James Brown’s death inquiry faces uncertain future after Atlanta district attorney is voted out

One day last February, a woman walked into a prosecutor’s office with a green plastic bin and an astonishing story. For more than an hour, at a conference table with me and two prosecutors from the Major Case Division, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard listened to Jacque Hollander talk about the Godfather of Soul and his death in Atlanta in 2006. Although his death certificate says James Brown died of a heart attack and fluid in the lungs, at least a dozen other people have said they want an autopsy or a criminal investigation.

Hollander told the prosecutors she’d obtained the green plastic bin from Candice Hurst, Brown’s former hairdresser and backup singer. She said Hurst was so worried about the contents of the bin that she expected to “go to prison if this stuff came to light.”

In a 2017 interview, Hurst told me she’d kept some of the items in the bin to prove her innocence with regard to Brown’s death. She said she was not in Atlanta the night Brown died. But she worried that the items, which included shoes, lingerie, and drug residue, “could also make me look guilty.”

Hollander finished her story. The DA made a list of potential witnesses, took custody of the green plastic bin, and gave Hollander a property receipt.

“Within a period of six months, we will see whether or not we can talk to the people that you’ve described,” he told her. “If at the end of that period, we are not able to substantiate what you’ve brought to us, we will then call you and return the items to you.”

Those six months were eventful ones for the prosecutor. The Covid-19 pandemic hit Georgia in March, making it difficult to try a case or convene a grand jury. In May, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Howard was under state investigation for improper use of funds from a nonprofit organization. (Howard denied criminal wrongdoing but later admitted to ethical violations.) In June, he was accused of rushing the investigation that led to a felony murder charge against the police officer who shot and killed Rayshard Brooks. And on August 11, in a Democratic primary runoff against Fani Willis, Howard lost in a landslide.

His legal troubles have worsened since then. On Thursday, after the AJC reported that he was under federal investigation, Howard’s spokesman sent me a statement acknowledging that Howard had received a federal grand jury subpoena for records about his “supplemental compensation.” The statement said the payments were “completely lawful” and that Howard would “fully cooperate with this investigation.”

Howard’s sixth and final term will end at midnight on December 31. Where does that leave the inquiry into James Brown’s death? Howard didn’t respond to my interview request or a list of questions I sent his spokesman. Nor has he returned the items to Hollander, even though the six months elapsed August 12. But one day later, on August 13, Jacque Hollander was surprised to get a phone call and text messages from Candice Hurst, the former owner of the green plastic bin.

Hollander called the police. According to the report, “Jacquelyn stated that Candice sent a picture of a cat with a clock indicating a possible death time and other pictures of her residence as well as inappropriate pictures of herself.”

No charges were filed, because the officer did not perceive any threats in the text messages, but the report says the officer called Hurst and asked her not to contact Hollander again. It was August 14. Hurst called me that afternoon.

We’d spoken many times during the reporting of my three-part series on the deaths of James Brown and his third wife, Adrienne. But I hadn’t heard from Hurst in 16 months. Now she wanted me to interview her daughter, Kayla Cavazo, about Hurst’s claim that she was in Augusta on Christmas Eve 2006 and therefore could not have been at the hospital in Atlanta when Brown died.

I agreed to speak with her daughter, who had hung up on me when I called for an interview in 2018. Now Cavazo corroborated her mother’s story: They were both at home in Augusta on Christmas Eve 2006. Hurst never left the house, the daughter said, and thus she could not have been with Brown when he died in his hospital room early Christmas morning.

In a follow-up interview with Hurst, I reminded her that a man named Tony Wilson said Hurst told him she was at the hospital with Brown, partied with Brown before his death, and “maybe that killed him.” A former James Brown employee named Shana Quinones said Brown’s right-hand man Charles Bobbit reported seeing Hurst at the hospital. (Bobbit told many versions of the story of that night. He died in 2017. Quinones is the only person I’ve interviewed who says he told her Hurst was at the hospital.)

In his first interview with me, her former boyfriend Carlos Cavazo said Hurst “called me from the hospital.” (In a follow-up interview, he said he thought she’d called him from home.) A “vision” Hurst admitted sharing with Jacque Hollander sounded to Hollander as if it came from someone who was in the hospital room. (Hurst also told me this was a dream she had, not an account of being in the hospital room.)

A lab test commissioned by CNN showed a drug called Diltiazem on Hurst’s shoe, and Dr. Marvin Crawford told me he’d given Brown Diltiazem at the hospital. And the items from her storage unit included a note Hurst admitted writing to herself: “How did Mr. Brown know I was gonna be with him when he died?” (Hurst has said the note meant Brown wanted her to be with him when he died—not that she actually was with him.)

“So that’s six separate independent indications that you were at the hospital,” I said. “When you add them all up, a reasonable person might conclude that you were, in fact, at the hospital. What do you say to that?”

“Well, again, I wish I was,” she said, “so I could have said ‘thank you.’ And ‘I love you.’ And, you know, ‘God bless you.’ You know, really. But I was never in Atlanta, never at the hospital.”

“And I didn’t murder anybody.”

“My daughter was with me. We were in my living room. I did not leave. And so I couldn’t have been at the hospital to kill him.”

The strangest part of the interview came when I asked Hurst about the pictures she had texted to Jacque Hollander earlier that month. Hurst didn’t send me the picture of the cat and the clock, but she did send me many of the others she sent Hollander, showing herself in skimpy clothing and suggestive poses. Hurst claimed this was a “character” she was playing, someone named Countess Sheba, a recording artist trying to send a positive message through music.

“Tick-tock goes the clock,” she sang to me. “Gonna get got.”

I called her back in September and asked her what that meant. She said it was not a threat.

“Everybody that’s done bad, and will not do justice for James Brown, their time is coming, and God has vengeance.”

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