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Despite Ellenette's efforts, though, Cyntoia was different after that. Everyone saw it. Back home in Nashville, she clung to her adoptive mother as if she were afraid that if she lost sight of her, she might disappear again.
Only the two of them remained. Shortly after Cyntoia vanished, Thomas was deployed to Saudi Arabia for a 13-month tour of duty. As for Ellenette's two other children, they were grown and had moved away. Yet whenever her adoptive mother had friends and family over, Cyntoia had to be told to play with other children her age. Otherwise, she'd remain at her mother's side.
Occasionally Ellenette received a letter from Georgina, usually from jail. She'd call when she got out, vowing that she would visit Cyntoia. But Ellenette wouldn't hear from her after that — at least until the next time she wound up in jail.
Ever since Cyntoia was old enough to understand, she knew she was adopted. She didn't look like Ellenette or Thomas or John Harleston or Missy, her sister. Her skin was lighter. Ellenette explained that her biological mother had been too young to care for her, and that Cyntoia was a part of this family now — legally and in every other sense of the word. But the girl couldn't help feeling like an outsider. On trips to see relatives in North Carolina, she felt sure they shared no blood.
Her new father Thomas hardly made her feel more welcome. A Vietnam combat veteran, he'd been awarded the Purple Heart for a leg injury and had a plate implanted in his skull. He drank so much rotgut brandy that his friends called him "EJ," after the E&J brand.
When he drank, Ellenette remembers, his temper smoldered until something set it off. Often, it was his adopted daughter. He told Cyntoia she was going to turn out just like Georgina — a prostitute, an addict. Tensions came to a boil one particularly difficult evening, when Ellenette threatened to pour Thomas' E&J down the bathroom sink.
Ellenette didn't mind a little wine during the weekend, but she thought it was time for Thomas to dry out. He was livid. In response, he hurled a lamp at her and gripped her throat, choking her.
John Harleston found out the next day and rushed over. As soon as he saw Thomas, he attacked. The son began to strangle his stepfather, wrestling him to the floor. Ellenette was away at church. Cyntoia, then roughly 9, was left to confront the enraged adults.
Petrified, screaming, she watched her father and brother struggle for life. In one shaking hand, she held the phone. In the other, she clutched a knife. She didn't want to hurt John, but she wanted him to stop hurting her father. The phone, the knife; the phone, the knife.
The child managed to dial 911. But Cyntoia's relationship with her father never recovered, Ellenette says. Around that time, Cyntoia began drinking whenever she could — mouthfuls of wine, beer or liquor from unattended cups at Super Bowl parties when no one was looking; booze raided from the liquor cabinet and stored in plastic bottles in the closet.
Cyntoia never asked many questions about her birth mother, Ellenette says, although she knew her daughter sometimes daydreamed about her. But a chance discovery changed the girl's perception of her biological mother as an illusory, abstract presence.
At 10 years old, she was snooping through an item of Ellenette's — a portable German closet called a schrank — when she came upon a sheaf of letters. They were written to her, dated back to her infancy and signed by her biological mother. Cyntoia had always wondered about Georgina. It had hurt her that she'd never reached out. She had felt disposable.
Now she knew it wasn't true. All these years Georgina had been trying to communicate, but Ellenette wouldn't budge. In her mind, she was protecting Cyntoia from her absentee mother's chain of broken promises.
"All the years [Georgina] said, 'I'm coming, I'm coming, I'm coming,' and never shows up," Ellenette says. "Suppose each time she said that I said to 'Toia, 'Your mom is coming,' and she sits there waiting and she never shows up. That's horrible. I'd never do that to a child."
When Cyntoia turned 18, she could meet Georgina, Ellenette decided. In the meantime, she didn't want the impressionable girl following her mother down that self-destructive path. She didn't foresee, though, that her daughter was about to embark on her own. To Cyntoia, Ellenette's obstinacy was keeping her from her real family, the blood kin she'd never had. She withdrew into her room most days after school — less and less Mommy's girl.
Cyntoia was an exceptionally bright student, but disdainful of authority. She started smart-mouthing and cussing teachers, and she got into fights with other students. The kids at school teased her for her pale skin, her white mother. They mocked her status in a program for gifted children, as if being smart were a source of shame rather than pride.
In seventh grade, through the gifted program, Cyntoia took the ACT college entrance exam alongside high school seniors — and more than held her own. But in 2000, at the age of 12, she was picked up for a theft amounting to some $2,000 — Ellenette says it was a friend's mother's jewelry — and placed in the district's alternative school for at-risk students.
During a psychological evaluation, the examiner was troubled when the girl began speaking in a high-pitched sing-song voice, threatening to kill her father and cursing staff members. She was "completely out of touch with reality," an observer noted. Medication, likely Thorazine, was administered immediately.
Cyntoia told staff members of abuse she suffered at the hands of her father. Then she leveled a devastating accusation, that he'd raped her. Cyntoia later recanted the statement, saying she was angry with him at the time. To this day, she maintains the rape never happened. But Ellenette, who filed for divorce not long after Cyntoia's accusation, has never been able to completely dismiss the possibility.
The following April, Cyntoia violated her probation when she assaulted a teacher. That December, she was charged with escape after pulling the fire alarm at a secure juvenile detention facility and attempting to break out.
Cyntoia was exposed to a rough youth culture at the alternative schools where the district placed her. She started smoking pot regularly and skipping school. She was in and out of secure facilities: a Department of Children's Services supervisor, at whom Cyntoia once hurled a chair, would later say her record took up several pages. She ended up in a long-term juvenile facility operated by the Tennessee Department of Children's Services.
Woodland Hills Youth Development Center in Nashville was the end of the line. Less like a school and more like a prison, the facility was circled by a fence adorned with a looping tuft of razor wire. Here, away from Ellenette, plagued by internal conflict, Cyntoia spiraled out of control.
She was involved in roughly 20 assaults on other students. At 14, she was placed on a heavy-duty cocktail of psychotropic drugs for depression and anxiety, and she was entered into alcohol and drug treatment. In psychological evaluations at the time, doctors noted that Cyntoia often behaved irrationally, suffering from wild mood swings. She had little sense of self-worth, a counselor noted, and she expected others to fail or betray her. Yet she acted in ways that made those expectations reality. She was nearly incapable of trusting anyone, yet she badly desired approval.
Cyntoia spent 15 months in Woodland Hills. In April 2003, she was released. She was 15.
On the ride back to Clarksville, Cyntoia wondered where her father was. Every time she'd called home, she asked for Thomas. Each time there had been a different reason he couldn't come to the phone — he was on the road, he was out in the yard, he went to the store. With her daughter released, Ellenette told her the truth: She and Thomas had divorced more than a year-and-a-half ago, and he was now living in Virginia. She hadn't said anything about it while Cyntoia was locked up, afraid her daughter would have a meltdown and further delay her own release.
Cyntoia was stunned. Her father, for all his faults, was gone. There was a new man in Ellenette's life, an old friend named Frank, but Cyntoia couldn't stand him. She did everything she could to run him off, Ellenette says. Once, in an effort to scuttle the relationship, she told him Ellenette had another boyfriend.
Cyntoia began spending a lot of time with a girlfriend down the street. Ellenette found out they were actually hanging out at another house in the neighborhood, getting stoned and drunk. Mother and daughter clashed repeatedly. When Ellenette discovered she'd been skipping school, they parted ways.
The teenager stayed with her sister Missy and baby-sat her nephew when they both got out of school. The arrangement worked for a time, until Missy came home from work one day and found her son sitting in the house alone. Cyntoia was gone. She was missing for three days and returned with little explanation.
It was impossible for Cyntoia's family to keep tabs on her 24 hours a day, particularly when everyone had to work. In December, Cyntoia was playing hooky at her sister's house in Clarksville. She was supposed to help her decorate the tree that evening, but she was tired of waiting. In fact, she'd already made up her mind to go. She trimmed the tree herself and hung the lights and decorations.
The house, by all accounts, looked beautiful. Cyntoia Brown's years of freedom were coming to an end, but all she could see was escape. She grabbed a bag and caught a ride to Nashville, to start her new life.
By the time Cyntoia was 16, she lived with an older woman in Nashville named Shocosha, whose home functioned as a de facto day care for children whose parents weren't providing for them. She stayed stoned on blunts — cigars gutted and stuffed with marijuana. She popped Ecstasy and snuck into nightclubs, drinking and dancing into the morning. She drifted in and out of relationships with much older men who took advantage of her youth and inexperience — men who had no qualms about hooking up with a girl barely old enough to drive.
Cyntoia says she started selling crack out of a friend's house in the Andrew Jackson housing development for a dealer who was locked up and needed the assist. When he got out, he asked her to join him on a cocaine run to Florida, offering to pay her. He picked Cyntoia up and they stopped at a motel off West End where he had a room. He claimed their bus to Atlanta had been delayed, and offered her a mixed vodka drink while they waited. She can only assume it was drugged.
She didn't know for sure how many times he raped her, or how long she was in his motel room. When she finally stumbled out and managed to call Shocosha, she received a shock. "Where have you been?" the woman asked. Cyntoia had been gone for two days.
It wouldn't be the last time. In the weeks leading up to the murder, Cyntoia says she was raped twice more. When she confided this to Shocosha, her friend would later say Cyntoia laughed. That's how she coped. She laughed when you expected her to cry.
Cut-throat was always calling Cyntoia a slut. She shouldn't feel that bad about it, he'd say. Some people are just born that way. It was as though he'd taken a page from her father's playbook.
Cut, as she called him, wasn't a bad-looking guy — broad-shouldered, with hair worn in a thick shock of small braids. His real name was Garion McGlothen, he was 24, and at first their brief relationship had been fun. They got high all day. They had sex, much of it unforced. He even got Cyntoia to snort her first line — one of the most pleasurable highs she'd ever experienced.
And when Cyntoia was up, she was invincible. Once Cut choked her to the point that she lost consciousness. As soon as she came to, Cyntoia got right back up and started taunting him. She lost weight, though, because she often forgot to eat. Her eyes were bloodshot and rimmed with dark circles.
Sometime in July, Ellenette got an unexpected call. She hadn't heard from her daughter since May. She picked up the phone, only to hear Cyntoia calling from a bathroom in a Chattanooga motel. Ellenette begged her to come home, but Cyntoia said Cut wouldn't let her. He knew where her adoptive mother lived, she said, and he'd told her that if she left him, he'd find her. He'd done it before. Cyntoia promised that as soon as she could get away, she would.
If on some level Cyntoia feared Cut, she didn't know the half of it. For the most part, his rap sheet wasn't that extensive. He'd been popped for carrying a gun and possession of narcotics. Cyntoia knew he sometimes robbed people. It's a sure bet he sold a little coke.
What she didn't know was that Cut was wanted in connection with a robbery several months before. A club owner named Rachel Browning had been shot in the neck and was paralyzed from the chest down. Already a dangerous sociopath, Cut was on a hair-trigger — an alleged accomplice in an attempted murder, maybe even the perpetrator.
Cut lay low. He and Cyntoia lived out of the InTown Suites on Murfreesboro Pike under a fake name, in a tiny room with a double bed and a hot plate. To pay for coke and room rent, Cut stationed Cyntoia out on Murfreesboro Pike near the hotel — a well-known thoroughfare where sex is a curbside service. Sometimes she could just take a john's money and bolt. Sometimes she performed the service for the fee — about $250 usually, to be split with Cut. She didn't like thinking of herself as a prostitute, but that's what she was becoming.
It was around 11 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 5, 2004, when a carhop at Sonic saw a white-and-gray two-tone Ford truck drive past. She waved it down. The man behind the wheel, 43-year-old real estate agent Johnny Allen, leaned out of the window and smiled. He was an average-looking guy, around 6 feet tall, with a slight paunch. He had shaggy brown hair and some male-pattern baldness he covered with a toupee. Even in front of longtime girlfriends, Allen was reluctant to remove his hairpiece.
The carhop could see the man was getting the wrong idea. "Your headlights are off," she said.
"I'm sorry," he said, and drove off.
Fifteen minutes later, Allen pulled into Sonic. Beside him, in the passenger seat, was Cyntoia.
"Back already?" the carhop joked.
Allen ordered a soft drink, a chicken sandwich and fries for Cyntoia.
"That'll be $99," she said, playing with him a little.
"That's kinda expensive," he replied.
"Don't you think she's worth it?" the carhop asked. She assumed Cyntoia was his daughter or niece.
"I don't know," Allen said. "We'll see."
The carhop would later testify that Cyntoia looked uncomfortable.
Allen pulled away from Sonic and took her to his home, on nearby Mossdale Drive off Bell Road. According to court documents, Allen, who'd been divorced since 1999, lived in a cozy split-level that was oddly appointed for a single man his age. In the living room, Cyntoia would have seen a pastel, floral-print couch flanked by lamps with tasseled, white satin shades, sitting atop doilies on white wicker end tables. A nearby armoire held trinkets, including a porcelain figurine in a white lace gown. On a wooden dinner table, cloth napkins folded in fan shapes were arranged around a vase of white silk flowers. It looked like the home of an aging spinster expecting guests for tea.
According to Cyntoia's statement to police, and her testimony during the juvenile transfer hearing, she and Allen ate their dinner and chatted. Allen, Cyntoia says, claimed to be an expert marksman, trained in the Army. He showed her a chrome pistol, a double-barrel shotgun and a .22-caliber rifle, she testified. At some point they went downstairs and watched TV. BET was on, and she recalled seeing India.Arie. Allen had a lot of expensive audio equipment, including two tower speakers.
She claimed he tried to kiss her a few times, but she pulled away. Cyntoia maintains that she told Allen she was tired, and that she'd like to get some sleep. They filed into the master bedroom, where Allen unbuttoned a red-and-black Hawaiian-print shirt and slipped off a pair of dark slacks. They climbed into his bed, and she says she tried to drift off, hoping he wouldn't insist on sex.
She wouldn't have been able to sleep anyway, because Allen, she claimed, kept getting out of bed and walking into the guest bedroom. From there, he'd walk to the bathroom and shut the door. Then he'd come back in and lie down. And he did it again, Cyntoia said, to her growing alarm.
During one of these trips back to his side of the bed, he shed his shimmering black and gold silk boxers and lay down naked next to Cyntoia. Allen caressed her shoulder. She later testified during a hearing that he tried to grab her crotch, and she pulled away. To hear her tell it, she began to fear he might kill her — a fear no doubt amplified by at least two weeks on a coke bender.
When Cyntoia rebuffed Allen's advances, she says he rolled over. She thought he was going for a gun, so she reached into her purse on the nightstand. She pulled out a .40-caliber pistol Cut had given her for protection — the very same pistol, in fact, whose bullet had paralyzed Rachel Browning.
She leveled the gun at the back of Allen's head and fired. As she grabbed her purse and turned to flee, she remembered hearing a sound like bathwater running onto the wood floor. She collected the rifle and shotgun from the case, she said, not about to return to Cut empty-handed. She loaded them into Allen's truck and sped off at about 2 a.m. down the quiet street while the neighborhood slept.
Cyntoia pulled the truck into the InTown Suites parking lot and lugged the guns up to the room. Cut was furious that she'd brought the weapons to their room without concealing them. She returned to the truck and drove it down Murfressboro Pike to the Walmart on Hamilton Church Road. Surveillance cameras observed her dumping it in the parking lot and waving down a man in a black SUV for a ride.
As he drove her the short distance back to the motel, Cyntoia stared blankly ahead. The stranger would later recall wondering what the girl, who looked like a child, was doing out so late.
Cyntoia spent much of the next day getting stoned, glued to the television and waiting for a report on the night before. She testified at one point that she wasn't sure whether Allen was dead or alive. At around 4 or 5 that afternoon, she went down the hall to Richard Reed's room. She'd known Reed from juvenile detention back in Clarksville, where he'd been locked up for public intoxication, possession of a firearm and assaulting his grandmother.
He answered the door in a fog, still hung-over from the night before, which he'd spent drinking at the bar where he worked. She asked him for a ride down the street to Walmart. He dressed, and they hopped into a Ford Escort. According to trial transcripts, Reed claimed Cyntoia told him about a "fat lick." He said she told him she shot a man, and that she would split the $50,000 she'd stolen if he accompanied her back to the house on Mossdale.
Reed thought she was blowing smoke — and she was, at least concerning the money. As they pulled into the Walmart parking lot, she pointed to a white pickup. She evidently had the keys to it as well, because she climbed inside while Reed waited.
Cyntoia claims she called Allen's house from his cell phone, but no one picked up. When she got back to the InTown, she checked the news again. Not a word about a murder or a shooting. Within the next hour or so, she dialed 911 from his phone.
"2728 Mossdale Drive," Cyntoia said in comical sotto voce, sounding like a little girl imitating her father.
"What's going on over there, ma'am?" the operator asked.
"Homicide," Cyntoia replied, and hung up. She would later say she didn't like the idea of Allen lying in that bedroom by himself. She wanted him to be found.
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