Fred and Pat Brown were married for over 20 years — but a dispute over Pat’s obsession with exotic birds drove a wedge between them that ended in murder.
Frederic Chester Brown Jr. was born and raised in Silar City, North Carolina, a small town 30 miles southwest of Greensboro.
“Fred was one of those guys that was just a good guy. He never gave anyone a problem,” former Guilford County Sheriff’s Major Tom Sheppard told “Snapped,” airing on Sundays at 6/5c on Oxygen.
During the Vietnam War, Fred joined the U.S. Army and attended the Noncommissioned Officer Academy in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. There he met 21-year-old Pat DeRosa, his commanding officer’s stepdaughter.
Patricia DeRosa was one of three daughters raised by a single mother in Oklahoma. She was especially close to her sister Sheila, who was eight years her junior.
After dating for six months, Pat and Fred were married. The Army sent them to live in different countries and states and they had two children; a son and a daughter. Fred retired from the Army in 1988 and the family settled in High Point, North Carolina. He got a job teaching business at Guilford Technical Community College while Pat worked in real estate and later taught it at Randolph Community College in Asheboro.
A heavy smoker, Pat suffered from high blood pressure and had open heart surgery in 1990. She convalesced for several months at her mother’s home in Alabama, while Sheila lived nearby. Though her physical health soon returned, Pat’s brush with mortality made her anxious about the future. She found solace in breeding exotic birds.
“She had all these exotic birds all over the house. There was 50, 60, something like that, that she was keeping there,” Sheppard said.
Fred did not share his wife’s enthusiasm for the chirping, feathered creatures that now made his home their habitat.
“Fred was definitely annoyed by the birds. I think the first few were OK but as she continued to get birds, yes, it was quite annoying to him,” friend and co-worker Kenneth Vaughn told “Snapped.”
To placate his wife, Fred learned to live with the birds, if not love them. He agreed to build an extension onto their home to house the large cages they needed.
But on the morning of April 25, 1991, a 911 call came into the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office. A dead body had been found lying face down in a ditch alongside Highway 68 in High Point. The body had no identification on it but was on the ground next to an abandoned car. After running the plates, authorities learned the victim was 45-year-old Fred Brown.
He had been shot three times, once in the back and two times on the left side of the head, according to court documents. Earlier that morning, Fred had been reported missing by his wife and daughter.
Fred’s missing wallet suggested his death was the result of a robbery gone wrong. A footprint on his back, however, made detectives question that scenario.
“Obviously, somebody stood over this guy and shot him with his foot on his back, execution style. Somebody that’s robbing somebody doesn’t want to get close,” former Guilford County Sheriff’s Sergeant Jonathan Jacobs told “Snapped.”
A witness claimed she saw two cars parked bumper to bumper on the side of the road on the night of April 24. There were two people and one of their hoods was propped open. Another witness who lived in the vicinity described hearing three gunshots at approximately 11 p.m.
Authorities notified Pat Brown of her husband’s murder.
“When the detectives talked to Patricia, she did not act like she was too concerned with Fred’s death. That kind of put up a red flag,” Sheppard said.
Pat said Fred got home from work around 5 on the evening of the murder. She left at 6 p.m. to teach and their daughter went out with friends. When they returned, they were surprised to find Fred wasn’t home.
Detectives spoke to Fred’s co-workers at Guilford Technical Community College. “All the faculty including myself, the students, loved him. He was just a nice guy, easy to get along with, loved to talk, he didn’t know a stranger,” said Vaughn.
Vaughn also informed detectives that the Browns’ marriage had hit a rough patch.
“Fred was trying to appease Pat in making the renovations to their house, even though it was creating a lot more debt than he wanted,” said Vaughn. “… There was a situation where he came to my office and talked about what he was afraid may happen. And he just said to me, point blank, ‘I would not be surprised if Pat didn’t get a contract out on me.”
Despite the trouble at home, Fred wouldn’t consider divorce, saying it went against his beliefs.
Detectives spoke with the Browns’ former housekeeper, who was hired after Pat’s surgery. She said she often heard Pat verbally abuse her husband, according to local newspaper the News & Record.
Though detectives suspected Pat might be involved in her husband’s death, she had an alibi and there was no way to tie her to the crime. After collecting over $140,000 in life insurance claims, she sold the family home and moved to Alabama, buying a double wide trailer and continuing to sell exotic birds.
But three years after Fred Brown’s murder, the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office was contacted by the Reading Police Department in Pennsylvania. They were in possession of two letters written by a man named Leroy Wentzel where he said he “shot Fred Brown by his wife, Pat,” according to court documents.
Leroy Wentzel was the estranged husband of Pat’s sister, Sheila. He had given the letters to his daughter during a mental health crisis, instructing her to read them only after his death. Instead she gave them to the police.
In July 1994, detectives from North Carolina flew to Pennsylvania to talk to Leroy, who had been arrested for failure to pay child support, according to The Oklahoman newspaper. Leroy told detectives that Pat called Sheila in spring1990 and asked if she knew anyone who would kill her husband. Leroy agreed to do it for $30,000, according to court documents.
“Pat and I would talk on the telephone quite often, and she asked me if [Leroy] was going to do it, and that she wanted it done,” Sheila Wentzel would later testify, according to the News & Record.
Pat helped plan the murder and paid the Wentzels $1,000 up front. She said they would get the remainder after the murder, when she could collect Fred’s life insurance. She would ultimately pay them $3,500.
It was Pat who suggested the date of the murder, knowing she would be at work. Armed with a .22-caliber revolver, Leroy got to High Point around 9:30 on the night of April 24. After temporarily disabling his car, he called Fred, who offered to drive out to help him. Upon arrival, Fred looked under the hood of Leroy’s car to figure out what the problem was. Leroy then retrieved his pistol from the backseat and told him his wife wanted him dead.
“Fred begged for his life and Fred turned and started running and Leroy shot him in the back,” Jacobs said.
Leroy then shot him twice more in the head, returned to his car, and drove away, but doubled back to get Fred’s wallet. He threw it out while driving home, calling Pat along the way, and later dumped the murder weapon into Alabama’s Coosa River, according to court documents.
In July 1994, investigators obtained arrest warrants for Patricia G. Brown and Sheila Wentzel for the murder of Frederic Brown and took them into custody. Leroy and Sheila Wentzel agreed to testify against Patricia Brown at her murder trial in June 1995.
Leroy pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, conspiracy, and armed robbery and was sentenced to life plus 30 years in prison.
Sheila pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder and received a 50 year prison sentence.
After deliberating for two days, jurors found Patricia Brown guilty of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and solicitation to commit murder, according to the News & Record. She was subsequently sentenced to life in prison.
Pat Brown died in prison in 2002 at the age of 53. Sheila Wentzel was paroled from prison in 2011. Now 78, Leroy Wentzel is currently incarcerated at North Carolina’s Southern Correctional Institution.
For more on this case and others like it, watch “Snapped,” airing on Sundays at 6/5c on Oxygen, or stream episodes here.