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Hercules Brown grew up in a well-respected family in Adel. Residents remember him as a good kid. But then something changed. He became violent and mean. And he had several run-ins with the law. But when he got in trouble, nothing seemed to stick. Until the murders of Bennett and Browning raised new questions about the Taco Bell and the Patel murders too. When DNA comes back as a match to Hercules on a key piece of evidence, will it be enough to help Devonia Inman?

 

Liliana Segura: In Greek mythology, Hercules was the illegitimate son of a mortal woman and Zeus, the king of the gods. Zeus’ wife, the goddess Hera, was furious about the infidelity and vengeful toward Hercules. She sent two snakes to kill the infant in his crib. It didn’t work. He was so strong that he crushed them both. Growing up, the mythical Hercules was known for his size and strength and athletic prowess. He learned wrestling and horseback riding. But he was also musical. He played the lyre and sang. Eventually, he would also be known for his murderous temper. He wore a lion skin with the head still attached. It came up over his head like a mask. And he carried a club, his favorite weapon.

Jordan Smith: Hercules Brown, a man from Adel, Georgia, had a lot in common with the original Hercules.

Daniel Connell: The name was very fitting. He was usually the biggest kid in our grade, very big, strong kid.

Jordan Smith: That’s Daniel Connell. He grew up in Adel and he still lives there. He’s a lawyer now. He went to grade school with Hercules Brown. They weren’t exactly best friends, but it was a small town and they were in the same grade.

Daniel Connell: Good athlete for the most part. He was usually the biggest football player or the guy that could hit home runs before everybody in baseball. Very mild-mannered, very well-spoken.

Jordan Smith: This Hercules played music, too. He was in the Cook County High School band. He played the trombone.

Daniel Connell: He never got in trouble that I recall in high school, was polite to teachers, never went to parties or anything like that that I’m aware of.

Liliana Segura: But Connell had heard rumors about a dark side. That, at some point, Hercules had changed. That he started having issues with drugs– using and maybe dealing. He became known for his horrible temper.

Christy Lima: This boy had a violent streak in him and everybody in Adel knew that about Hercules. Everybody was scared of him.

Liliana Segura: That’s Devonia Inman’s old girlfriend, Christy Lima. Of course, she had reason not to like Hercules Brown. When Donna Brown was killed at the Taco Bell, she heard that Hercules, and not Devonia Inman, had been responsible. But she wasn’t the only one aware of Hercules’ violent temper.

Jordan Smith: The cops in Adel cops knew about it too. There were vicious and seemingly unprovoked attacks on random people around town. Then an attempted robbery. And more rumors– that he was selling drugs out of the drive-through window at Taco Bell where he often worked nights as a closer. But for all the trouble he managed to find, for a long time Hercules Brown also managed to escape any real consequences.

Liliana Segura: From The Intercept, I’m Liliana Segura.

Jordan Smith: I’m Jordan Smith. And this is Murderville, Georgia. Were the rumors about Hercules true? That he’d killed Donna Brown and maybe even Shailesh Patel? If he’d killed Bennett and Browning at the corner store, was he the only person who could’ve killed the other two? And if so, how did he get away with it?

Liliana Segura: Police in Adel had arrested Hercules before. A couple of years before William Carroll Bennett and Rebecca Browning were murdered the grocery store, Hercules was accused of dragging a woman he knew, the mother of a drug dealer, out of her car. And beating her up. Badly. A random witness had to pull him off of her. Tim Balch, the former Adel cop we’ve been talking to, remembers this incident.  He was working at the police station when the woman came in to report the attack.

Tim Balch: It looked like she had been in a fight with Mike Tyson. Her eyes were shut. I asked her what had happened and she told me that Hercules Brown beat her up.

Liliana Segura: Hercules was charged with the assault. But the woman ultimately refused to cooperate. So the charge was dropped.

Jordan Smith: The next year, there was an even more violent attack. Hercules knocked a man from his bicycle and beat him in the head so savagely that the man went into convulsions. He had to be hospitalized. Hercules pleaded guilty to the assault and was sentenced to just a year of probation. Then there was the other grocery store robbery. Well, attempted anyway. Less than two months before Bennett and Browning were bludgeoned to death. Balch was working that day too. He got a call from one of his confidential informants saying that two men were on their way to Harvey’s Supermarket with a plan to rob it.

Tim Balch: They all pulled up in the car, and I stopped it. Got Hercules out. There was a ski mask, a gun. Found crack cocaine in the car, and I arrested him.

Jordan Smith: Balch put him in handcuffs and into the back of the squad car. But then something happened.

Tim Balch: No sooner got him to the police station, which is literally six blocks away, before Mom shows up cussing me out about how her son would never have done any of this and that it was all planted and a big conspiracy by the police and all this, that and the other on him getting in trouble.

Jordan Smith: He was rescued by his mom.

Liliana Segura: It sounds ridiculous, but for people in Adel, Hercules’ mom, Lucinda Brown, was a pretty big deal. She worked for the state Division of Family and Children Services—the agency responsible for benefits like food stamps and for taking kids out of abusive homes. Some thought she took advantage of her position in order to protect her son.

Tim Balch: Now his mother was always very, very, very overprotective. Anytime something happened and his name was brought up, “Oh, it can’t be my son,” type thing. So, when he started getting in trouble with school, she was always down there raising cane, and it was always somebody else’s fault, which kind of, I think, led to a lot of the problems that he’s getting into now.

Liliana Segura: People in Adel were afraid to drop the dime on Hercules Brown in case his mother got mad. They were scared she would find a reason to deny them food stamps or other things they needed.

Jordan Smith: Or take their kids away.

Liliana Segura: And it wasn’t just regular people who worried. Balch says the cops tiptoed around her, too, because they knew they needed her. Especially with child abuse investigations. They were afraid of getting on her bad side.

Tim Balch: So when she would come down there and get angry, it was easy not to get angry back because you didn’t want the kids to be caught in the middle of it, so you’d take the abuse. With her, I held my tongue, you know, and that’s kind of the way things were.

Liliana Segura: We called Lucinda Brown. She was not interested in talking to us.

Jordan Smith: A lot of people have been saying some things that aren’t all that nice about your son and we really wanted to see if you could help us out, because we just don’t know what’s true and what’s not.

Lucinda Brown: Well you will never know what’s true and what’s not. So I don’t have anything to give you.

Jordan Smith: Now, not everybody remembers the Browns playing the system that way. We asked Kirk Gordon, the former chief of police in Adel, if Hercules’ mom was always saving his ass. According to his version, Hercules didn’t really need his ass saved.

Kirk Gordon: There wasn’t that many run-ins with the police, because Hercules, when he was in high school, was a good kid. I never had any problems.

Jordan Smith: Still, Gordon had known Hercules a long time. Since he was a kid. And he was aware that, at some point, he changed.

Kirk Gordon: I’ve known Hercules since he’s a puppy.

Jordan Smith: What happened to him do you think?

Kirk Gordon: Drugs.

Jordan Smith: Was it something you could kinda see happening?

Kirk Gordon: I couldn’t. I know that- I mean, in the drug world, no. I didn’t have an every day contact with Hercules. I knew his mom and dad real well, and his sister. Just super good people.

Jordan Smith: But Tim Balch says it was almost like Hercules wanted to be bad.

Tim Balch: He would say, “Oh, yeah. Well, I did that. The police are stupid. They never solved it,” and you don’t know- I mean he is very braggadocious and he’s always been that way since I’ve known him. I think I even told one of the GBI guys. I was like, “Well, you know, if there’s ever an unsolved murder,” I said, “I could get 20 witnesses that would come in here and say Hercules Brown said he did it,” because that’s the way that he was.

Jordan Smith: But the murders of Bennett and Browning were a different story.

Liliana Segura: The evidence against Hercules Brown for the Bennett-Browning murders was strong. Two witnesses, Lloyd Crumley and Corbit Belflower — a.k.a. Cornbread — saw him and another man fleeing the store just after the murders. They also recorded the license plate number of the getaway car, a car known to belong to Hercules. Less than an hour after the killings, cops pulled him over in that car. But none of that stopped Hercules from trying to deny he had anything to do with it.

Jordan Smith: The investigation was being led by Jamy Steinberg, the GBI agent who’d handled the Donna Brown case. He’d talked to Hercules Brown during that investigation too, for about a hot minute. When Hercules was brought in for questioning in connection with the slaying of Bennett and Browning, Steinberg said he remembered him from back in 1998. Hercules feigned ignorance. Said his name was Al Railey. When Steinberg called in Jimmy Hill, the Adel PD detective, to positively ID him, Hercules relented. Yes, that was his name. But he swore he knew nothing about any double murder. He was booked into jail anyway. As police and prosecutors built a murder case against Hercules, there was one piece they couldn’t seem to figure out. Who was the second man with him that day? The man Crumley and Cornbread saw leaving the store and carrying a baseball bat? There was talk around town that the accomplice was Wesley Mason, a 21-year-old who lived not far from Bennett’s Cash and Carry and who worked with Hercules at the aluminum finishing plant in town.

Gail Bennett: I was very frustrated. As you know, it’s a small community.

Jordan Smith: Even the victim’s wife, Gail Bennett, had heard that Mason had a hand in her husband’s death.

Gail Bennett: We all knew who the second one was.

Jordan Smith: But it didn’t appear that Steinberg was in much of a hurry to figure it out. More than two months would pass before he finally brought Mason in for questioning. Mason denied any involvement and was released. Gail couldn’t understand it. She was frustrated. She pressed Steinberg for answers and she said he didn’t like that.

Gail Bennett: It took almost four or five weeks for the GBI to even talk to me. And that was after really showing my behind and sending letters and this and that and he came and he was very ugly and he looked at me and said, “I don’t have to tell you anything.” And I told him, I said, “No, Jamy, you don’t, but you will answer to my girls.” I said probably because of the connections we had, I probably knew more than he did.

Liliana Segura: None of this was exactly surprising. After Donna Brown was killed, Steinberg and his team ignored what they’d been told about Hercules Brown being responsible. Instead they cobbled together a sad array of questionable evidence to support their theory that Devonia Inman was guilty. And the family of Shailesh Patel says that the GBI didn’t even bother to talk to them for days after Patel was killed in April of 2000. The GBI still hasn’t solved that crime. And now, with the brazen murder of Bennett and Browning, Steinberg appeared to be sitting on his heels, ignoring the talk around town about Mason’s involvement.

Jordan Smith: I know you said Jamie said he didn’t have to give you any information, but did he ever explain anything about why it was taking so long?

Gail Bennett: Nope. They didn’t, they never would explain anything to me.

Liliana Segura: Part of the problem was Hercules Brown. He insisted he had nothing to do with the crime. So, naturally, he didn’t say a word about Wesley Mason. Even so, it seemed inevitable that Hercules would be convicted. Not only was there the positive ID by Crumley and Cornbread, there was also DNA evidence. The blood stains found on the white Nikes and blue jeans that Hercules was wearing that day matched William Bennett.

Jordan Smith: And after four murders, the people of Adel seemed ready for someone to pay. Charles Shiver works for the local paper, the Adel News-Tribune. He’s written a lot about crime, including the murders of Donna Brown and Shailesh Patel and the bludgeoning of Bennett and Browning. The ongoing violence had rocked the town.

Charles Shiver: It just seemed like the community was darkening, or I don’t know how to put it … At least some parts of it, you know?

Jordan Smith: In the summer of 2001, Devonia Inman had come within inches of being sentenced to death on far flimsier evidence than what the state had against Hercules and now the Bennett family was pushing hard for the death penalty. So just before his trial was scheduled to start, Hercules cut a deal with the prosecutors. He told them that Wesley Mason had helped him to rob the Cash and Carry and to kill Bennett and Browning. Actually, he said more than that. He said the whole thing had been Mason’s idea. Sure, he’d thrown the cash register at Lloyd Crumley. But that was Mason’s idea. And it was Mason who had beaten Bennett and Browning to death and who whacked the railroad conductor so hard that part of his scalp peeled back. Hercules said it was all Mason’s doing. In Hercules’ version of events, he was just a hapless victim too, in the wrong place at the wrong time. In exchange for his story, he was given a sentence of life without parole. Now, Wesley Mason was the only one facing a possible death sentence.

Liliana Segura: The prosecutors went for it, but there was every reason to question Hercules’ story. Apparently he and Mason knew each other only casually — as one tends to know everyone in a small town. So it was hard to imagine why Hercules Brown would agree to partner up with him to kill two people.

Liliana Segura: When police finally got Mason to talk, he flatly denied being involved in the murders. He said he went to the store with Hercules that day, but had no clue that anything was going to happen. Once they got inside the store, he said Hercules just went crazy.

Laura Mason: Hello?

Jordan Smith: Hi, I was trying to reach Laura Mason.

Liliana Segura: We tracked down Mason’s mom.

Laura Mason: Speaking.

Jordan Smith: Ms. Mason, My name is Jordan Smith and I’m a reporter-

Liliana Segura: She didn’t want to talk to us.

Laura Mason: You got the wrong person.

Jordan Smith: You’re not related to Wesley Mason?

Laura Mason: I am, but I don’t have anything to say, ma’am, I’m sorry.

Jordan Smith: Oh, did she hang up…

Liliana Segura: I think she hung up.

Jordan Smith: Yeah.

Liliana Segura:  We all know about the right to an attorney and that if you can’t afford one, the state will provide one for you. But when a person faces the death penalty, a whole different attorney apparatus kicks in. Defense lawyers who specialize in fighting capital cases.

Jordan Smith: Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to be. Wesley Mason was appointed two attorneys. They were two very different people, with very different experience. The lead counselor was a local guy. A prosecutor from a neighboring county who handled misdemeanors. The second lawyer was Josh Moore.

Josh Moore: Okay. My name is Josh Moore and I represent clients facing the death penalty all across the state, have done about 15 years now.

Jordan Smith: He’s actually the appellate director for the Office of the Georgia Capital Defender. It’s a state office with attorneys who represent indigent clients. That’s pretty much everyone facing the death penalty. He’s sharp and to-the-point. The kind of guy that you know does not suffer fools lightly. When Moore got appointed, one of the first things he worried about was that Mason couldn’t possibly get a fair trial. For starters, a prosecutor had been tapped to lead the defense. It sounds bizarre, but Moore says that’s just about par for the course in South Georgia. Then there’s the fact that the crime had captivated the town. There was a lot of local press about it, much of it angry and vengeful.

Josh Moore: You’re dealing with Cook County, Georgia. This is not a place where the judicial system runs in any kind of recognizable way to most lawyers, right? And so there was no, you know- the notion of Wesley Mason getting a fair trial in Cook County, Georgia was almost laughable.

Jordan Smith: Moore also needed to figure out whether his client was actually responsible for murdering Bennett and Browning. Because when two people are accused of committing a crime, who exactly did what can mean the difference between an acquittal and a conviction. Or in this case, between life and death.

Josh Moore: So we were dealing with a client who had professed his innocence to the police when they interrogated him but admitted his presence. And so the question was, how much of it was Wesley Mason and how much of it was Hercules Brown?

Liliana Segura: It didn’t take long for Moore to reach a conclusion.

Josh Moore: It was absolutely clear based on the evidence in this case that Hercules Brown was the primary moving force behind this case.

Liliana Segura: So he started looking more deeply into Hercules Brown. And pretty soon, he heard about another murder Hercules had supposedly committed.

Josh Moore: I started focusing on what I was hearing about Hercules Brown and very quickly I was hearing that Hercules Brown had committed a previous murder and that was the Taco Bell case that Devonia Inman was convicted for.

Liliana Segura: But he’d also heard another rumor. That Hercules might’ve been involved with the unsolved murder of Shailesh Patel.

Josh Moore: I think it was somebody, maybe an Indian fellow who got murdered, maybe like a television or an air conditioner smashed over his head. I can’t really remember it very well.

Liliana Segura: The Patel murder.

Josh Moore: That’s what people were saying about Hercules that he had committed both of those two murders prior to the Bennett murder.

Liliana Segura: Moore stepped up his investigation. If he could show that Hercules had blood on his hands already, it would, at the very least, suggest something about his propensity for violence. The investigation didn’t last long.

Josh Moore: I started aggressively investigating the Taco Bell case in fairly short order and Clark Landrum, who was lead counsel on the case, basically got wind of it, I think from the GBI agents. I mean, this is a guy who is a prosecutor so… and had said to me, “You’re a real curious guy. I don’t know why you keep looking into this stuff.” And I explained to him why I thought it was important and he said, “Well, I’m directing you to stop looking into it anymore. And I’m lead counsel and I make that decision.”

Jordan Smith: Yup. You heard that right. The man who was the lead attorney appointed to represent Mason told Moore to quit investigating something that could save their client’s life. Moore said that lawyer, Clark Landrum, even wrote him an official letter laying it all out. Moore couldn’t find the letter when we visited him. And for his part, Landrum told us in an email that Moore’s version of events wasn’t accurate, that he didn’t tell Moore to stop doing anything.

The whole thing came to a head in a meeting with the judge assigned to preside over Mason’s case. The judge himself tried to kick Moore off the defense team. Moore was indignant. His client didn’t want Landrum defending him. He wanted Moore.

Josh Moore: I had said to the judge maybe there’s some confusion here, but we’re representing Mr. Mason and we’re not asking for any money from you, so you have absolutely no authority to bar me from having contact with him, he’s my client. The judge eventually understood that he was not going to be able to stop that and just said, “Well, I guess there’s not much that I can do, but you better sure as hell not ask for any money from me because I’m not giving you any money, but if you want to keep representing him on your own dime, then do it.”

Jordan Smith: Moore ended up representing Mason for free.

Liliana Segura: But then, a deal. The District Attorney was Bob Ellis, the same man who had prosecuted Devonia Inman for the murder of Donna Brown. He made Mason an offer: Plead guilty and no death penalty. Instead, life in prison. Mason took the deal.

Josh Moore: As you have seen, I’m sure, in looking into this again, a lot of doors close in your face and so ultimately whether we were in a position to prove that he did this other murder or not, you know, we didn’t follow that trail all the way through to the end.

Liliana Segura: Of course, Josh Moore wasn’t the first person to hear that Hercules Brown had been responsible for the murder at the Taco Bell. Back then, a lot of people in Adel said it was him.

Jordan Smith: Jamy Steinberg, the GBI agent, talked to Hercules the day after Donna Brown was murdered. It isn’t exactly clear why. He didn’t ask him much, save for whether he knew if Donna Brown had been having any man trouble. Hercules said, not as far as he knew. And that was it. According to the GBI report that was the only time anyone interviewed Hercules Brown. Nobody ever followed up. And we could never figure out why. We’d wondered about this from the start. Why did police and prosecutors ignore Hercules? It didn’t make any sense. Until we talked to Tim Eidson, one of the prosecutors who tried Devonia Inman. And we realized, again, it apparently came back to his mother. Lucinda Brown.

Tim Eidson: She gave an alibi for him. She gave an alibi and there wasn’t any reason to disbelieve her at the time, I mean, she was a well-respected citizen.

Jordan Smith: According to Eidson, this is what Lucinda told him.

Tim Eidson: At the time of the Taco Bell murder, Hercules Brown was at home asleep.

Jordan Smith: They never did anything to investigate or to corroborate her story, which is crazy. Imagine a murder in your neighborhood. There’s a suspect everyone is pointing at. And the police, they just ignore it. Because his mom tells them he’s at home in bed.

Liliana Segura: If they hadn’t been so quick to accept Lucinda Brown’s alibi for her own son, there would have been plenty to look at. But before we get into that, it might be useful to review the case against Devonia Inman. You might remember, it’s pretty flimsy. There’s the testimony of an incoherent drug dealer. Several teenagers who later recanted. Information from a jailhouse snitch who used the occasion to ask for leniency. And a newspaper carrier with a wholly unbelievable story who collected a five-thousand dollar reward for her “information.”

Jordan Smith: Then there’s the evidence against Hercules Brown. Hercules actually worked at the Taco Bell with the victim. He even handled the closing shift, so he would’ve known how the whole closing process worked. Then there’s the fact that Hercules actually talked about robbing the Taco Bell. Including Takeisha Pickett, one of his co-workers. Pickett is Devonia Inman’s cousin.

Takeisha Pickett: Me and him is the same age. We always been close. We always been close.

Jordan Smith: She worked as a night manager at Taco Bell for a while. One of the people she supervised was Hercules Brown. She says he tried to convince her to help him rob the place.

Takeisha Pickett: Yea, he gave me a ride home one night and then we came in for a little while. And that’s when he brought the conversation that was like, “Man, you should let me rob you one night,” or whatever. And I was like, “Man, there ain’t enough money to get robbed from there.” And, you know, we kind of- I brushed it off always and left it at that.

Jordan Smith: Neither the cops nor the GBI investigators took it any further than that. They didn’t investigate Pickett’s story and she didn’t get to testify at Inman’s trial. And she wasn’t the only one who told the cops they had information about the murder and then didn’t get to testify.

Liliana Segura: One man, Thomas Dewayne Edwards, a friend of Hercules Brown, even told the investigators that Hercules had confessed to him: Hercules told him that he shot Donna Brown with a single .44 caliber bullet. Edwards said Hercules told him that he wore a mask during the crime, because Donna Brown knew him as an employee at the Taco Bell. He said he wore a mask. Right after Donna Brown was killed, the cops found her car in a nearby parking lot. There was a lot of evidence in it—the keys, the purse, the fingerprints, and a mask, made from a piece of gray sweatpants.

Jordan Smith: At the time of the murder, nobody looked at it. In fact, nobody even realized it was there until nearly two weeks later. Even though you can clearly see it in the crime scene photos. And certainly, it was never tested for fingerprints or DNA. In 2002, Devonia Inman was in prison. Just starting his life sentence there. He was desperate and despairing. He wrote to the Georgia Innocence Project, which works to exonerate the wrongly convicted. The lawyers there started looking into his case right away. They were astonished by the quality of the investigation—the recanting witnesses, the lack of physical evidence. They devoured the transcripts. And the police reports. And they began a search for evidence they could test for DNA. Finally, they found the mask, and in 2011, it was tested. There was DNA from a single source.

Liliana Segura: Hercules Brown. Aimee Maxwell, the former head of the Georgia Innocence Project, remembers the video of Steinberg interviewing Hercules Brown in prison about why his DNA might be on the mask.

Jamy Steinberg: Have you ever been with Devonia Inman and had a mask on? Because it didn’t come back with any other DNA, I mean it came back with…

Liliana Segura: In the video, Hercules sits on a bench wearing white prison scrubs. White cinder block wall behind him. His head is shaved, his face impassive. Sometimes he seems bored. Even as Steinberg backs him into a corner. At first, Maxwell says, she thought Steinberg was trying to feed Hercules the ‘right’ answer.

Aimee Maxwell: But, he says no I barely knew Devonia, he was an acquaintance.

Liliana Segura: Maxwell remembers him saying.

Aimee Maxwell: I knew who he was but we didn’t hang out. I’ve never given him a mask, he’s never taken a mask, and so by the end, I realized it was this genius interrogation because they gave him all the outs. He took none of them. So they backed him into a corner and he has no place to go from now.

Liliana Segura: There was basically no way for Hercules to argue that Devonia Inman had killed Donna Brown and that he, Hercules, was innocent. In 2014, Devonia Inman was finally granted a hearing to ask for a new trial, in light of the evidence that had emerged.

Jordan Smith: On the next episode of Murderville: Devonia Inman goes back to court. But will the new evidence exonerate him?

Liliana Segura: Murderville, Georgia is a production of The Intercept and Topic Studios. Alisa Roth is our producer. Ben Adair is our editor. Sound design, editing, and mixing by Bryan Pugh. Production assistance from Isabel Robertson. Our executive producer is Leital Molad. For The Intercept, Roger Hodge is our editor and Betsy Reed is the editor-in-chief. I’m Liliana Segura. And I’m Jordan Smith. You can read our series and see photos at theintercept.com/murderville. You can also follow us on Twitter @lilianasegura and @chronic_jordan. Talk to you next week.