Drew Browne’s family and friends had not seen or heard from him since the night he ran off into the woods behind his parents’ home near Martin Middle School in May 2014.
Drew, who was 23 at the time, was agitated about something that night and was holding a hunting rifle and his father’s .38-caliber handgun when his parents, Martha and John Browne, came home.
Martha called 911 when Drew tried to get on his motorcycle with the guns. When a police officer pulled up, Drew took off on foot into the dark, down the hill toward the city’s Ridge Road swimming pool and the middle school beyond, still carrying the guns.
More police officers arrived, and as they fanned out to search for Drew, his parents and his older brother Lee called the flip phone he was carrying, urging him to come home. Drew told them he would be OK, but spoke quietly and sounded winded. He ended the last call to his mother by saying he was going to turn off the phone so police couldn’t use it to track him.
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A short time later, two police officers at Martin Middle School heard a gunshot that sounded like it came from the woods. It was close enough that the officers thought someone might be shooting at them, and they took cover, John Browne said.
The search for Drew continued through the night and the following day. A ping from a cellphone tower later suggested to police that Drew had made his last phone call near an apartment complex off Wycliff Road, across the Beltline, and the search area was widened.
Throughout that summer, Martha Browne walked through the woods behind the middle school and the pool. She grew up in the house on Thomas Road where Drew was last seen and had played in those woods as a child. So had Drew.
As the years wore on, the family agonized about Drew’s disappearance. Martha Browne would perk up every time she saw someone who looked like him. Cold, rainy nights were the worst, wondering where he might be.
“Not knowing anything is just a horrible way to deal with something like this,” she said.
Last spring, Martha and John Browne saw a segment on “Dateline,” the TV show, about a private investigator from Smithfield who had found the body of a Fort Bragg combat medic who had been missing for two years. David Marshburn was describing how he persuaded a suspect in the case to confess to killing Kelli Bordeaux and tell him where she was buried in 2014.
The Brownes were impressed by Marshburn’s confidence. They had thought about hiring a private investigator to search for their son, but never had. Here was a guy who sounded like he could help.
“I said ‘Johnny, you have got to call him.’ ” Martha said. “’ ‘I know this guy is going to find our Drew. I know he is. Call him, Johnny.’ ”
Marshburn and his assistant, Marsha E. Ward, run Marshburn’s Investigation Agency and make their living tracking down people who jump bail and other fugitives. He thinks that he has a gift for finding missing people and says he won’t take money from their families, except to recommend a donation to the Search For Me Foundation, which he founded with Chris Thomas, the father of a man who went missing in Benson in late 2016. (Three men have been charged with crimes related to Thomas’ death, but his body has never been found.)
Marshburn agreed to look for Drew, but not until winter, when the underbrush would be dead, and only on a day when school wasn’t in session. In the meantime, he did background work, including scouring the internet for some digital signs that Drew was still alive.
Two days after Christmas, Marshburn and Ward drove to Raleigh and followed a small stream into the woods between the middle school and Ridge Road pool. They considered it a preliminary visit, to get a lay of things before they came back with their tracking dogs for a proper search.
After about a half hour, Marshburn came to a steep rise that led up to the school bus turnaround at Martin Middle School. Because Drew had been missing for so long, Marshburn was scanning the ground for a turtle-shell shape that would indicate a skull.
But what caught his eye first up that wooded slope was the sole of a shoe, then a bit of cloth that looked like pants, then a skull. As Marshburn got closer, there were more bones, not all together but still in the unmistakable silhouette of a body. The skull was face down, partly embedded into the ground.
A few feet away were a pair of glasses, folded and lying on top of the leaves. John and Lee Browne were at a Tractor Supply store in Wendell when John’s cellphone rang.
“I’ll never forget it,” John said. “Just after 11 o’clock, he said, ‘I’ve found your son.’ ”
Marshburn texted him a photo of the glasses, unmistakably Drew’s, as was the Vans shoe. John and Lee picked up Martha and they headed toward the school.
Marshburn then tried to call the Raleigh police detective on the case, Zeke Morse, but got his voicemail. Marshburn didn’t want to call 911, because he knew the TV stations monitor that and would show up before the remains could be removed.
For more than 4 1/2 years, Drew’s body lay in a thicket about 40 feet from the turnaround at Martin Middle School.
“I was out here all that summer, and it was very thick. I couldn’t get through here,” Martha Browne said recently, standing just down the slope from where her son had apparently died that night in May 2014. “I walked right down that hill twice right past him and didn’t even know.
“It’s just heartbreaking. It’s just heartbreaking.”
Police carefully cleared the area around Drew’s remains but found no sign of the rifle and handgun that he carried into the woods that night.
Marshburn says they may have gotten buried by mud and debris washing down the slope, or someone may have found them without reporting it. The fact that Drew’s glasses lay folded atop the leaves several feet from his body suggests someone might have come upon him at some point.
Police have not said yet how Drew died. His remains were sent to a medical examiner for an autopsy, and the Brownes have been told that an anthropologist at N.C. State University has gotten involved to help determine when and why he died.
Another unanswered question hanging over Drew’s death is why police could not find him in more than four years, when it took Marshburn only half an hour. The Raleigh Police Department is not commenting on the case until it is closed, which won’t happen until the time and cause of death have been determined.
But the Brownes and Marshburn aren’t too hard on the police. Drew appears to have crawled into a place where he knew he wouldn’t be seen, under thick underbrush. All sorts of balls at the bottom of the slope indicate that students and teachers didn’t venture down there either; when a basketball or softball went into the woods, it was considered lost for good.
And the ping from the cellphone tower threw police off, widening the search when it should have been concentrated on the woods. Marshburn thinks someone simply miscalculated the direction of the cellphone signal and that Drew never made it across the Beltline that night.
After Drew’s remains were taken away, Martha Browne tied a bandana to a branch on the closest tree, and Drew’s friends have added about two dozen more in a memorial for him.
The family plans to hold a memorial service for Drew on Thursday, Feb. 7, at 2 p.m. at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church off Canterbury Road. They want people to know that as tragic as Drew’s death was they consider finding him a blessing.
And they credit David Marshburn.
“This man brought my son home to me,” Martha Browne said, putting her arm around Marshburn and fighting back tears. “He didn’t come home the way I had hoped, but he brought him home. I’m so grateful.”