By: Dan Wetzel
CNN is on the television in the living room of Antoinette Brown and Travon King’s small, but tidy house Wednesday morning here on the city’s far east side, a couple blocks south of 8 Mile Road.
A report comes on about a tweet sent by Donald Trump, wondering if he would receive a thank you from three UCLA basketball players he helped gain a release from Chinese detention after they were arrested on three counts of shoplifting last week.
“I’ll thank him,” Antoinette interrupted, speaking to the TV. “If Trump helps us, if he helps Wendell, I won’t stop thanking him. He helped get three basketball players who were guilty get out. I pray he’ll help get my innocent son out. And if he does, I’ll thank him and thank him and thank him.”
Wendell Brown, 30, is a former football star in Detroit, a standout at powerhouse King High School and then a three-year starting linebacker at Ball State in Indiana where he graduated in 2009. He later played for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League, a number of arena teams and even a professional league in Austria. He also coached the game, at King High and then a season as an assistant at Adrian College, a D-III program in Michigan.
In 2015, he found his way to Chongqing, China, a city of some 18 million in the southwest part of the country, to play and then, after an injury, coach in the American Football League of China. It seemed like an incredible opportunity. While there he taught English to adults and football to kids. He spoke at the U.S. Embassy about the game. To supplement his income, he opened a cross training business, Brown Elite Fitness.
As a 6-foot, 225-pound African-American in the middle of China, he stood out. Brown is in incredible physical condition and was a cast member once on the Discovery Network reality television show, “American Muscle.” Pictures of him putting middle-aged locals through workouts and barking motivational sayings at them – “Elite!”, “All Day!”, “Eight Days a Week”— entertained his family back home.
“We used to joke with him, ‘You look like Billy Blanks,’ ” Antoinette said with a laugh.
Life was great until Sept. 24, 2016, when Brown attended a birthday party for a friend at a bar. As Wendell’s side tells it, he struggled to blend in when out on the town because many Chinese assumed he was either rich or famous. That night some men wanted to drink with him, but Brown declined. They got angry and a dispute broke out. Brown was later arrested for hitting a man. Brown claimed he never hit anyone and only raised his arms to block bottles being thrown at him.
Regardless, Brown was taken to the Chongqing Jiangbei detention center. He had never before been arrested. Faced with no American-style bail available, no discovery process about the evidence against him and a confusing array of laws that bear little resemblance to the United States, he’s spent the past 14 months in a Chinese jail.
Back in Detroit, Antoinette and King, her husband of 17 years, didn’t know anything had happened for days. Antoinette said she began getting concerned when Wendell didn’t text or call; he usually checked in daily. Finally, the phone rang from his number, but it was one of his friends in China trying to explain the situation.
The family was helpless. They were unable to have any contact with Wendell. Letters to and from that contained much information about the case were intercepted. They hired a lawyer in China, who was allowed to speak with him, but then was told that the way for this to end was to come up with $100,000 U.S. as restitution. King is a barber and Brown a hairstylist, co-owners of the small Kingz & Queenz Salon on Gratiot in this hard-hit city. Men’s haircuts start as low as $5.
“There was no way,” King said.
Wendell Brown has a degree in criminal justice from Ball State, where due to a redshirt year he also completed a year of work on a Master’s in political science and public administration. While his family back home encouraged him to plead guilty in the hopes of getting a lesser sentence, Wendell explained to friends via letters he declined because he believed that would result in a restitution charge that would keep him imprisoned anyway.
Night after night, his mother and stepfather felt hurt, helpless and hopeless. Anger grew. Both said they haven’t relaxed in 14 months, no moment of good emotion passing without remembering their son is sitting in a jail half a world away.
“So many sleepless nights,” Antoinette said. “It never makes sense. I stay up all night emailing people in China because their time is 12 hours ahead, so it’s daytime. You can never get an answer.”
“No husband ever wants to see his wife cry,” King said, his voice trailing off.
They began a GoFundMe account, but it yielded only so much. Even then, they aren’t sure the cash request isn’t just an extortion attempt that wouldn’t get Brown out. The King High community rallied around Wendell, printing shirts of support, but that is still just one city high school, not something formidable such as UCLA. There’s been some local media stories, but nothing like the firestorm of coverage around the shoplifting Bruins, although the Wall Street Journal mentioned Wendell in its coverage this week.
The family said the U.S. Consulate and Michigan’s two Senators, Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, have taken up the cause, but their influence is almost non-existent in the Chinese criminal system.
“The main way we try [to help] is by talking with the Chinese authorities, and by making sure that they take Mr. Brown and any other arrested Americans’ case seriously,” Elliot Fertik of the U.S. Department of State told Michigan Radio. “We monitor cases involving American citizens who were arrested abroad to make sure that they receive fair treatment from the authorities as best we can.”
Brown’s family said they were told there was little anyone could do until after a verdict in the case. The trial occurred in July, the court unexpectedly filled with Brown’s friends, both Americans he played and worked with and locals he trained and taught. An additional 100 letters of support, most from inside China, were presented. Antoinette and King didn’t attend, finding the cost of travel prohibitive while being fearful they, too, would get scooped up for nothing.
According to Brown’s friends who attended the trial, the evidence against him fell apart. The Chinese don’t release details or evidence and there is no independent media in China, however, his friends said the video surveillance showed he didn’t hit anyone, let alone with a bottle like it was alleged. It was revealed the man who claimed he was hit and had his eye injured by Brown, actually had suffered the injury in a previous incident, according to Brown’s friends. They claim Brown took the stand in his own defense and was compelling and convincing, noting that considering his size and strength, had he wanted to fight there would have been significant injuries.
That was July. There is still no verdict. It’s been four months without a ruling and no one knows when, if ever, one will come. Even if the evidence is what Brown’s supporters say, an acquittal remains a long shot. According to a study by William Nee, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Amnesty International, Chinese prosecutors enjoy a 99.2 percent conviction rate. Brown faces three to 10 years in prison.
In letters home, Brown says he has tried to find peace with everything. He passes his time engaging in meditation, a vegan diet, exercise and Bible study, his faith pulling him through.
“God will assure that the truth will come out,” he wrote to his mother.
Antoinette Brown said he can be visited once a month by the U.S. Consulate to make sure he is not being mistreated. Other than that, nothing and no one. Antoinette says that the judge in the case, however, has also gone to visit him four times since the trial to check in on him.
“That tells me that she knows that there is an innocent man in there,” Antoinette said. “I wish she would just rule that way.”
When news broke from China last week that three UCLA basketball players, in the country to play a game, were arrested for shoplifting from three separate stores, Antoinette Brown’s heart sank.
“I felt bad for them because I know what we’ve been through,” she said. “I thought, these poor guys and their families are going to go through hell.”
King, however, quickly saw it differently when he heard that within 36 hours the players were released from detention and sent back to the team hotel. His stepson was offered no such luxury. And with Trump coincidentally in the country and meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping, he could see what was coming.
“Their daddy, what’s his name, LaVar Ball?” King said of the outspoken basketball entrepreneur whose son, LiAngelo, was detained. “Their daddy said, ‘It ain’t no big thing,’ and I thought, ‘He knows they’re going to get out.’ ”
Within a week, the UCLA players were on a plane back to LAX, with Trump boasting that he personally lobbied Xi for their release.
“President Xi has been terrific on that subject,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One. By Wednesday, he was wondering about getting properly thanked. (He would.)
Back here on Detroit’s east side, where working families and small business owners try to maintain neighborhoods threatened by crime and crumbling buildings, Trump’s actions felt so far away, yet also perhaps as a possible glimmer of light.
No, they don’t have a family member who is a star rookie for the Los Angeles Lakers, like Lonzo Ball. No, they don’t have a reality television show. No, Travon King can’t just snap his fingers and appear on ESPN. There is no UCLA in their corner.
They are just regular folks, the working class grinding out life, trying to pay their bills on a cold, wet, gray November day.
They live vicariously through the lives of their combined six kids. Their living room is covered with pictures of graduations and grandkids, of old football games and family picnics.
That includes Wendell, who survived a city that too often eats its young to become a straight-A student in high school, a college football star at Ball State, an energetic coach and a kind-hearted entrepreneur who was using football to see the world and provide for his 10-year-old son back in Florida.
Good kid, Wendell, they say, the one who taught the Chinese to read English by day and get fit at night, until the nightmare of a foreign criminal justice system did him in.
“They basically got a saint locked up over there,” King said. “There isn’t any other way to look at it.”
Antoinette nods her head. Her eyes tear up. Fourteen months of hell, of confusion, of frustration. No CNN alerts for them.
Donald Trump helped those guilty UCLA basketball players; how about their innocent, they believe, football-playing son?
“Do you think he would?” Antoinette asks.