When I last posted here, I had no intention of doing this case next. In fact, at that time, I had never heard of this case. I stumbled across it because I happened to be listening to the Southern Gone podcast in the background one evening, and this was one of the cases covered. Thank goodness for that one episode, because, as I quickly found out, information about LaToya Brown’s disappearance is hard to come by. The only other good sources I was able to find were a few Tuscaloosa news articles and LaToya’s Charlie project page. It’s in dire need of attention, and this is a case that has everything—a natural disaster, a young woman’s secret life, family members accusing each other, and an apartment full of strange evidence that seems to never have been thoroughly investigated. So let’s just jump in.
On April 27th, 2011, the southeastern United States was beset by a series of powerful storms, including a tornado that tore through Tuscaloosa, Alabama, killing 42 people and resulting in hundreds being reported missing. As of today, all of the missing have been accounted for, whether living or dead. Except for one. Her name is LaToya Brown, and at the time of her disappearance, she was 21 years old, stood 6 feet and one inch tall, and was described as beautiful and striking. In other words, she was hard to miss in a crowd.
The more I learn about this case, the harder it becomes to dismiss it simply as an instance of a person being killed in a natural disaster and the body going undiscovered (although this is still completely possible). During the investigation, her family would learn that LaToya had been picking up work in Atlanta as an exotic dancer. Family members would cast suspicion on LaToya’s friends, and on one another.
By far the most comprehensive information I was able to find about this case, as well as my first introduction to it, came from the single episode of the Southern Gone, podcast referred to above. The host interviewed both journalist Stephanie Taylor and LaToya’s mother, Toye Jackson. I also found and read the original articles that Taylor wrote. Although these sources are valuable, their scarcity means that I am working with very limited information, some of it from sources that are biased by their own admission. If someone reads this and knows more than I do, I would welcome the correction.
The narrative as described goes as follows. LaToya Brown was a young woman moving back and forth between her mother’s and aunt’s house in Northpoint, Alabama, in the Tuscaloosa area. Her father (the aunt’s brother), had separated from the family, and her mother, Toye Jackson, had re-married. She was the middle of five children, having both an older and younger brother and an older and younger sister. In the spring of 2011, she appeared, as much as I can gather, unemployed and unable to provide for herself. She did not own a car, and she needed to borrow money from relatives for food. However, she did have a source of some income, as we will see. LaToya was described by her mother as kind and shy, and of having a large circle of friends. Many of these friends were young men that, according to Toye, were “trying to date her”, and it was often through them that she had transportation.
LaToya was last seen on the afternoon of April 26th by her mother, and then by her aunt, Mary Spencer. This was the day before the tornado struck, and the weather was already so stormy that schools were closing. At the time Toye’s husband was out of town for work. LaToya’s younger brother was still in high school, and so she and her mother went to pick him up. Shortly after they returned to her mother’s house, the power went out. Toye Jackson had been trying to prepare food but was interrupted when this happened. Shortly after this, she heard LaToya call an unknown friend and arrange to go get something to eat at a local shopping center (a shopping center which would be in the path of the tornado the following day). Toye watched her daughter get into a gray car that pulled into her driveway, and that was the last she ever saw of her. This was sometime before 5:00 in the afternoon.
However, there would be one more reported encounter with LaToya, this one with her aunt. At around 5:00 pm, LaToya met up with Mary at a nail salon where she was having her nails done (presumably after contacting her on her phone). Like Toye, Mary knew that LaToya had been dropped off by someone who was waiting for her, but did not know who it was. LaToya then asked her aunt for some money for food, and Mary gave her some, although she would later say she did not know how much she gave. After LaToya left the nail salon, there were no further confirmed sightings of her. The following afternoon, a call would be placed from her cell phone near some apartments in the area of the Rosedale Court. This section of the city was also heavily affected by the tornado, although I am not certain how close it was to the shopping center that LaToya was going to the night before. The call went through only about fifteen minutes before the tornado hit, and according to LaToya’s mother, it was made to Mary Spencer. We’ll come back to that shortly.
There are hints that something was amiss as early as the evening of April 26th. Toye Jackson was at home, the power restored, when she received a call from Mary Spencer. I should state here that there is unconcealed dislike between these two women dating back to the time when Toye was involved with the man who was Mary’s brother and LaToya’s father. This makes Toye’s account of Mary’s actions extremely difficult to judge. Unfortunately, I do not have any direct statements from Mary Spencer, only Toye’s reporting of them. Toye said that Mary “felt that something had happened to LaToya”, because she had been unable to reach her the rest of the evening. Toye then tried to reach her daughter, but was also unsuccessful. Toye added that it was not unusual for LaToya to stay out all night with friends, but she typically remained in contact with her family. Nonetheless, she did not act as if she was terribly concerned at this point.
The next day, Toye Jackson and her youngest son waited out the worst of the storm in the shelter of their home. After it had passed, Toye attempted to contact each of her other four children, and reached them all except for LaToya. Toye eventually reached Mary Spencer, and told her she wanted to report her daughter missing. Toye assured her that she would handle the report herself.
The following day, Toye and her son began driving around to the houses of LaToya’s friends that they knew, but due to the conditions, they were not able to make much progress. The following day-at which point LaToya had been missing for three days-she found out Mary Spencer never made the report. An increasingly worried Toye then went to the police to make the report herself. Because Mary Spencer had been the last one to actually see LaToya, the police said they would need to speak to her, so Toye called her from the police station. Mary became irate, accusing Toye of “jumping the gun”. She did eventually speak with law enforcement and told them the same story she had told Toye previously about giving LaToya money at the nail salon.
Because of the recent storms, FEMA was involved in the subsequent investigation. Through the course of this investigation, law enforcement and LaToya’s family learned that she had not been entirely unemployed. Unbeknownst to those that knew her, she had been taking the bus to Atlanta on weekends to work as an exotic dancer at a nightclub. It was also rumored that she was working as an escort as well, but this has never been confirmed. Needless the say, this increased Toye’s concern, and she worried that sex trafficking may have been a factor in her daughter’s disappearance. She was also troubled by the fact that investigators seemed to be discussing the case more with Mary Spencer than with her, and later came to realize that Mary Spencer had been making unspecified “accusations” against her. Again, it should be noted that this is all Toye’s own account.
In an interview, Toye would go on to say that LaToya was going to move out of her aunt’s house and in with her mother full time because of conflicts between her and Mary that had nearly turned violent. She claimed that the police had even been called during an incident in which Mary threatened LaToya with a knife over food that LaToya had taken from the refrigerator. According to her, she obtained LaToya’s telephone records and saw that the last phone call was to Mary. When she questioned Mary about this, Mary claimed that LaToya called her for a ride from Rosedale Court, but she could not find her niece when she arrived there. It is difficult to reconcile this statement with the fact that a tornado tore through the area fifteen minutes after LaToya’s last phone call, but as you’ve likely noticed, it’s not the only strange thing about these conflicting accounts. Mary Spencer then allegedly called LaToya’s phone after the tornado and said she was looking for her niece. A female voice answered, laughed, said “she’s not here” and hung up.
But that’s not the end of it. Toye also spoke of an unnamed “older man friend” of LaToya’s. Items belonging to LaToya were recovered from his apartment, including her computer and the shoes and white tube top that Toye said LaToya had been wearing when she last saw her. The white tube top had a reddish stain, was damp, and smelled like cleaning materials. Laboratory analysis determined the stain not to be blood, but more likely from food or a beverage. As with most of the key locations in this case, I am not sure where this man’s apartment was relative to the shopping center and the apartments where LaToya’s cell phone was last tracked.
Much later, there would be an unconfirmed sighting of LaToya by her younger sister, Sanyell. Sanyell was at a night club when she saw a tall, striking woman who strongly resembled LaToya. She was also the best dancer on the floor, which was apparently consistent with what LaToya’s family knew of her. Sanyell tried to speak to the woman, but she ignored her and walked away.
In another bizarre twist, in February of 2015, the family would go on the Steve Wilkos show to discuss the case. Clips of this episode are available on Youtube, but not the entirety. Despite being essentially united throughout the investigation, LaToya’s sisters now accused their mother of knowing more than what she was saying about LaToya’s disappearance. Some of their suspicions seemed related to the infamous “blood-stained” tube top, which was now in Toye’s possession and had been found by one of her daughters.
If you’re confused right now, that’s probably a good thing. There really aren’t enough ways to express what a strange development this is. First and foremost: the shirt was originally found in the friend’s apartment, not the mother’s house, and the stain wasn’t blood. As I do not have access to the full episode, I’m not sure if Mary Spencer is ever mentioned in it, but if any of her account was taken into consideration, she did see LaToya, after she left her mother’s house. Plus, what they’re implying would be an outlier in the annals of violent crime. Parents who have never been known to be abusive in the past do not typically lash out with lethal force at their adult children. Most parental homicides are unplanned cases in which chronic physical abuse escalates and causes fatal injury, and this usually happens with young children. Put very baldly: Toye had more than 21 years to kill her daughter and never did. What was supposed to be different about this time?
So, what are we left with? Not much that can be considered an undisputed fact. We have the mother leveling accusations at the aunt, and the aunt and children leveling accusations at the mother. We have LaToya being out of contact with her family on the evening of the 26th and her phone ending up in an area that was badly damaged by the tornado the next day. We know she was likely struggling financially and was secretly working as an exotic dancer. We know she vanished within that roughly 24 hour period, except for one unconfirmed and dubious sighting.
There are so many questions that should be asked. What is known about the “friend” and did he drive a gray car? Was the “last phone call” really LaToya calling Mary Spencer, or was it actually Mary Spencer trying to get a hold of her niece and reaching the unknown woman? If so, why would Mary recount the sketchy story about trying to find LaToya? Was the cell phone itself ever recovered? The phone records were apparently given to Toye at her request, and so I have no way to independently check the time stamps.
The following statements are entirely my own conjectures.
I’m going to start out with a bold statement here. I don’t think Sanyell or her siblings seriously suspect their mother of harming LaToya, and I think the accusations were staged for the Steve Wilkos show. I think that the show demanded more drama than it could wring out of the story as it was, and the family had to go along with this in order to draw attention to the case.
Although LaToya’s mother became even more concerned about her daughter after finding out about her secret job, I doubt her work as an exotic dancer played a direct role in her fate. Her work seems to have been entirely in Atlanta rather than Tuscaloosa, and it seems unlikely that anyone she worked for in the city would have located her in the middle of a severe storm to abduct and traffic her, when she was already coming to Atlanta on her own most weekends. If it is ever actually confirmed that she was working as an escort, especially if she worked in the Tuscaloosa area, that would take things in a different direction, but as of now I think it makes more sense to think of the disappearance as being related to forces closer to home.
I doubt that LaToya is alive, and I doubt that the woman Sanyell saw was her. Is it possible that she died in the storm and, by chance, her body was never discovered? Certainly. The fact that her cell phone was in one of the hardest-hit areas of city lends some support to that idea. Still, it’s odd that hers would be the only body to remain undiscovered, and I can’t forget that she dropped out of contact the night before the tornado, and that this was reported as being uncharacteristic.
According to Toye Jackson’s account, Mary Spencer is a volatile, even violent figure, who inexplicably tried to delay the investigation. However, it is worth noting that Toye is one of very few people known to speak so negatively about Mary, who is generally regarded as a respectable member of her community. Also, even if the worst of Toye’s account is true about her, did she really have the motive, means, or opportunity to harm LaToya? If Mary Spencer knew more about the disappearance than she was saying, why not simply claim never to have seen LaToya? It should also be noted that despite Toye Jackson’s claims, LaToya herself apparently felt comfortable approaching her aunt for money, and that for all the alleged bad blood between Toye and Mary, all three women seemed to frequently communicate with one another.
Regardless of the family’s feelings towards one another, and regardless of who is telling the truth, I think the fact that LaToya’s clothes and possessions were found in a friend’s apartment is somewhat of an elephant in the room. The computer might not be all that suspicious–we don’t know where LaToya usually kept it, and if she had no fixed abode at the time, she may have chosen to store it with someone she knew. As far as we know, she did not have it with her when she was last seen, so there’s no real link between it and her disappearance. The clothing is another matter, especially if her mother is correct in identifying it as the clothing which LaToya was last seen wearing. The shirt was not damaged, and the stain was not blood, but its presence in the apartment, and the recent washing, do take on a sinister light in context.
Ultimately, when asked in an interview, Toye Jackson does not know what happened to her daughter. I can’t claim I do either. I don’t know if she was ever in the Rosedale Court area itself, or if her phone ended up there in someone else’s possession. But, if it was my job to find out, I would start with the apartment where her shirt and shoes were found, and with the man that lived there.
Southern Gone Podcast Episode (containing interview with journalist Stephanie Taylor).