On April 3, 2004, Alonzo Brooks went to a party and his mother never saw him again.
“I’m still hurt. I’m still mad. And no trust—I lost that,” Maria Ramirez says in the episode of Netflix’s reboot of Unsolved Mysteries that delves into her son’s death.
When the series premiered on July 1, it provided the first synopsis of the unsatisfyingly closed Brooks case for most people and quickly led to a social media-fueled national outcry for justice for Alonzo, whom many suspect was the victim of a hate crime. And the U.S. Attorney for Kansas who reopened the investigation in 2019, spurred by the Unsolved Mysteries producers who started calling with a list of questions, was encouraged to see the 23-year-old’s death back in the public eye.
“We are investigating whether Alonzo was murdered,” U.S. Attorney Stephen McAllister said at a June 11 press conference as the FBI announced a $100,000 reward for information that could lead to arresting and convicting a person or persons responsible. “His death certainly was suspicious, and someone, likely multiple people, know(s) what happened that night in April 2004. It is past time for the truth to come out. The code of silence must be broken. Alonzo’s family deserves to know the truth, and it is time for justice to be served.”
FBI Special Agent in Charge Timothy Langan added, “There are many unanswered questions that surround Alonzo’s death. Someone knows something and we are hopeful that with the passage of time and this significant reward this renewed effort will produce results and provide closure for the Brooks family.”
Prosecutors have also said that they were looking into whether “a potential racially motivated crime” had occurred.
According to the FBI, Alonzo was one of only three Black men among close to 100 revelers at the party he attended in rural La Cygne, Ks., a city of less than 1,200 people. On Unsolved Mysteries, his mother, Maria, recalled him telling her that he was going to a goodbye party for someone who was going into the military.
Also on the show, friends Justin Sprague, Daniel Fune and Tyler Broughard remembered the outing being a spontaneous plan after they got word there was a party happening. Alonzo was “the easiest guy in the world to get along with,” Justin said.
Courtesy of Netflix
Justin gave Alonzo a ride to the party in La Cygne, which Daniel called “a tiny, tiny Kansas town. They got, like, one gas station, no real grocery store, nothing like that. There ain’t nothing down there.”
Daniel also said that Alonzo—”Zo,” friends and family often called him—didn’t usually party much with them because he was a few years older. Sure enough, when they got to the party that night, he estimated the crowd to be in the 16-to-21-year-old range. Folks were playing drinking games like flip cup, guys were playing cards, some people were dancing.
Justin remembered Alonzo announcing their arrival with his usual introductory shout of “Who wants a beer?!”
The guys agreed that their friend seemed to be in great spirits that night, that even a confrontation with another partygoer (Daniel said he got in between them to break it up) couldn’t diminish his good mood.
It was a different kind of crowd than they were used to, though, the friends, all of whom are white, said. Tyler said that race just never came up around their usual group of friends.
But that night, “there were some people at the party who had problems with people’s skin color,” Justin said.
But after about an hour and a half, Daniel got a call about another party, and he and Tyler left, exchanging handshakes and hugs with Alonzo on their way out.
Justin said he went outside to smoke what turned out to be his last cigarette, so he decided to go get more. Alonzo asked that Justin get a pack for him, too.
When he got in the car, however, Justin said he took a wrong turn and ended up 30 minutes out of the way, his car stuck on a gravel road. He called another guy at the party, Adam, and asked if he could bring Alonzo home. He could hear Alonzo ragging on him in the background about getting lost.
The next morning, someone called and asked if Alonzo was home, and that’s when his mother saw that his bed was still made up from the previous day.
Justin, Daniel and Tyler eventually all got in touch and each of them said he had last seen Alonzo at the party. Justin said he was told that Adam couldn’t find Alonzo when he decided to leave, so he guessed the 23-year-old had left already.
Alonzo’s mom called Rodney English, a longtime friend of her son’s, to see if he’d seen him. Rodney, who is Black, drove to Gardner, where he met Justin for the first time and asked him to drive them to where the party had been in La Cygne.
Rodney, who told Unsolved Mysteries that Alonzo never went out without a beanie or his boots, said he found his pal’s hat and one boot across the road from the farmhouse driveway, a spot he revisited and pointed out accordingly on the show. Then a man “rolled up on a four-wheeler” and “told us we had to leave,” Rodney recalled.
“Sorry, I’ve got to get the f–k out of here,” Rodney said as he walked down that road, 16 years after Alonzo’s death. “I do not feel safe here.”
After he failed to turn up, Alonzo’s brother and sister reported him missing to the Linn County Sheriff’s Department. Deputies conducted a search of the area near the farmhouse—which had reverted back to being an abandoned building the day after the party—on the night of April 4 but came up empty. The case was then turned over to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, which conducted a more extensive search with a canine unit and other special investigators. Kansas Highway Patrol supplied a helicopter for an aerial search.
The FBI joined the investigation on April 10, and that was when the possibility that Alonzo was the victim of a hate crime was first reported. Rescue divers searched Middle Creek on April 12 but found no indication there had ever been a body in the 3-foot-deep water.
Courtesy of Netflix
Justin remembered a “constant barrage of law enforcement” that he and his buddies were cooperating with, but also said that investigators told him that Alonzo had probably gotten drunk and decided to walk home, barefoot.
“Total bulls–t, that’s what we kept trying to tell them,” Justin said. One, that would have been out of character for Alonzo, and two, he had tweaked his ankle playing basketball and had been limping that night, so “is he just gonna take off his boots and then truck I don’t know how many miles home?”
After weeks of the sheriff’s office telling them to leave the searching to the authorities, according to Maria Ramirez, it was during a search organized by friends and family that Alonzo’s body was found lying in a tangle of brush and branches at the bottom of an embankment at the edge of Middle Creek on May 1, 2004.
“My God, it was awful,” Alonzo’s dad, Billy Brooks Sr., told Dateline. “To find my boy like that. Nothing can describe that pain.” But, he added, “At least we had found him. It wasn’t how we wanted to find him, but at least we did.”
Alonzo’s wallet, with cash, was still on him, as were other personal items, such as a ring he always wore.
“I have stood under the trees on the bank of Middle Creek where Alonzo’s body was found,” McAllister said in a statement last month. “It is a quiet place of profound sadness to one who knows its history, but no answers are there. I am convinced, however, that there are people who know the answers, people who have been keeping terrible secrets all these years and bearing a horrible burden.
“We are asking one or more of them to come forward now and to lay down that burden at last, so that we can ease a family’s suffering, and serve the cause of justice.”
Investigators called his death “suspicious” in 2004, but autopsy findings didn’t provide a cause of death and only so much forensic evidence could be collected from the scene after a month had gone by.
“Mr. Brooks died,” pathologist Erik Mitchell, who conducted the autopsy on what by then were decomposing remains, said on Unsolved Mysteries, noting that he found no broken bones or other identifiable evidence to indicate the young man had been beaten or strangled. “I do not know the circumstances of his death. I do not know the cause of his death, whether there was an accident or whether there was purposeful involvement in his death.”
Meanwhile, there is no question among Alonzo’s friend and family as to whether his death was an accident. “That was intentional, very intentional,” his brother Billy Brooks Jr. told Unsolved Mysteries. “There’s foul play written all over it,” Daniel Funes concluded. Justin Sprague said the rumors clogging up social media ranged from “feasible” to “asinine.”
And though none of it led to any arrests or suspects being named, a common thread emerged from partygoers’ accounts of the evening: some white guys had wanted to fight Brooks, Brooks had been flirting with a white girl, racial slurs were uttered, and there simply were some racist people at the party who didn’t want him there.
“He was there to have fun,” Angela Cox, Brooks’ aunt, told Kansas City, Mo.’s KCTV 5 News in June. “They didn’t like him for whatever reason.”
On Unsolved Mysteries, Alonzo’s sister Demetria Leslie said, “He was a loving person, a fun person. And he got along with everybody.”
At the June 10 press conference, McAllister said, “From the beginning there were rumors, lots of rumors. You need to come forward. You’ve grown up. Now it’s time.”
Alonzo, the youngest of five, had grown up in Topeka before moving to his mother’s house in the more suburban Gardner, a city of about 19,000 that’s considered to be part of the Kansas City, Mo., metro area.
“He was our surprise baby,” Maria Ramirez told Dateline in June. “I remember he always used to tell me that I had him too late, because I wouldn’t let him go off with the older kids. But he was my baby. I had to protect him. But I couldn’t protect him from what happened to him.”
“I ask the same question every day for 16 years,” she also said. “What happened to my son? It’s time for some answers.”
According to KCTV 5 News, the people of La Cygne, about an hour’s drive from Gardner, aren’t thrilled that their burg is getting this type of national scrutiny, that people from all over had been at that party. But the official word is that they want answers as much as anybody.
“I don’t know if anyone knows something, but if they do it would sure be nice to hear from them,” La Cygne Mayor Debra Wilson told the station. “If there was a crime, quite frankly, someone should pay for that.”
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Talking about the month-long search for Alonzo, the pathologist Erik Mitchell said it wasn’t uncommon for a massive search to turn up nothing and then, all of a sudden, he’s found.
“He could have floated down the creek when the creek had higher water levels after a storm,” Mitchell said.
Billy Brooks said, however, that Alonzo’s body didn’t look to him as if it had been in water for a month when it was found. “We believe that the body had been placed in the creek after the last search,” he said. “Where was he at from April 4, all the way to May 1, when we found him? Where was he at all that time?”
Mitchell said that the body could have been in the creek all that time, but less time was possible, too. More significantly, however, he couldn’t tell how Alonzo ended up in the creek whenever it happened, whether he ended up there on his own or if he was put there. It’s “inconvenient” to move a body, he said, but certainly possible.
As part of the ongoing investigation, Brooks’ body was exhumed on July 21.
“It defies reason to believe that Alonzo’s death was a suicide or that he somehow accidentally tumbled into a relatively shallow creek, in Linn County, leaving behind his boots and hat, all with no witnesses whatsoever,” McAllister told Dateline in June.
The U.S. attorney also told reporters then that, since his office started re-investigating last year, he was encouraged by the results so far.
“There have been positive developments,” he said. “It’s not just rehashing old ground.”