Authorities Thursday provided new details on Wednesday’s hostage-taking north of Atlanta, including how the suspect — 55-year-old Lauren Brown — lured firefighters to his home.
Meanwhile, some who knew Brown said he’d suffered from disabling medical problems and was struggling financially, and that he had lived across the street from his ex-wife.
Gwinnett County Police Chief Charles Walters said Brown called 911 complaining of chest pains Wednesday afternoon, and five Gwinnett County firefighters arrived at 3:48 p.m., believing it was a routine call. Brown was lying in bed and appeared to be suffering from a condition that left him unable to move. But when they approached the bed to help him, he pulled out a handgun, Walters said.
Brown told his hostages he had spent weeks planning the ambush and targeted firefighters rather than police officers so he wouldn’t be shot, Walters said. Investigators found half a dozen guns in his house.
One of Brown’s first demands was to move the fire truck and ambulance from in front of his house, and he released one firefighter to accomplish that, police said.
Next he asked that power be restored to his house, which was in foreclosure; that his cellphone be reactivated; and that his cable and Internet service be turned back on. Police checked and learned that those services had all been deactivated due to non-payment. They worked with the utilities and companies to get them turned back on.
Then Brown asked for a meal to be brought in from a fast-food seafood restaurant for him and his hostages. But he had also asked about an hour earlier for police to bring tools and wood and to board up the windows and doors of his house from the outside.
“That was the one we couldn’t realistically meet,” Gwinnett police Cpl. Jake Smith said, adding that they didn’t want to fortify Brown inside with the hostages.
Instead, a SWAT officer carrying the food approached the house in Suwanee, about 35 miles northeast of Atlanta.
Other SWAT members set off a stun blast to distract Brown and stormed the house. Police said Brown opened fire on the first officer as he entered the bedroom. The man was hit in the left arm by one of the shots, but managed to return fire, killing Brown. Before Brown fired, police told him to drop his weapon, Walters said.
Thursday, it wasn’t immediately clear why Brown had lashed out. Brown had separated from his wife years earlier, but he had lived across the street from her, her new husband and Brown’s two children, according to neighbors and people who knew the family.
“We knew he wasn’t quite normal, but this is a real shock,” said David Books, a former colleague of Brown’s and a friend until they had a falling out years ago. He said he never noticed any signs that Brown could be violent.
Books said Brown’s mother eventually bought the house across from her son’s ex-wife so Brown could afford to live there.
“Having been a father myself, I can understand his desire to be as close to his children as possible, but given the acrimony between him and his wife — regardless of who might have been at fault — it looked to me like a situation that was going to turn out not to be very healthy,” he said.
Brown had worked for IBM, but described himself as disabled when he filed for bankruptcy protection in 2002, according to court documents. He reported that he owed more than $100,000 to Home Depot, banks and credit card companies. The records suggest Brown was tapping into his retirement savings to make ends meet. A series of tax liens had been placed on his home, which slipped into foreclosure in recent months.
Brown worked long hours as a system engineer at IBM in the 1990s, Books said. Brown told his colleagues that he developed fibromyalgia, a chronic condition characterized by widespread pain, and left work on a medical retirement. He later started working again.
“For a while, he was in so much pain that he couldn’t even think about working,” Books said.
He was arrested and booked into the Gwinnett County jail in 2010 after he failed to appear in court on a charge of striking an unmanned vehicle.
On Thursday, exposed wooden beams could be seen through a gaping hole in the side of the house and debris littered the yard. Public records indicate the red brick house with white siding has been bank-owned since mid-November.
A day earlier, fire officials did not believe there was any danger in responding to the initial call that seemed routine and they dispatched the usual one engine and one ambulance to the house.
After the hostage-taking was reported, dozens of police and rescue vehicles surrounded the home and a negotiator was keeping in touch with the gunman, police said.
Firefighters were able to use their radios to let the dispatch center know what was going on and that’s how negotiators communicated with Brown initially, Walters said. Once they got his cellphone service turned back on, they were able to speak to him by phone.
By the end of the 3½ -hour standoff, though, police were convinced that even if they met Brown’s demands, he had no intention of releasing his hostages, Walters said.
This was the second time in recent months that firefighters have been targeted.
On Dec. 24, a man in upstate New York set his house ablaze and shot and killed two firefighters as they arrived, then himself. Two other firefighters and a police officer were wounded.