As a household mourns a girl fatally shot in St. Paul, custody battle over 1-year-old provides to their battle – Twin Cities
Near the yard where Latifa Brown was found shot to death, her family recently stood in a circle and prayed.
Gazing at a poster-size photo of Brown, her sister told the group, “I hear from my brothers and my father that you can look into the face of Latifa and see the pain. You ask yourself, ‘If she was so tired, why didn’t she leave?’ ”
The man who Brown had a decade-long relationship with, the father of her 1-year-old son, is charged with murder in St Paul’s North End. He pleaded not guilty and told police he was holding a gun in self-defense from Brown.
Amid all the questions and grief from Brown’s family, there is also anger. The son of Latifa Brown and Mark Antonio Bell Jr. has been in the care of Bell’s mother since Brown was killed at the end of January and Bell was jailed.
Juanita Bell initiated a court case for the custody of her grandson. John Brown Sr., Latifa’s father, filed a court document in response, saying he wants custody. The Brown family says they haven’t been able to see their grandson and nephew since Brown’s homicide.
“We don’t get to hold our baby in our arms,” said Buffye Brown, Latifa’s sister. “We don’t get to kiss him. We don’t get to tell him it’s OK. We don’t get to tell him about his mama.”
Juanita Bell said recently that her son wants her to have custody and she has been involved in the 1-year-old’s life since he was born. “I know I’ve been there for my grandbaby,” she said.
For people grieving after a homicide, trying to navigate a custody battle can place more burdens on them. Though it’s an emotional matter, custody is approached from a legal standpoint — and being a relative of someone accused of murder doesn’t preclude them from having custody, according to legal experts. The work of the courts is evaluating, “What’s in the child’s best interest?”
Buffye Brown is speaking out publicly about her 31-year-old sister and the custody matter because she wants people to know about Latifa Tasha Minor Brown beyond a name in the newspaper or on the news. She’s spreading a message about domestic violence, and she’s seeking a pro bono attorney or donations for legal representation in the custody case.
“Tifa was a firecracker,” her sister said. She used to tell Latifa with a smile, “Your mouth runs like the Mississippi River.”
Latifa Brown loved to cook shrimp boil, fried chicken and greens, which she learned from her mother. She was intelligent and full of life, said her brother, John Brown Jr.
Brown always wanted to be a mother. She had five miscarriages, “but every time, she stood strong and never she gave up,” Buffye Brown said.
MADE ASSAULT REPORT IN 2018
On March 24, 2018, Latifa Brown told St. Paul police that Bell assaulted her the day before and said to her, “I am going to kill you and your sister one of these days,” according to a police report. She reported she was eight weeks pregnant and thought she was having a miscarriage.
Police asked Brown a series of “Blueprint for Safety” questions, which are used in St Paul when someone reports domestic abuse.
“Brown thinks if Bell is drunk enough he could kill her or seriously hurt her someday,” an officer wrote in a report about her response. She also reported Bell had “assaulted her multiple times,” “threatened her before and also has abused her mentally” and told “her that she does not deserve to have a baby,” the report continued.
A police officer and doctor reported they didn’t see marks on Brown when she made the report.
The Ramsey County attorney’s office declined to charge Bell. The St. Paul city attorney’s office said they also reviewed the case and did not file misdemeanor charges due to insufficient evidence.
Latifa Brown and her son are seen in a photo during a rally to remember her in St. Paul. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)
In October 2020, Latifa Brown gave birth to her only child — “her miracle baby,” said John Brown Sr.
“Tifa was her happiest when she a mother,” her sister said.
She was excited when she found the duplex they were renting on Lyton Place near Sylvan Street in St. Paul, and tried to make it a place of safety and love for her son, Buffye Brown said.
Latifa Brown asked her sister to babysit the night of Jan. 21, according to Buffye Brown, but Buffye told her sister she already had plans for her birthday, which had just passed. “I said not today, but tomorrow I got you,” Buffye said. “I didn’t know that I wouldn’t have a tomorrow.”
Bell’s mother, Juanita, took care of her grandson at her home that night.
Early on Jan. 22, Buffye Brown heard a knock on her door, looked outside and saw police officers.
“I felt my heart stop,” she said.
ARGUMENT, FOLLOWED BY GUNSHOT
Officers were called shortly after midnight on Jan. 22 to Brown’s duplex and found her covered in blood, lying on the ground near a minivan. Paramedics pronounced her dead at 12:19 am
Police discovered a handgun on the ground by the minivan and another one inside the vehicle. There was a blood trail that went from Brown’s body to inside the residence.
A neighbor provided police with an audio recording, in which Brown and Bell, 35, could be heard “in a loud, heated argument,” according to the criminal complaint against Bell. “(Brown) repeatedly told Bell to get away from her. At one point the neighbor yelled at Bell to just leave. After more arguing, (Brown) swore at Bell. A loud gunshot occurred, and (Brown’s) voice is no longer heard.”
A video camera showed Brown arrived home first and Bell pulled up in the minivan, followed by another man who said Bell is like a nephew to him. Almost two minutes later, Bell entered the camera view again and was seen dragging Brown down the outside stairs to the boulevard, the complaint said. Bell dropped Brown, and he and the other man dragged her toward the minivan.
BELL SAYS SHE PULLED GUN
Bell told police that he and Brown went to a bar that night “to talk about their relationship issues,” according to the complaint. He said since Brown obtained a permit to carry a gun, she “had become more confrontational with him and others” and she pulled a handgun on him when they were inside the bar, the complaint continued. They left and she walked the short distance home.
Bell said he went inside and grabbed one of Brown’s guns, and they argued. He also reported Brown “pulled a gun on him three times at the house and he thought she was going to kill him” and she “tried pulling the trigger a couple of times inside the building, but the gun didn’t fire. The fourth time (Brown) pulled the gun on Bell he was headed to the door to leave because (Brown) refused to do so,” the complaint against him said.
He said he heard Brown’s gun click as she pointed it at him and he fired the gun that he’d grabbed, pointing away from Brown, the complaint said. He didn’t think he struck Brown, but she fell and he brought her outside to drive her to the hospital, he told the police.
The man with Bell said he saw through the storm door that Brown had a gun in the entryway and he heard a shot.
Bell entered pleas of not guilty in February to charges of second-degree murder with intent, not premeditated and second-degree murder without intent, while committing a felony. A jury trial is currently scheduled for October. Bell’s attorney declined to comment.
“It’s going to go to trial because he’s innocent until proven guilty,” said his mother, Juanita Bell. “He’s innocent.”
SEEKING HELP FROM ATTORNEY
Buffye Brown said she tried to convince her sister to leave Bell at various times throughout her relationship and told her she could stay with her at any time. She said she doesn’t believe Latifa would have used a gun against Bell because she cared about him too much.
“You think about all the stuff that you wish you could have done, you wish you could have said,” Buffye Brown said. “We can sit by and we can judge people like, ‘She should have got out of it. She should have did this. She should have did that,’ but at the end of the day, we’re not in their shoes, so we don’t know.”
Latifa’s brother, John Brown Jr., said he never heard about past abuse until his sister was killed and he’s filled with anger that he didn’t know — he said he would have protected her.
Restoration Inc., a faith-based human services nonprofit, organizes vigils with homicide victims’ families to bring awareness to gun violence and they held Latifa Brown’s vigil at the end of March.
“It helps people address the trauma,” said Connie Rhodes, Restoration Inc.’s founder and executive director, whose organization also offers grief therapy.
As the group held hands in a circle, Rhodes offered a prayer, ending it with, “We pray for a miraculous outpouring from the community, we pray for a miraculous outpouring from lawyers and people who are able to help this family.”
GRANDPARENTS ON BOTH SIDES WANT CUSTODY
Juanita Bell filed a court petition at the end of January requesting sole legal and physical custody of her 1-year-old grandson, writing that it’s important the boy lives with her because his mother died and her son is incarcerated. She wrote that the boy has spent a lot of time with her, adding, “We were very involved. Had a close knit relationship with both parents as well.”
Buffye Brown said she went to the courthouse and filed paperwork that her father had filled out to intervene in the custody case, but it was not reflected in the court record as of a hearing in March. At that time, a judge granted temporary custody of the boy to Juanita Bell.
An aunt of Brown’s asked during the hearing if Bell would provide her contact information so the two of them could discuss visitation.
“No, because they came over here … (and) threatened,” Juanita Bell said during the hearing, adding later that people from Brown’s family arrived at her home after the homicide and wanted to take the 1-year-old with them. Buffye Brown, meanwhile, said they did not threaten Bell’s family.
In John Brown Sr.’s motion to intervene, which is now part of the public court record, he wrote that he is asking for full custody of his grandson because “my daughter would want him with his family.”
A motion hearing is scheduled for the end of this month.
WHAT’S IN CHILD’S BEST INTEREST?
In custody cases, judges examine a variety of factors, including who was already involved in providing child care and stability, said Liz Richards, who previously worked as a family law attorney and is formerly executive director of Violence Free Minnesota.
Minnesota law spells out 12 factors that the court must consider in custody matters, with the intention of determining what’s in the child’s best interest.
“I’ve seen over the years, when there’s a homicide, there’s a lot of emotions from a victim’s family about, ‘Why should anybody in (a suspect’s) family have anything to do with the child?’ Richards said. “Unless there’s been some involvement in the homicide by family members, which is not typically the case, in some ways the homicide isn’t a central issue to the custody issue. That’s really hard for people because it’s front and center for them.”
When a suspect’s relative is seeking custody, a judge should take into account how his family is regarding the homicide and how they would preserve the victim’s memory for the child as he grows up, according to an attorney for Standpoint, a statewide organization based in St .Paul whose mission is to promote justice for domestic and sexual violence victims.
During the court process, a judge would typically ask families to work with a mediator to try to reach common ground about custody, though that can be complicated when families are on opposing sides of a homicide, Richards said.
“As a starting point, the court is going to try and say, ‘How do we keep a wide range of people involved with this child’s life?’, under the general theory that it’s better for a child to have multiple family members supporting them ,” Richards said.
A GoFundMe page that Latifa Brown’s sister started to raise money for an attorney in the custody case can be found at gofundme.com/f/help-hiring-an-attorney-and-lawyer-for-justice.
People seeking help from domestic violence throughout Minnesota can reach the Day One Crisis Hotline 24/7 by calling 866-223-1111, texting 612-399-9995 or chatting at dayoneservices.org.