LARGO – The instant message arrived at 9.42am that night in mid-August of last year.
“Lucky with your boy?” It said.
Professional puppeteer Ronald William Brown, according to a federal criminal complaint, had been chatting online for months with the Kansas man who had just asked him this question.
“No,” Brown replied, “I still want to eat it.”
He and the boy, according to the authorities, went to the church in Largo together. The complaint states that Brown had fantasized about the boy’s kidnapping and murder. Kansas man Michael Arnett told Brown he had murdered children before, according to the complaint, so Brown sought advice.
Brown: “Would you just knock him out?”
Arnett: “It would be the best way, for a boy of his age and height yes.”
Brown: “With something? Your fist? Or what?”
Arnett: “A good blow to the back of the head, preferably with something like blackjack.”
Brown: “So just throw it over your shoulder and carry it.”
Last week, when federal prosecutors charged Brown, a 57-year-old Largo resident, with possession of child pornography and conspiracy to kidnap the child, he insisted he was only writing down his fantasies. It was just an online conversation between two men who shared a common, albeit horrifying, interest in the idea of ââsnatching, killing, and eating children.
But an expert who has studied murderers and sexual predators for decades said behavior like Brown’s may indicate more dangerous – and real – intentions.
Kathleen Heide, a professor of criminology at the University of South Florida, declined to discuss Brown’s case specifically, but did address hypothetical scenarios corresponding to what authorities say Brown did and said.
Child predators, she said, don’t often execute their ideas immediately after first having them. The steps are incremental.
They seek to have access to the child, often alone. They test the limits of what the child is going to do with them. The interactions may at first seem harmless: kissing, tickling, sharing a board game.
She compared the process to someone jumping into a cold pool. The water becomes less and less unpleasant as the person sinks down.
“The predator,” she said, “he increases his comfort zone.”
Authorities have presented no evidence that Brown actually harmed children. But he certainly had frequent contact with them – mostly boys – where he lived at the Whispering Pines mobile home park in Largo.
Brown regularly had between half a dozen and a dozen neighborhood kids in his house for pizza and soda. He would take them in a van to Gulf Coast Church in Largo for activities such as basketball or live music.
Anthony Cummings, 13, lives with his mother and boyfriend on the corner of Brown’s house in the mobile home park. Cummings began attending Brown’s Wednesday night dinner and church outings several weeks ago.
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Inside Brown’s house, Anthony said, was a collection of toys and devices to impress young people. Brown owned machines that made cotton candy, popcorn, and snow cones. Puppets hung from the ceiling.
âHe never touched me or anything, but every once in a while when we ate pizza he would rub his arm over my shoulder,â Anthony said. “I was a little weird… He was patting me on the back and just giving me that weird smile.”
Anthony’s mother Lexis Cummings said something about Brown triggered her “motherly sense.” She said he looked odd just walking down the street to Whispering Pines, taking baby steps with his hips thrust forward and arched back.
“I saw him around the neighborhood,” she said, “and the hairs on my neck were standing on end.”
Michelle House, a 12-year-old girl who also lives in the mobile home park, stood out among the otherwise boyish crowd that gathered at Brown’s house.
âPeople thought he was scary,â she said, but was drawn to his meetings by the promise of three Pizza Hut pies, sure to be provided. She also liked trips to church.
Her mother, Sharmaine House, said she thought something was “strange” about Brown, so she asked her daughter if he was acting inappropriately with her. Michelle said he was nice, although calm.
There was one thing about Brown’s house that Michelle found unusual.
âFor some reason he didn’t want me to walk into that room,â she said. “It smelled really bad.”
Anthony agreed: There was a room, where Brown kept a lot of his puppets, that he didn’t allow any of his young guests to enter. Anthony said the stench behind the door was stale, like the smell of old sweat.
In light of Brown’s relationships with the children who surrounded his home, an excerpt from his online dialogue with Arnett stands out.
âTrailer parks and low-rental housing are great breeding grounds even for the little ones who aren’t as well supervised,â Arnett said, according to the complaint against Brown.
âI noticed some,â Brown replied.
Predators, Heide says, often seek out other people who share their sordid desires. It makes them feel like their feelings are normal and okay
The more the person imagines the fantasy, she added, the more likely they are to execute it.
Brown and Arnett, according to the federal criminal complaint prepared by agents of the US Department of Homeland Security, regularly discussed their addictions via online chat.
Brown, who has no criminal record in Florida, is charged with possession of child pornography, but told officers his real interest was not in pornography but in the “morgue photos” and that he was part of the of a “choke group” on Yahoo. Agents found an online profile they believe to be of Brown in which he declares his interest: “I love them young and dead.”
Arnett was arrested in May by officers in Kansas City. A criminal complaint in the case indicates that officers believe he was producing child pornography in his home. They grabbed a photo that shows a toddler sitting in a roasting pan inside an oven.
Given the shocking allegations against Brown, some probably think authorities have an open and closed case. It may not be true.
“He says this is all just a fantasy,” said local defense lawyer Douglas de Vlaming. “If this is just talk and he’s part of a group of people who fantasize about kidnapping, killing and eating children – terrible as it sounds, if he doesn’t it is only to speak, it is only to speak. “
Some legal experts have questioned the strength of the government’s claim that Brown conspired to kidnap the boy. This accusation requires two elements: at least two people must conspire to kidnap someone, and they must also commit an overt act that promotes the conspiracy.
For example, if a group of men discuss the bank robbery, they have not committed any crime. If they’re going to buy guns and masks and get blueprints from the bank, they’ve committed a crime.
The government’s complaint against Brown does not clearly identify an overt act, but experts agreed that a detail might be admissible. Brown, according to records, told investigators that Arnett had previously been to Florida and attempted to contact him. Brown said he never responded because he didn’t want to fulfill his fantasy. Even if that happened, lawyers say, it still wouldn’t be a clear crime.
“If it hadn’t been for the fact that it was incredibly horrible, one wonders if they would have even bothered to accuse him of conspiracy,” said Jennifer Zedalis, professor at the law school. from the University of Florida. “Maybe they have more proof.”
Authorities say the other charge, possession of child pornography, carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
According to records, investigators found in Brown’s possession images of boys being naked, tied up and gagged. Brown also admitted to authorities that he had received and seen photographs of children who had sex with each other or had, in some cases, died.