Posted: Tuesday December 4, 2012 12:19PM ; Updated: Friday December 7, 2012 1:52PM
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Murder of football player in Kansas shakes town (cont.)

By Rolf Potts, Special to SI.com

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After the interview I drove to the McPherson County courthouse to look through official documents related to the case. Ever since DeQuinte Flournoy emerged as a second suspect I'd been intrigued by the openhearted, weed-smoking offensive lineman whose Twitter feed resonated with love and loyalty for his mother. His lawyer hadn't returned my calls, so I was hoping the case paperwork would list his mother's name, or at least a Dallas address. I searched through scanned documents on the courthouse computer, but the only address I found was 1600 E. Euclid Street -- the address of McPherson College. On a lark I entered "McPherson College" as a search term. This yielded no information about DeQuinte, but it did turn up an open premises-liability lawsuit against the school, alleging that several McPherson College football players and one of the team's assistant coaches were involved in a November 2009 bar brawl that left four people (three of them women) in need of medical attention. The plaintiffs' petition asserted that "McPherson College knew of prior occurrence(s) of violent behavior by members of the football team and failed to take necessary measures to prevent additional occurrences."

It took two days of tracking down paperwork and witnesses to piece together an account of what happened that night. Several McPherson football players and a 24-year-old running backs coach named Chris Ezebunwa were drinking together at a bar called City Limits the evening of Nov. 7, 2009. Earlier that day McPherson had defeated Bethel 34-16, improving its conference record to 7-1. The team's only loss had been a 44-41 double-overtime thriller against Ottawa six weeks earlier, and with one game left in the season McPherson could earn a share of the conference title with a win over Bethany and an Ottawa loss. At some point after midnight, as the bar became packed with people taking advantage of its College Night promotion, Ezebunwa flew into a rage. According to a municipal court complaint, he assaulted three people, one of whom was a 21-year-old McPherson drama student who'd played Frau Schmidt in the school's fall production of The Sound of Music.

Ezebunwa's other female victim, a 26-year-old bartender from the Kansas City area, suffered a split lip and was escorted out of the bar by her two sisters, a 23-year-old insurance agent and a 28-year-old nurse practitioner. As the three women made their way outside, they were followed and jeered at by a group of McPherson football players, including Stephen Harrison, a senior wide receiver from Columbus, Miss. When the youngest sister called Harrison a "piece of s---" for taunting them, he punched her in the face; when she fell to the ground, four or five men began to kick her. The eldest sister tried to intervene, and Harrison punched her in the face so hard that she was knocked out of her sandals. That woman's husband, a 33-year-old cable installer, came to her aid, and an unidentified combatant beat him unconscious. The police report lists six victims, at least two of whom were taken by ambulance to McPherson's Memorial Hospital.

Within a few days of the altercation McPherson had fired Ezebunwa, but there's no evidence that the incident resulted in any other disciplinary action. (McPherson College declined to comment on the matter.) The following weekend all six of the McPherson football players named in police and court documents saw action in the game against Bethany, and Harrison-less than one week after having fractured the nose of a 28-year-old mother of two-racked up 204 all-purpose yards and one touchdown in a 44-17 victory. Ottawa's win that same day meant that McPherson had to settle for conference runner-up, but Harrison was named KCAC Special Teams Player of the Year, and McPherson landed its first berth in the NAIA Football Championship Series. The team lost its first-round playoff game, but Harrison was named NAIA first-team All-America as a return specialist and McPherson head coach Brian Ward was named NAIA Coach of the Year.

Harrison eventually pleaded guilty to one count of battery and was given a 30-day suspended sentence and one year of probation. Ezebunwa was charged with three counts of battery but never showed up for his hearing and is technically considered to be at large. Coach Ward left in February 2010 to take a job as defensive backs coach at North Dakota State. McPherson awarded the head-coaching job to Joe Bettasso, a 26-year-old defensive coordinator who'd worked alongside Ezebunwa as an assistant to Ward.

Bettasso stayed for only two seasons before moving on to an assistant's position at Quincy (Ill.) University, an NCAA Division II school, but his tenure at McPherson is notable for two things. First, in 2010, he led McPherson to its first KCAC football title since 1952. Second, in 2011, he recruited the players who are now in jail for the murder of Brandon Brown.

*****

The preliminary hearing for Alton Franklin and DeQuinte Flournoy was scheduled to take place the Monday before Halloween. I arrived at the courthouse early and searched through recent case documents, noting that Franklin's attorney had filed a motion to prohibit any mention of witness polygraph examinations during the trail. While I was reading the paperwork, a couple of women in the county clerk's office speculated on where the preliminary hearing would be held. "They'd better hold it in the big courtroom," one of them said. "Every reporter within 60 miles of McPherson is going to be here."

The big courtroom had windows that looked out on a pale-gray grain elevator and a small civic park featuring an equestrian statue of Union General James Birdseye McPherson. As the 11 a.m. hearing neared, the wooden pews at the back of the courtroom began to fill with people, many of them older black folks dressed in the kind of clothes one might wear to church. A couple groups of young people, possibly McPherson College students, took seats in the back row. Several people in the pews clutched reporter's notebooks, and a television photojournalist fiddled with a tripod near the main door. One row ahead of me, a kind-faced, heavyset black woman in a red skirt and black blouse dabbed at her eyes with a folded white handkerchief; a male relative slid down the pew to console her. We sat there together, mostly in silence, for 45 minutes.

Finally the district attorney came out and announced that the lawyers representing Franklin and Flournoy had requested a continuance; the preliminary hearing, he said, would resume in mid-December. In the courthouse hallway I introduced myself to the woman with the black blouse and the kind face. She said she's LaQuita Morrison, DeQuinte Flournoy's mother. She told me how she got a chance to hug her son and talk to him in private earlier in the day, how the sheriff's officers had told her he's a good kid. Through Morrison I met other people who'd come to show their support, including several family members from Dallas and a sophomore defensive end from Bethany who was friends with Flournoy in high school.

As we chatted, the two suspects walked out from a holding room, accompanied by two McPherson County sheriff's officers. Franklin and Flournoy were dressed in black slacks and white dress shirts, and if not for the handcuffs you'd have thought they were a couple of office interns headed off for a smoke break. A sheriff pressed the elevator button, and we all had a moment together in the hallway.

With the preliminary hearing delayed, the exact details of what happened to Brandon Brown remain murky and haunting. Late in October, local media interviewed a man who lives in the other half of the McPherson duplex where Brown was beaten. The witness described a late-night quarrel at a party involving McPherson football players. The fracas escalated when someone threw a for sale sign through the front window of the house. Several men from the party confronted Tabor linebacker Ilai Eteaki in the front yard, evidently believing Eteaki had thrown the sign, and a shouting match ensued. Brown stood several feet away from the altercation chatting with another group of men and was never directly involved in the argument, according to the witness. Eteaki and one of the men began to fight, and after a brief scuffle Eteaki fled down the street. Somewhere in the confusion, the witness said, someone sucker-punched Brown. After the bulky California lineman went down, two or three men began pummeling and stomping him. Brown remained motionless after hitting the ground, yet the beating continued, vicious and relentless, until police arrived. Paramedics attended to his injuries for 45 minutes before taking him away in the ambulance.

In the McPherson County courthouse, the elevator finally opened; various friends and family called out farewells, and the two suspects stepped inside. As the doors began to close, Flournoy looked to be in good spirits; Franklin looked bored. They both looked a long way from home.

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