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Private investigator to 'open the book' on Texas high schooler's death

Investigators said they could not determine whether Thomas Brown's death was homicide, suicide or due to natural causes because so few of his remains were found.
Credit: Family of Thomas Brown

SAN ANTONIO — One rural Texas family from Canadian, far north in the Texas Panhandle, knows there may never be any definitive answers about what happened to their loved one the night he disappeared and was years later found dead. Questions and rumors have surrounded Thomas Brown’s case for almost five years. This week, there may be some explanation. 

Thomas was a high school senior, class president, and state champion football player when he went missing the day before Thanksgiving in 2016. The Hemphill County Sheriff’s Office was put in charge of the investigation, but Thomas was not found. Thomas’s family hired private investigator Philp Klein shortly after he went missing. 

Investigators with the Texas Attorney General’s Office agreed to review Thomas’s case in 2018. Thomas' remains were found in January of 2019 off Lake Marvin Road outside of Canadian. The exact location of the remains has not been released. The attorney general announced in August 2019 there was no foul play in his death. Investigators with the Attorney General's office said they could not determine a cause of death, whether it was homicide, suicide, or natural causes because so few of Thomas’s remains were recovered. Thomas’s death certificate currently lists his cause of death as “pending.” The attorney general suspended the investigation pending any new, credible evidence. 

Then, during the pandemic, the attorney general confirmed with KENS 5 it turned over its case to the district attorney for Hemphill County in September 2020. Many expected a grand jury to be called. That has not happened. 

The private investigator in Thomas’s case is holding a presentation on Wednesday at 6 p.m. at Jones Pavilion. Klein said he will open the book on the case and lay out the timeline of events plus answer questions. 

Families of missing persons hope law enforcement would do all they could to locate their loved one. Thomas’s family has questioned if that happened in his case. 

A previous investigation by Niccole Caan, who has been following Thomas’ case since he went missing, showed former Hemphill County Sheriff Nathan Lewis submitted falsified training reports for his duties to Texas Law Enforcement Commission (TCOLE), which oversees law enforcement agencies in the state. It led other deputies to question the documentation in Thomas’s case. 

The TCOLE investigation found many of the hours of supposed training were missing, backdated, or simply wrong. TCOLE formally reprimanded then-Sheriff Lewis. Yet, buried in the report were allegations from two deputies who question how Lewis conducted Thomas’s investigation. 

Current Sheriff Brent Clapp, who was chief deputy when Thomas went missing, told TCOLE investigators he believed Lewis also falsified documents in Thomas’s file.

TCOLE report stated the investigating officers reported, "Clapp said it wasn't outside the realm of Lewis fabricating a document because he had manufactured a supplement for a missing person a year and half after it happened."

Caan requested the original audio statements Hemphill County deputies interviewed made to TCOLE investigators. 

Here is what Clapp had to say when TCOLE investigators asked why Sheriff Lewis might fabricate the training records:

"Because we've been through the Tom Brown mess... on that deal he manufactured a supplement a year and a half after the fact,” Clapp said. “Same deal. When you write reports a year and after because why? Because we're getting ready to turn it all over to the attorney general and I go to him and say you've got two pages in this thing. I've got 26. You need to catch up some supplements. You need to do something. Where is your documentation? The attorney generals came in and they wanted to know about a video that did or did not exist. It was a huge issue. [surveillance videos from] Dollar General and Fronk. And he came up with a report on that a year and a half after the fact."

A second deputy also discussed the Dollar General surveillance video with a TCOLE investigator:

"Nathan always said there was never a video,” the deputy said. “Well, then after the attorney general came down to talk to me about the whole situation he said something one day in his office. He said whenever I looked at the video from the Dollar General there wasn't anything on there, so I threw it away."

The Dollar General is next door to Fronk’s gas station, the last place Thomas was known to have gone to get gas before disappearing. 

While deputies said documents in Thomas’s case were mostly reconstructed long after his disappearance, there is no indication they are inaccurate and all information was given to the attorney general. 

Lewis said this to TCOLE investigators about Thomas’s case:

"We had this missing deal come up in November,” Lewis said. “I wasn't supposed to take over until January. I thought we did everything right. We did everything good. We had the peer reviews with the Rangers. The major of Company C said you all did a fantastic job for a small town agency up here in the Panhandle. You all did fantastic. They said, 'Man everything is good.'"

Lewis resigned as Hemphill County sheriff in November 2019. 

Klein said in the past there was evidence missed by the sheriff’s team, including blood in Thomas’s SUV and a shell casing from a .25-caliber gun.

There are plenty of theories about Thomas’s death, but few clear answers about what actually happened. Klein has always said he believes Thomas was murdered.

“I want to say this to the public and I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: This was not an intentional homicide,” he said. 

Klein will not name the name of the suspected killer. He will only say this:

“This is kids playing around and they shouldn’t have and they know it shouldn’t happen,” Klein said. “I think it’s eaten away at some of their guts.”

Thomas’s mother, Penny Meek, knows she may never get all the answers to what happened to her son.

“I hope we can walk away with, you know, with at least a little more clarity than we have right now as to what happened,” she said.

Calls the district attorney’s office about the status of Thomas’s case and if it will go a grand jury have so far not been returned.

AG Ken Paxton announced on Tuesday that a new Cold Case and Missing Persons Unit would be formed in the Office of the Attorney General to assist law enforcement agencies with the over 19,000 unsolved homicides in Texas.

"The Unit’s first case was the result of a request for assistance from the Hemphill County Sheriff’s Office in the case of Thomas Brown of Canadian, Texas," they said. "OAG’s Criminal Investigations Unit assisted in the investigation of Mr. Brown’s death and also assisted the Cold Case and Missing Persons Unit in reviewing all of the collected evidence. The Unit engaged independent experts to identify any further leads that could be developed. As of today, this case remains a questionable death investigation without sufficient evidence to attribute Tom Brown’s death to a criminal act, an accidental death, or a suicide; therefore, this case will be suspended until such time as additional reliable evidence has been discovered."

The AG's office further explained their decision to not bring the case to a grand jury, along with 250 pages of details on their investigation.

"As of today, this case remains a questionable death investigation without sufficient evidence to conclude that Tom Brown’s death was attributed to a criminal act, an accidental death, or a suicide. It was initially thought that a formal grand jury investigation into this case might produce new evidence or leads but, after careful and thorough deliberation, we do not believe presenting this case to a grand jury at this time would be fruitful or ethical. There is insufficient evidence to establish probable cause. Further, the legal standard at trial of beyond a reasonable doubt, that Mr. Brown’s death was the result of an intentional, or unintentional, criminal act, is not supported by any evidence collected at this time. It is the longstanding practice of the 31st Judicial District Attorney to not present suspicious deaths to a Grand Jury if evidence shows the death was the result of a suicide."

There was a memorial service for Thomas shortly after his remains were found, but his remains have not yet been put to rest. They remain at the Texas lab in case they are needed for evidence.