Justice Deferred

A grand jury indicted Jerry Lee Brooks on charges that he committed a series of rapes in Charlotte—more than 30 years ago. If a conviction follows, it will be the highest profile—and most bizarre—victory for CMPD’s groundbreaking sexual assault cold case


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Now 62 years old and having served his sentence, Brooks was on probation, living quietly in Surfside Beach, South Carolina, a small town near Myrtle Beach, when members of CMPD’s violent criminal apprehension team (VCAT) flew down to arrest him last July.

Warrants were still being drawn up in Charlotte when the team took off in a State Bureau of Investigation plane. They were pretty sure they had Brooks’s correct address, but after 30 years, they didn’t want to risk losing their suspect.

When they landed at a private hangar at the airport, the VCAT officers were greeted by local cops and officers from the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED). Together, they rode to Brooks’s townhouse to conduct surveillance. It was hot and muggy that day, but Brooks lived just blocks from the beach, so there was enough of a breeze to make it a good day to go for a bike ride. As he pedaled through town, officers watched, waiting for the go-ahead to make the arrest. They watched as he fixed the weather stripping on his front door.

At about two o’clock that afternoon, word came that the warrants had been signed. Brooks was back inside his townhouse. The officers took position. Agents stood on either side of the front door. Surfside police officers and VCAT team members fanned out across the yard, just out of view.  A SLED agent took off his tactical gear, and dressed casually in a simple T-shirt and jeans, knocked on the door.

“Jerry Lee?” the agent asked when Brooks appeared, and stuck out his hand as though looking for a handshake.

“Yes,” Brooks replied, and offered his own hand.

Immediately, the agent pulled Brooks into his front yard and cuffed him.

Brooks was charged with three counts of rape, two counts of crimes against nature, burglary, two counts of breaking and entering, robbery with a dangerous weapon, and two counts of kidnapping. A Mecklenburg County grand jury indicted him in June 2012.

The agent pulled Brooks into his front yard and cuffed him. Brooks had no idea why a team of police was at his door.

Armstrong has spent the past few months tracking down the women he believes were Brooks’s victims. Though there is enough physical evidence to charge Brooks in attacks on only three women, Armstrong thinks that he raped at least 11. He’s also comparing notes with cops from other jurisdictions where Brooks lived. The most rewarding part of his job right now, he says, is being able to offer some sense of relief to the small circle of women whose lives changed forever 30 years ago. The first woman he talked to lives in Asheville. “I hopped in the car, drove there, and located her. It’s really hard to put into words what it was like. It was a very emotional one. … It was just such a relief.”

It’s the same kind of relief Mindy Sypher speaks of when we sit at a table in her living room talking on a quiet Saturday afternoon. Her dog barks anytime someone passes by. Her husband comes downstairs occasionally to check on her.

Sypher waited just a day after seeing news of Brooks’s arrest to call the police. Her son urged her to reach out. She called several times before she got Armstrong on the phone. She was disappointed to learn there was no salvageable DNA evidence from her file to formally connect Brooks to her case. He would never be charged with her rape. But she says Armstrong assured her she was on the list of women police believed were victims of the ski mask rapist. “My justice is just to see him go away,” she says, determination in her voice and in her eyes. “As long as he is charged for the group, that gives me solace.”

Brooks is slated to face a jury this summer. Trials can be unpredictable, of course. Prosecutor Barry Cook won’t talk about pending cases, but he says DNA evidence is about as good as it gets. Brooks’s defense attorney did not return repeated phone calls for this story. As for Sypher, she is grateful for the work Detective Armstrong and the rest of the cold case team did on the case.

“After all these years, I think it is incredible—absolutely incredible.”

CMPD’s sexual assault cold case unit has investigated almost 700 cases since 2006, and solved 100. Sergeant Troy Armstrong says there are thousands more to go through.

Michelle Boudin is a reporter for NBC Charlotte and a frequent contributor to this magazine.

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