Fort Worth

Missing links: Despite DNA evidence, sex offender avoided arrest

DNA evidence linked Donnel Browning Jr. to a 2002 sexual assault but he wasn’t indicted in that case until April.
DNA evidence linked Donnel Browning Jr. to a 2002 sexual assault but he wasn’t indicted in that case until April. Star-Telegram archives

A 47-year-old registered sex offender accused of trying to kidnap two girls walking to separate schools in 2013 had been linked through DNA to a similar attack in 2002 but was never arrested.

In 2005, a DNA database had linked Donell Browning Jr. to evidence in the sexual assault of a 9-year-old girl who was snatched while walking to school in east Fort Worth on Dec. 3, 2002.

Fort Worth police officials confirmed that a former Crimes Against Children detective currently under investigation by the department over his handling of cases was assigned to follow up on the 2002 case, but never made an arrest.

In December 2013, 11 years after the 2002 attack — and after stints in prison for unrelated crimes — Browning was arrested by Fort Worth police on allegations that he tried to abduct two girls, ages 8 and 12, a day apart.

The 2002 case has since been presented to a grand jury, who in April indicted Browning on a charge of aggravated sexual assault of a child. He was previously indicted in the 2013 cases and has pleaded not guilty in all three, none of which have gone to trial.

Timeline of the Donnel Browning Jr. Cases

The detective’s work first came under scrutiny in mid-March regarding his handling of a 2014 case. As a result, Sgt. Wade Walls, the new supervisor of the Crimes Against Children unit, ordered a review of cases handled by the detective in the past two years.

The review was later expanded after more troubling cases surfaced. This month, the department formed a task force to continue the examination of the detective’s cases dating back to 2002.

The detective is not being identified by the Star-Telegram because he has not been disciplined.

Sgt. Marc Povero, a police spokesman, said the task force has now been increased from six to 11 detectives.

Girl sexually assauted in 2002

On the morning of Dec. 3. 2002, a 9-year-old girl was walking to McRae Elementary School in east Fort Worth when a man drove up and offered her a ride.

Though she said no, the man parked his car, got out and forced her into the front passenger seat. He then drove her to a park near U.S. 287, where he made her perform oral sex on him.

He told her not to tell anyone what happened, then dropped her off about a block from the school.

The girl told a school nurse, who notified authorities.

Though the girl did not know her attacker’s name, she believed it was a man from the neighborhood whom she had previously encountered while selling cookie dough door to door.

Within 10 hours of the kidnapping, police identified 24-year-old Jonathan Byner as a suspect after the victim picked him out of a photo lineup. Byner surrendered on warrants the next day.

Though a detective had reportedly submitted the girl’s clothing to the police crime lab to be tested for biological evidence, the tests were never done. The lab, plagued with problems at the time, could find no record of the request.

After repeated requests by a defense attorney, prosecutors finally had the evidence tested three days before Byner was set to go to trial.

A semen stain found on the girl’s pant leg did not belong to Byner, the testing found.

I’m not perfect, but one thing I can say is that I would never, ever do anything to harm a child in any shape, form or fashion.

Jonathan Byner, who spent 18 months in jail before being cleared in the abduction and sexual assault of a young girl

“It was sick,” Byner told the Star-Telegram in 2004 after the testing exonerated him in the case. “Like I said, and I’ll say it again, I’m not perfect, but one thing I can say is that I would never, ever do anything to harm a child in any shape, form or fashion.”

The charges of aggravated kidnapping and aggravated sexual assault of a child against Byner were dismissed and he was ordered released from jail.

But while one injustice had been righted, the identity of the girl’s attacker remained unknown.

In and out of prison

Ironically, for some of the time Byner was in the Tarrant County Jail, so was Browning, but on unrelated charges.

On Dec. 7, 2002, four days after the 9-year-old girl’s kidnapping, a Haltom City police officer was on patrol on Denton Highway when he ran the plate of a Ford Contour traveling in front of him and discovered that it had been stolen in Houston.

The officer tried to pull the car over but the driver led him on a chase, narrowly missing other cars. The driver eventually pulled into the front yard of a residence on Edwards Street. He stopped after running over a large plastic trash bin and bailed out of the car.

After a short foot pursuit, the driver was arrested. He identified himself as Marcell Brown.

He was taken by ambulance to the hospital after telling officers he had smoked crack cocaine and was having chest pains.

A day later, while being held in the Haltom City Jail, Browning told officers his real name.

Haltom City police soon discovered that Browning was out on bond on an indecency with a child/exposure case out of Harris County.

In that case, Browning, then 33, was driving near a Houston elementary school and masturbating when he tried to get a 11-year-old girl into his car, court documents state.

In February 2003, Browning was sentenced to nine months in state jail for theft of a vehicle and evading arrest in the Haltom City case.

In April 2004, he plead guilty to the indecency with a child case out of Harris County and received two years in prison. Given credit for time already served, he was released from prison in November 2004 and required to register as a sex offender for 10 years.

DNA link to 2002 case

Not long after Browning’s release in the Harris County case, Fort Worth police received word in early 2005 that a DNA database had linked him to the 2002 case.

On March 1, 2005, Crimes against children Detective M.A. Shedd obtained a search warrant for a sample of Browning’s DNA to run confirmation tests.

But before the results would come back, Shedd was promoted and moved out of the Crimes Against Children unit.

The case was reassigned to the detective now under investigation, Povero confirmed.

I don’t know what to do but I am innocent of these crazy charges.

Donell Browning Jr. in a letter to a state district judge

Though never arrested in the 2002 case, Browning would frequently return to prison throughout the next several years.

In July 2006, he was sentenced to two years for stealing a car, possession of heroin, and evading arrest.

In February 2010, Browning was hit with another two-year sentence on two more convictions of stealing a car and theft of property.

And in 2012, he was sentenced to 15 months in prison for stealing yet another car. He was released on July 3, 2013.

He’d only remain free for five months.

Two more similar crimes

On Dec. 19, 2013, an 8-year-old girl was walking near Western Hills Elementary in west Fort Worth when a man driving a gray, four-door car stopped near her.

“Get into my car because I am going to take you to the office to the talk to the principal,” he allegedly told the girl.

The girl complied but soon noticed that Browning was driving past the school.

According to the affidavit, she tried to get out of the car, but the man grabbed her. She then began hitting and biting the man, who punched her in the back, pulled her hair, struck her in the stomach and threatened, “I’m going to kill you.”

The girl continued fighting with the man, causing him to lose control of his car and hit a curb. She was then able to get out and run home, the affidavit states.

A day later, a man driving a similar car called over to a 12-year-old girl who had just been dropped off at Stripling Middle School, between Camp Bowie Boulevard and Interstate 30.

I am a Fort Worth police officer. You need to get in the car...

A man reportedly told a 12-year-old girl who had just been dropped off at Stripling Middle School in December 2013

“Hey you, young lady,” he shouted to her, according to court documents, then told her, “Come here.”

When she approached, the man flashed a badge and told her, “I am a Fort Worth police officer. You need to get in the car and I am going to pull into the parking lot to go talk to the principal about a situation with a guy.”

The girl said no and walked away as the man continued to insist that she get in his car. The man then drove off.

A campus monitor and school clerk told police they had noticed a suspicious man in a gray car slowly circling the school and looking at female students. Concerned, they had written down the car’s license number.

Surveillance cameras at the school also caught images of the car circling the campus.

Patrol officers tracked the plate to a Fort Worth address where a man told officers that his son, Browning, had been driving the car, court documents state.

Shown a photo spread, the campus monitor picked Browning out as the man seen trying to abduct the girl.

A plea from jail

In a letter to State District Judge Mike Thomas from the Tarrant County Jail, Browning called the evidence in his cases “very hurtful and false.”

He told the judge that he was writing because he’d probably need a character witness if the cases, assigned to different judge, go to trial.

“Mr. Thomas, I don’t know what to do but I am innocent of these crazy charges,” he wrote.

Browning acknowledges in the letter that he is not a saint due to a drug problem for which he has never gotten help, only jail time.

His attorney, Gary Smart, was out of the office and did not return an email seeking comment.

Deanna Boyd: 817-390-7655, @deannaboyd