Testimony of the embattled former coroner for Douglas County will likely face further scrutiny as a 2004 cold case has been determined to be a homicide.
Alonzo Brooks was 23 when he mysteriously disappeared following a house party in La Cygne, Kansas, in 2004. He was found dead nearly a month later. Family members, friends and others believe he may have been the victim of a hate crime.
But Dr. Erik Mitchell, the coroner who performed Brooks’ initial autopsy, previously said he was unable to determine the cause of death, “… and witnesses’ interviews failed to produce any arrests,” according to a news release from the FBI.
The strange circumstances of the case received new attention in 2020 with the release of Netflix’s reboot of “Unsolved Mysteries.” An episode of the show focused on Brooks’ case. Former U.S. Attorney for the District of Kansas Stephen McAllister opened an FBI investigation into Brooks’ death in June 2020.
On Monday, the FBI announced that forensic pathologists determined that Brooks’ death was, in fact, a homicide.
“The new autopsy focuses on injuries to parts of Brooks’ body that the examiner concluded are inconsistent with normal patterns of decomposition,” according to a news release from the FBI.
“We knew that Alonzo Brooks died under very suspicious circumstances,” Acting U.S. Attorney Duston Slinkard said in the release. “… It was no accident. Alonzo Brooks was killed. We are doing everything we can, and will spare no resources, to bring those responsible to justice.”
Douglas County cases
Even before Monday’s news made national headlines, defense attorneys in local cases have questioned Mitchell’s qualifications and testimony, in part based on cases that he worked before he came to Kansas.
The New York Times reported in 1993 that Mitchell, then medical examiner for Onondaga County, New York, “agreed to resign” after prosecutors concluded he had “overstepped his authority and mismanaged his office.”
“Among other things, prosecutors found that Dr. Mitchell routinely removed organs from corpses without the consent of the victims’ families and improperly stored skeletons and body parts in his office,” the New York Times report stated.
Mitchell then came to Kansas, where he performed thousands of autopsies over more than two decades working in multiple counties, including Douglas, and helped found Frontier Forensics Midwest LLC.
Defense attorney Angela Keck filed motions in two cases, including the long-pending Rontarus Washington Jr. case, to exclude Mitchell’s testimony.
“Dr. Mitchell’s testimony as an expert for the state has been called into question many times, so much so that his testimony can not be considered reliable,” Keck wrote in a motion filed Dec. 3, 2018.
She wrote in the same motion that a murder conviction in a New York case, Rivas v. Fischer, was overturned “under circumstances involving Dr. Mitchell’s recanting of testimony and changing of a time of death of the victim in that case to support a prosecutor’s theory of the case, allegedly, in exchange for himself, Dr. Mitchell, to be relieved of possible charges for misconduct in his own office.”
Rivas v. Fischer depended “almost entirely” on Mitchell’s testimony about the time of the victim’s death, but he changed his testimony from what he initially estimated. In Washington’s case, the defense’s alternative suspect’s alibi rests largely on the prosecution’s theory of the time of the victim’s death, based on when her phone activity ceased.
However, Mitchell testified about the autopsy he performed in the November 2014 death of Justina Altamirano Mosso during Washington’s September 2019 trial, after which the jury hung. Mitchell said he had been unable to determine her time of death.
Mitchell’s testimony has also come into question in the Douglas County case of Carrody M. Buchhorn, who was convicted in 2018 of second-degree murder in the death of a 9-month-old in her care. Multiple medical experts testified during hearings on motions for a new trial in Buchhorn’s case — as one wrote of Mitchell’s theory of the child’s death, there was “no reasonable medical or scientific basis to this theory at all.”
The judge denied Buchhorn a new trial. Buchhorn was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison, and the case is currently on appeal.
As The Kansas City Star has reported, Mitchell’s testimony was also key in the murder conviction of Olin “Pete” Coones. Mitchell testified years after the fact that he was reversing his findings and believed that the victim’s death in that case was more likely a suicide. Coones was exonerated and released from prison after more than 12 years in November 2020. He died a few months later.
Mitchell has testified that he has performed more than 12,000 autopsies during his career.
The FBI asks that anyone with information about Brooks’ death call 816-512-8200 or 816-474-TIPS, or submit a tip online at tips.fbi.gov.
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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.