'Exactly what I needed': From life of crime to life of faith, man looks to help those in dark places
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Something about the meeting felt wrong.
It wasn't that the place chosen to exchange drugs for a gun was near a police station. Gregory Brown didn't even know that at the time.
"I just had a horrible feeling," he said.
Looking back, he thinks the feeling that struck him was an inkling of what was coming: an intervention from God that would eventually push him in the right direction by scaring him straight. It was a warning before a night of crime that would change his life forever.
At the time, Brown was a 19-year-old punk with a propensity for dealing drugs. Before night's end, he would have attempted three armed robberies as part of a crime spree that included the murder of his friend. Yet less than a year later, he would feel a deep need to make a change and start reaching for a higher power. Soon after, he would read scriptures in jail and then started praying for his enemies.
Now, at 23 and an active Mormon, he seeks to help others in dark places.
Today, he might have listened to the pang of premonition. On the afternoon of Feb. 5, 2009, he did not.
"I just brushed it off, thinking it was normal nerves for buying a gun for the first time," he recalled.
When the group he was waiting for arrived, he got in the car. No one said hello or asked how he was doing.
"I start getting that bad feeling again, and that's when they actually drive away from the Wendy's into a apartment complex right behind it," Brown recalled. "That's when Sano said, 'green light,' which started the whole events of the day."
Three years later, Brown stood in a courtroom and heard himself thank the teenager who threatened to kill him during a terrifying crime spree. The events that night forced him to change his life.
But back then, he was desperately doing everything he could to just stay alive by doing exactly what Shardise Malaga, Antonie Hunter Farani (known as Sano), Jeremiah Williamson and Spencer Cater asked him to do — whatever it took to get rid of the gun that was cocked and pointed at his waist.
They asked for his backpack and everything inside. Brown handed over the bag, carrying some marijuana, cocaine, a scale, his wallet and some cash. But Farani, the ringleader, wanted more.
"For some reason he was expecting $2,000 and he didn't get that, so now he's getting frustrated," Brown recalled. "He says, 'You need $2,000 for your life before it gets dark, or we're going to kill you.'"
Brown hadn't been in Utah two years when he found himself in the deepest trouble he'd ever been in. He grew up in his native California, mostly in group homes, where he was confident, outspoken and wary of authority. He often ran away but said he could do well when he wanted.
He attended a school for others like him, where earning "diamond" status meant more freedom and responsibility. When he was 9, he decided he wanted to be a "diamond" student and he was.
At 17, he got out of the system and moved in with his brother. It was a "sketchy neighborhood," and Brown said he quickly learned that he could make good money selling drugs. He had earned his GED and was planning on going to college, but he said his "entrepreneurial mind" went to work.
"I started a little business you could say, but a bad business," Brown said of his start selling methamphetamine and marijuana. "It was just the greed for money."
The drugs were easy to come by, though Brown said he didn't use them.
"I didn't believe in using my own product," he said. "That was just a way to lose money."
His mother was living in Utah, and he came out for a short visit at her home in West Valley City in August 2008. That's when he met Farani, Williamson and Malaga and said he quickly realized Utah was not what he expected — and he saw an opportunity to expand his business.
He briefly returned to California but soon decided to move to Utah for good. He didn't have a car, so he stole one to make the trip. He was arrested after an officer scanned the license plate scan in a Wal-Mart parking lot. The pending charges kept him in Utah and he started selling drugs in West Valley City and in downtown Salt Lake City. He was soon facing two separate felony cases and spent 65 days in jail between September and November 2008.
When he got out, he started to make some changes and got a job. He met a girl and accepted an invitation to go to church with her. He decided to study massage therapy. The change of heart, however, was short-lived.
"I got back into (selling drugs) in January," Brown said, noting that he thinks what happened in February was a higher power trying to point him in another direction. "This was quick, you can see the intervention here. … I was not meant to be selling drugs."
Brown learned that Farani, Williamson and Malaga wanted to get in on the business. He had decided he needed a gun for security purposes, and they set up an exchange: his drugs for their gun.
"Little did I know they were setting me up," Brown recalled.
They duct-taped his hands. Brown said he set about to come up with the $2,000 that Farani was demanding. He estimated that he made about 100 phone calls to at least 20 different people, with Cater — whom he had never seen before — holding the phone to his ear and dialing the numbers.
One man paid Brown $175 he was owed. Brown then got in touch with his friend JoJo Brandstatt and asked him to find someone whom they could rob for drugs and money. He told Brandstatt they would take the money and go to California.
"He was a really good kid," Brown said of Brandstatt. "He was a hard worker. It was a bad business, but he still had good personality traits."
Brown said he was told that if he and Brandstatt could come up with the money, they would let him go. Brandstatt told him he knew about a place where they could go and the group went to pick him up around 6 p.m.
Things got worse, however, because of the simple fact that the 18-year-old was wearing a red shirt.
"They noticed the color he was wearing and it was problems from the beginning," Brown said, noting that the color indicated affiliation with either the Blood or Norteño gangs. "That brings tension and confrontation to the car."
Brandstatt's mother has said her son wore the color to "fit in," but she insisted her son was not a gang member.
Brown urged everyone to calm down and assured them that he and Brandstatt could come up with the money. Things devolved quickly, though, when Brandstatt struggled to guide them to the house he had in mind to rob.
"When we get there, the group sees an old lady sitting in the front window of the house," Brown recalled. "They thought they were being set up and that's when Sano says, 'Let's do a Norte quick.'"
Brown knew that was a threat on Brandstatt's life, but he didn't take it seriously. He said the conversation was all over the place and he was clueless as to what they would do.
"I was figuring they were bluffing," he said. "I didn't know if they really had it in them to kill somebody, especially the way they were talking about it."
They drove to a field, but it was busy. They then went to West Ridge Golf Course, 5055 S. Westridge Blvd. (5950 West). Brandstatt was ordered out of the car with Malaga, Farani and Cater. Brown stayed behind with Williamson.
"I tried to picture in my mind Jojo running back down the golf course after all this is done," Brown said. "There's not much I can do at this point, there was a gun and my wrists were tied. … It was just an intellectual battle at this time."
He heard faint gunshots. When the group returned, Brandstatt was not with them.
He had been shot three times execution style and his body was left at the ninth hole.
Brown panicked. He said he told them he knew more people downtown who had money. He offered to steal a car. Eventually, after a trip to the Salt Lake Main Library yielded nothing, he offered to rob a convenience store.
He hit three, coming away with cash from two of the locations. At the third stop, he hit the cashier with his gun when she only offered $20 from the register.
"It wasn't a hard hit, but I did hit her and nothing can justify that and I feel terrible even thinking about doing that," Brown said.
When he left the convenience store, he saw his four captors inside his getaway car that was stuck at a stoplight. That's when he decided to make a run from the group, hopping the fence of a nearby gated community. Once inside, he approached a woman and asked to borrow her phone to call his mother. He eventually talked her and another woman into giving him a ride to his mother's home.
"I'm thankful I got to be in the car with them because I eventually told them what happened to me and it was me telling them that they (then) went to the police," Brown said of the two women. "My plan was retaliation. I wasn't thinking of going to the police at all, but they went to the police and told them where they dropped me off.
"It was perfect and it was exactly what I needed even though I didn't know it at the time."
The police arrived and took Brown into custody. Though reluctant to cooperate, he told them what had happened and led them to Brandstatt's body.
Brown was booked into jail on Feb. 6, 2009, and remained in custody until Jan. 18, 2011.
"I felt like this was an opportunity for me to do things a little differently, but I also … wanted revenge and I wanted them to let me go so I could get revenge," Brown said. "It was mixed. I wanted to change. I wanted revenge. And it did feel like it was over and I was so thankful to be alive, but even going from being duct-taped to handcuffed, it still felt like it was going on.
"There was a lot of mixed emotions. I was sad about my friend."
He held onto the anger for close to a year. In December 2009, he was transferred to the Utah County Jail and asked to be placed in solitary, so he could be alone with his thoughts. He started to think more about his life and what he wanted for his future.
"I realized that my life wasn't going so well and I didn't want that type of future for me," Brown said. "I wanted to eventually have a family and be good to society. I didn't want to end my life in death or prison because of my ignorant choices. I just wanted something better."
After some time, he decided he wanted to read the Bible.
"I viewed myself as a regular Christian, nothing religious or anything, but it just didn't feel like it was the right time to read the Bible," Brown said. "I decided to try and read the Book of Mormon again."
He asked a guard to bring him a copy of the book, and he did, the next day.
"The minute I touched that book, I'd read it once before, I knew it was true," Brown said. "I started applying all that stuff into this solitary situation and my thoughts became clearer, and I was gaining a better perspective of who I was and what I needed to do with the situation."
He read that he should love his enemies and pray for those who had persecuted him. He had been baptized into the LDS Church at age 8 and decided he wanted to repent. The first month was difficult. He then decided to try and learn to forgive.
"I thought about it and thought if I'm going to be a Mormon or even a Christian I need to do that," Brown said. "I figure when you pray, you can't sit there and be idle, you have to act, so I said a simple prayer for these guys and I noticed when I took that action I was filled with more love for (his one-time captors).
"I learned to love these guys. They were in my prayers every night and I just wanted the best for all of them."
He spent 13 more months in jail and committed to spending his days, from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m., studying scriptures and reading other books.
"I learned how to write and I learned talents that I never knew I had, how to organize what I did have and use it for my benefit," he said. "I used my time wisely and learned a lot from it."
He got out of jail and went to work being a witness for God, who he said had lightened his load. He did this by starting to write a book about facing adversity with positivity and light. He started to reach out to those in difficult situations, such as inmates and the homeless.
Brown spent days in downtown Salt Lake City contacting people about what they wanted from their lives and encouraged them with ideas about how they might achieve their goals.
He said the deeper "why?" of his conversion — the desire for a happy and full life — is what has sustained him.
"The 'why' is the driving force," he said. "That's what kept me in the church even now. I've gained a testimony deeper than just reading the book, than all the other things. The things that happened to me and the way things turned out, I know it's true so deeply that I can't deny it and I know what I want is eternal life."
Brown spoke during sentencing hearings for both Cater and Farani. He said he fasted and prayed about what to say and that he surprised even himself when he thanked Farani for being part of what prompted him to change his life.
"You were an aid to (my) change," Brown said in court. "You have an opportunity now. Take it."
"It was an amazing experience for me, forgiving him, as well as getting over this whole situation, this whole incident that had happened," Brown later said of the experience.
He knows some jailhouse conversions can be shallow, but it has been two years and he said he has not let up on doing the little things that changed him. He still reads scriptures and attends church. He is optimistic about his plans to write that book and become a motivational speaker.
He also doesn't worry that he will return to his old ways. His conversations are peppered with scripture and he quotes one about experiencing a mighty change of heart.
"I'm a brand new person. I couldn't even fathom a thought of going back to those old ways. I've tasted of His goodness. Right now, I'm the young men's president. I have the Melchizedek priesthood, a temple recommend. … Those are amazing accomplishments to me and I'm happy to have those."
Brown is currently traveling along the East Coast, exploring, enjoying a change of scenery, continuing to seek inspiration and do research for the book he still hopes to finish. It has almost been four years since Brandstatt was killed, and Brown had to decide what to make of his life that was spared that night.
"It all started with that humbling experience that really brought me low and made me think and it's been a slow, patient process of changing," Brown said. "A lot of this has been about not giving up, continuing to press forward. There have been times that it's been really rough, but I keep having hope and patience with myself. A lot of the credit goes to the Atonement and Jesus Christ."
Every so often, he will be reminded of where he was and has been. He will see someone "doing something stupid" or dressing like he used to dress and it almost hurts.
The feeling isn't for himself, but for the other person. Going back to that place is not an option for him.
"I don't have concerns because I don't look back," Brown said. "I know that my life is only moving forward if I keep up, day to day, with what I need to keep up with.
"That's not even me anymore."
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