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November 26, 2012

Sterling Heights man charged with ‘Backpage murders’

Police: ‘This wasn’t your basic investigation’

By Cortney Casey
C & G Staff Writer

A Sterling Heights man charged months ago with disinterment/mutilation and arson is now officially facing murder charges that were long rumored to be pending.

James Cornelius Brown, 24, was charged with four counts of first-degree murder, a life felony, in the deaths of Demesha Hunt, Renesha Landers, Natasha Curtis and Vernithea McCrary before Judge Michael Maceroni in 41-A District Court Nov. 26.

Those are on top of the earlier charges, on which Brown was arraigned June 1: four counts of disinterment and mutilation of a dead body, 10-year felonies; one count of arson of real property, also a 10-year felony; and one count of arson of personal property, a five-year felony.

Maceroni denied bond for Brown, who was remanded to the custody of the Macomb County Sheriff’s Office. His preliminary exam is scheduled for Jan. 9, 2013.

The Macomb County Prosecutor’s Office alleges that Brown made initial contact with the four victims via the website Backpage.com. Detroit police previously stated that three of the four women had escort ads on the site, and were believed to be working in that capacity at the time of their deaths.  

According to the Macomb County Prosecutor’s Office, Hunt and Landers drove to Brown’s residence on Vancouver, near 18 Mile and Mound, in Sterling Heights on Dec. 18, 2011. Their bodies were discovered in the trunk of a car the next day in the 14400 block of Promenade, in Detroit.

Curtis and McCrary traveled to Brown’s home on Dec. 24, 2011 and the following day were found dead and “burned beyond immediate identification” in the trunk of a burning car in the 14900 block of Lannette, also in Detroit, according to prosecutors.

Prosecutors also allege that cellphone records show the final calls from the victims’ phones were transmitted through a cell tower adjacent to the Vancouver home, which police say technically belonged to Brown’s mother.

In a prepared statement, Macomb County Prosecutor Eric Smith and Sterling Heights Police Chief Michael Reese vowed to seek justice for the victims and their families.

“The parents and relatives of these women have suffered so greatly,” said Smith. “We will work to bring closure to these grieving families.”

“The families and friends of the victims can rest assured no stone will go unturned to bring them justice,” said Reese. “We are conducting a thorough investigation and our focus is to do everything we can to keep the citizens safe and to work with the Macomb County Prosecutor’s Office to obtain a conviction in this case.”

The addition of murder charges came after months of postponements in the Backpage case.

Brown was originally declared “a person of interest” when he was apprehended in the murders, along with another man, at the house on Vancouver May 1, while Detroit police were investigating. The other man was released, but Brown was charged with mutilation and arson in Detroit.

Those counts were dropped May 30 — then immediately picked up by Macomb County — after investigators said they had reason to suspect the crimes occurred locally.

Brown was arraigned on the disinterment and arson counts in 41-A District Court June 1, but his preliminary exam was adjourned on multiple occasions throughout the summer, pending additional investigation and discovery.

Jeff Cojocar, Brown’s defense attorney, said the delay wasn’t surprising considering the amount of information being processed in connection with the case.

“I know the prosecutor was waiting for some lab results and other things that are beyond their control,” he said.

At this point, Cojocar said he couldn’t offer much comment on the details of the case, as he’s still sifting through the discovery, which he called “rather voluminous.”

Lt. Kevin Reese, acting public information officer for the Sterling Heights Police Department, said such a delay isn’t typical, but few things have been in regards to the case thus far.

“Everything about the case is somewhat unusual, from the beginning of it and Detroit investigating,” he said.  “We needed time to continue our investigation into this matter … lab results and phone records being obtained, so it took time. This wasn’t your basic investigation for us at all.”

Acquisition and review of the allegedly telltale cellphone records triggered the longest delays, said Lt. Reese.

“That’s what took the most time, was obtaining the phone records and going over them, analyzing them — there’s thousands of phone records,” he said. “When we felt that there was enough to present the charges to the prosecutor’s office, we did.”

Smith could not be immediately reached for further comment.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Cortney Casey at ccasey@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1046.