Photograph Coutresy of the Rashawn Brazell Collection
Desire Brazell is having a bad day. She doesn’t want to talk. She just wants quiet.
On bad days Desire retreats to her bedroom and refuses to talk to anyone, even the people with whom she has surrounded herself in the eight years since she lost Rashawn. She will not talk about the bad days. “Can we stop now?” she will ask.
But she isn’t like this every day. On other days Desire is her purposeful self, like the day she spoke before a college audience about Rashawn. She was composed, quiet and dignified. Last summer, Desire finally allowed herself to visit the Nostrand Avenue subway station on her own where eight years ago police began discovering the scattered and butchered remains of her 19-year-old son.
They found his remains packed into two plastic bags left on the subway tracks, three days after he went missing. That was 2005. They still haven’t found out who did it.
“When I meet the person who killed my son,” Desire says, “I won’t ask why.”
And then: “It’s irrelevant now. I just want the person off the streets.”
That’s public Desire: strong, dignified, “ready,” says a friend, “to raise hell.”
Then there’s private Desire: vulnerable and withdrawn. Like today.
Private Desire has surrounded herself with memories of Rashawn – baby pictures, graduation pictures, his beanie baby collection, a love poem he wrote for her. She sleeps in his pajamas. She says they comfort her.
She’s fiercely protective of an old black and silver Motorola cellphone that has a recording of his last voicemail greeting. He had set it in early 2005, weeks before he was found dead.
It’s a new year and it’s gonna be new things and new changes. If you call me and I don’t call you back, then you’re one of the things that’s been changed.
“It depends on the day and time,” says Terik King, a documentary filmmaker who has been interviewing Desire for four years. “She has her crying jags. It’s an unhealed wound.”
Desire says she’s come to terms with Rashawn’s physical absence, but not with how he was taken from her. Private and public personas blur together when she explains what she finds the hardest to accept.
“He was here one day and gone the next,” she says. “And the fact that I didn’t get all of him back. I couldn’t say goodbye to him the proper way.”
“They never found his face.”
* * *
It’s as if time stopped for Desire that day in February. It was Valentine’s Day, and she recalls it with painful clarity.
She had woken up at her usual time to leave early for her job in Washington Heights. Rashawn was awake, getting ready to leave for job-hunting that day. Desire, sensing his nervousness, called him while she was waiting at the subway station. That was around 6 a.m.
Rashawn’s biggest concern that day was that he would have trouble paying his cellphone bill, she says.
“I told him not to worry,” she says. “He said okay. I hung up.”
Hours later, when he didn’t show up for their lunch appointment, she called his phone only to find it going to voicemail. He did not come home.
When Desire, who talked to her son several times on the phone every day, found her call going to voicemail for the third time in a row, she started to get worried.
“I knew then something was not right. I called some of his friends, and everyone started panicking,” she says. “It was not like him.”
The police initially dismissed her frantic call, claiming there was nothing they could do, she recalls.
“They suggested that maybe he was out partying,” she says. “I started calling the hospitals.” She asked for John Does: Rashawn wasn’t carrying any ID.
For three days, Desire called every hospital she could find in the yellow pages. On the fourth day, at 3 in the morning, city maintenance workers found two “suspicious’” bags on the subway tracks.
They never found his head.
They did find part of his pelvis in a Greenpoint recycling plant.
The police still have no idea who killed Rashawn Brazell.
And his mother won’t let go.
* * *
Since the day her son’s remains were discovered, Desire hasn’t stopped believing that his killer will be tracked down.
“I just keep hope. I’m a firm believer that something’s gonna happen. I’m continually talking about that,” she says. Then, with a growing tone of desperation, she adds, “People know that the case is open.”
But it’s not just hope that has kept her going. She’s stayed in constant touch with the investigating officer on the case, Detective Amato, who took over from the original detective months after Rashawn’s body was discovered, and who declined to comment for this story. Desire says he calls her every few months to give her a status report.
She believes that Amato is doing the best he can, keeping her on the loop, even calling her if there is no headway. But she doesn’t leave the investigative work to him: she tries to find her own leads for the case. She believes they are in this together. Once a month she logs on to her computer to check blog posts about Rashawn, or “Shawn”, as she calls him. She meticulously goes through more than a hundred of these pages, searching through new comments, old threads, spam.
“I find a new posting every time I look,” she says. “I always try to respond.”
Most comments, she finds, express outrage, surprise. People are shocked that the police haven’t solved her son’s murder, she says. No new tips have surfaced in two years.
“It’s been almost nine years,” she says. “Maybe this is the year they’ll find who did it.”
She leaves her email address for anyone who wants to get in touch with her, replies to sympathetic comments, but is really always looking for leads to give Amato.
“If I find something, he tracks it down,” she says.
The last time that happened was in late 2011, when Desire chanced upon a comment on a blog post. Desire found a comment by a man who claimed to have overheard a conversation between two men and one woman. He claimed they were talking about a scared phone call from someone who he believed to be Rashawn. Desire immediately called Amato, who, she says, tracked down the blogger for questioning.
“I thought it would go somewhere,” she says, “but it ended up going nowhere.”
Now, every time she goes online, Desire expects to find a new lead.
“I need the answers. I need it finished,” she says. “I want to finally find the person.”
* * *
Desire is not alone. She has assembled a band of volunteers who have helped keep Rashawn’s case alive in public memory all these years. They include strangers who only know Rashawn through the news and blog posts. Every three months, they organize mass postings of flyers across the city, reminding people of his unsolved murder.
Rashawn’s death left Desire believing that all people were “evil.” But the volunteers have changed her. “It could have turned me the wrong way. But so many people turned to me to help. They jumped into this without knowing me. They don’t have to take time out.”
One of them is Larry Lyons, who in 2006 helped start a scholarship fund in memory of Rashawn. So far five Brooklyn teenagers have received scholarships. One of them wants to be a doctor, another wants to be a lawyer, and still another a gay rights activist.
“It wasn’t much money but they would get a mentor,” Desire says. “They appreciated that.” Amato, too, became personally involved with the scholarship, donating a television set for a raffle.
“He’s enmeshed himself with my family,” she says.
* * *
Clarence MacMillan was a friend of Rashawn. They would go to parties together. Now he and Desire talk on holidays and birthdays and sometimes go to lunch. They talk about Rashawn’s “crazy designs on jeans” and “his obsession with fishermen hats, which are the ugliest hats in the world,” she says sounding almost cheery. “He’s been stuck to me like glue ever since.”
“Clarence makes her laugh,” says King. “He’s close in age to what Rashawn would be, and it’s a surrogate son effect.”
Then King goes a step further.
“She’s keeping a part of him alive through us, and we’re all in that category.”
* * *
Rashawn wasn’t Desire’s only son. She has an older son, Jenato, who lives in Worcester, Massachusetts, and is a father of two. But Rashawn’s death affected him so deeply that Desire feels she’s lost two sons. Jenato does not want to talk about Rashawn, she says, not with his friends or even with her.
“It bothers me he shut down,” she says. “But I understand. He’s still holding it. I’m hopeful he will come around.”
* * *
In 2011, Desire went off to Columbus, Georgia for a year, where she knew no one.
“I needed some time,” she says. “I needed a fresh clear mind, to regroup myself.”
She came back to New York in a year later because, she says, her family thought she was too far from them. “They wanted me back.”
February is the hardest time for Desire, the month when Rashawn died. Sometimes she retreats until April, leaving only to go to work at an NGO in Queens. But she likes to mark his birthday, April 15.
“He is going to be 29 this year,” she says.
This April, she plans to have a birthday dinner for Rashawn, inviting all his friends. Even that, she believes, might be a way to find his killer. “Maybe it will get someone to come forward.” She believes that Rashawn’s perpetrator is someone who knew him.
“I always thought that,” she says. “It was not a stranger.”
* * *
Desire can’t wait for King to complete his documentary about Rashawn. She believes that it will draw attention to his case. But King has been at work on the documentary for four years, and hopes to be done this year. King believes that he has become so emotionally invested in the project, that he feels the burden to produce something that will find some answers for Desire.
“She hasn’t put that load on me, but I feel it,” he says. “I’m scared: what if the documentary doesn’t achieve what she wants?”
King also feels uneasy with his presence in Desire’s life.
“My presence in her life is because of what happened to her son. I am a trigger for those memories, even if she is dealing with the immediate moment.”
King says that he hates to show parts of the documentary to Desire who cries every time. “I’d think that she would have some emotional scabs with time,” he says, “but it’s like everything is still fresh with her.”
King believes that though Desire has built a narrative of what he calls “healing stories” with “talking points” on how she stays strong every day, she has carefully couched her emotion in bravado.
“Though it’s authentic,” he says, “but that’s not it.”