Today, December 4th, would have been Regina Brown’s 66th birthday. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t think of her. I wrote that first story about her in 1987. I’m still hoping that someone, somewhere, has that last piece of the puzzle that will bring her killer to justice and closure for her family. It was 30 years ago this year that she disappeared from Newtown, Connecticut without a trace.
I’d only been a reporter for barely four months when I called my editor, Curtiss Clark, to tell him I wasn’t going to be at The Bee that morning — March 29, 1986 — because my Norwegian Elkhound bitch Mumbles was going to whelp her (and my) first litter of puppies. The day fell on Good Friday, and secretly I was happy that I missed having to trundle down to the Smoke Shop for my weekly job of asking the Bee Lines questions.
But the canine birthing event did provide fodder for a personal column I wrote a week later. I wrote about the birth of one particular puppy, Roxanne (yes, she was named after the Police song, and yes we sang her name to her in that “Rooooxanne” way only Sting can do). When born her little 8 ounce body was not breathing. I quickly learned how to clean fluid from newborn nostrils and gently shake the puppy to dislodge any other fluids from where they shouldn’t be. Then I ever so gently blew life into her little lungs, and with a twitch, a gasp and squirm, the tiny black form came to life in the palm of my hand. It really was the miracle of birth, Norwegian Elkhound style.
Roxanne was the only female in a litter of three and so I had no choice but to keep her as she would become the foundation bitch of the Elvemel Elkhounds line. So proud was I of this little puppy that I brought her everywhere. I even have a photo of her at about 4 or 5 months old in front of the Newtown Bee. The only thing more frightening about raising my first homebred show dog, was my big curly permed 1980s hair in that photo. As a puppy I would bring her to The Bee to socialize and play with Bart, Sherri’s Baggett’s Golden Retriever puppy. They were only a few weeks apart in age.
Eventually Roxanne became a champion and shortly thereafter went to the Westminster Kennel Club dog show to win Best of Opposite Sex to Best of Breed. I only showed her three more times after she finished, including the Westminster win.
After I bred her the first time, I invented a tagline for her ads, “Her specialty was always in the whelping box.” I thought it was a cute play on words. She had 33 puppies in five litters, and produced seven champions along the way, three in one litter of five.
Dog of Vikings!
Buried deep in the Elvemel archives I unearthed an old dot-matrix print-out of her show record which documented 42 shows over two years. I did eventually take her out to a national specialty in 1996 and 2000 for the veterans sweepstakes. At the latter, a friend made her a headpiece of sequins and beads which resembled a Viking princess helmet with long glittery braids. Did you know that the Norwegian Eklhound is known as the Dog of the Vikings. His skeletal remains have been found near Viking graves around Scandinavia dating back 5,000 years. That was until, DNA proved the breed was much younger than that – oops! We like to think those bones belonged to related ancestors.
Beyond showing and whelping, Roxanne has provided me some lighter moments. There was the time she found her first skunk, literally moments before my grandmother would be visiting the house in Newtown for the first time. Thinking I could get to her later with a bath, I threw her downstairs in the basement only to have that skunk smell wafting up into the living room as grandma walked through the front door.
Once she got loose from my home in Southbury and made her way to a local dairy farm, only to come home covered in green “cow pie” stuff. This antic was followed by her chasing Burt around the yard after he found a dead, dehydrated, flattened squirrel. Squirrel jerky anyone?
I still have the fleece jacket I left on the chair one day after a dog show. When I came back into the room, she had eaten a hole in the pocket where the liver was. I never mended the pocket. Whenever I wear that jacket and put my left hand in the pocket, my fingers always find that hole, and Roxanne’s antics are revisited.
She was the consummate beggar, especially at the dinner table. Her ability to talk to us in a low moan, “rahr, rahr, rahr” is still repeated by my husband Ray and I when we eat dinner. We make fun of Jinx, six generations down from Roxanne, who tries her vocal skills in the same manner.
Roxanne lived well into her 14th year. Later in life we called her “Slab” because in her old age she began to resemble a slab of beef. She started a love affair for me of breeding dogs and following generations of happy pets placed in loving homes. Today, on this 30th anniversary of Roxanne’s birth, Jinx — the last bitch in the line of direct descendants — took a walk with me as we visited Roxanne’s final resting place in the back yard. The daffodils I planted 16 years ago on her grave had just started to bloom.
March 1987 was a haunting month in Newtown, Connecticut.
On March 1, 1987, American Airlines flight attendant Regina Brown was in the midst of a divorce from her estranged husband Willis Brown, Jr. The 35-year-old Newtown resident was planning ahead for the safety of herself and her three children.
She was planning on returning to work so she did not have to completely depend on her husband of four years. The 51-year-old American Airlines pilot was already two to three weeks late with weekly child support payments of $170, she told her attorney in a letter.
Based on a documented history of domestic violence against her, the state had recently awarded her temporary custody of her children and the Whippoorwill Hill Road house as well as issued a restraining order against Willis. Regina told friends she was planning an Easter party with her children the following month.
But no one in Newtown escaped the growing media coverage surrounding the so-called woodchipper murder case. Eastern Airlines pilot Richard Crafts was arrested on January 13, 1987 for the murder of his wife, Helle Crafts.
Just like Regina, she too was a Newtown flight attendant, married to a pilot, with three children in the midst of a divorce. The probable cause hearing — which would detail the state’s case to proceed to trial — was scheduled to start on March 10 in Danbury Superior Court. The same court Regina’s divorce case was being heard.
For the first time the public would learn the gruesome details of how Richard Crafts carried out the murder of his lovely Danish wife.
How he killed her at their home on Newfield Lane on November 19, 1986. How he disposed of the mother of his children using a rented commercial woodchipper into Lake Zoar. Everyone would read in the newspapers how Richard Crafts almost got away with the perfect crime.
When I walked in the door 30 years ago and took a look around at The Newtown Bee’s newsroom, it was the most curious newspaper I had ever seen. Among antiques, a wooden carousel horse, and bee memorabilia was a giant ball of tin foil in the publisher R. Scudder Smith’s office, marking decades of sandwiches for lunch.
The Bee’s offices on Church Hill Road building are just down the hill from the old congregational church on Main Street in Newtown, Connecticut. Folklore has it the holes in it’s rooster weathervane atop the steeple were made by bullets shot by Rochambeau’s army on his way to Danbury to fight the British in 1777. In front of the church, in the middle of the state highway, sits a 150-foot tall metal flagpole. Old glory waving at the passing motorists.
Fresh out of college, in my early 20s, this journalist was ready to take on the world, to be a member of the fourth estate, to probe government, to investigate for the public good. Hired on October 28, 1985 as a staff reporter for the police beat, I ended up writing about roaming sheep, flags stolen off the pole and dead people.
Juxtaposed with the vintage ephemera that surrounded my desk was the new computer monitor with its green glowing LED screen. It was cutting edge newspaper publishing in the 1980s. My editor Curtiss Clark sat in a small office whose window abutted my desk. Sometimes he peered through the window like he was looking through a two-way mirror watching the phone interrogations by his reporters on the townspeople of Newtown.
My first story was about a one million dollar property transfer from a doctor’s estate to Danbury Hospital for a new wing and a tower. It was to be named in Dr. Stroock’s memory. As part of the story, I toured his 300-acre Buckeye Farm on the corner of Cemetery and Flat Swamp roads, located in Newtown’s Poverty Hollow district. This part of town was dotted with dairy farms, rolling pastures and landscapes that screamed bucolic.
Little did I know, that a year earlier, just down the road was a barn belonging to a young mother who was missing. In fact, her case kicked off a string of missing Newtown wives and suspect husbands — Elizabeth Heath, Helle Crafts and Regina Brown — all in the 1980s. These murder cases would embroil and devour the Newtown Police Department, for which I had just been hired to cover as my beat.
About a year after I started my Bee tenure — on Nov. 19, 1986 — Storm “Carl” battered the small New England town. This late autumn snowstorm encased everything, including the power lines, in icy inches. A photographer from our rival daily newspaper, The News-Times in Danbury, had traveled to the top of Castle Hill. He captured one of the most iconic images, on one of most unforgettable days. White buildings, a gray steeple, snow-covered evergreens and the flagpole took on a silent blue hue. The only color in the photo was the American flag, the one frequently stolen, blowing in a stiff breeze.
There was no power. The town was cold. The Bee offices were closed that morning. I stayed home. To stay warm, I nestled in my bed with my dogs, since my electric heat would not work. Looking out my window, all I saw was my breathe and ice.
Regina Brown, a 34-year-old American Airlines stewardess, was at her Whippoorwill Hill Road home that morning. In the middle of a divorce from her airline pilot husband, she felt vulnerable after the storm. Her house too was heated by electricity. There was a coal stove in the basement that would provide some warmth, but she needed help. Against her better judgment — she did have three young children to keep warm after all — she called her estranged husband, their father, to come over to the house. To the same house that the courts had barred him from entering with a restraining order just a month earlier based on a history of domestic violence. Storm Carl forced Willis Brown, Jr. back into Regina’s Brown’s life.
But what none of us knew that morning, is that another Newtown airline stewardess, Helle Crafts, with three young children, in the midst of a divorce from her airline pilot husband, who lived less than three miles away from Regina, had just been murdered.
This past weekend dog lovers descended on the “Thanksgiving Classic Cluster” in Springfield, Massachusetts. This cluster of dogs shows is presented by the Springfield, South Windsor, Holyoke and Windham County kennel clubs who join together to offer four days of dog shows at the Eastern States Exposition, home of the iconic “The Big E” fair. Amongst the more than 2,500 purebred dogs representing 167 breeds at the shows, were dozens of darling puppies.
Dog shows are put on by volunteers who then give a part of the proceeds to needy canine causes in their communities. Yes, dog shows are fundraisers. But the best by-product is meeting all the puppies! There is nothing cuter than a ring full of wagging and wiggling puppies waiting to kiss anyone who calls their name. Every size and shape were on hand, from the handsome Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen to Miniature Longhaired Dachshund in the hound puppy ring. There was the large Great Dane and the little Chihuahua, and of course, everyone’s favorite, the Golden Retriever puppy.
Count Our Blessings
During the annual turkey tradition many are faced with the “Let’s go around the table and say what we are thankful for” routine. Heard are the familiar refrains of spouse’s and parent’s names and the occasional ‘good health’ thrown into the mix before consuming an 8,000 calorie meal. But this year when asked that question, my reply will be, “I’m thankful for puppies!” Everyone at the table will giggle and laugh but to someone who has spent a lifetime “in dogs” I really mean this as something serious.
I’m thankful for all the dedicated responsible breeders who plan and lovingly raise litters of puppies. I’m thankful they have spent decades of scientific study in health research, genetics and pedigrees. I’m thankful that when families want a happy, healthy purebred puppy, that meets their needs and lifestyle, they can find one at the home of a responsible breeder. I’m thankful that purebred puppies come with predictable personalities, sizes and coat types, making a lifetime match with a new owner’s needs a very simple and rewarding process.
I’m thankful for the hundreds of breeds (and therefore puppies) in the world. This past weekend I met a 15 week-old Pumi puppy. What’s a Pumi, you say? An adorable Hungarian herding breed with a soft coat like a Poodle and erect ears with floppy tips that give it the cutest expression ever. I melted when I met a 6-month-old Maltese puppy so tiny with its white flowing coat, yet so calm you could cradle him in your arms. Then I met a 17-week-old Norwich Terrier puppy all the way from Finland. His hardy coat, “like a hedgehog” the owner said was a tactile delight. Oh, did I mention the puppy kisses? I am thankful for all of them.
Puppies for the 21st Century
These breeds all had a fundamental purpose to help mankind survive the millennium. Whether to help us with hunting for food, guarding our farms and flocks, or just keeping us warm at night. Some simply being small enough to fit up the sleeve of a royal princess’ robe to ward off the chill in the palace at night. Today I’m thankful for their 21st century purpose. The Pumi is going into Agility, a fast-paced and athletic dog sport to keep her owner active. The Maltese belongs to a senior couple who needs a small lapdog to keep them company in retirement. The Norwich Terrier will be bringing genetic diversity to a breeder’s responsible breeding program. Each puppy has a story, each breed has a purpose. I am thankful that in America each new puppy owner has the freedom of choice for the type of puppy they want.
I’m also thankful that there are smart people who combat and defeat proposed mandatory spay and neuter laws of all puppies sold in America. If that were to happen, eventually, there would be no more puppies. And that would be a very sad world indeed.
So this Thanksgiving I’m thankful for all the puppies and the people who love them. I’m thankful for the volunteers that put on dog shows so the public has easy access to learn and meet scores of breeds and breeders on any given weekend. And I’m thankful for the breeders who preserve and protect them for future generations to enjoy. I am thankful that after the Thanksgiving meal there will be a purebred puppy curled up by the fireplace for everyone to enjoy.
The Pennsylvania National Horse Show just finished 10 days showcasing premier hunters and jumpers ridden by juniors and adults, all culminating in the $85,000 Grand Prix de Penn National. I watched nearly ever round of every class thanks to live streaming on the USEF Network (www.usefnetwork.com) the online channel of the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF). Thanks to technology horse-crazy girls like myself can experience equine sports to the extreme from the bending lines, in and outs, and long approaches of those exquisitely executed hunter courses to those thrilling triple combinations, rollbacks, and jumper jump-offs. To my delight I also watched Hunt Night, complete with a pack of hounds and the Ladies Side Saddle division, including jumping! Think about that for a moment.
Horse Show of the Gilded Age
Premier horse shows, like dog shows, grew up in Manhattan’s gilded age in the 1870s and 1880s. The famous Westminster Kennel Club dog show, founded in 1877, which promotes itself as the second longest sporting event in America after the Kentucky Derby, was founded by a group of sportsmen. So too was the National Horse Show founded in 1883 by a group of sportsmen. And while horse sports, in the form of racing was established much earlier, with such venues as the Saratoga Race Course in 1863 during the Civil War, it was the post-war economic boom which fueled incredible wealth and the need to spend it on leisurely pursuits.
At this point those gilded gentlemen and their ladies, needed some entertainment and bragging rights to amuse themselves during the rest of the year when they weren’t up at the “Saratoga Spa” but stuck in New York City for the fall and winter social seasons. Both Westminster and the National Horse Show chose the original Madison Square Garden at 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue as the venue for the premier events in their respective sports.
“The National” became “the place” to be seen. In fact, according to the event’s website, “By 1887, the National Horse Show Directory, listing directors and 920 members, formed the basis for Louis Keller’s first New York Social Register.” Even The New York Times journalist Joe Drape gave a nod to the social status of the National when recounting the racehorse Cigar, “to his final destination of Madison Square Garden, where on Nov. 2, 1996, he was thrown a retirement party before the white-gloved set at the National Horse Show.”
As the popularity of equine sports soared after World War II the National had company. The Pennsylvania National Horse Show was founded in Harrisburg in 1945 followed by the Washington International Horse Show (WIHS) in 1958 in DC. These three top-rated urban horse shows held in large indoor arenas a few weeks apart in October were dubbed “the indoor circuit” or “fall indoors” for the last half century.
I recall my first trip to the National as a young child mesmerized by something called the Puissance. This class basically asks a horse to gallop at a 7-foot brick wall made of wooden boxes and jump it. I also remember watching the Maclay Equitation Finals because a fellow rider at my barn was showing her sister’s beautiful black Thoroughbred mare Fleet Nancy, a relative of 1943 Triple Crown winner Count Fleet. I also remember another young girl who won that class, Leslie Burr, who hailed from Connecticut. It was at that show I fell in love with horse shows, jumping and Thoroughbreds!
Last week I watched that same Leslie Burr, now Howard, pilot many jumpers around the Farm Complex at the Penn National via live stream. It was a different kind of thrilling than some 40 years earlier at the Garden, but still, today I could watch it where ever I was! And, Olympic veteran Howard keeps those beautiful horses right here in Newtown.
This week I’ll be tuning in to watch the WIHS, which now bills its self as ‘the country’s leading metropolitan indoor horse show,” since the venerable National left Madison Square Garden in 1990s. Indeed, the WIHS has other bragging rights as well, including “The standing North American indoor Puissance (high jump) record of 7 feet 7 1/2 inches was set at Washington in 1983 by Anthony D’Ambrosio and Sweet N’ Low.
And to finish up the indoor circuit October 28-November 2, the Alltech National Horse Show can be viewed online from USEF’s headquarters at the Kentucky Horse Park, the show’s home since 2011. It pleases me to know that the National, at one point near extinction once it left New York City, was a tradition founded and saved by a “group of sportsmen” and sportswomen too!