who took the case seriously.

Ruth Majewski died at the home where Christopher Stoernell lived with his mother and stepfather.

The two teens were juniors at Jersey Village High School, and she came over to his house on a Friday in September 1994, after Stoernell and his friends skipped school. From the Stoernell home in the subdivision in north Harris County, they planned to head to Galveston.

Stoernell, who prosecutors say already had a history of sexual abuse and violence against the girl, began to play Russian roulette with a 22-caliber revolver brought to the home by a friend, according to trial testimony.

He pointed it mostly at his girlfriend, and finally both went into a bedroom. The other teens heard a gunshot.

One teen claimed the girl said, "Chris just shot me" before she collapsed. The prosecutor said Stoernell made no move to help Ruth Majewski and let her "bleed out."

From that afternoon on, Brown's contact with the family was minimal, the victim's mother recalled, and the family was not given any details of what happened at the house or who was present.

Police did not call the family to inform them their daughter had been shot, but instead staff at a local hospital phoned to say their daughter was there.

The following week, Majewski made an appointment to meet with Brown at the detective's office. He failed to show up.

The distraught mother remembered "making a scene" at the sheriff's office, and another detective tracked Brown down.

"He said, 'This is homicide; I can't be here for meetings all of the time,' " Majewski recalled the detective's explanation. "So that was our first introduction to Curtis Brown, and it went downhill from there."

After calling the investigator weekly for the first six months for any update and receiving no reply, Majewski decided she had to stop.

"I felt that as long as Curtis Brown was investigating it, it was going nowhere," she said. "And I was a crazy lady - it was affecting everything."

At some point, Majewski learned the medical examiner had ruled her daughter's death a homicide, and she confronted Brown, who said the ruling was a mistake. The investigator claimed he was going to get the medical examiner to change the report to reflect that the death was accidental.

The family would eventually would hear from the investigator, but not in the way they hoped.

Several months after the death, the victim's older sister, Jennifer, wanted to honor her sister's memory and decided to place a flower in front of the house where she was killed.

Her husband, Stephen Harrison, took her to buy the rose.

Not long after, the homicide investigator called and threatened both of them with arrest.

Brown asked Harrison if his wife had been bothering the Stoernell family, and if she knocked on the door when she left the flower. Harrison assured the investigator his wife had not ventured onto the property or spoken with the family, that she had left the rose on the lawn.

"He said, 'That's trespassing,' " Harrison recalled. "His words were: 'I'll put you under my jail. I can take you to jail; that's interfering with an investigation.' He was basically threatening me, and I had had enough. ... " He told Brown he was welcome to come and try to arrest him.

Brown also told Majewski that her daughter had been drinking and taking drugs, according to his suspension, although the medical examiner's toxicology report found no drugs or alcohol in her system.

The months faded into years, and Majewski and her husband eventually moved to the west end of Galveston Island.

In September 2011, the mother noticed a newspaper article about an old murder that had been solved by the sheriff's office's re-established cold case unit. Garcia had reopened the squad in 2009 to resolve more than 500 homicides lingering in file cabinets.

She sent an email to the sheriff's office, and soon she was soon providing them details of her daughter's case.

The next month, she was contacted by cold case investigator Eric Clegg, and the family was invited to meet with police.

"We had a really long talk. They answered all our questions, and they were very apologetic that it had happened that way," Majewski said. "They finally gave us the sense that maybe we weren't crazy, and there would be an investigation."

Investigators looked through Brown's work and found that while there weren't many witnesses to re-interview, there was enough evidence to have supported charges in 1994.

In September 2013, the Majewski family was asked to meet with cold-case investigators. They said they had a warrant to arrest Stoernell in Michigan, where he was living with his parents.

"It was like ripping a Band-Aid off - it was all new again, " the victim's mother recalled.

At trial, prosecutors called some of those who had been present the day the girl died. Stoernell did not testify.

Rucker said Stoernell had, after the teen's death, become more violent and gone on to be abusive to multiple women, including threatening one with a gun. Stoernell was convicted 10 times in the Houston area and in Michigan, including arrests for fraud and drug dealing, according to evidence introduced at trial.

"He certainly did not learn his lesson," Rucker said. "I don't know if it emboldened him, getting away with killing someone. You would think that if you got a free one, a free murder in your pocket, you would have really walked the narrow line."

Stoernell is appealing his conviction as he serves his 60-year sentence in an East Texas prison and insists the girl's shooting was accidental.

In an interview Thursday, Stoernell said Ruth Majewski was mad at him that afternoon because he had promised to spend time with her alone and have sex. When they finally went to his bedroom, he said, the girl picked up the revolver he had brought and pointed it toward herself as a way of getting back at him.

The revolver went off as he tried to take it away, he insists.

"It's not a suicide thing; if anything it was an accident," Stoernell said. "I can't go into Ruth's head and know exactly what her thing was, but I know she asked me three times, 'Do you think I'll do it?' with kind of a smirky attitude. It's more of trying to get at me."

Finally, he said, "I grabbed for the gun, and I heard pow."

Stoernell denied he had previously had been violent with her and noted that gunshot residue tests showed both of them had handled the weapon.

He pointed out that he passed two polygraph tests in 1994.

The girl's family remain grateful to the sheriff's cold-case squad, feeling they vindicated what the Majewskis believed about their daughter's death all along.

"Because Curtis Brown didn't do his job, there were so many women who suffered because of Chris Stoernell's brutality," Majewski said. "This could have all been avoided."

Published: Mon, Apr 20, 2015