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Boulder's Forgotten Feminist Heroine

or forgivable pyschopath, one or the other

She led a violent life, not always and perhaps not ever by choice. She died in a vehicular accident that hardly calls attention to itself. In mid-April of 1972, her motorcycle collided with an automobile at an intersection just south of Ft. Collins; she was pronounced dead at the scene.

Her identity was not immediately available, but eventually it was revealed to be Joan Gardner Stuart, 36, a graduate student in Sociology and Anthropology at Colorado State University. Where the 'Stuart' came from is unclear from the press clippings, for she last appeared in the media as Joan Gardner Brown, the legally insane killer of a professed Nazi. Her sanity trial provided Boulder with enough excitement to edge the otherwise legendary national events off the front pages in the Spring and Summer of 1965.

On Tuesday, March 16 of that year, Stanley C. Phelps of Boulder was going for a morning hike up Bluebell Canyon. Just off the little used trail was the body of a young man, well over six feet tall, dressed in a shiny leather jacket. After the police arrived, it was noticed there seemed to be three gunshot wounds, one of them in the stomach and two in the neck.

Assistant District Attorney French took charge of the case as soon as the police identified the victim and suggested suspects, which was almost immediately. By the time famed Boulder District Attorney Rex Scott returned from a business trip to New Mexico, he had two suspects in jail, motive, and a can of worms open in the hot sun. The two suspects were well known to each other and to the victim. Charles R. Self was 18 and a CU freshman from Aurora, living in Nichols Hall. He was small, attractive, and initially suspected of being the killer, with jealousy the motive. His co-suspect was Joan Gardner Brown, who - to use the purple newspaperese of the day - was a "stunning blond divorcee... .twice married" and considered the morsel fought for by the men. She was 29 at the time, a well-liked teacher of social studies at Baseline Junior High.

The victim, it turned out, was James M. Pearson, 20, a six foot three inch biker weighing in at two hundred and fifteen pounds. Like Self, he was an engineering student at CU and, in fact, both men belonged to the same motorcycle club. The two had gone target shooting together and were considered friends. It turned out that Pearson bad only been shot twice, once in the stomach and out the back, and once through the neck where the bullet punctured the skin twice on its way to lodge in the lungs. Evidently the skin had wrinkled around his neck, leaving the impression of two separate bullets. Mr. Pearson, once identified, proved an interesting victim. He was well known to the police.

In fact, in the week just previous to his death, Pearson had been arrested twice. On March 10 his car had been stopped for a routine traffic violation (if a decipher of the newspaper tone twenty years ago might be attempted, one would bet Pearson had been drinking ) at which time police found an item considered unusual even for the time and town: a loaded German Lugar, the favored sidearm pistol of the German Army. The gun was confiscated, Pearson taken into custody. He was bailed out by one Joan Brown. Pearson had said he was going to kill himself with the gun.

Two days later, March 12, Boulder Police had another opportunity to meet Mr. Pearson again, along with sidekick Joan Brown and introducing Charles Self. This time, it was Brown who called police to press charges against Pearson for harassment. Earlier that evening, Pearson had felt the urge for excitement and decided upon suicide yet again. Most unfortunately, the Boulder Police had insisted upon keeping his Lugar. What to do? He merely popped over to his friend Joan's house to borrow her Lugar and kill himself right there.

Joan was already entertaining Mr. Self, and upon Pearson's arrival, Joan found a pressing need requiring her attendance in the back of the house. Self listened to Pearson's demand for her Lugar. Being a friend, he went and got it, along with one (1) bullet. After waving goodbye, Pearson vanished on his bike.

Pearson then returned, demanding a second shell, since the first one was a 'dud.' While Self and Pearson argued about this, Pearson decided to leave again, keeping the Lugar. While starting his bike, Brown tried to stop him from leaving, planting herself in front of the vehicle. He grazed her leg and overturned the bike, but continued his exit on foot, dropping the gun. Joan retrieved it. She also called the police.

While the police were at the scene, Pearson called to chat. Joan kept him on line until the police had traced it to a pay phone at Broadway and Evergreen. He was arrested for the second time, charged with breaking into Brown's apartment at 3123 3rd St., and threatening suicide again.

Joan Brown bailed him out a second time. She said she was afraid he'd get mad at her for setting up his arrest.

Joan and James had dated twice. Nothing too exciting, one gathers. But one night Joan got way too drunk, and Pearson had "forced himself upon her" Which is to say, in today's language, James M. Pearson raped Joan Brown. Like most of Joan's deepest secrets and feelings, she was less than garrulous about the incident until later, much later. Apparently, the event played better in Pearson's psyche. He started showing up at Baseline Junior High on his bike, in his leather outfits, and smoking a big cigar. Joan was not impressed. And quite bluntly, it would take a lot to impress Joan Gardner Brown.

Her father was Hugh G. Gardner, who was a British businessman involved with much travel. Her mother, Julia Gardner, was an American in G2, the intelligence wing of the United States Army. In 1935, the couple produced twin girls while staying in Japan. Joan and her sister Sally were educated there and in Hong Kong, and were with their parents in the Philippines when the Japanese invaded on December 8, 1941. Their parents, themselves, and a younger sister were captured and sent to the infamous prison camp called Santo Tomas, near Manila. They lived in Santo Tomas 3 years, one month, and one day. No doubt, survivors were much more precise with the time than even that.

In Japanese prison camps, one first removed the maggots and worms from the food before you ate it. Within a few weeks, the maggots and the worms became the entree, supplemented with whatever worms, snails, rats, or worse could be caught. A weight loss of 30% was common. Joan and her sister Sally, aged 6.5 when they entered Santo Tomas, weighed the same when they were released at the age of almost 10.

Illness was common, and Mrs. Gardner recalled one hideous night when Joan was delirious with pain and hunger. This night, for whatever reason, stands out among all others in the mind of the anguished parents under such circumstances. One senses that language, somehow, does not convey everything Mrs. Gardner recalls. But it is known that rape and brutality were common in these camps. Common. On February 31, 1945, the camp was liberated. The prisoners, including two ten year old girls, were free. Again, language has limitations....

The American government did what it could to the victims of the camps. Sally got $1500 for various things; Joan was paid $600 for some eye damage she received from an exploding bomb.Much of the information about Joan Brown's feelings comes from Dr. John McDonald, a famed Denver psychiatrist who at one time had her in out-patient therapy. She had developed, he said, a "personality disorder" that resulted in "unbelievable" self-destructive behavior. Seen through the eyes of two decades, his examples are sometimes dated; but as a whole, his diagnosis holds up.

At the age of 16, while the family was in New York (1951), Joan started smoking marijuana. She still had a fondness for the drug at the age of 20 when she traveled to Mexico and ended up in Boulder.

At the age of 23, according to the record, she shot up her Boulder apartment on May 8th, 1959 and attempted suicide. She was sentenced to 20 days in jail and told to seek help.

At the age of 27, Brown had had two abortions in Denver and a third in Nebraska. Two years later, she was taking peyote and drinking up to a quart of liquor a day. She could, at the time of her arrest, list 24 jobs on her resume. In the two years before the Pearson shooting, Brown had been in five car accidents. She had also been married twice. Neither was a love match, according to Joan. She married the first one because she'd had sex with him. She married the second because she was pregnant with her daughter. Her second husband was Robert K. Brown, later Publisher of "Soldier of Fortune." The Browns were divorced in 1963. "Soldier of Fortune" is a magazine for armchair mercenaries, and sometimes features ads for Nazi paraphernalia. There is some irony in this.

Joan Brown was also a mountain climber and motorcycle racer. She had had severe accidents as a climber. But these were not her most dangerous pursuits. Joan Brown was a skydiver. According to her sister, Joan "controlled the sport" in Boulder, and was widely acknowledged as "Boulder's leading skydiver."

In April of 1964, during her 167th (recorded) jump, Brown's main chute failed to open. She managed to pull her emergency chute open eight hundred feet from the ground, but she was still injured in the fall. Her sister recalls that sometimes the two would jump when drunk.

Whatever the causes; whatever the extent of her demons, there can be no doubt than, in the main, Dr. McDonald was accurate in his diagnosis of self-destructive behavior. But all of these problems must be balanced against the other facts, which were that Joan Brown was remarkably smart, capable, and responsible in many areas. She was good with money. She was never fired from her jobs. She just seemed to want something else.As she got older, Brown's taste in men seemed to get younger. As she reached the age of a woman's alleged sexual peak, she sought out men in the middle of theirs. When Joan was finalizing her divorce from Robert Brown, her sister Sally left her husband in British Columbia and came to visit her twin. Joan was then involved with someone Sally could not stand, although she didn't seem to begrudge the age of the new lover: he was 16.

Two days after the mystifying shooting, "The Colorado Daily" - then the University newspaper - uncovered some interesting things about James Pearson. In the process of trying to impress Brown and others, he had declared himself to be a Nazi.Joan said that, months before the shooting, Pearson had told her of this. Evidently, the subject had emerged in a conversation they had had about a mutual friend, a Jew. Jews, niggers, and cripples, said Pearson, ought to be killed. And that particular Jew should be thrown into a concentration camp, gassed, and turned into a bar of soap. Even in a crowd that talked frequently about suicide and the bizarre, this seems to have offended most of them. None more than Joan. She could recall, she told Pearson, the joys of the fascist Japanese. She knew all about Nazism. She had seen American airmen beaten, humiliated, and shot in the head. Tortured. And, although she may not have mentioned it to Pearson, she knew of worse things first hand.

Pearson was now at the end of his rope. He had tried everything he knew to win her heart: rape, Adolph, the usual. There was nothing left to do but show up at her apartment with a loaded gun and threaten to kill himself. That had to work.

On March 15, the day after Joan had bailed him out of jail for the second time, Joan became, not inexplicably, depressed. She went to the Lamp Post on Arapahoe Avenue and got well lit. Then, later in the evening, she went to the Sink on the Hill. There she met, perhaps as a date, Self. Later in the evening, Pearson came in, seemed mad to see her with his friend. Apparently, Joan saw more of the same from Pearson in the immediate future. She left for home with Self.

At her home, they broke out more booze and the trusty Lugar. As usual when conversation waned, she and Self chatted about suicide. But then, a glimmer. She decided Self would drive her to Pearson's place, where they would roust him and 'persuade' him to leave them alone. So they did.Pearson was, she said, annoyingly patronizing towards her. This made her mad. You could rape, threaten, flaunt Hitler in front of Joan Brown and dismiss her trauma. Once, anyway. Wherever Joan's line was, Pearson had crossed it.

She told Self where to drive, a canyon far away where, she said, she planned to leave Pearson to walk home and think about things. She got him out of the car, pointing the Lugar at him all the while. "Don't you ever, "she said, "bother me or Janice (her daughter) or Snuffy (Self's nickname) again." Pearson lunged at her. She shot him twice, once on the way down.Now it gets interesting. It takes a unique sort of person to stand out in the company of a Joan Brown and Friends. Brown, after all, would go down to laundromats at the age of 30 and ride in the drier.

But the death of James M. Pearson had reverberated around the nation. In California, the couple who had adopted him were shocked to find out he was a Nazi. In Arlington Virginia the head of the American Nazi Party, George Lincoln Rockwell - with whom Pearson had engaged in modest correspondence - was only surprised more people weren't. Rockwell was sure the murder was a political assassination. The press devoted some amount of space to this. Pearson, somehow, had decided that his father had been a major Nazi during the War. In one version, Dad was a Luftwaffe pilot (perhaps in emulation of Rockwell) who was still alive and on the run. Perhaps sensing problems with this, Pearson had also trotted out Dad as a SS officer who, while trying to flee from Brazil, was executed by Jewish commandoes. This theme may have emerged from the Eichman trial, a few years in the past. This was all very puzzling to his parents, who had adopted him at eight weeks of age before the end of the war. His adopted father was a pilot, though.

Pearson's ringing announcement that he was a Nazi falls under several shadows. For one thing, he had said some six months previous to his death that he was considering becoming a Buddhist. For another, when Rockwell offered Pearson the West Coast Chairmanship, the youth lost interest when he discovered he would have to pay a $50 membership fee. According to District Attorney Scott, who had to entertain all the surmises in the press from around the nation, Pearson's affection for National Socialism was more in the nature of "exploring the political spectrum….. more phase than zeal." This didn't fool Rockwell. Pearson, he announced as he prepared to come to Boulder to investigate himself, was a "wonderful guy" who had told Rockwell his enemies were out to get him. Pearson had been engaged in setting up a - brace yourself - "Young American Nazis" group at CU, and while "not actually a party member" was as "close as you can get." Fortunately, the YAN had been going so well that another young man was ready in the wings to pick up the martyr's slack. Although, due to this "political murder", he was undoubtedly hiding in the mountains.

George Lincoln Rockwell was 47 that year, dark haired and handsome as befitting the American Fuhrer. He had been an Air Force pilot in World War Two and in Korea, experience which, when combined with the intense political study and historical exploration that always denoted the presence of a train of thought embarked from a Master Race, allowed him to denote the flaw in D. A. Scott's case against Pearson. "I find it hard to believe a beautiful blond would shoot a Nazi," he explained to media types whose expressions can be imagined. "We find women especially attracted to party people," he clarified with no sense of appreciation for the pun.

Pearson had transferred from New Mexico Military Institute in 1963 to CU. He was suspended from CU between February of 1964 and September of that year. No reason was announced publicly. But Rockwell planned to exploit as much of this as possible to forward the thesis of political murder. When asked if he actually thought the court would allow him in, he said: "He (Scott) can't keep me away, of course, but I don't want to louse up his case."Brown had been arrested hours after the body was found, and within hours of that, during which she may have chatted about her early years, her attorneys had produced a psychologist to test the waters. Encouraged, the defense demanded a sanity hearing which, after all the jurors were selected, began in July 1965.

Meanwhile, Rockwell set aside three days to charm Boulder.

Rockwell did show up at the trial, taking pictures exclusively of the demure and cooperative Joan Brown. He himself was the object of several flashbulbs. Between times, he assured people he had enough support to get elected President - if only the country were not suffering under the worst "batch of hypocrites that ever existed." Rockwell had a certain style. After being roundly hissed at his CU appearances he could announce: "My trip here was a tremendous success and I expect to be back sometime in May. I have never before won so many converts in such a short time." But by May, the verdict would be in. The durability of the CU branch of Young American Nazis stands testament to the prophetic genius of the American Fuhrer.

But even Rockwell couldn't make the political motive stick to Joan Brown. His theory was that it was a love triangle and she killed him in the midst of a political argument. That's at least half right. After eleven days of trial, armies of psychiatrists, and questions from the jury to the judge, Joan Brown was found legally insane. She would not have to stand trial for murder. One suspects that a 1965 jury could not listen to Brown's life story and conclude otherwise. She said she did not remember the shots. Four of the psychiatrists said she was insane. Her family and friends split over whether her actions were odd before the shooting. Brown had appeared for work at Baseline the next day with alcohol on her breath. A friend gave her pills for the 'flu'. When she came home, she was arrested. She was calm. One psychiatrist thought she was perfectly sane, just a very sharp woman who wanted to unload an annoying former lover.

After the trial, Brown told Dr. McDonald that she had heard voices telling her to kill Pearson. "I asked her why she hadn't told me this before. She said 'one was frowned on if you heard voices, unless you were Joan of Ark."

On July 15, 1965, Brown was found insane and sent to the Colorado State Mental Hospital. In 1968, the hospital declared her cured and tried to get her released. Another hearing was held in Boulder. No dice. In 1971, Joan Brown was released under the care of Dr. McDonald in Denver.

Charles Self, in a separate trial, was sentenced to the reformatory.

In 1972, Joan Brown died.

In the clear light of hindsight, it seems nothing more than a case of unhappy people in an upsetting time who unfortunately met. Yes, but….

Joan Brown was brains, beauty, and - according to just about everyone, a very nice person, one who attracted friends. Whether she did, as the prosecution claimed, revenge herself upon Pearson with full understanding will, and can, never be known. It is not likely she knew. It is only sure that after Santo Tomas, death held no fear for her. You have the feeling she only wanted to obtain some joy in living, and that the braggadocio of a disjointed boy may have been the one insult she could not forgive. Perhaps she told the truth in her version, and Pearson had foolishly lunged at her.

What is most interesting is that, today, she might have been exonerated totally. It is hard to remember, but rape was not an easy accusation for a woman to make in 1965. Today, Pearson would have been serving time long before things got out of hand.Today, chronic drunken drivers are routinely put away, and a likely scenario Brown would have had him removed from her life by authorities. Imagine today's Boulder Police picking up a drunk driver with a record and a loaded Lugar, threatening suicide.

But it can be suggested that Joan Gardner Brown sought out these things as a means to exorcise her horrors. Or that she expected men to act like rapists and thugs. Or that she was simply seeking love in all the wrong places. It is a case that screams for the amateur psychologist to give vent to his opinion. In today's climate, Brown might have been saved any a murder charge without insanity pleas.

But would she have chosen to live any longer? Wasn't an early death, at least, inevitable?