Roxanna Brown

Roxanna Brown, 27, during a visit to Port Tobacco, Maryland in 1973. She briefly dated the photographer, Pulitzer prize winner David Hume Kennerly, during the Vietnam War. They stayed friends for years. More photos >>> (David Hume Kennerly / Getty Images / September 10, 2008)

First of three parts

'I'm being arrested."

Roxanna Brown, a renowned expert in Southeast Asian ceramics, was whispering into the hotel telephone.

Downstairs in the lobby, her host, University of Washington professor Bill Lavely, didn't know what to do. He had flown Brown, a 62-year-old museum director, in from Bangkok to give a lecture at an academic conference in Seattle.

Lavely paced the lobby for 10 minutes before going up to Brown's room and knocking tentatively on her door. A few minutes later, she emerged, flanked by four federal agents.

She walked stiffly with a cane, limping because of a prosthetic right leg. She looked haggard and frail, Lavely thought. She'd obviously been crying.

"I wish I could explain," Brown stammered as she was led to the elevator that afternoon in May. "It's about that thing in Los Angeles. I made a mistake. . . . I faxed my signature."

Recalling the episode two months later, Lavely said he'd had no idea what she was talking about. As Brown was ushered into the elevator, he asked if there was anything he could do.

"I guess not," Brown replied. "Well, maybe there is. . . ."

Before she could finish, the elevator doors closed.

It was the last time any of Brown's colleagues would see her alive.

Art world stunned

The arrest of Roxanna Brown, and her subsequent death in prison, shocked the world of ancient art, where she had come to be seen as one of the world's foremost authorities on Thai ceramics.

To those who knew her, it made no sense that she should be accused, much less jailed, in an international smuggling investigation that had led to raids of respected museums in Southern California and beyond. Her life had been dedicated to studying and protecting the treasures of long-gone Southeast Asian cultures.

Even as a young girl growing up on a chicken farm in Illinois, she once told her older brother Fred, "I feel like I must have lived in Asia in another lifetime."

At Columbia University, she studied journalism but was fascinated by a class in Asian art. Virtually nothing was known about Southeast Asian ceramics. Brown thought her degree might help get her overseas to look at kiln sites.

After graduating in 1968, Brown rode her motorcycle from New York to Chicago, then hitched rides with motorcycle gangs to California. There she boarded a plane for Australia, bound for Southeast Asia, determined to follow her childhood intuition.

By December, the 22-year-old Brown was freelancing in Vietnam, one of the youngest credentialed reporters of the war. It was her first visit to Asia, but she felt as though she were home.