Marion Lee Brown and Jennifer Hipp had divorced last year, but he was still a part of his ex-wife’s life.
Though they had no children together, Hipp said they kept their relationship very amicable, both wanting to ensure that her 15-year-old daughter, Makenzie, and his 7-year-old son, Landen, both from previous marriages, still got to hang out.
On Mother’s Day, Brown brought Makenzie her favorite dish, barbecue hash, which he bought in South Carolina while on a trip with his son. Last Wednesday, the former spouses exchanged texts as Brown tried to schedule one last boating excursion on the Brazos River with the children before the water level dropped too low.
“He was a really good dad and stepdad,” Hipp said. “He loved his friends. He loved his mom and he worked real hard.”
Now, Hipp and other family members are struggling to understand Brown’s death after being informed by authorities that his remains were found in Smith County in East Texas and Shreveport, La.
“This is surreal to me,” Hipp said. “You see these stories on TV. I live in a bubble. You just don’t think things like this really happen to people you know or love.”
A gruesome trail
Brown was an executive with Hill Phoenix, a manufacturer of display cases and refrigeration systems that had offices in Fort Worth.
He was last seen alive in the early afternoon of May 22 at his job in Fort Worth, according to Smith County Sheriff Larry Smith.
An investigation began Friday morning when a burning piece of carpet with partial human remains inside was found on County Road 371 in Smith County, about 130 miles southeast of Fort Worth. Evidence at the scene gave detectives a lead that Brown was the possible victim.
A caller later told deputies that she saw a white, older model SUV near the scene of the burning carpet which Smith County authorities say was cut from a floor.
On Friday afternoon, a 2010 Toyota FJ Cruiser belonging to Brown was found burning in some woods in Smith County.
“There is almost a 12-hour span from when the carpet was found and the vehicle was burned,” Smith said. “The time between those two incidents taking place indicated that the vehicle was being driven in the meantime.”
Saturday morning, the case moved to Louisiana, when a body was recovered in Cross Lake at Shreveport, La.
“The remains were that of an adult white male who sustained significant trauma to the head,” said Shreveport police Cpl. Marcus Hines on Thursday.
On Wednesday, authorities identified the partial remains in Smith County and the body in Shreveport as Brown. Detectives used fingerprints to make the positive identification.
Authorities are still trying to determine where the slaying took place.
Brown lived in Tin Top, a rural community near Weatherford.
“We’ve searched his home and nothing was out of place,” said Parker County Sheriff Larry Fowler on Thursday. “It was a well-kept home and there was no indication that it had been ransacked.”
Smith County authorities said evidence gathered at the crime scene there indicates Brown’s killing may have occurred in Tarrant County, possibly in a motel room or residential-type structure.
Detectives from Parker and Smith counties, the Texas Rangers, Fort Worth and Shreveport are investigating the case.
‘An exceptional colleague’
Born in Sumter, S.C., Brown moved to Fort Worth while in his 20s and quickly found a job he loved in the walk-in cooler industry, Hipp said. She described Brown as a workaholic who frequently traveled out of state for his job.
“He really launched into it and was good in it and building his reputation on his hard work, strong work and ethics. He loved what he did,” she said.
Brad Roche, a spokesman for Hill Phoenix, said Brown had worked with the company for five years and was vice-president/general manager of the company’s walk-in cooler business.
He described Brown as well-respected.
“He was an exceptional colleague,” Roche said. “Everybody is shocked. … It’s a tough, tragic thing for everyone to get through.”
When not traveling for work, Hipp said, Brown liked to stay at his home near the Brazos River, around which his life had evolved for the past 25 years.
“Because he traveled so much for work, he hated traveling,” Hipp said. “That’s why he loved the river house. He said it’s a vacation 52 weekends a year.”
There, Brown had taught Makenzie how to wake surf and had just begun teaching the sport to his son. He also loved to entertain his area friends, affectionately known as his fellow “river rats.”
“He loved to shoot fireworks for everybody on the holidays. He loved to make margaritas for everyone. He was so loyal to his friends out there,” Hipp said. “Every Fourth of July or even New Year’s, he’d buy hundreds and hundreds of fireworks and shoot them off the river.”
‘Want to know what happened’
Hipp said she learned something was wrong May 24, when officers came to her house, saying they were helping the Tyler police with a missing person case and asked if she had talked to her ex-husband.
“I knew something was wrong but I had no idea what it was,” Hipp said.
Soon after, Tyler police contacted her directly and, on Tuesday, sent a detective to interview her. Wednesday, she got the phone call that remains found were those of Brown.
“It was a relief just to identify him,” she said. “The thought of not being able to put him to rest or not being able to honor him, I was so uncomfortable with that. … We all still want to know what happened.”
On Thursday, Hipp said Brown’s first wife and Landen traveled to South Carolina to break the news of Brown’s death to his mother. Ann Epperly, she said, had a stroke in October and has been living in an assisted-living facility.
Brown was Epperly’s only child.
“I’m just praying and hoping having family break the news makes it as gentle as possible,” Hipp said. “His mother adored him. He did no wrong in her eyes, He was her pride and joy and the best thing she ever did in her life.”