Police escort the hearse carrying the remains of John and Tamara Browning and their sons, Greg and Ben.
Police escort the hearse carrying the remains of John and Tamara Browning and their sons, Greg and Ben. (Sun photo by Monica Lopossay)
As mourners shuffled into pews, images flashed on a screen above the altar: The couple dancing on their wedding day, the husband's strong arms wrapped around his wife. Their three sons posing in Christmas sweaters, all chubby cheeks and big smiles. The boys in recent years, shaggy-haired and gangly, clowning on a snow-covered mountain.

Throughout the church, parents clutched their adolescent children, looked at the photos of a family who appeared very much like them, and wept.

Nearly 1,300 people gathered in a Baltimore County church yesterday to remember the Browning family - parents John, 45, and Tamara, 44, and their sons Greg, 14, and Ben, 11, who were fatally shot in their Cockeysville home last weekend.

The eldest son, Nicholas, who turned 16 yesterday, confessed to police that he killed his family, apparently after simmering tensions with his father. The Dulaney High School sophomore remained at the Baltimore County Detention Center yesterday, held without bail.

Boys with wavy bangs half-covering their eyes, girls wearing black dresses and fuzzy boots, and solemn-faced parents and church members spoke quietly before the ceremony. Residents of the affluent suburb have struggled to understand how such a tragedy could have befallen a family that had seemed so outwardly happy.

As the ceremony began, four wooden boxes containing the ashes of the parents and the younger boys were carried into the church. More than two dozen Boy Scouts, dressed in khaki uniforms, followed behind, many clenching their fists or staring at their feet. All three Browning boys were members of Troop 328, and their father was a Scout leader.

During the two-hour service at Trinity Assembly of God in Lutherville, friends and relatives told of camping trips, pancake breakfasts and amusement park outings with the family. A colleague spoke of John Browning's dedication and unfailing good humor at the Towson law firm where he was a partner. A friend and fellow mother described Tammy Browning's commitment to the PTA at Cockeysville Middle School, where the two younger boys were students.

Sally Adams, John Browning's sister, grew teary-eyed as she gestured to the large photos of the family propped by the altar - John and Tammy smiling in matching denim shirts, Greg and Ben posed in front of cloudy blue backdrops.

"It's hard to see these pictures," she said. "I want to shake them and say, 'John, come out of there.'"

Friends of the boys struggled to describe their loss to those gathered for the ceremony.

Wearing matching navy blazers, khaki pants and oversized shoes, James Schmelz and Christopher Fisher choked up as they recalled the games and pranks they shared with Greg.

"Never in my life did I think I could have encountered someone I could completely be myself around," James said, his voice breaking. "But I did, and that was Greg."

Ben's friends, one barely taller than the podium, spoke of a playful boy who flung Goldfish crackers and raisins across the cafeteria. The other Brownings called him "TiVo" because he could quote dialogue from so many television programs.

A childhood friend of John Browning, Tim Greisman, spoke of the clunker of a boat that they owned with several other men. Once the steering cable broke, leaving them rudderless 15 miles from the dock. As the other men tried to figure out what to do, John lay down in the stern and wrapped his arms around the motor to steer the boat back.

"That's what John was in life - a navigator," Greisman said. "Other people know where they want to end up, but John knew how to get there."

Friends from John and Tammy's student days at James Madison University described how they seemed made for each other. Photos from the 1980s showed them posing on a sky blue "Beach Patrol" vehicle.

The couple would have celebrated their 20th anniversary this year, said Tammy Gray, a friend of the family.

"Tammy was a cool mom, if there is such a thing as a cool mom," she said. "She was first in the ocean in the boogie board, and the longest on the ski slopes."

None of the dozen friends and relatives who spoke mentioned the eldest son by name, although some did speak of loving "all the Brownings."

Nicholas Browning has been charged as an adult with four counts of first-degree murder. The Sun reported yesterday that he had been playing video games with friends Feb. 1 when he left in the middle of the night, went home, and retrieved his father's handgun.

He told police that he was upset that his father forced him to attend a Boy Scout camp in Western Maryland, where the Browning family had a vacation home and frequently spent weekends. A week away from his 16th birthday, he also resented that his father told him he could not immediately use a Ford Expedition that was to be a present, a source with knowledge of the investigation said.

After allegedly killing his family, Browning went back to his friend's house, then spent the day at the mall before returning home, where he staged the discovery of the bodies and called 911, the source said.

The final speaker, the Rev. Bill Brown of Epworth United Methodist, the family's church, was the only one to mention the boy in jail.

Looking at the families sitting in the pews, Brown told them that he had decided "to forgive Nick" and asked them to do the same.

"I had to ask myself if I could practice what I preached. I came to the conclusion that I can," Brown said. "I don't know if you are in a place to think about forgiveness, but I invite you to search your hearts and reach out to God."

In a statement read after the service to the media, the family said that its "concern and love" went out to Nick.

"Whatever else lies ahead, he is a member of our family, and he will have our support."

julie.scharper@baltsun.com justin.fenton@baltsun.com