The tragedy of April Browne

Friends, family struggle with woman's descent into drugs, death

By Robert Nott
rnott@sfnewmexican.com
Posted 6/14/18

There's April Browne at 9 or 10 years old, captured in a class portrait in the mid-1980s, bearing a look that says nothing is going to stop her. She's not only …

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The tragedy of April Browne

Friends, family struggle with woman's descent into drugs, death

Posted

There's April Browne at 9 or 10 years old, captured in a class portrait in the mid-1980s, bearing a look that says nothing is going to stop her. She's not only ready to take on the world but best it.

There she is again, smiling in her bridal dress on her wedding day in 2003. Life is going to be good, the photo suggests: Lasting love, a husband and children are in her future.

And then there's Browne in a photo taken last year with her best friend on the banks of the Río Grande during a camping trip. Though Browne's smile glows with a certain warmth suggesting she still embraced the world around her, the eyes look a little tired, as if she was not sleeping well.

Three snapshots from a life full of potential, a life ended too soon.

Browne, 42, was shot to death May 29 with two others in the house near Dixon where she was raised, a place once full of warmth and love that became a killing ground for a woman who, friends and family say, should have had many more opportunities to flash her wondrous smile.

That's the tragedy of April Browne.

She was her high school class valedictorian, a math whiz who wanted to be a teacher. She was a jewelry maker with a fiercely independent streak of free-spirited willpower and a woman loathe to judge others and unwilling to be judged herself.

She was a mom and daughter and sister and friend blessed with a vast reservoir of love. And yet, paradoxically, she was a woman who could never fully wrest herself from the tentacles of addiction and the drug world.

"The story here is so much deeper in terms of this real vibrancy that emanated from where she came from: her family, the community, the house, her mother," said Deyla Tappan Gates, a lifelong friend of Browne's.

"It's awful to think about her life being overshadowed by just this one sensational story."

Browne's death has shaken the quiet village of Dixon, and it has shattered friends and family who struggle with the questions that surround her demise. In the days since the shooting, which also took the lives of Abraham Martinez and Kierin Guillemin, Browne's loved ones have tried to weigh their love for her while acknowledging her flaws.

"We don't want to pretend that she didn't have an addiction," said Browne's older half-sister, Kiva Duckworth-Moulton. "But she was a smart, loving, caring woman as well. We wish she were healthy, but like any family member with a disease, you still love and support them. This (addiction) just happened to be her disease."

A few days after the killings, police arrested brothers John Powell and Roger Gage, charging them with first-degree murder and other related crimes. The suspects are being held at the Rio Arriba County jail.

The beginning

Browne was born April 24, 1976, in a house just up the road from the dwelling where she was slain. She was named for her birth month by her mother, Connie Wood. Browne's half-sisters joke that one of her older siblings, half-brother Michael, basically served as the midwife because the woman who was supposed to be providing that service was pulling into the driveway when April arrived.

When she was 4, the family moved to the small house nearby with no running water. It was the place where Browne grew up and would die.

Wood and her kids hauled water in 5-gallon jugs from the homes of sharing neighbors. They used an outhouse and a solar-powered shower stall in another outlying building.

The place was always full of neighborhood kids and dogs and cats, and filled with the smell of freshly baked bread, chocolate chip cookies and popcorn. Reminder notes, mostly left by Wood, read: "Don't forget to wash the dishes," "Please hang out the sheets" or "Make your bed before you leave."

"The house had an open-door policy," said Browne's half-sister Jessie McKeon. "We never locked the doors."

Gates recalled the house as "such a profoundly nurturing and warm and special place. The vigas in the kitchen were covered in winding green ivy from potted plants that her mom had, and the walkways in the yard were pebbled with smooth stones. ... There was something sacred about the dining room table. It was old and well-used and smoothed down by so many little hands gathering around it."

Browne was always using her hands to make things. Old family photos show her experimenting with sticks and seaweed, as if trying to come up with her own backyard science project. She would parlay that skill into a side career, making jewelry in later years.

The nearby woods were ripe for exploration and adventure, and the evening sunsets were magical.

A sharp student, Browne developed an affinity for subjects most kids don't like--algebra, calculus and the like. Her aunt, Jeanette Duffy, was a math teacher, and April wanted to follow her lead upon graduating the now-defunct Chamisa Mesa High School in Taos in 1994. Browne was her class valedictorian.

She attended the University of New Mexico to pursue a teaching degree but didn't follow through. Duffy said she suspects that was because of financial challenges.

Browne's ex-husband, Scott Quintanilla, who was studying to be a journalist at the same time, said the two fell into a world of "partying and drugs" that derailed their career dreams. It was a life they thought they could easily escape.

The couple married in 2003. Their honeymoon consisted of a few nights at a local hotel, eating lots of Chinese food and renting a 1958 limo.

Browne worked in restaurants and bars as a waitress, bartender and - on occasions when the cook didn't show up for work - chef.

Her math skills came in handy, friend Meredith Johnson Martinez said. "She could add anything, subtract anything in her head without having to think twice," she recalled.

For a time, Quintanilla said he and Browne left drugs behind. They had their first child, Justice, not long after they married. April went back to waiting tables; Scott worked in both construction and the restaurant-bar business in Albuquerque and Taos.

Their second child, Ashley, was born in 2005.

"She loved her children very much," Quintanilla said. "They loved her. They never gave up on her."

The descent

But somewhere along the way, friends say, Browne slipped again, going into what Gates calls "the shadows. ... You could start to see a bit of hard living in her face, but the April spirit was always there."

Friends and family members said she sought help. Sometimes, it stuck for a while.

"Addiction is an illness, not a moral failing," Gates said. "She got caught in it. She fought it but was never able to really heal away from it."

Her story is all too common. Río Arriba County has the highest rate of drug-overdose related deaths in the state - 89.9 per 100,000. New Mexico's average is about 25 per 100,000, state health data show.

"In a poor, poor community, drugs are an escape," Duckworth-Moulton said.

People tried to intervene. "I think everyone tried to do and say everything they could to help her," Duffy said. "It's not that easy."

"I don't think any of us had any remedy that we didn't try," McKeon said. "But we also respected her independence. She knew we loved her. She knew we didn't judge her."

Browne and Quintanilla divorced about 10 years ago. They remained friends and shared custody of their children for a while; Quintanilla became the primary caregiver over time. Living in Taos, he began coaching and working with youth and, through the support of friends and persistence, got clean.

"I didn't know what was going on in her life," he said. "She started to drift back to some of the old people we knew in our early days. It would worry me when I saw them at her house.

"I don't know what it was that pushed her to go back - and so deep again. Even deeper than when we were at our deepest."

About two years ago, Browne moved back into the house where she grew up, renting from an out-of-state owner. When or how Martinez, a mystery man to her family members and friends, arrived in her life is unclear to them. Quintanilla said he thinks Martinez was in her life for perhaps three months or so.

This much is known: The house off State Road 580 drew attention from neighbors, who said they had noticed constant traffic going to and from the house in recent months. Someone painted the words, "This is a drug house," with an arrow pointing toward the house on the street. Someone else painted over it.

Browne still showed up at family gatherings. There's yet another photo of her, smiling and hugging her female relatives during a recent get-together over Mother's Day weekend.

The end

Last year, Browne and Gates enjoyed a daylong camping trip along the Río Grande, watching the beavers and recalling happier days when they swam in the sun and dreamed only of happiness.

As recently as March, Browne took her kids to a cardboard derby event at Sipapu, Quintanilla said. Shortly thereafter, their daughter Ashley began experiencing medical problems. She was diagnosed with embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer. She is undergoing treatment in Albuquerque. When Quintanilla called his ex-wife to tell her the news, she cried.

At that point, he said, he told her it would be a good time for her to make another try at getting clean.

"I know from being in it myself that you don't get up one day and say, 'I'm gonna stop,' but you can start putting your mind in that direction," he said. "And I think she began to do that."

It's unclear what steps, if any, Browne took between March and May to right herself.

In the days since Browne's death, family members have come closer.

They have a job to do, McKeon said: "Taking care of her children in any way that we can. And her mom. It's hard on her mom."

The family plans to hold a private ceremony to honor Browne soon, and then a larger community celebration of her life for sometime this summer.

In the meantime, they want to remember Browne as she lived, not how she died: wearing a bridesmaid's dress and high heels on a camping trip because she grabbed the wrong duffel bag full of clothing after leaving a wedding celebration; opening her mouth really wide and squinting when she had something important to say; looking for arrowheads in the hills surrounding her childhood home.

And smiling. Always smiling, even when the dark side called to her.

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