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Murder in Wood River: The Karla Brown Story

Karla Brown was born in February 1956 to Floyd and Jo Ellen Brown. She was the youngest of three girls. She lost her father unexpectedly in a freak accident when she was a young girl. She and her mother would have their fair share of ups and downs as they both coped with the enormous loss. Karla’s older sisters were out on their own while Jo Ellen tried to raise her youngest girl. Karla and her mother had the normal tensions of any parent and teenager, but they had a deep love for each other that would be brutally severed on June 21st, 1978.



In the early evening hours of June 21st, 1978, Karla’s fiancé Mark was returning to the home the two had just moved into the day before in Wood River, Illinois. Accompanied by a friend who was going to help Mark and Karla move in some of their furniture, Mark entered the house, calling out for Karla. Her car was in the driveway. He went to the basement where he discovered the deceased body of twenty-two-year-old Karla Brown. She was nude from the waist down with a sweater on her top. Her face and upper body were hunched over into a large bucket of water. Her hands were tied behind her back, and she had socks tied around her neck.

Mark immediately pulled his long time love out of the water, noticing some bubbling around her nose and mouth. Despite his hope that she could be saved, Karla was gone. His friend immediately called 911 and authorities arrived quickly after. Mark seemed genuinely horrified and devastated by what he had seen. He and Karla had been dating for almost five years and recently decided it was time to get married. They moved into the house on Acton Avenue in Wood River just the day before.

Karla Brown was just 4’11” tall and weighed approximately 100 pounds, a petite girl indeed. She was pretty, blonde, and had a rather large bust for her small size. She was outgoing and even described at times as being flirty. She had been a cheerleader in high school and had a large group of friends. Her and Mark had a long history together including some break ups related to his reluctancy to commit to marriage, but the couple had reconciled and made plans to finally get married and bought the house on Acton Avenue.

Alva Busch was called in on June 21st, 1978, to evaluate the crime scene on Acton Avenue. He instantly noted a few odd things about the scene of the crime. First, the socks around Karla’s neck were tied very neatly together. It was too neat to have been done amidst a struggle. Her hands were tied behind her back with white electrical cord, but the restraint was very loose. Karla would likely have been able to easily reach her attacker with those restraints. They must have been applied after she was incapacitated. Finally, she had a sweater on with a fastened button on the top. It was odd that the button was intact after a struggle and even more odd that the winter sweater was on during the middle of June.

In the next room, Busch found a sofa with wet spots on it and blood spots near the sofa. Under the sofa was a puddle of water with some blood. It looked as if someone had tried to clean up the scene. A coffee pot was found in the rafters above the couch area, leading the investigator to believe that is what the perpetrator used to pour the water on the couch. This told Busch that the struggle occurred in the room with the couch, and Karla was moved after the crime. The scene had been cleaned up and staged, indicating the perpetrator spent a significant amount of time in the house after the crime occurred.

The original autopsy in 1978 found that Karla Brown had a fractured jaw, two large lacerations to her forehead from an unknown source, and severe bruising around the neck. There was not a significant amount of water in the lungs. The cause of death was determined to be homicide by strangulation. A sexual assault was suspected but not confirmed. Scraping from under her fingernails were taken. In 1978, however, DNA was not an option for investigators.

Police had to look at Mark as a suspect. However, he had a pretty solid alibi and witnesses to substantiate it. Other early suspects included an ex-boyfriend of Karla whom she dated briefly while broken up with Mark, an unknown rapist that had committed other sexual assaults in the area, and two men who had been sitting outside on the porch next door the day of the crime. All of the suspects, except the unknown rapist, were questioned and provided alibis. They also all agreed to lie detector tests and apparently passed those tests. Investigators were running out of leads to follow up on.

At some point, the assailant in the string of sexual assaults was identified and arrested. Investigators visited him in county jail and gave him a lie detector test. He passed. There was no evidence to connect him to Karla Brown and he adamantly denied being the murderer. He did, however, admit to the crimes he was charged with. It wasn’t long, however, before a cell mate came forward claiming the rapist had admitted to Karla’s murder. That being said, detectives still weren’t able to connect him to the crime and the jailhouse informants may have been trying to get a deal or settle a score.

Mark, Karla’s fiancé, had a solid alibi and was ruled out as a suspect. While he couldn’t be ruled out, the rapist in county jail could also not be definitively linked to the crime. Police believed the ex-boyfriend or the neighbor and his friend were the more likely suspects. The ex-boyfriend was known to have been very upset when Karla and he broke up and had bothered Karla in the past. The neighbor, Paul, and his friend, John, were two potheads who spent most of their time sitting on the front porch smoking and drinking. The investigators believed they were of limited intelligence and were generally “losers”.

The day before Karla was killed, she was moving boxes in with her fiancé and friends. After they moved in, the couple and their friends had a party. Another friend of Paul and John said that he was at Paul’s house that night, and they watched the couple move in. The three men had discussed how good-looking Karla Brown was. The friend knew Karla from high school and said that Paul and John asked several questions about her and made lude comments about her breasts. The men apparently attempted to talk to her and were disappointed when she didn’t invite them to the party. Police believed Paul was the most likely suspect and living next door would give him time to stage the scene and clean up. However, they did not have the evidence they needed.

Between 1978 and 1980, despite ongoing efforts by the Wood River Police Department and Illinois State Police, Karla Brown’s murder case went cold. Her mother and sisters were frustrated and devastated by their loss and lack of justice for Karla. The tragedy haunted Karla’s family who yearned for closure. It also haunted Alva Busch, who wanted more than anything to get justice for Karla. On an unrelated business trip, he was introduced to a forensic expert on photo enhancement and decided to ask him to look at photos from Karla’s case. He got an unexpected result from this consultation.

Dr. Homer Campbell of the University of New Mexico examined the photographs of Karla Brown’s murder scene and autopsy. He believed the lacerations on her face were caused by some tv trays that were near by the couch in the photographs. The police were able to get the tv stands from Mark, who was no longer living in that house. They were a positive match to the marks on her face and still contained traces of Karla’s blood and hair. Next Dr. Campbell said, “What about the bite mark?” (Forensic Files). Only, Busch didn’t know there were bite marks. Campbell pointed out bruising on her collar bone area that he said was a distinct bite mark. The investigators were stunned. The photographs, however, were not adequate enough for comparison analysis.

After two more years, investigators refused to give up on finding Karla’s killer. They first visited the FBI Academy at Quantico to meet with behavior analyst John Douglas. John Douglas was one of the very first FBI agents to “profile” a murderer. He pioneered criminal profiling, in which a crime scene is examined, and a detailed description of the perpetrator’s habits and prediction of their next move is developed. Douglas wrote several books and is one of the inspirations for the tv show “Mind Hunter”. He interviewed several serial killers as part of his research including John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, David Berkowitz, Charles Manson, and Dennis Rader (Criminal Minds). In 1982, criminal profiling was in its infancy.

Agent Douglas gave the investigators an extremely detailed profile of their killer. He said the murderer was unorganized and unsophisticated. He believed this was the killer’s first time killing and didn’t believe it was his original intent when going to the home. He believed that Karla had rejected a sexual advance. He believed the killer was a white male in his late twenties with a high school education, some vocational training, and an unkempt appearance. He said the cops likely spoke to the killer already and he would likely pass a lie detector test. He said the killer knew Karla’s routine and likely lived or worked nearby. He even said the killer likely drove a Volkswagen. He told them that if they created a media frenzy indicating they were closing in on the killer, the killer would be spooked and nervous. He said the killer likely left the area shortly after the crime due to nervousness but had probably returned and would reach out to investigators if he thought the police were close to an arrest. It was an incredible and precise profile. (Weber & Bosworth).

Investigators turned their attention back to their primary three suspects. The ex-boyfriend of Karla did not match the profile provided by the FBI profiler. The two men next door, Paul and John, however, were almost a perfect match to the profile. They believed that Paul was the most likely suspect as he lived next door. They went back to review their alibis. Paul said that John came by that day, and they spent the day smoking and drinking on the porch. John said that he came by that morning but left to fill out job applications. He said he ran into Paul later that night at another friend’s house. Their alibis did not match up and on a second look, Paul did not pass his lie detector test. However, John did pass it, which the FBI profiler predicted.

The investigators secured bite mark expert Dr. Lowell Levine, a forensic dentist, who had just recently testified against Ted Bundy. The bite mark evidence convicted Ted Bundy and sent him to the electric chair for two murders in Florida. Bundy's case was the first-time bite mark evidence was utilized in a homicide case. Dr Levine suggested that the investigators exhume Karla Brown’s body and take new photos of the bite mark so that he may compare it to casts from their prime suspects. He stressed that he would not be able to positively identify the perpetrator but could certainly rule out suspects whose tooth spacing was vastly different (Weber & Bosworth).

Karla Brown’s body was exhumed in early June of 1982, nearly four years after the crime. In addition to exhuming her body, States Attorney Don Weber and the detectives in this case called several press conferences and indicated that they were closing in on a suspect, as the FBI profiler had suggested. They hoped to spook Paul or John into making a mistake, like contacting the police about the case as the profiler believed the murderer would. The media attention proved to be very helpful in the case.

Dr. Mary Case performed the second autopsy of Karla Brown and found some things that had been missed the first time around. She opened the skull, which was not done the first time, and she found bruising to the scalp and skull fractures. She believed that blows to the head caused Karla to become unconscious and breathe very shallow. Dr. Case believed the foam around the nose and mouth indicated that Karla was alive when her head went into the water and Karla therefore may have actually drowned. The crime had been more vicious than originally indicated. Dr. Levine was present and confirmed the wound on the collar bone to be a bite mark.

Multiple friends of Paul and John came forward after seeing some of the media coverage on the investigation. They told detectives that a few days after the murder, John told multiple friends that he was a suspect because he was next door, that he had seen Karla’s body, he described that she had been bitten on her collar bone and told his friends she was found in some water. He allegedly told some friends he had been in Karla’s house that day but denied involvement in the murder. The problem was, not even the police knew Karla had been bitten in 1978. Only the killer could have known that detail. John knew intimate details of the crime that only the killer would have known.

The investigators called Paul in to question him again about June 21st, 1978. Nearly four years later, Paul changed his story a little bit. He said John was there that morning and that he came back that afternoon sweaty and out of breath. He said John was wearing a yellow shirt that was soaked in water and had been inside Paul's house “cleaning up”. He gave a third person story about how he suspected the crime may have occurred, saying he believed Karla turned down the murderer’s sexual advances and he raged at her, resulting in her death. When asked if he believed John was the killer, he said yes. He willingly agreed to have a dental cast of his teeth made for comparison to the bite marks.

Throughout the investigation, it was determined that after the murder of Karla Brown, John left the area for a while and went to Louisiana. He told friends he had to get out of town because police were harassing him about the Karla Brown murder. He drove a Volkswagen, had a history of rejection from women, and was unkempt as Douglas had predicted. John was looking like their man. As the press covered the exhumation, John was growing nervous and told friends, one of which was wearing a wire, that he was nervous that the crime was going to get pinned on him. Then he reached out to the prosecutor, saying he “was fine being a witness but didn’t want to be a suspect” (Weber & Bosworth”). Another thing the FBI profiler predicted had become reality.

Police were able to get casts from John, Paul, and another suspect. They were all three compared by Dr. Levine to photos taken of the bite mark. In a blind comparison, Dr. Levine determined that only one cast could be matched to the mark. He found the spacing on one model very similar and believed it was very likely the source of the bitemark on Karla Brown’s shoulder. It was a match to John Prante.


Before police could arrest Prante (right), he had gone to his friend Paul and had a very long conversation in which Paul’s wife said Prante tried to confuse Paul and convince him that his testimony to the police was wrong and that Prante was not at his house the day Karla was killed. Paul recanted his earlier statements that pointed to Prante. Nevertheless, John Prante was arrested for murder and Paul was arrested for obstruction of justice.

Soon, an ex-girlfriend came forward and claimed that John Prante had trouble with impotence and rejection, another thing the FBI profiler predicted. She also said he had an explosive temper when he was rejected and had become violent in the past. Additionally, he had bit her in the shoulder area during several sexual encounters.

John Prante told several different accounts of that day in June and ultimately said he had a poor memory and couldn’t remember the timeline clearly. He maintained his innocence, however, and denied attempting to sexually assault and murdering Karla Brown. Police were able to find several witnesses, however, that could place John Prante at Paul’s house, next door to Karla, that day. Additionally, a witness claimed to see a man matching John’s description talking to Karla in her driveway that morning.


In July of 1983, John Prante went to trial for the murder of Karla Brown. Despite having his own expert witnesses to contradict the prosecution’s bite mark experts, he was convicted of first-degree murder. Although he was facing the death penalty, he was sentenced to 75 years in prison. This was one of the first cases to use criminal profiling, bite mark evidence, and photo enhancement in Illinois history. It was only the third or fourth nationally to use bite mark evidence following the conviction of Ted Bundy (Weber & Bosworth).

From his jail cell, John Prante maintained his innocence and attempted several times to appeal his conviction and sentencing. He was unsuccessful in those attempts, but was eventually granted parole in December of 2019, after serving thirty-six years in prison for Karla’s murder. While still in prison, Prante’s attorneys were able to get permission to do DNA testing with the evidence from under Karla’s fingernails. The DNA, however, was too degraded for testing (Cortes, 2020).

Despite his release, John Prante and his lawyers have continued to fight to clear his name, proclaiming he was wrongly convicted. In April of 2021, Lindsay Hagy of The Exoneration Project represented John Prante and a judge agreed to let his attorneys challenge the bite mark evidence.



Bite mark evidence has been discredited several times since the early 1980s with DNA testing exonerating convicted suspects, including many that Dr. Levine provided expert testimony against. The prosecutor, Don Weber, however, believes that the knowledge of intimate details of the crime proved Prante was the killer and led to his conviction. Don Weber believes Prante killed Karla Brown in 1978 after she rejected his advances. John Prante, now seventy-one-years-old, has maintained his innocence for forty-three years.



Karla Lou Brown was just twenty-two-years old when her life was tragically taken from her in a brutal and senseless attack. She was just beginning her life only to have it stolen from her. She is deeply missed by her friends and family and is resting eternally in Woodland Hill Cemetery in Wood River.



References

IDOC (2021) Prante, John N.; Retrieved at: Individuals in Custody (illinois.gov)

Balko, R. (2015) How the flawed ‘science’ of bite mark analysis has sent innocent people to prison; The Washington Post; Retrieved at: How the flawed ‘science’ of bite mark analysis has sent innocent people to prison - The Washington Post

Vance, M. (2019) Dentists help convict Ted Bundy; Advance Dental; Retrieved at: Dentists helped convict Ted Bundy - AdVance Dental PC | Dentist Birmingham AL (advancedentalbirmingham.com)

Weber, D. & Bosworth, C. (1993) Silent Witness: The Karla Brown Murder Case; available for purchase at: Silent Witness: The Karla Brown Murder Case: Weber, Don W., Bosworth, Charles: 9780451404237: Amazon.com: Books

Criminal Minds (2021) John Edward Douglas; Retrieved at: John Douglas | Criminal Minds Wiki | Fandom

FindAGrave (2021) Karla Lou Brown; Retrieved at: Karla Lou Brown (1956-1978) - Find A Grave Memorial

Cortes, L. (2020) He served 36 years for murder, but Madison County man still fighting to clear his name; Belleville News Democrat; Retrieved at: Southern Illinois man seeks exoneration on junk science | Belleville News-Democrat (bnd.com)

Gauen, P. (2017) Bite mark on Metro East woman slain in 1978 pointed to her killer. Or did it?; St. Louis Post Dispatch; Retrieved at: Bite mark on Metro East woman slain in 1978 pointed to her killer. Or did it? | Law and order | stltoday.com

Patrick, R. (2021) Appeals court says man can challenge bite mark evidence in 1978 Wood River murder; St. Louis Post Dispatch; Retrieved at: Appeals court says man can challenge bite mark evidence in 1978 Wood River murder | Law and order | stltoday.com

Forensic Files (1999) Forensic Files: Body of Evidence; Season 4 Episode 8; Available to watch at: Forensic Files - Season 4, Episode 8 - Body of Evidence - Full Episode - YouTube

People V. Prante (1986) The People of the State of Illinois V. John N. Prante; Appellate Court of Illinois; Retrieved at: PEOPLE v. PRANTE | 147 Ill. App.3d 1039 (1986) | 3d103911062 | Leagle.com

Steichen, G. (1982) Witness arrested for lying about murder suspect; Belleville News Democrat; Retrieved at: 11 Jun 1982, 3 - The Belleville News-Democrat at Newspapers.com

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