This is one of those cases that I am genuinely astounded does not receive more attention than it does (these are the cases I am most likely to write about, so this is something I catch myself saying a lot. But please, continue and see if you disagree with me). I should warn people that this case does deal with the death of an infant, so you might want to skip this one if that will upset you too much.
It might be best if I describe the circumstances of Joey Lynn Offut’s disappearance as they unfolded to investigators. At around 4:00 AM on July 12, the fire department was summoned to a residential section of Sykesville, Pennsylvania, after several people were awoken by an explosion. One of the neighborhood houses was discovered to be on fire. The house belonged to a woman named Sherry Hallet, but she didn’t live there. She had purchased the house for her daughter, 33-year old Joey Lynn Offut, and her three children. Joey had two daughters, (aged nine and two), and a six week old son named Alexis Alfred Brolin III. Joey had some serious struggles in her life–she was mildly intellectually disabled, and had the approximate mentality of a fourteen year old. She could function as an independent person, but struggled to hold down jobs and serious relationships. She had been involved in a long-term off and on relationship with Alexis Brolin Jr., who was the father of her two younger children. Brolin lived in the town of Clearfield, about 30 minutes from Sykesville, where he had custody of a son from a previous marriage. For purposes of clarity, I will be referring to Joey’s son as “Alexis” and his father as “Brolin.”
After the house fire was extinguished, a gas can was found in an upstairs bedroom, indicating that the fire had been set deliberately. Inside a bathtub, firefighters discovered the body of Joey’s infant son, Alexis Brolin III. The child’s body had been burned by the flames, but a later examination showed that it was likely he had already been dead at the time of the fire.
Further investigation of the blaze itself provided proof of arson, with the gasoline being used as the accelerant. There were two points of origin–one in the bathroom where the child’s body was found, and another in the basement.
The other two children were accounted for–the older daughter was staying with family in Virginia, and the younger was with her father and half-brother in Clearfield. Joey’s purse and identification were found in the house, but there was no sign of Joey or her car. Three days later, on July 15th, the car, a Saturn Coupe, was discovered backed into a parking place at an apartment complex in State College, Pennsylvania, about 60 miles from Sykesville. Interestingly, it was an apartment complex that Joey and Brolin had previously lived in together. The car had “visible damage” to the hood, and was described as being backed suspiciously neatly into its parking place (Joey was not considered a terribly skilled driver, and she did not often attempt backing into parking spaces). In addition, the driver’s seat was pushed back as though it had last been driven by someone taller than Joey Lynn. Witnesses claimed that the care had been there since July 13th, and had possibly been seen there as early as July 12th. There was one further mention of the car before it was discovered in State College. Someone (presumably a neighbor) said they had seen the car in Joey’s driveway at 3:00 am that night, about an hour before the fire started. I made note of this, but I am a little skeptical of the certainty of this being the same vehicle. This would have been the middle of the night, after all.
In the kitchen of the home, investigators found something which still serves as baseline to the strange timeline of events–maggoty hamburger meat. Ultimately, the meat was estimated to have been left on the kitchen counter since sometime between July 3rd and 5th. And that brings us to the timeline a warned you about. Get comfortable, because it is a long and convoluted one.
According to Brolin, he and Joey had recently become officially engaged, after years of their on and off relationship. At the end of June, they had gone on a trip together to visit Joey’s relatives and introduce them to the new baby. It was on the same trip that they dropped Joey’s oldest daughter off with her grandmother, Sherry. On July 1st, they returned to Sykesville. Brolin claimed to have last seen Joey on the following day, July 2nd. The visit had gone well until that evening when Joey brought Alexis into the kitchen and started to give him a bath in what Brolin described as a “dirty sink.” Brolin objected to this, and an argument ensued. Almost everyone that knew Joey agreed that when she became upset with someone, she gave them the silent treatment–to the point of completely avoiding contact and withdrawing entirely into herself. It was for this reason that no one was surprised by the fact that she did not contact Brolin or respond to Brolin’s attempts to contact her for the next several days. The couple had made plans to go to Brolin’s grandmother’s house on July 4th, but given her behavior, he was not surprised when she did not respond to his calls that day. He tried to contact her again on July 5th, but again got no response. On that same day, Sherry Hallet received a very normal-sounding letter in the mail from her daughter. It had been dated July 2nd, and it was with a package containing the oldest daughter’s ear plugs, which had been left at home when Joey dropped her off with her grandmother.
On Friday, July 6th, Brolin again tried and failed to contact Joey. That was a day that a home health nurse was scheduled to stop by and check on Joey and the baby. The nurse contacted Brolin, saying that she had been by the house, but no one had come to the door. She said the car was in the driveway, and that mail was starting to pile up at the house. She had looked through the front window, and seen nothing amiss in the home from that vantage point. Later that day, Sherry and Brolin spoke with each other on the phone, and both of them were becoming concerned. However, given the fact that this was still not atypical for Joey, neither of them called the police.
On Saturday, July 7th, Brolin drove by the house. Like the nurse before him, no one answered when he knocked. However, there was one crucial difference. This time the car was not in the driveway. The next day, July 8th, Brolin repeated the same action. He called Joey’s phone from the front steps and could hear the phone ringing inside the home. On that day, the car was back in the driveway. He left a note asking Joey to call him.
After four more days of no contact, on July 11th, Brolin met with the home health nurse at Joey’s home. The visible items inside the home were unchanged since the nurse’s previous visit, and the car was missing again. They agreed that the authorities should be contacted, and Brolin did contact the police the next morning, on July 12th. Remember, this was now after the fire and the discovery of Alexis’s body, although Brolin did not yet know about this until police informed him. Upon learning of the fire, Brolin immediately asked if Joey had been in the fire. When he learned of the death of his infant son, he seemed genuinely distraught. Authorities described him as being cooperative.
One neighbor claimed to have passed Joey on the sidewalk during the week that no one could contact her, giving the date as July 5th. He said he spoke to her, but she did not respond to him. She was pushing the baby carriage, but he said he was not even sure Alexis was in the carriage. A lot of people really get hung up on the neighbor “not being absolutely certain he saw a baby in the carriage”, and seem to want interpret it as him definitely seeing Joey pushing an empty baby carriage around the neighborhood. I think this is a bit over-focused on–it sounds more as if he was asked “Are you sure you saw the baby?” and he said he wasn’t actually sure because at the time he didn’t scrutinize the contents of the carriage too closely. This can’t really be taken as evidence of abnormal behavior on Joey’s part, since it seemed like the neighbor would have been more likely to notice the strange sight of the empty carriage at the time. I think it is more likely that either the neighbor did see Joey pushing Alexis in his stroller at the time in question, or that he got the dates confused and was referring to an earlier incident.
Now, the theories
Some interpretations of this case attribute all or most of the actions to Joey herself–from the accidental or intentional death of her son to the depositing of her car at the State College apartment complex. The theory posits that a desperate Joey vanished on her own accord after this point, and possibly committed suicide at an unknown location.
Understandably, others have cast their suspicion on Brolin. There is a lot of reason to scrutinize Brolin. He was the last confirmed person to see Joey, and by his own admission, that encounter ended in an argument. In addition, the car was ultimately found at an apartment complex where Joey and Brolin had previously lived together, making it unlikely that anyone other than Joey, Brolin, or someone else familiar with their previous living arrangements placed it there.
A search of Joey Lynn’s past online activity showed that she had at one point been active in a forum for the mothers of young children. There, she had discussed her relationship with Brolin and made some serious accusations against him. She said he had been a felon and a drug addict, that she was afraid of him, and that his son had assaulted her oldest daughter, resulting in the daughter being removed from their home. She said that she had filed a protection order against him.
Now, normally this would be a flag so red as it be outside the range of visible light. But there’s a problem–as far as anyone can tell, none of this is true. There is no record of the daughter being removed as a result of being attacked by Brolin’s son. Brolin has no known history of felony crimes or drug addiction. There is no record of Joey Lynn ever having taken a protection order out against him. Later, on this same forum, Joey Lynn said that her relationship with Brolin was better now and they were working things out. The general consensus, even among those that knew and cared about Joey Lynn, is that she was being spiteful and lashing out after a more mundane argument with Brolin.
The actual evidence against Brolin is tissue-paper thin. For me personally, his behavior does not seem all that suspicious, at least when his overall relationship with Joey is taken into account. Had he raised the alarm on July 4th, even though Joey had been known to go into long periods of silent treatment in the past, that would have read as suspicious to me. Had he abruptly raised the alarm only after the nurse contacted him, that could be interpreted suspiciously. Instead, he contacted Joey’s mother, made numerous attempts to contact Joey, and left notes which were found at the house after the fire. We know he agreed that the disappearance should be reported on July 11th (pre-fire), and we know he did talk to police and go into the station on July 12th (post-fire). Now, between the time he agreed that law enforcement needed to be contacted and when he actually contacted them, the fire took place at the house, and that is something that does bother me a bit. However, at this time, Brolin is not considered a suspect, and, based on the Disappeared episode, Joey’s family still seems favorably inclined towards him.
It should also be noted that there are timeline-related issues with the possibility of Brolin’s involvement. The town of State College is approximately an hour and a half from Sykesville and an hour from Clearfield. As the Trail Went Cold podcast episode about this case points out, Brolin was accounted for on the morning of July 12th (remember, he had custody of both his son and his two-year old daughter with Joey). If he was in Sykesville setting the fire at 4:00 am, this does not give him a lot of time to deposit the car in State College and then find a way back home, all while apparently leaving the kids by themselves. It’s possible the car had already been placed there, and he had gotten back somehow and used a different vehicle, but the logistics are still a bit complicated.
Brolin apparently submitted to a voluntary polygraph early in the investigation, was told he “did well”, but then later informed that he did not pass. At this point, he declined to take additional polygraph tests. This, too, does not read as suspicious to me. Polygraphs are unreliable, and being told he passed and then that he didn’t seems a bit shady on the part of law enforcement. If I may offer legal advice, no one should take a polygraph under those circumstances.
Yet another possibility that Joey came in contact with an unknown person or persons who either helped to cover up Alexis’s death, or else convinced her to harm or abandon her son. After all, Joey’s family has described her as being far too trusting, and she did have a history of giving too much information to strangers she met online. On one infamous occasion, her children were removed from her care and placed in the care of their grandmother after Joey was discovered to have been communicating with a man who wanted her to send him naked pictures of herself. However, it should be noted that Joey’s Internet service had been cut off for the month before her disappearance due to non-payment. If there was an unknown person involved with her disappearance, it would have to be someone with whom Joey had regular offline contact. To me, this does not rule out this theory entirely, it just limits our pool of possible suspects.
It’s also been pointed out that Brolin did leave Joey a note on his last visit to the home, saying he would contact police if she did not respond to him soon. It’s been speculated that someone else was responsible for what happened to Alexis and Joey, and that person saw the note, which prompted him or her to start the fire to hinder the imminent investigation.
The Lingering Questions
There are crucial questions which have never, to my knowledge, been answered. One is the cause and approximate time of death for the baby Alexis. It seems most likely that he died before the fire, but how long before the fire? Could he really have been dead for the 7 to 9 days that the meat had been left in the kitchen? The cause of death is unknown, but was there any indication that there had been water in the bathtub prior to the fire? If so, that could provide tentative support for the drowning theory. It does seem more likely that something was amiss as early as the July 3rd to July 5th period. Joey has been described as not the most responsible person, but would it have been characteristic of her to leave meat rotting on the kitchen counter when everything else in the house was normal?
Has anyone tried to determine where the gas can came from? Was Joey known to keep one near her home for a lawnmower or snow blower? If Joey had acquired it recently, she could have purchased it at any gas station, local or otherwise. And if it was not hers, where did it come from? To set the fire using the gas in the can, the person would have had to carry into the basement, start the fire, take it to the upstairs bathroom, start another fire, then leave the gas can in the upstairs bedroom before leaving the house.
To me, the evidence points to a scenario in which Joey Lynn was involved, but which she did not have complete control over. The reason I think Joey Lynn herself was alive for some unknown period of time after she dropped out of contact is because of the use of her vehicle and its recovery at a place she used to live, making it highly unlikely that a complete stranger was responsible for the entire situation. The reason I think she had “help” from someone–who may well have ended up harming her–is that so much of what happened does not match up with how people describe her. She was described as an imperfect mother, yes, but a caring one. While Joey may have been technically capable of setting the fire and fleeing, this would represent an extremely bold and desperate action for her. Regardless of her intellectual ability, she is known to have been a very child-like person in a lot of ways, used to depending on other figures in her life. Now, while I understand that having accidentally or deliberately killed one’s own child would bring out extreme behavior, it’s hard to imagine that she would never have reached out to her mother or Brolin at some point before planning the arson. In addition, it appears that the car was driven by someone else when it was finally parked at the State College apartment complex. The reason I doubt this person was Brolin is for the reasons stated above–nothing about his behavior or the available timeline points towards his involvement.
One thing that bothers me is the treatment of Alexis’s body. It seems as if the original intention behind the fire was for it to completely consume both the house and the child’s remains, which had simply been left in the bathtub. This is an awfully callous way to dispose of the remains, and, although I can claim no expertise here, does not really seem consistent with the actions of a guilt ridden parent. There are no absolute rules here, but generally speaking, familial homicides do not show indifference towards the body. Often, in such cases, the offender will attempt to “soften” the appearance of the victim’s body, by wrapping it in a blanket or something similar. It seems strange that either Joey or Brolin would abandon the remains of a child they both demonstrably cared about in such a manner. Either of them could easily have taken Alexis’s body from the house an concealed it in some “safer” place elsewhere, without worrying about the attention a fire would attract, so why set one?
To summarize, I think something happened to Alexis while in Joey’s care, and she turned to someone she should not have trusted. It is also possible that the order of these events was reversed, and she was in contact with this individual before the (most likely accidental) death of Alexis. Either way, I think this person then took charge of the situation, although Joey Lynn was alive and cooperating with him/her for some of this time. That person eventually decided the best option was to burn the house and all evidence inside it. If Joey had not already met with foul play at the hands of this person, it is likely that she did shortly after this point.
Now, I will be the first to state that I do not really like this theory. It seems the most plausible given the facts in my possession, yet it feels counter-intuitive. I have never been one to rely too heavily on intuition, but I can still tell when things go against it. Except for those cases with a high likelihood of a stranger being involved, I dislike it when I have to use an unknown person to cement gaps in a theory. This was true in my Asha Degree article, and it remains true here. It should be noted that Joey Lynn was a legal adult who did not live in the same household as her family or boyfriend. It is more plausible that she would have had contacts that no one else knew about, especially with her apparent history of trusting shady characters. Still, it feels like a cheat to resort to shadow-suspects. Yet, at this point, until further information is available, what choice am I left with?
For more information about this case, I recommend the Disappeared episode “Little Girl Lost”, as well as The Trail Went Cold’s coverage of the case.