06.26.12

What Happened to a Mormon Missionary Turned America’s Most Wanted?

Jason Derek Brown, a Mormon gone bad, has been on the Most Wanted List since 2007. Paige Williams reports on the California golden boy who became an unlikely and elusive fugitive.

Twenty-four years ago, before landing on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list for allegedly shooting an armored-car guard five times in the face, Jason Derek Brown was a young Mormon from Orange County, Calif., preparing for his two-year mission to France.

Brown, at 19, wasn’t thrilled to be headed so far from home for so long, but his family believed in service and in living as true believers. That summer, his grandfather ordained him in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints priesthood and bought him some luggage, and after weeks of intensive missionary training in Utah, Elder Brown was on his way.

It was 1988. He was serving a generation behind a fellow French missionary named Mitt Romney, but with, it would turn out, a notably different result. Romney became a candidate for president of the United States; Brown became a federal fugitive, wanted in the 2004 capital murder of a young armored-car guard named Keith Palomares, who died protecting a sack of money. The killer escaped with the cash on a mountain bike. Brown, blond and tan, bears an uncanny resemblance to the actor Sean Penn, so much so that FBI agents have mistakenly apprehended Penn’s body double—twice. That’s as close as they’ve come to catching their ghost.

But before pulling one of the more thorough vanishing acts in fugitive history; and before the murder-one charge; and before pursuing the petty cons and thievery that stoked his expensive tastes and deepening debt; and before divorcing his wife and turning his back on his church; and before losing his father, a gambler with an unstable work history, to a disappearing act of his own, Brown wrote exultant if strangely punctuated, egregiously misspelled letters home.

“There are days that are really really tough when no one wants to listen to us and you just wonder whats this all about,” he wrote in January 1989, to Herb and Gwen Brown, his father’s parents. “Then there are days that you have a baptism and your on top of the world wishing you never had to come down.”

Brown and Romney both served in Paris and in at least one other mutual location, Le Havre. Like other Mormon missionaries, Brown worked nine or 10 hours a day, in the constant company of his assigned LDS companion, and in a deeply Catholic country. “It’s not all baguettes and fromage,” as ex-missionary and LDS blogger Steve Evans wrote recently in the Washington Post. “After crawling back to your cramped, dirty apartment, you eat a horrible dinner, rub your tired feet, study and pray some more before collapsing for the night. You’re never alone except for trips to the bathroom; your mission companion will be at your side constantly as you go two-by-two into the world to preach the good word ...”

In his letters to his grandparents—from Blois, Saint-Brieuc, Orléan, Le Vésinet, Troyes, Le Havre, and Sainte-Savine—Brown wrote mostly of his Mormon desire to “follow the rules,” to be the “best missionary” possible, to become closer to his heavenly father, to baptize more and more converts, including, he fantasized, a Catholic priest “just for a good souvenir of wonderful France.”

the-ghost-paige-williams-book-cover
The Ghost: How a California Golden Boy Became America’s Most Unlikely and Elusive Fugitive By Paige Williams ()

Brown came home to Laguna Beach, got married, and began living the LDS life. Then his father disappeared and Brown’s habits changed. He left his wife, left the church, and got interested in luxury cars, women, Vegas, alcohol and club drugs, and started moving around—Orange County to Salt Lake City to Phoenix to Austin, Texas. By the time Keith Palomares went down, in Phoenix, with those five bullets to the face, Brown was many years removed from the days when his life seemed to center on his faith, no longer the young man who wrote, “It’s as if the Lord holds my hand and takes me to all of his elect people. I love to watch people change their lives to do good and come unto Christ ... I’ve learned that the only way to find true happiness in this life is by following the commandments and doing what our heavenly father wants us to do.”

At the time he disappeared, Brown owned fine cars and boats and four-wheelers and bicycles, and enjoyed spending wads of cash in restaurants and bars. He was last seen driving a late-model Cadillac Escalade tricked out with PlayStations; authorities found it abandoned in long-term parking at Portland International Airport six weeks after the Palomares killing.

Some have speculated that Brown is with his father, John Brown, or that somewhere in the world he has found a way to return, somehow, to the 14 million-member Mormon fold, despite church doctrine stating that anyone that “that kills shall not have forgiveness in his world, nor in the world to come.”

He’s fluent in French. He’s educated. He grew up in a temperate climate. He’s highly social, sporting, and charming. He has eluded his trackers far longer than most.

The church’s stance on murder seems unequivocal, though LDS founder Joseph Smith himself, while a proponent of capital punishment, had been known to tolerate killers and robbers, men “as corrupt as the devil himself,” on the chance that they might be redeemed. Smith, of course, then died a murder victim. A third-party U.S. presidential candidate, he was awaiting trial in Illinois—168 years ago this month—when an armed mob stormed the jailhouse and shot him.

Where could Brown be? For the fugitive-obsessed, it’s a good guessing game. He’s fluent in French. He’s educated. He grew up in a temperate climate. He’s highly social, sporting, and charming. He has eluded his trackers far longer than most. About 60 percent of Most Wanteds are caught within their first year on the run; more than 90 percent are caught over all. Wherever Brown is, those who know him say he is probably armed, and that he is terrified of prison, and that he would never allow himself to be taken alive.

Editor’s note: This article previously stated that Brown did his missionary training in Idaho but the majority of it was actually in Utah.