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.
The city medical examiner determined that Althea Brown died not from the fire, but from being stabbed in the neck, torso and heart. The official ruling was homicide.
Investigators found and questioned Douglas Brown within hours of the fire, but he has denied involvement — "No, no, no," he told The Courant recently — and police never had enough evidence to charge him. All the New York Police Department would say last week was that no arrests have been made in the case and the investigation is ongoing.
Andre and his brothers went to live with their maternal grandmother, Eugena Champagnie, in West Hartford, but it was a short stay. Andre attended Sedgwick Middle School and didn't like it.
"It was Sedgwick, it was the whole me-not-getting-enough-freedom. It was West Hartford," Andre Brown said. "'This town is too quiet. It's not me.' ... I said, you know, I want to go back."
'Heading The Wrong Way'
Back in the city, Brown would spend days riding the subway, going to Queens, Jamaica Avenue, Coney Island — all over New York, wherever the train would go.
He lived with his two brothers, father, paternal grandmother, two aunts and a cousin in the basement of a house. Sometimes, Brown sold sneakers to make money. Through seventh and eighth grade, he often skipped class at St. Joseph School in the Bronx, staying out with his friends until 3 a.m.
"I used to do what I wanted. Fights weekly. I used to steal from stores. … Small things, like if I'm hungry," Brown said. "We were hungry a lot."
After missing so much school in eighth grade, Brown passed his classes only after buckling down the last two months. School administrators told him he wouldn't graduate otherwise.
Then in early September 2007, rather than starting ninth grade, "I was just sitting at home," Brown said. His father hadn't enrolled him in high school.
Brown talked to Champagnie. He was 14 and felt he couldn't just drop out.
He asked if he could come back and live with her in West Hartford again.
"As time goes by, New York wasn't really the place for him," said Champagnie, 63, a housekeeping supervisor at the Marriott in Hartford. "He was heading the wrong way. And I'm so excited, you know, that I could have him."
It wasn't a simple move.
Brown asked his father for permission to leave. Douglas Brown rejected the idea.
In the tense custody battle for the Brown children, there is this fact: Child protection officials in New York decided to place Andre, Hakeem and Malik in their maternal grandmother's foster care in Connecticut.
Under His Wing
Entering Conard as a freshman that September, Andre Brown still drifted — not doing homework, goofing off in the library, getting minor disciplinary referrals and pulling C's and D's. His one A was in gym, he said. His grade point average that first year was 1.5.
"A little rocky," said Marylou Shand, who was Brown's guidance counselor at Conard.
"Andre — he wouldn't listen to me," Champagnie said.
It got worse his sophomore year. Brown had more friends, a few from his Abbotsford Avenue neighborhood in the south part of town, but their activities, Brown admitted, weren't always legal. They started the "N.B.A." crew and called it a gang. Brown stayed out late, flunked geometry even though his favorite subject is math, and brushed off teachers.
Champagnie is old-fashioned, a woman of deep faith even as she dealt with the death of her daughter. She often visited Conard, herself, to check on Brown, Shand said. And she told her grandson that as long as he lived in her house, he needed to go to church.
Toward the end of his sophomore year, Brown mused about going back to the Bronx. Champagnie went to Paulus Taylor, her longtime pastor at Trinity Pentecostal Church of God in Hartford. Could Taylor talk to him?
"I said, 'Give me a chance with him. Just allow me to be with him,' and she said, 'He's yours,' " recalled Taylor, 52.
"He just took me under his wing," Brown said. "We would go out to eat, work together." Taylor would give him odd jobs at the church, and pay him to clean out his basement and wash his cars — nice ones. BMW. Audi.
Brown took note. He feared growing up and needing two to three hard-labor jobs just to survive. When Taylor spoke, he began to listen.
"See, you can have all of this, just go to school, get your education, focus on God," Brown remembered him saying. "Do what you need to do, and everything I have right now, you can have."
Taylor, not a coddling man, told Brown that he needed to step up for his two brothers — that he was bright but squandering his potential with laziness.
"Don't use your mother's tragic death as an excuse not to do good," Taylor said. "No society is against you. You're against yourself."
Taylor met with Shand and Brown's teachers and enforced a strict study plan for his junior and senior years. After school, come home. Take a nap if need be, Taylor told Brown. Then do homework — that was mandatory. "Teachers won't like you if you just throw away your homework," said Taylor, who confiscated Brown's cellphone at times.
When you're done with the work, read a book. Read magazines and newspapers, he said. And get new friends.
'It's Done Already'
Brown got a Bible and made notes in it. He stopped going to parties as his grades at Conard improved to mostly A's and B's.
He moved with his grandmother, grandfather and brothers to a different street, sat on the student council to start his senior year and hung out with a new crowd.
The school librarians noticed that Brown would check out books unrelated to his classes, such as how to hone his writing.
"He was using the library for his own self-improvement," said Tobey Mintz, a library media specialist.
Shand described him as "a very calm presence," someone she trusted enough to mentor two younger Conard students this year who were headed down a wrong path.
Brown credits Taylor's influence for saving him.
In March, Brown's old N.B.A. crew got into a confrontation on Abbotsford Avenue with a man named Wilfredo Texidor. One of the Conard students, a 17-year-old, pulled out a gun and shot Texidor in the neck, authorities said. Police charged him with attempted murder and caught five friends who fled the scene. They face charges that include conspiracy to commit first-degree assault, a felony, and reckless endangerment.
At Conard's graduation, Superintendent Karen List singled out Brown as an example of transformation when "heroes" step in. She mentioned that Brown had witnessed his mother's violent death when he was a child.
In his mind, Brown said, he is at peace. He doesn't want others' pity. He believes his father committed the crime and has told him, "If you did it, I forgive you. It's done already."
Among the well-wishers at the commencement, arriving late from out-of-state and bearing gifts, was Douglas Brown.
"He's a brilliant son. … I know he's got potential and I can say that he has his whole life ahead of him and he will do well," Douglas Brown said later.
When pressed about Althea Brown, he denied wrongdoing: "That's my kids' mom. There's no reason why I would kill her."
Champagnie and Andre Brown, a self-described conservative, have been saving money to help pay for the University of Hartford. Brown wants to be a lawyer and is considering criminal law, he said, because "it's about justice. … I like when things are fair."
Courant senior information specialist Tina Bachetti contributed research to this story.Copyright © 2015, CT Now