World War II bomber gunner 'could have been buried in Arlington.' Instead his body was found in a suitcase.
By KATIE METTLER | The Washington Post | Published: March 17, 2017
Nearly two weeks after they first found his body, authorities in two states are still trying to determine how a World War II bomber gunner wound up dead and abandoned in Arkansas, 1,300 miles from his New York home.
"He was a war hero who could have been buried at the National Cemetery," Johnstown Police Lt. David Gilbo told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "Instead, he ends up in a suitcase dumped in a field in Arkansas."
On Wednesday, Gilbo identified the man as 89-year-old Robert D. Brooks, a veteran of World War II.
The details of the death investigation were heartbreaking from the start.
On March 5, Prairie County sheriff's deputies received a disturbing 911 call about a man and woman selling furniture from a blue pickup truck in a parking lot.
"One of the patrons of this sale went to the back of the truck and unzipped a larger blue suitcase and saw a body," Prairie County Sheriff Rick Hickman told ABC affiliate Sky 7.
But by the time sheriff's deputies arrived on scene, the man and woman were gone. Authorities eventually tracked down the truck and found Virginia "Ginger" Colvin and Michael Stivers of Johnstown, N.Y., inside. There the suitcase and the body were gone.
They released Colvin but arrested Stivers, who was wanted on a warrant for failing to pay child support, Sky 7 reported.
Later that night, in a field on a farm in Prairie County, they found the blue suitcase.
Inside were the remains of an elderly man, just four feet 11 inches tall, stuffed inside.
Colvin and Stivers, identified as the man's caregivers in Johnstown, New York, were both arrested and charged with abusing a corpse, a felony. Authorities believe Brooks died in January or February of natural causes.
It wasn't until authorities finally tracked down his family a week later that they learned of his military service.
Brooks was a "belly gunner," his family said, which means he shot from inside the ball turret of a B-17 bomber, reported the Democrat-Gazette. The B-17 "Flying Fortresses" were primarily deployed in daylight strategic bombing campaigns against German military and industrial targets.
"It's the most dangerous assignment in war," Prairie County Sheriff Rick Hickman told the Democrat-Gazette. "The belly gunner is in a small bubble on the bottom of the plane. The enemy wants to shoot at him first. Life expectancy on that job is very short."
Though New York authorities released the man's name, the sheriff in Arkansas has not yet publicly identified him. He wants to wait for a confirmation from testing using DNA taken from Brooks' body and his son, who lives in North Carolina, reported the Democrat-Gazette.
"It's a sad case," Hickman said.
Colvin, 56, told police she has been Brooks' caregiver since at least 2012, reported the Leader-Herald, and said that she and her boyfriend lived with Brooks in a home in Johnstown.
Gilbo, the police lieutenant from Johnstown, told the Democrat-Gazette that authorities are trying to determine a motive for hauling him around. It's possible the couple was trying to conceal Brooks' body so they could collect his social security checks, authorities speculated.
"They got caught early," Gilbo told the newspaper. "We are checking their bank statements, but they didn't have much time to collect any money if they were doing that."
New York authorities are still deciding whether to extradite the couple, reported the Leader Herald. If convicted of felony abuse of a corpse, the sentence is six to 10 years in Arkansas, but one to four years in New York.
"[Brooks] was a World War II veteran," he told the Democrat-Gazette. "He deserved a lot better than being put in a suitcase."