James Brown’s lawyer breaks silence as DA weighs potential death investigation
Written by Craig Richardson on March 3, 2020
Days after an Atlanta prosecutor said he would consider opening a formal investigation into James Brown’s death, Brown’s longtime attorney said he would have no objection if authorities wanted to examine the singer’s remains.”Exhume him,” Buddy Dallas said in a phone interview on February 24, his first comments to CNN since news of a potential investigation surfaced. “I don’t have any feeling about it one way or another.”Dallas has said little to the media since CNN published my investigative series on Brown in early 2019. He declined to answer questions for that series, citing advice from his own attorney.But on the morning of February 24, he texted me a link to a February 14 story from the celebrity news website TMZ that said Fulton County District Attorney Paul L. Howard Jr. was wasting his time examining Brown’s death. Dallas followed up with a phone call. I asked what he thought about the fact that more than a dozen people had called for an autopsy or a criminal investigation.”If he’s got something to base it on,” Dallas said of the prosecutor, “let him exhume the body.”Many late celebrities have public gravesites where fans can pay their respects. But with the Godfather of Soul, nothing is that simple. After his death in Atlanta in 2006, Brown’s remains were apparently placed in a crypt outside the home of his daughter Deanna Brown Thomas near Aiken, South Carolina.In 2010, another daughter alleged that the crypt was empty. In 2018, when I asked Deanna Brown Thomas about this claim, she neither confirmed nor denied it. In 2019, I asked Russell Bauknight, the executor of Brown’s estate, where Brown’s body was. “No comment,” he replied. In late February, I asked Dallas where the body was. He said that as far as he knew, it was still on the daughter’s property.But it was obvious why Dallas had contacted me. He saw the TMZ story as confirmation that James Brown wasn’t murdered. A crucial part of my investigative series was an interview with Marvin Crawford, the doctor who signed Brown’s death certificate.
Dr. Marvin Crawford signed James Brown’s death certificate.In 2017, Crawford told me about his suspicion that Brown’s death was caused by a toxic substance. The TMZ story included a purported quote from Dr. Crawford: “CNN said I said that but I didn’t say that about the drugs.”When I asked Crawford if TMZ had quoted him accurately, he referred me to Goldie Taylor, a spokeswoman for Morehouse School of Medicine, where Crawford teaches. She told me, “He’s now in the middle of something that he never intended to be in the middle of.” She added, “He’s going to talk about it in a court of law, if he’s compelled to.”Indeed, Crawford would be an important witness in an investigation of Brown’s death. So would Andre White, a longtime friend of Brown who told me in 2017 he believed Brown had been murdered.On February 12, when a songwriter named Jacque Hollander told prosecutors her suspicions about Brown’s death, she suggested they talk to Crawford and White. The DA expressed interest in interviewing them. But Hollander said that when she spoke to them years earlier, both men seemed afraid.For years, White had claimed to have a vial of Brown’s blood he’d taken from the hospital in the moments after Brown’s death. Hollander told the district attorney she’d urged White to bring the blood to his office for testing.”To your knowledge,” Howard asked her, “that blood to date has not been tested?””It has not,” Hollander said. “He told me that if he did, they were gonna kill him. That if he brought that blood in, he signed his death certificate.”
Before they were quoted in the series that CNN published in February 2019, both men seemed eager to solve what they considered the mystery of James Brown’s death. That changed after the story was published. White didn’t return my calls or text messages.Finally, I knocked on his door, and he answered, and he angrily told me to go away. I went away, trying to reconcile that Andre White with the one who told me he would fight until he died trying to find out what happened to James Brown.Likewise, Dr. Crawford told me he’d stopped looking for answers in Brown’s death. “I received good wise counsel,” he said on the phone in May 2019. “‘Leave it alone, Marvin.'”Given the DA’s interest in the case, it is worth revisiting what Crawford and White told me. Until now, CNN has published only a small fraction of those interviews.
Andre White and Dr. Marvin Crawford at First Saint Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Lithonia, Georgia, in 2017.
‘It could’ve got him killed’
I first called them in the summer of 2017, after Hollander told me they’d shared their suspicions with her. I was surprised when White agreed to meet, and even more surprised when he said Crawford would join us.”I’m talking to you against the advice of everybody,” White said on the phone. On August 23, as we sat in White’s car and waited for Crawford, he hinted that some parts of the story would never come to light.”It’s just certain things that I have to take to my grave,” he said.The doctor arrived. We walked into the sanctuary of First Saint Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, where Crawford served as pastor. Crawford and White sat on a pew and told the story together.Crawford had been White’s doctor since the ’90s, and White had been James Brown’s friend for decades. Brown was ill in December 2006, and White persuaded him to see Crawford at a hospital in Atlanta.Crawford said he treated Brown on December 23 for a mild heart attack and a mild case of congestive heart failure.”And he improved fast,” Crawford said. “Boom boom boom … By 5 o’clock on the 24th, I mean, he probably could have walked out of the hospital if he had wanted. But we wouldn’t let him go. We wouldn’t tell him to go yet.”
It was Christmas Eve. Crawford and White went home to their families; Brown stayed at the hospital to continue his recovery. Around 1 a.m., Crawford got a phone call: Brown had stopped breathing. Crawford said he rushed back to the hospital, turning questions over in his mind.”He changed too fast,” Crawford said. “He was a patient I would never have predicted would have coded. … But he died that night, and I did raise that question: What went wrong in that room?”
Brown was dead at age 73. The official causes were heart attack and fluid in the lungs. Crawford wanted to know why Brown had taken such a sudden turn for the worse, so he spoke with Brown’s daughter Yamma about having an autopsy done. She declined the autopsy. When I asked her about that decision in 2018, she did not answer the question.Also notable to Crawford and White was the behavior of Yamma’s husband, Darren Lumar.”They threatened to call security on her husband at the time he arrived,” Crawford said. “Because he was irate. He accused them of killing James Brown.”
Lumar, like many others in Brown’s orbit, apparently made the allegation without naming the alleged culprits. In stories involving James Brown, “they” and “them” often make ominous appearances.”I was surprised he said it so open and so boldly,” Crawford said, “but he sure said it.”
LISTEN: “They killed him”
“I can’t say for sure,” White added, “but it could’ve got him killed.”White said it in passing, almost casually, as if I would know what he meant. And I did. A few months after Brown’s death, Lumar appeared on local TV news and called for an investigation. He had also made enemies in his business dealings. He was shot to death in 2008 in what police said appeared to be a contract killing. No one has been charged with his murder.I don’t know who killed Darren Lumar, or why. The authorities have never publicly named a suspect. But Andre White, a longtime resident of the James Brown ecosystem, saw the chronology and wondered. Someone killed James Brown. Darren Lumar wouldn’t shut up about James Brown’s murder. And then someone silenced him forever.
Andre White is a longtime friend of James Brown.
The mysterious vial of blood
No one could blame you for being skeptical of White’s story about receiving the vial of James Brown’s blood. I’ve never seen the blood, much less had it analyzed, so I can’t say for sure that it ever existed. But what stands out to me on repeated listening is the way Crawford helps White tell the story.”Whenever he died — ” White said.”– about two o’clock in the morning, two, three o’clock in the morning,” Crawford interjected.”In between the death and him going –” White said.”– to the morgue,” Crawford said.”To the morgue,” White said, and got on with the story. Inside Brown’s hospital room, shortly after Brown died, a hospital worker told him she suspected that something unusual had happened to Brown.”She says, ‘That’s residue in that tube … And if you think I’m lying, let me get a vial of blood and give it to you.'”
LISTEN: “Let me get a vial of blood and give it to you”
Hoping to clarify, I cut in with a question: “So the two of you are standing in Brown’s — like, above his body, basically?””In the room,” Crawford said, answering the question I’d asked White.”And this woman is looking at one of the breathing tubes,” I said, “or what would you call it –“”IV line,” Crawford said.”And she says to you she thinks what — it’s drug residue?” I asked White.”That’s all she was thinking,” Crawford answered for White again.When asked, both men said they didn’t know the woman’s identity.”She’s a nurse,” Crawford said. “She’s one of the RNs on the floor…I don’t know her name, though.”White continued his story. He said the nurse expressed suspicion to him about a man who had apparently visited Brown’s hospital room shortly before he died, and then she mentioned again what appeared to be “residue” in Brown’s IV line.”Right,” Crawford said, listening as White told the story.”‘And I’ll tell you what I’ll do,'” White said the nurse told him. “Let me get some blood and I’ll give you a tube. And you get it tested.'””And she gave it to me,” White said. “‘Don’t get me in trouble.’ That’s what she said to me.”I asked White exactly where the blood came from.”Out of Mr. Brown,” White said.”Draw it out of the IV line,” Crawford said. “Just draw it out of the IV line.”I asked White to describe the vial of blood.”I ain’t gonna tell you everything,” White said, and Crawford laughed. (Later, I asked White to give me the vial of blood so CNN could have it tested, but White declined.)”When the officials come,” White said, “and I know they’re who they are, it’s gonna be tested.””Yes sir,” Crawford said.”And doc knows,” White said.White thought about the death of his friend, and he struggled with emotion.”In the hospital, being cared for, and you kill ’em,” he said. “That’s no way to treat a dog. Especially somebody that I love? I’m gonna fight ’til I die trying to find out what happened.”
People line up to pay their respects to James Brown during a public viewing at the Apollo Theater in New York in 2006.
‘Somebody could’ve killed him’
Crawford and White’s story raised one obvious question: Why didn’t they immediately report their suspicions to the police?Their answers were complicated. They said they called Brown’s advisers David Cannon and Buddy Dallas in the hours after his death, and Cannon asked them not to go public with their suspicions. (Cannon did not respond to a list of questions from CNN. He died in 2018.)Crawford said it was possible that Brown had willingly taken illegal drugs in the hospital and, if so, the doctor believed his family had the right to keep it quiet.White said he did speak to friends connected with the Atlanta Police Department, but he maintained that he couldn’t get anyone interested in the case. An acquaintance in law enforcement confirmed to me that he helped White arrange a meeting with District Attorney Howard, but White said the meeting was postponed and never rescheduled.The APD has never conducted a formal investigation of Brown’s death. In 2017, according to spokesman Carlos Campos, “We received a telephone call from someone making claims about his death. We asked an investigator to follow up on one of the claims, which we were not able to substantiate.”Crawford said someone from the APD interviewed him around this time, and he referred the investigator to White. But it’s not clear whether anyone contacted White. I requested the documents under the Georgia Open Records Act, but Campos wrote back, “We have no records responsive to this request.”On May 25, 2018, I visited Dr. Crawford in his office at Morehouse School of Medicine. I wanted to show him some lab test results from the shoe of a woman who spent time with Brown in the last week of his life. (The back story on the shoe is long and winding; you can read the whole thing in the third part of the series CNN published last year.)Whether the woman had been at the hospital with Brown the night he died was an open question — for her part, she denied it — but the test results showed traces of marijuana, cocaine and a drug called Diltiazem, which Crawford said he’d prescribed to Brown at the hospital.”It fits our picture,” Crawford said, looking at the lab report. “Of being highly suspicious that somebody perhaps could have given him an illicit substance that led to his death. We can’t say who or what, but that was always our suspicion. We said it over and over. I had to say it quietly, but — because we were not sure. We didn’t have that evidence you’re showing us now. Andre always said it, but I wouldn’t say it no more. Because I can’t say. But if that’s the case, then that’s highly likelihood somebody could’ve killed him.”
LISTEN: “Somebody could’ve killed him”
‘They got me’
After the series was published in early 2019, I got an email from Shana Quinones, a Los Angeles woman who said she worked for Brown and had an affair with him in the ’90s. She sent me a copy of her old business card, which showed she’d been president of James Brown West, a company that did publicity work on Brown’s behalf. I visited Quinones last May.Quinones had also gotten to know Charles Bobbit, Brown’s longtime personal manager. And in the years before his death in 2017 at the age of 87, she told me, Bobbit sometimes talked to her about the last hour of James Brown’s life.Bobbit told several versions of that story over the years. But he is widely known as one of the last people to see Brown alive. And when he talked about that night, Quinones says, his recollections were tinged with regret.Late that night, Bobbit left Brown’s room for a few minutes. He needed to make a phone call and get himself a bottle of Ensure. When Bobbit returned to the room, Brown said his chest was burning and he couldn’t breathe.It was not just Andre White and Jacque Hollander who talked about the sinister and anonymous “they” and “them.” According to Quinones, Brown did, too.Why did Charles Bobbit have lasting regrets about that night? This is Quinones’s explanation, based on what she says Bobbit told her: He was supposed to be watching Brown, keeping him safe, and he was haunted by the possibility that someone had done something to Brown while he was out of the room.”Mr. Bobbit, I’m gone,” Brown said just before he died. “They got me.”