District Attorney Paul Howard listened, took notes, and accepted a green plastic bin full of items that Hollander said were corroborating evidence. The DA said his investigators would look into her claims about Brown’s death.
But it seems not much was done, according to a CNN review of internal documents released in recent weeks. Potential evidence went untested. A key witness died without being interviewed. There is no indication that anyone tried to obtain Brown’s medical records. And when the DA’s office returned Hollander’s property in a cardboard box in March 2022, she said all the most important items she’d handed over were missing, without explanation.
The documents obtained by CNN make clear that in nearly two years and under two Fulton County district attorneys, prosecutors did very little to answer lingering questions about Brown’s final minutes.
Current Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis succeeded Howard in 2021 and closed the inquiry without taking action. Her spokesperson, Deputy District Attorney Jeff DiSantis, did not respond to an interview request or a detailed list of questions.
Hollander first called me in 2017 to allege that the Godfather of Soul had been murdered at an Atlanta hospital on Christmas Day in 2006. His official cause of death was a heart attack and fluid in the lungs, and his daughter Yamma Brown declined to have an autopsy done.
But I found a dozen other people who knew Brown and said they wanted an autopsy or a criminal investigation. Those people included Marvin Crawford, the doctor who signed Brown’s death certificate and later told me he was “highly suspicious that somebody perhaps could have given him an illicit substance that led to his death”; and Andre White, a longtime friend of Brown who said he kept a vial of Brown’s blood from the hospital in the hope of proving that Brown had been murdered.
“I would like to know,” White said in a 2017 interview, “who basically killed him?”
- Daryl Brown, a son of James Brown who said he wanted a criminal investigation into his father’s death.
- Dr. Marvin Crawford, the doctor who treated Brown in 2006 and later said he suspected that Brown had not died of natural causes.
- Candice Hurst, the green plastic bin’s previous owner, a former backup singer and hairdresser for Brown who shared with Hollander what Hollander believed was a confession about Brown’s death. (Hurst has denied any connection to Brown’s death and said Hollander misinterpreted the conversation, during which Hurst said she had a “vision” of herself in Brown’s hospital room the night he died. Hurst told CNN she was not at the hospital with Brown the night he died, and her daughter Kayla Cavazo corroborated Hurst’s account in a separate interview.)
- Shana Quinones, a former employee of Brown’s who claimed that Brown’s personal manager Charles Bobbit told her that Hurst was at the hospital with Brown.
- Tony Wilson, an associate of Brown who contradicted Hurst’s account of the night Brown died and said Hurst admitted to him she’d been at the hospital with Brown.
- Andre White, the friend who claimed to have the vial of Brown’s blood from the hospital and hoped to have it tested by law enforcement.
After Hollander told her story, the district attorney said he had a list of six people to interview. His investigators took the bin into evidence and gave her a property receipt. Video footage released by the DA’s office shows two employees cataloguing numerous items and placing them into clear plastic evidence bags.
Hollander’s property receipt said, “Green Plastic Storage Bin… Bin contains various items of clothing, hair rollers, combs, shoes, etc… (Due to the nature of what is ‘said to be contained within the bin’ , we did not conduct an inventory; so as not to contaminate the 3rd floor Grand Jury Room)… An inventory will be conducted as soon as practical…”
“Within a period of six months,” Howard told Hollander, “we will see whether or not we can talk to the people that you’ve described. If at the end of that period, we are not able to substantiate what you’ve brought to us, we will then call you and return the items to you.”
Despite the pandemic, a prosecutor vows the investigation will continue
In the months after he agreed to examine Brown’s death, the district attorney faced one crisis after another.
As the pandemic continued, Jacque Hollander wondered what would become of the James Brown inquiry. But on July 7, 2020, according to documents obtained by CNN through the Georgia Open Records Act, she got some reassurance.
“Lastly,” Sprinkel wrote to Hollander, “I expect that in the coming weeks and months, we will learn to co-exist with this virus. So this investigation will continue.”
Sprinkel sent a copy of the note to Chris Hopper, the spokesman for the DA’s office. Nine minutes later, he emailed Hopper again: “I’m on the phone with her right now, too.”
Hollander spent almost four hours on the phone with the assistant district attorney that day, she later told me. She said he wanted to begin issuing subpoenas and applying for search warrants. Hollander and Sprinkel spoke again the next day. She told me Sprinkel told her he would soon be seeking indictments.
Sprinkel did not respond to a detailed list of questions I sent for this story, including questions about what he told Hollander.
Did Hollander understand correctly? Was an indictment on the horizon? A recording of the call would help answer these questions. Sprinkel sometimes records calls with potential witnesses. I know this because a brief recording of Sprinkel’s call to someone else was included in the documents I received from the DA’s office. I requested a copy of Sprinkel’s call with Hollander, but the DA’s legal counsel, Don Geary, told me that no such recording exists.
On August 11, 2020, about a month after Sprinkel’s long call with Hollander, DA Paul Howard lost a runoff election by a nearly 3-to-1 margin to Fani Willis, his former employee, which meant his term would expire by the end of the year.
Two days later, Jacque Hollander said she received a phone call from Candice Hurst. Hollander said it sounded as if Hurst knew something that Hollander didn’t know. (I tried to reach Hurst by phone for this story, but my calls were not returned.) Hurst also texted Hollander several pictures of herself in skimpy clothing and suggestive poses. Hollander informed Sprinkel about the call and the text messages and offered to forward them to Sprinkel.
“Yes, please send them,” Sprinkel texted Hollander on August 14. “Why on earth is she doing this? Is it because of the election? Like I said, it’s not like a forthcoming changing of the guard magically makes the case disappear from the consideration of the Fulton County D.A.’s Office.”
The DA’s office released the text message chain between Sprinkel and Hollander in response to CNN’s open-records request.
“She has no reason to believe [that the investigation is closed] other than the recent election results, which aren’t nearly as relevant to the investigation as she believes,” Sprinkel wrote to Hollander, referring to Hurst. “So don’t worry about it — the investigation continues…”
Two days later, Hollander texted Sprinkel to ask why he hadn’t called her back.
“I’m sorry about these issues with Candice, and no, I haven’t walked away – I would absolutely tell you if we ended the investigation,” Sprinkel wrote on August 24. “Right now, however, my Supervisor, Adam Abbate (he was in the meeting with Thomas earlier this year), has ordered me to attend to the recent influx of homicides in Atlanta. Basically he wants me to get these cases ready for Grand Jury presentment whenever the court re-opens. So special investigations, such as this, will be addressed on the resumption of normal operations. This isn’t too much of a deviation from where I was previously – my investigatory powers are greatly reduced without a sitting Grand Jury to which I may Subpoena witnesses.”
Something appeared to change after that. From August to the following January, according to the text chain released by the DA’s office, Hollander wrote to Sprinkel more than 40 times. But Sprinkel never replied again.
Meanwhile, the situation kept getting worse for Sprinkel’s boss. In September, Howard’s spokesman confirmed that Howard had received a federal grand jury subpoena for records related to his compensation. (Howard denied wrongdoing; the Justice Department did not respond to a request for information on the case.)
I tried to assess the situation. Would Sprinkel lose his job when the new DA took over? Where would that leave the James Brown matter? Hoping to gain some insight, I wrote a note and mailed it to Sprinkel’s home address. He did not reply.
When I reached Howard by phone in August 2021, after he’d left the DA’s office and gone into private law practice, he did not sound like the same man who met with Hollander the previous year.
“I just don’t recall,” Howard said when I asked what became of the Brown investigation. “I have to say James Brown is not within the scope of my memory or consciousness.”
A new DA takes over, and the case takes a perplexing turn
District Attorney Fani Willis took office on January 1, 2021. She kept Michael Sprinkel on her staff of prosecutors. And she inherited the James Brown matter, which the previous DA had left unresolved.
On January 26, Jacque Hollander called to ask about the case and the green plastic bin she’d left in Howard’s care. She was transferred to Chief of Investigations Capers Green, who emailed Sprinkel just before noon:
Please contact Ms. Jacque Hollander about the status of the case on the Death of Mr. James Brown.
She explained that she spoke to you and Paul Howard about James Brown being murdered and she wants to know what happen to the evidence that she brought you.
A long email chain ensued, during which an investigator said the bin was still in an evidence room. Eventually Sprinkel gave several high-ranking colleagues a summary of the case.
He did not mention Marvin Crawford, the doctor who treated Brown and said he was “highly suspicious that somebody perhaps could have given him an illicit substance that led to his death.” He did not mention that Hollander had given him 1,256 pages of text messages from her iPhone. He did not tell his colleagues that the green plastic bin contained the “James Brown duffle bag” that Hurst referred to in one of the text messages on Hollander’s phone, or that Hurst wrote it contained “the dope he was doing the last week of his life,” or that she wrote, “Everything will look so wrong.”
Instead, Sprinkel wrote that after he’d spoken with Hollander for “probably 10+ hours,” he didn’t have “reasonable suspicion that a crime occurred.” He continued: “This will make getting James Brown’s medical records difficult because we don’t have P.C. (probable cause) for a search warrant, and we can’t even get them with a Subpoena (not that the hospital would likely honor one if we tried). This is because I can’t articulate a crime to form the basis of a theoretical indictment, which must necessarily back the Subpoena.”
Building a criminal case in Brown’s death would be difficult given the passage of time, the death certificate that cited natural causes, and questions about chain of custody with regard to potential evidence.
In 2020, Tom Ruocco, then-chairman of the police investigative operations committee at the International Association of Chiefs of Police, spoke with me after reading CNN’s story on Brown’s death. Ruocco said, “Somebody’s going to have to find that piece that’s going to blow open this whole thing.”
By early 2021, such a breakthrough seemed unlikely. In his email to colleagues on January 26, Sprinkel wrote that after he received the letter I mailed to his home, “I reached out to our P.R. guy at that time and was told not to respond to the reporter and because of this case getting media attention, to not do anything until further notice. So I’ve put the case on the back burner for the time being.”
Here was a potential explanation for Sprinkel’s sudden unresponsiveness to Jacque Hollander. But I’ve never heard of a media spokesman with the power to tell a prosecutor to stop investigating a case. Nor is it plausible that an investigation would shut down because of media attention; if so, no high-profile case would ever be resolved.
I asked Sprinkel and the DA’s office for the name of “P.R. guy” mentioned in Sprinkel’s email, but I’ve gotten no response. I also called and emailed a spokesman who worked for Paul Howard at that time to ask for his recollections on this episode, but I have not heard back.
Even after Sprinkel sent the email saying he didn’t have reasonable suspicion, others in the DA’s office showed potential interest in the case. Deputy Chief Investigator Michael Green sent an email in February 2021 asking Sprinkel to type his handwritten notes from the 2020 meeting between Howard and Hollander and send them along. Sprinkel complied.
It’s not clear what Green did with the information. The batch of emails I received from the DA’s office includes nothing from the ensuing three months.
Potential evidence goes missing
In May 2021, Jacque Hollander told me yet another odd story: For the second time in about nine months, someone close to Brown had called to taunt her.
Ghost has called me several times as well. He claims to be related to James Brown. In 2016, he sent Hollander a text message that indicated he knew something about Brown’s death. He asked her about “the lace poisoning” that was “used to poison him.”
Hollander said Ghost called her again on May 25, 2021. The calls were disturbing enough that she filed a report with her local police department. She says he told her, “You and Lake are f—ing liars and you’re going to burn in hell,” and “the district attorney is doing nothing, because she knows you’re both pieces of s—.”
Two days later, there was a brief flurry of activity at the DA’s office. Deputy Chief Operating Officer Dexter Q. Bond Jr. emailed Sprinkel with the subject line “James Brown Case” and asked whether or not there was a police report. Sprinkel wrote back, “Are you referring to the James Brown that was a famous musical artist?” About an hour later, Sprinkel forwarded the email chain from January — which included his summary of the case — to four other colleagues, including Executive District Attorney George Jenkins, who replied, “Thanks Mike for the update…”
What investigators did next is unknown. Some requested emails were missing from the trove of documents the DA’s office gave me. Geary provided no emails from District Attorney Fani Willis, even though I emailed her about the case in March 2021 and a copy of that email should have appeared in the search.
On October 11, 2021, Sprinkel submitted a memo on the case. I don’t know what it said. According to Geary, the memo contains confidential legal conclusions that are not subject to the Georgia Open Records Act.
But that Sprinkel memo was cited in another memo I did receive. This one was dated October 28. Deputy District Attorney Adriane Love wrote to DA Fani Willis, “My review of the facts of and basis for the inquiry, and of the memorandum of Chief Sr. ADA Sprinkel, has led me to conclude that there is an insufficient basis for the initiation of a Grand Jury investigation into the death of Mr. Brown.”
According to Geary, the district attorney accepted Love’s recommendation to close the case.
Now, two years after Jacque Hollander visited District Attorney Paul Howard, she does not have the green plastic bin. She said she made repeated inquiries to the DA’s office, but no one would tell her where it was. Her attorney, Bryan Ward, shared with me an email he sent to Sprinkel on February 16 asking for the return of her property. On March 10, Ward got an email from William Chris Clark, assistant chief of evidence for the DA’s office.
“We have shipped the items requested,” Clark wrote in the email, which Hollander shared with me.
Hollander received a cardboard box via FedEx on Monday morning. It weighed 14.65 pounds, according to the FedEx shipping receipt, considerably less than the green plastic bin weighed when Hollander turned it in two years earlier, and the box was smaller than the green plastic bin. I spoke with Hollander after she opened the box. She said many of the items listed on her receipt from the DA’s office — including hair rollers, a black stiletto shoe, and clothing — were missing. So were other items not listed on the receipt, including a handwritten note.
Hollander told me that most of what she received in 2022 were old newspaper articles that had something to do with James Brown. It appears the DA’s office did not send her any of the items that officials had put in evidence bags two years earlier.
Even stranger, she said, the box contained two older mobile phones that she did not remember seeing in the green plastic bin when she turned it in. The phones’ batteries had been removed, she said, but they had small red lights that were glowing red.
“There is something very wrong here,” Hollander said.
There was no inventory letter from the DA’s office or any explanation for the missing items. I made inquiries with spokesman Jeff DiSantis but did not get a reply. I filed an open-records request for all documents related to the chain of custody for Hollander’s items at the DA’s office, but legal counsel Don Geary said no such documents existed beyond the original property receipt.
“Don’t employees from the DA’s office have to sign a log when they handle evidence?” I wrote back in an email to Geary. “Isn’t there a system for keeping evidence secure?”
“One would expect,” Geary replied, “however, there are no other documents concerning the property.”
A witness dies, taking his secrets with him
Nothing in the case file released to me gives any indication that investigators tried to contact even one of the six people Howard told Hollander they would interview. The documents make no mention of any contact with Daryl Brown, Dr. Marvin Crawford, Candice Hurst, Shana Quinones or Tony Wilson. They do make an indirect reference to Andre White, the friend who said Brown was murdered.
White was alive in February 2020, when the inquiry began. I missed a call from him in March of that year, as the pandemic intensified. When I called back, he sounded ill and said he’d called me by accident. Later I found out he was in the hospital that day, March 27, along with his wife, Joyce. They were two of Georgia’s early victims of the coronavirus. His wife died April 2.
Mr. White recovered enough to come home, his daughter Racquel later told me, although he was too weak to stand on his own. “Then all of a sudden he couldn’t breathe,” she said.
When I think of Andre White now, I remember something he told me in 2017: “I’m gonna fight ’til I die trying to find out what happened.”
White died on June 9, 2020, about four months after the DA pledged to look into James Brown’s death. His daughter told me that as far as she knew, no one from law enforcement had spoken with him. When I asked what happened to the vial of blood he claimed to have kept, she said, “Honestly, I don’t know.”
At his memorial service, his friend Barbara Mobley, a former Georgia state representative, said this about White: “By the way, Andre, a close friend of James Brown, never ever accepted the official cause of death reported for James Brown. Not for a second. And seemed pleased when early this year, there was a media report of a re-investigation into Brown’s cause of death.”
Jacque Hollander told me she sent Sprinkel a link to a Facebook video of White’s memorial service. Their text-message chain confirms this. Which is why it was surprising to read what Sprinkel wrote in an email to colleagues in January 2021, almost a year after the inquiry began and seven months after Andre White’s death.
“Perhaps someone can knock on the door of the guy that is believed to have the vial of blood,” Sprinkel wrote, “and ask him if he still has it.”
The DA’s office closed the file about nine months later, leaving many questions unanswered. Why did Sprinkel seem so interested in July 2020 and so much less interested shortly thereafter? Why didn’t he talk to the other people? What happened to the green plastic bin and the items that were in the evidence room? And what really happened to James Brown in the hospital?
In 2017, I sat in Andre White’s car as he considered this last question. His voice was breaking, and tears came to his eyes.
“How certain are you that someone did kill him?” I asked.
“Just as sure as you’re sittin’ in the car,” he said.
In the ongoing story of James Brown’s life and death, one mystery always leads to another. I remember another thing White said in the car that summer morning.
“It’s just certain things that I have to take to my grave,” White said.
Four years later, he did.