JOHNS ISLAND — Justin Brown called out to the people who knocked on his door that night, just before two intruders burst into his apartment and one of them shot him.
“It’s us,” a voice called back.
Those words, relayed to his mother, stick with her 10 years later as she presses to answer the nagging question: Who were they?
Candice Brown, an elementary school teacher who lives on Johns Island, buried her only child in 2002.
She cleaned out Justin’s apartment in Winter Park, Fla., then she decided to play detective in her son’s death in the apparent robbery.
She learned that Florida authorities arrested a man in connection with a similar crime just weeks later, in which a college student shot the robber who shot him first.
The suspect in that case, later sentenced to life in prison, told authorities he knew who killed Justin but, according to Brown, refused to help without an incentive.
Brown and her mother, Gay Galus, wrote to him.
“Have you been in there long enough to consider being a human being?” Justin’s grandmother wrote.
The man offered no help. Brown also knows that someone called her son as many as 10 times just before the attack. She still wonders about that person.
When she learned that the lead detective with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office retired in the past year, Brown vowed not to let her son’s case fade.
“I’m hoping that they can make an arrest,” she said. “You cannot just take a life and go on with your life as if nothing happened.”
Sheriff’s spokesman Jeff Williamson declined to release any further information or reports from the investigation, but said Justin’s death has not fallen into the cold case pile.
“It’s still a very much open and ongoing investigation,” Williamson said.
Children of the ’80s and ’90s might remember Justin Brown from his commercials with the Fox 24 Kids’ Club. He played the bossy “CEO” with sun-streaked hair.
“He would get chased by girls, literally bombarded by girls,” his mother said. “He hated it.”
Justin Brown went to Academic Magnet High School, then finished early through a home-school program. At 17 years old, he started his own interior trim carpentry business and grossed $85,000 in the first year, according to his mother.
“He had five employees, all of them older than he was,” Brown said.
Ever the entertainer, Justin wanted a career in film and video, so he moved to Florida for an intensive program at Full Sail University. His motto became, “Step aside, Steven Spielberg.”
Brown said her son helped his classmates by making study guides for them with his notes, then giving them mock tests. He made pots of chili and espresso for the study sessions but, ever the entrepreneur, sold the food and coffee to those who came.
Justin had been helping a friend with schoolwork in his living room on the evening of the attack. He couldn’t see anyone through the peephole, his mother said, so he cracked the door.
One of the intruders kicked in the door, Brown said, and Justin’s friend hid in the kitchen. Brown said one of the intruders trained a gun on Justin, while the other man went straight for the music recording equipment in Justin’s spare bedroom.
Justin rose to fight the gunman, who shot Justin in the lower right side. He chased the intruders while calling 911, but eventually grew weak and retreated to his apartment.
Justin died at the hospital that night.
A memorial message painted on the Folly Boat lasted a surprising nine days before being painted over by another message. Car loads of people drove from Florida to pay respects to Justin.
“Interstate 95 was a caravan of kids,” Brown said.
Justin left behind a son, Avery, with a former girlfriend in Florida. The boy was 11 months old when his father died and today doesn’t remember the weekends they spent together.
Holidays prove toughest for Candice Brown, especially knowing the person or people who killed her son remain free.
“These people are spending the holidays with their families,” she said.
Brown would have celebrated Justin’s 30th birthday with him this December.
Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ allysonjbird.