His Mother Murdered And His Life Adrift, Teenager Finds A New Path

Andre Brown waits with before Conard High School graduation in June. (Rick Hartford / Hartford Courant)

On Andre Brown's right wrist are four black bands, each inscribed with a virtue that helps carry him through the day.

Commitment. Honor. Integrity. Duty.

"These are everything I stand for," he said.

Brown, 18, once loath to attend church, now calls his pastor "Pops." A veteran of the New York City subways, Brown is learning to drive this summer so he won't have to hitch rides from his grandmother to the University of Hartford.

He starts classes there Aug. 30, an implausible prospect two years ago when his report cards at Conard High School showed C's, D's and an F, and his pals called themselves "N.B.A." — short for the New Britain Avenue gang.

Until Brown's graduation in June, many of his friends had no idea what brought him to West Hartford. They never asked about his mother or father.

"All they know, mostly, is that I'm from New York," Brown said in a gentle voice. "I don't show that anything's wrong with me."

'God Will Reward Him'

After the fire, the papers called him the boy hero. Andre Brown was then a sixth-grader in the Bronx.

"If he didn't wake them up, they would have died," a neighbor told Newsday.

"The 11-year-old is the real hero in this story," another neighbor was quoted as saying in The New York Times.

"Thank God for Andre," a friend of his mother told the Daily News. "God will reward him."

The night before March 9, 2005, Althea Brown had argued with Andre, the oldest of her three sons, in their Baychester apartment. She was a 33-year-old home health attendant who had just earned her certification to be a nursing assistant, and as she worked long hours, Andre was in charge of Hakeem, then 8, and Malik, who was 5.

"She was saying I'm not taking care of my brothers the right way," Andre Brown recalled, "and I went to bed upset."

That was around 10 p.m., he said. His father, Douglas Brown, had been separated from Althea — they were always getting into fights, accusing each other of cheating, Andre said — but when the kids went to sleep that night, Douglas was there. Sometimes he still slept over.

Around 3:15 a.m., Andre woke up. The apartment seemed steamy, as if someone had been in a hot shower too long, he said.

"I went over to tell my mom, 'Turn off the shower, please,' but no one was in the bathroom. Then I went to her room. Her room was on fire."

Andre saw his mother's outstretched hand in the flames before he hurried his brothers out of the apartment. The boys escaped into the cold wearing only their T-shirts and underwear, according to news accounts.

By then, Douglas Brown, a baker by trade, was nowhere near the home.