Chasing Down a Killer's Story

Former FBI and CIA agent Charlie Hess hadn't expected to spend his golden years chasing killers. He was happily retired from crime fighting, living his dream of "a Robinson Crusoe existence" with his wife in a thatch-roof home in Baja, Mexico. But that was be-fore Christmas Eve, 1990, when their son-in-law was fatally shot by burglars in Colorado Springs and Hess and his wife decided to move to Colorado to be with their widowed daughter. The killers were eventually caught, and through the whole ordeal Hess formed close ties with members of El Paso County, Colo., Sheriff's Office. So when the sheriff asked Hess in 2001 if he would start a cold-case unit for the overburdened agency, Hess readily agreed. "I felt it was a way to do something productive, rather than grow old sitting on the couch watching TV," says Hess, now 79.

Four years ago Hess began nursing a relationship with convicted murderer Robert Charles Browne, whom law-enforcement officers suspected might be a serial killer. Hess started sending letters to Browne, and the two eventually held face-to-face meetings. "He was lonely, and I showed interest," says Hess. In the course of their meetings, Browne, who claims to have killed 48 people during a three-decade rampage, has provided Hess with details of 19 killings. Officials have already verified details Browne gave them in seven of those cases. If Browne's claim holds true, that would rank the 53-year-old with the Green River Killer as the nation's most prolific serial murderer. But that's a big "if," given that killers behind bars often lie about their "successes."

So far, authorities have been able only to tie Browne definitively to the murders of two teenage girls: 13-year-old Heather Dawn Church in 1991 and 15-year-old Rocio Sperry in 1987. Browne was convicted in 1995 of the Church murder and given a life sentence; a second life sentence was added after he pleaded guilty on July 27 to Sperry's murder. The task of evaluating Browne's other supposed victims--by the FBI and law-enforcement officials around the country--is daunting, given that many of the cases are so old. "It's too early to determine whether there's any validity to his claims," says Lt. Col. David Shaw, director of the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, which is looking into Browne's allegation that he killed two men near the Alabama border, dismembered their bodies and dropped them into a swamp some 25 years ago.

Meanwhile, Hess and his fellow cold-case workers have stayed on Browne's trail. The volunteer group has come to be known as the Apple Dumpling Gang, both for a 1975 Disney comedy featuring a couple of hapless outlaws and because the group likes to gather for pastry at a German bakery in Colorado Springs. In addition to Hess, it includes a former investigator on the JonBenet Ramsey murder case, 71-year-old Lou Smit, and a former newspaper publisher and crime reporter, Scott Fischer, 60. Smit is the de facto leader, but Hess was tapped to approach Browne because the inmate holds Smit responsible for putting him behind bars in the Church case (Browne now claims he didn't kill the girl).

Hess wrote his first letter to Browne in May 2002; he would send about 20 in all, and Browne responded to most. Hess kept him up on New Orleans Saints football scores, and Browne carped about the discomforts of prison. On Browne's birthday, which is Halloween, Hess sent the prisoner a birthday card with a picture of a snowy owl: Browne wrote back that it was his favorite bird of prey. Hess eventually started giving Browne details about his family life, even telling him about his son-in-law's murder. "I'm sorry for your loss," Browne wrote. "I felt that if he was going to share with me, he needed to know that I would share deep personal feelings with him," Hess says. Browne agreed to a meeting in September 2004, the first of several sit-downs between Hess and the 6-foot-2, 200-plus-pound prisoner. Browne controlled these interviews, deciding what information about the alleged killings to give Hess. Since pleading guilty last month to Sperry's murder, Browne has stopped talking, on the advice of his state-appointed attorney. (The attorney did not respond to a call seeking comment.)

Browne never provided a motive, but he did speak of the peacefulness of going "rambling," his term for his hunts. He also mentioned negative feelings toward women--who "try to present themselves to be one thing, and then always prove to be something else," he wrote to Hess. He described one of his alleged victims as a "slutty, low-life woman." Browne's motivation is also a big question mark: Does he relish the idea of going down in infamy as one of America's top-two serial killers? Or is it something else? Detective Ed Majors of the Tulsa Police Department has been working on tips Browne gave about two murders in Oklahoma, and he has met with the prisoner. "He didn't seem like someone who's in prison. Not hard at all," Majors says. "He just wants to resolve this and give closure to the families." It will take a lot more work by Majors and the Apple Dumpling Gang before those families find out whether closure will ever come.