Man accused of mother's death has history of mental illness

Man accused of mother's death has history of mental illness

URBANA — A Champaign man accused of fatally stabbing his mother then setting a fire to cover the death has a history of mental illness, according to court documents and police reports.

Champaign County Judge Richard Klaus Saturday set bond at $5 million for Terry J. Brownlee, 32, of 407 S. State St., after hearing the details surrounding the Urbana woman’s death, which was discovered early Friday.

Brownlee appeared before Klaus via camera from the satellite jail, wearing an anti-suicide gown, an indication that he is under closer watch by corrections officers.

Laying out the facts of the case so that Klaus could set a bond, Assistant State’s Attorney Sarah Carlson told Klaus that Champaign firefighters responded about 6:10 a.m. to a fire in the second-floor efficiency apartment at 407 S. State St. that Brownlee rents.

After knocking down the flames, firefighters found the body of a woman on the couch under blankets. When they pulled it outside, they found two apparent stab wounds on the left side of her torso and one on her neck. The woman had also been burned.

Carlson told the judge that the victim was Sharon S. Brownlee, 61, the mother of Terry Brownlee.  

Champaign County Coroner Duane Northrup said Saturday that he is not releasing the name of the deceased woman until he can compare dental impressions taken at Saturday’s autopsy with known dental records. Northrup said the body was burned, making identification difficult. He also said he could not release a definitive cause of death pending the completion of test results, which could take weeks.

After learning that the apartment was rented to Brownlee, Champaign police went to his mother’s home on West Park Street in Urbana on Friday and found him.

In an interview with detectives, Brownlee said his mother had come to his home and they got into an argument about a fight that Brownlee had been in a week earlier with another man.

“He admitted he grabbed a knife and stabbed her in the side of the body, the neck and face. After stabbing her, he held her in his arms and prayed for her,” Carlson recounted.  

Carlson said Brownlee told police he then used rubbing alcohol, lighter fluid and a lighter to set fire to the apartment, locking the door as he left. He then took his mother’s car to a nearby parking deck and left it there. Carlson said police recovered it later.

She said police also found items in a dumpster for the apartment complex that were consistent with an intentionally set fire.

Carlson said the state’s attorney’s office intends on Monday to formally charge Brownlee with first-degree murder, aggravated arson and concealment of a homicidal death.

She said Brownlee had prior city ordinance convictions for possession of cannabis and criminal damage to property.

In 2011, Klaus found Brownlee not guilty by reason of insanity of misdemeanor domestic battery for a case in which his mother, who goes by Shirley Brownlee, was listed as the victim. That incident allegedly happened Feb. 23, 2011. The court record indicates he went through months of mental health counseling from Community Elements before the case was discharged in September 2012.

Another misdemeanor criminal case alleging that Brownlee battered his mother in Urbana in November was dismissed at the request of Shirley Brownlee, according to Carlson. In that case, which happened Nov. 7, he allegedly threw her to the floor at her home. The Urbana police report about the November incident said that Brownlee suffers from mental illness but refuses to take his medication.

Bill Alexander, who lives in the apartment next to the one Brownlee lived in, said Brownlee had lived there only a few weeks.

Shirley Brownlee worked in the office next door to the apartment building where her body was found at Family Service of Champaign County.

“She was an information and referral specialist in our First Call for Help program,” said Family Service Executive Director Sheryl Bautch. "Her position ... was to help people who were looking for assistance or resources in the community. If people aren’t sure where to go to for help, they contact First Call for Help. Her job was to meet with people, find out what they need and get them connected to resources in the community that would help them. She was very good at that job and was a very caring person who helped a lot of people.”

Bautch said Mrs. Brownlee had worked in that full-time position for three years.

“In terms of her presence in the office, she was a very friendly and caring person,” Bautch said.

Brownlee is expected to be back in court Monday to be arraigned.

To be released from custody, he would have to post $500,000 cash.

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Marti Wilkinson wrote on April 13, 2013 at 9:04 pm

It's stories like this that make me wish we had more facilities like McFarland. I wonder if he can be sentenced to a mental health institution instead of prison. I'm acquainted with a local family where the father was murdered by his mentally ill son, and he has been at McFarland since then. That was what his mother and siblings wanted.

SaintClarence27 wrote on April 17, 2013 at 8:04 am

Probably not, since he most likely still would be legally sane. The evidence for this is that he tried to cover up the crime by setting the fire, indicating consciousness of guilt. Brownlee essentially provided evidence that he knew that what he did was wrong by covering it up. Being adjudicated not guilty by reason of insanity is a lot harder than most movies and TV shows make it out to be.

PROUD MOM OF 4 wrote on April 14, 2013 at 1:04 am

I wonder if perhaps this is the same Shirley brownlee that was a casa guardian ad lidem for Champaign county back around 2003-2005? RIP Shirley. May you find rest and peace for your soul.

Local Yocal wrote on April 14, 2013 at 2:04 am
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There is no need for a trial. The police and prosecutors using this media outlet have already found him guilty.

I hope people don't assume all those deemed "mentally ill" are the same as this severe breakdown.

If he were transferred to a mental health facility, it would be a permanent placement. The question is, can DHS afford to lose a bed permanently?

Marti Wilkinson wrote on April 14, 2013 at 6:04 pm

Mental illness is like any other medical condition. Some people have more severe issues than others. How many county jails and prisons do we have that end up serving as poor subsitutes for mental health treatment? Unless he has someone who will advocate for him, chances are he will probably end up in prison. 

Not all violent crimes are committed by people who have struggled with mental illness. Organizations like NAMI also work to advocate for comprehensive mental health treatment for individuals. If we advocated for mental health the way that people advocated for cancer, I wonder if we would see different outcomes in these types of situations. 


townsend1306 wrote on April 15, 2013 at 2:04 pm

I have known the family all my life I don't know what to say other than she DID NOT DESERVE TO DIE THAT WAY !!! When you murder, if you are mentally ill then you should be put away for the rest of your life. 1st, reason,  you have a history of hurting people, 2nd reason,  who is to say you would'nt do it again, he knew how to cover it up ! 5 or 10yrs from now If he is out and has a girl friend that knows nothing of this and he gets into an arguement and kills her or a baby then what  ? everybody can't be save and some don't deserve to be saved !!!

gminor wrote on April 15, 2013 at 7:04 pm

It is truly sad when stuff like this happens!!! Everybody looses...they have lost a sister, daughter and nephew and uncle!!! mental illness should really be addressed....Shirley and her sister Alice was like a sister to me and my sister  years ago!!! Shirley you will be missed!!

love you,

Gwendy & Marty!!