The search for 'why'

The Baltimore Sun

Minutes before services started, the Rev. Bill Brown still didn't know what on earth he would say.

There has been a tragedy, he finally told the 100 or so people in the pews of Epworth United Methodist Church. And the victims were church members - John and Tammy Browning and their two youngest boys, all found dead in their Cockeysville home.

At this news, the congregation collectively gasped.

Brown made no mention of 15-year-old Nicholas, the Brownings' oldest son and a Sunday school regular, who had confessed to the killings. The teenager told the police, a source said, that one by one he had executed members of his family with his father's handgun while they slept and then returned to a friend's home to play Xbox.

The minister went on to preach about why such horrors happen, a question that hung in the air. Why this family? Why this community?

First, though, the congregation stood to sing Hymn 314.

It was called "In the Garden":

I'd stay in the garden with Him

'Tho the night around me be falling

Not far away, on the edge of the church property, was the prayer garden that Nick Browning had created in the fall as his Eagle Scout project. Nothing blooms there, though. The earth is covered with gravel. The cross - built into the ground - is made of concrete.

Search for answers

The question of why does not go away. It was there Monday morning, as children returned to Cockeysville Middle School and Dulaney High School, where the three Browning boys were students.

It was there Tuesday night, when families from Cockeysville and beyond gathered at County Home Park for a candlelight vigil. Sweatshirt hoods pulled over their heads, some of the children looked like monks praying on the muddy athletic field. Several boys brought their own candles - thick, stumpy ones that might well have been swiped from the dining room table. These stayed lit long after the slender white tapers supplied by organizers burned out.

Everyone wanted to know why Nick may have shot his family early last Saturday morning with John Browning's 9 mm Smith and Wesson, ditched the gun in the woods and then staged the discovery of the bodies that evening, in front of his friends. Parents and kids alike are still sifting through theories for something that makes sense.

The ease of text messages and Facebook chats have made the stories fly all the faster. Often, parents aren't aware of all that their kids are talking about, which only feeds the fears these killings have summoned. If a son can commit such a spectacular act of violence, can parents ever really know their children?

To many, Nick Browning appeared to be a well-adjusted boy. Tall and athletic, he was on his high school's varsity golf team, a leader of Boy Scout Troop 328 and an honors student who played the cello.

"In our class he was the biggest kid and the nicest kid at the same time," said Brent Burton, who went to middle school with Nick and still kept tabs on him through Facebook. "He was pretty funny, too."

Nick was playing video games at a friend's house late last Friday night and into Saturday morning when he told the other kids he had to leave - something to do with his car, a source with knowledge of the investigation said.

In his confession, Nick told the police he walked nearly three miles back to his parent's large Colonial-style home, where his father was sleeping on the couch. Nick said he retrieved his father's gun, and shot him in the head, the source said. Then he went upstairs where his mother, Tamara, and two younger brothers, 14-year-old Gregory and 11-year-old Benjamin, were sleeping, and allegedly shot them all.

Nick tried to mask the scene as a botched burglary, the source said. When the police arrived, they found Tamara Browning's jewelry box on the floor and the family's video game console and other electronics stacked near the door.

Leaving the house, he tossed the gun in the woods and began the long walk back to his friend's home - a shortcut would have been difficult, because a finger of Loch Raven reservoir cuts through their affluent neighborhood. Once there, he resumed playing video games with his friends, the source said.

More video games, on a Nintendo Wii this time, were planned for Saturday afternoon, when Nick had reportedly scheduled a party at his own home. Nick had hung out at Towson Town Center for most of the day, calling home several times from his cell phone, according to classmates who did not want to be identified.

A friend's parent drove him and other teenagers over to the Browning house just before 5 p.m. Nick and at least one of his friends entered the house. Soon, the friend ran back outside, yelling that there was blood coming out of John Browning's nose.

Nick called 911.

Flashes of anger

Friends describe the Browning family as "picture perfect": 44-year-old Tammy, who met her husband in college, was a past PTA president and a stay-at-home mom who liked to boogie board in the ocean with her kids. John, 45, was a partner in a prominent Towson law firm who had coached youth lacrosse; he was also the scoutmaster of Troop 328.

Greg and Ben played sports and musical instruments, and Greg served faithfully as his middle school's mascot, a cougar.

Together the Brownings often took trips to their vacation house on Deep Creek Lake, where the kids would ride ATVs or go skiing.

Nick confessed to the killings early Sunday morning, after hours of questioning revealed inconsistencies in his story.

He told police that he had been angry with his father, who had been stern with him, sometimes embarrassing him at Boy Scout events and forcing him to go to a Scout camp in Western Maryland.

Also, the source said, after a recent argument, John Browning told Nick as a punishment he could not use a Ford Expedition for one week after he turned 16. The car was to have been a present. His birthday, along with his family's memorial service, is today.

Nick has been charged as an adult. After he was ordered held without bail, his lawyer at the time cautioned against reading too much into the confession, saying the boy was "traumatized." His new lawyer is the same one who defended Lee Boyd Malvo, the 17-year-old convicted in the 2002 sniper attacks in Maryland suburbs. The attorney, Joshua R. Treem, has not responded to requests for comment.

Some who know Nick say he has an arrogant side and have described him as having a bit of a mean streak. He teased other kids and was known to get tossed out of class on occasion.

Another classmate, Rita Mallough, who rode the bus with Nick, said he was a "just a really outgoing guy, but sometimes he'd become a little bullyish."

Some said flashes of anger were directed at his father. Steve Cox, a sophomore who said he also rode the school bus with Nick, said that Nick complained that John Browning wouldn't let him socialize with friends as often as he wanted.

"If he didn't want to go skiing, if he already had plans, he'd get pissed," Cox, 17, said. "He would even say swears about his dad."

Yet friends of the Brownings said that conflicts between father and son stemmed from standard stuff: a teenager's desire for independence clashing with a parent's instinct to keep order. Nothing to explain a fist fight, let alone a quadruple homicide.

Connor Gray, a 15-year-old who played paintball with Nick, said Nick even aspired to be an attorney like his dad.

"It's very scary; it makes you think," said Tammy Gray, Connor's mother and a close friend of the Brownings. "It makes you hug your kids that much more and appreciate every day and not take anything for granted. You really need to listen, you need to watch."

Except, she said, "we don't know what we're watching for, I guess."

Father and son

A few odd details have emerged in the week since the shootings. The Browning family was not new to gun violence - when John was a child in the 1970s, his older brother accidentally shot and killed their sister with a rifle in their Howard County home.

Yet this tragedy did not prevent John from owning guns. He kept a handgun and rifles in his home, and he was an avid deer hunter. According to Troop 328's meeting minutes, which The Sun obtained online, John was scheduled to lead the Scouts on a 2005 trip to a shooting range.

Another section of the scouting minutes offers a glimpse into a conversation between father and son. In early December, Nick asked to step down from his post as senior patrol leader, a prominent role in the troop.

"Some discussion ensued and John" - presumably Nick's father - "will continue to ponder the situation," the record says.

Nick was a boy on the cusp of a lot of things. He had his learner's permit, and - according to Tom Alderman, a Dulaney High lacrosse coach - he had already registered to try out for the team in the spring. He was just one interview away from becoming a full-fledged Eagle Scout.

He attended school last Friday, though several students said he missed Dulaney's basketball game that night, an unusual absence for him. But Rachel Cavanaugh saw him just before fourth period, as she often did, and he acted the same as ever.

"He was walking past me just laughing and talking with a friend of his," she wrote in a message, "like any normal day."

Look to the future

Meanwhile, Cockeysville is trying to process the tragedy.

Already the middle school band has embarked on what organizers call The Browning Project, to commission a musical composition in the family's honor, and will sponsor a 2009 benefit concert to fund a scholarship in Gregory and Benjamin Brownings' names.

Dealing with the Brownings' fate is "going to take a long, long time," said Marybeth Eibl, whose family spent New Year's with the Brownings at Deep Creek Lake. "The first of everything will be very hard - the first lacrosse season, the first Boy Scout outing." Many questions about Nick's possible motives are unanswered, and may always be.

"I don't know why," Brown concluded in his sermon last Sunday. "I just know that we follow a God who walks through the darkest valley with us."

Brown, who said he has visited Nick several times in the Baltimore County Detention Center, has said the congregation may one day plant trees and bushes around Nick's prayer garden of stone, but that the garden itself will always be barren.

For whatever reason, that's the way Nick planned it.

Sun reporter Jennifer McMenamin contributed to this article.

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