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Boy next door a killer?

Arrest in '80 slaying shocks acquaintances

Published April 25, 2005 at midnight

ADAMS COUNTY - In front of an unassuming white home on a quiet street, Troy Brownlow repeatedly booted a football down Leona Drive.

It was the early 1980s and the lanky teen had hopes of becoming a place-kicker for a professional football team.

He also played basketball and regularly shot hoops in a neighbor's driveway across the street.

Active and seemingly well-liked, Brownlow appeared to be the typical boy next door.

Today, however, he sits in a jail cell in Arizona, awaiting extradition to Colorado to face first-degree murder charges in a 1980 killing that investigators say was traced to him earlier this month through DNA evidence.

Brownlow is 40 now and far removed from the once-scrappy adolescent that neighbors remembered. His face is darker, worn by years of reported substance abuse.

For many, Brownlow is the picture of a good boy turned bad. His years of good work as a YMCA employee have been tainted by a string of arrests and time in prison.

But whatever the transgressions on Brownlow's recent rap sheet, they pale in comparison to the charges now leveled against him. Former acquaintances are shocked that the man they once knew and admired could be a cold-blooded murderer hiding a quarter-century-old secret.

"I don't know what to think," said a former roommate, who asked not to be identified. "It doesn't square with the person he was. Even in an altered mental state, I never saw a hint of anger."

Scene of gruesome slaying

There's no sign today that a horrible murder took place at the Grimes family home, a small brick house with a tidy front yard at the corner of West 83rd Place and Acoma Street.

Except for the steady hum of traffic at the 84th Avenue interchange at Interstate 25 to the east, Acoma Street is almost sleepy. But 25 years ago, it was the scene of a gruesome slashing in which a young girl fought desperately for her life.

Adams County sheriff's deputies painted a grim picture of what they found inside the ranch-style home on Sept. 4, 1980:

Blood spatter coated the bathroom, kitchen floor and hallway walls leading to the bedroom of the victim's older sister. Inside the room, 15-year-old Nanine Grimes lay on her back in a pool of blood and water. A stereo speaker rested on her chest.

The girl's body was discovered by her older sister, Deanna, who came home from work to find the front door open and music blasting from a stereo.

Nanine had been stabbed more than 80 times in her neck, chest and abdomen. She had defensive wounds to her hands and arms, indicating she had put up a fight.

The fight ended on a waterbed, which was punctured by the knife that killed Nanine.

The trail of blood didn't end there.

Outside, a deputy noticed blood on the backyard hose, which was running and dripping into the basement.

Blood stained a dish towel found in the backyard and on a nearby fence.

Blood was spotted across the street, behind a business.

And a "large quantity" of blood had pooled on a concrete ledge there.

After that, nothing.

The sheriff's office cleared five suspects through blood and fingerprint analysis.

Brownlow hadn't been one of them.

One of three adopted sons

Less than half a mile from the Grimes home, Kent and Betty Brownlow raised three adopted sons, including Troy. Kent Brownlow worked for the YMCA. Betty Brownlow published her poetry. They were a religious family, respected by their neighbors.

Jim Ontis, 58, got to know the Brownlows fairly well while living across the street from them for more than a decade. The Brownlows used to keep an eye on his house when Ontis and his family were out of town, and he returned the favor.

One year, he sold Troy his 1970 Ford LTD for $100 so the recent high school graduate could get to his job at the YMCA in downtown Denver, where he worked from 1982 until 1993 and again briefly in 1998. During part of that time, he worked with his father.

Brownlow excelled in athletics at Thornton High School, where he also was known to some as a class clown.

He played basketball, joined the track team and was a member of the school's ski club during his sophomore and junior years. He also played on the school's tennis team for a year.

As a junior, Brownlow was a member of the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program.

"I thought he was a good kid. He was very intelligent," Ontis said. "He just kind of stayed out of trouble; that's why it's so hard to believe. I never dreamed that it could be him."

Rick Cordova, 42, met Brownlow in seventh grade and played on the junior varsity basketball team with him. He remembers him as a funny guy who was willing to leap over a bunch of trash cans for a picture that Cordova had to take for a photography class.

"He had an outgoing personality. He wasn't shy," Cordova said.

He also remembered Brownlow dating girls but said there was nothing "weird" in his romances.

"There was no clue that he would do this," Cordova said.

After graduating from high school in 1982, Brownlow moved to Denver, closer to his job at the YMCA. He became a ladies man, going through a number of girlfriends in his late teens and early 20s, a friend said.

At 25, he married his first wife. She filed for divorce two years later.

In 1994, he married again, this time becoming the father of two children.

The family moved to Pennsylvania, where Brownlow continued his career with the YMCA as a youth director. In 1996, he led a group of teens from the Sewickley, Pa., YMCA to the Grand Canyon.

Frank DiCenzo, an obstetrician and gynecologist from the small suburb outside of Pittsburgh, also chaperoned the group. His son, then 13, was among the group they guided 13 miles to the bottom of the canyon.

"He seemed like a nice guy, and he was really good with the kids," DiCenzo remembers.

Four years after that Grand Canyon trip, DiCenzo came to Brownlow's defense when Brownlow, divorced again and back in Colorado, was facing criminal charges, accused of shooting a gun at his estranged girlfriend.

On Nov. 11, 2000, the girlfriend told Englewood police that Brownlow pulled a gun and said, "You don't want me to shoot myself. You don't want to see blood in your house." She said Brownlow later pointed the gun in her direction and fired. She was not injured.

In a letter to the judge who presided over the case, DiCenzo wrote: "I have heard that he is in some trouble now, and I hope that it wasn't serious. I would like to say that I feel that Troy would be a very good bet for consideration of leniency and rehabilitation instead of jail time as the time I spent with him he seemed to show good character."

Sent to prison for theft

Brownlow fled Colorado for Arizona following the shooting but was arrested later that month on a theft charge in Maricopa County and was eventually sentenced to three years in prison.

Upon his release in February 2004, he submitted a routine DNA sample to authorities, which was entered into the FBI's national Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, 11 months later.

Meanwhile, Adams County sheriff's officials entered some of the blood evidence samples collected at the Grimes home in 1980 into the same database in the summer of 2004.

They hoped it would eventually produce a match and revive a case long gone cold.

The system yielded a hit April 4. Ten days later, Colorado authorities arrested Brownlow at a Tucson, Ariz., convenience store near his workplace, where he was a personal trainer.

Police are not saying what may have led Brownlow to commit such a heinous killing six blocks from where he lived. Deanna Grimes told the Rocky Mountain News that neither she nor her sister were ever involved romantically with Brownlow.

News of Brownlow's arrest obviously rocked his parents, who declined to speak about their son. But it was obvious they had high hopes for him, as is evident in a book dedication written by his mother, Betty.

"Many thanks also to my son, Troy, who promises that someday he will write a novel, and that thought keeps me alert and working," she wrote.

Rap sheet

A brief recap of Troy Brownlow's Colorado criminal record:

July 1984: Larceny

December 1988: Second-degree burglary and larceny

October 1997: Aggravated assault

November 2000: Felony menacing, illegal discharge of a firearm, reckless endangerment

March 2001: Fugitive

Source: Colorado Bureau of Investigation

or 303-892-2536 or 303-892-2550

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