Witness recounts fatal attack

Published: Wednesday, February 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
JACKSONVILLE - One of the three men charged with murder in the death of University of Florida student Thomas Brown last fall had been "ready and willing" to fight someone all night, according to testimony from a former co-defendant who will now testify for the prosecution.
Jeffery Gronczniak, 19, told prosecutors in a sworn statement that Jeremy Lane, 22, had talked about getting in a fight at The Jacksonville Landing Oct. 29 before he allegedly fought Brown, and he said Lane had a history of getting in fights when he'd been drinking.
Gronczniak's sworn statement was among court records released Tuesday by the State Attorney's Office here in response to a public records request from The Gainesville Sun.
Brown, of Merritt Island, was beaten to death near The Jacksonville Landing after the Florida-Georgia football game Oct. 29. He was 23.
Lane, Mark Foss, 19, and Alex Canzano, 22, all of the Jacksonville area, are charged with second-degree murder in connection to his death. Gronczniak and Casey Schuurman, 20, were also arrested in connection with the beating, but prosecutors dropped charges against them about a month ago.
A medical examiner's report also released Tuesday revealed that Brown's blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit for driving in Florida. But witnesses said it did not appear that Brown did anything overt to provoke a fight.
Witnesses to the beating Brown came to Jacksonville with three friends, and watched the game at the Mudville Grille with a large group, according to police statements from those friends.
Thomas Kastanek told police he lost touch with Brown at about 8:30 p.m., and said the Landing was so loud, it was difficult to track each other down using cell phones.
The three had agreed to meet at their car, parked near the Omni Hotel in downtown Jacksonville, but Brown never showed up.
Lane, Foss, Canzano, Gronczniak and Schuurman and two other friends watched the game at the Moon Grille and Oyster Bar in Jacksonville, and went to the Landing after the game.
Schuurman told prosecutors in a sworn statement they had been drinking, but said "nobody was completely wasted."
Lane told police he'd had about six beers and two mixed drinks. Foss told police he drank eight pitchers of beer before the game.
At the Landing, Gronczniak said Lane provoked Georgia fans and others all night, and said at one point he wanted to fight a group of people who had fought a friend of his the previous night.
"People would stare, and he would snap," Gronczniak said in a sworn statement. "You know, just - 'What are you looking at?' - and things like that."
Gronczniak told prosecutors Lane was violent when he'd been drinking. Gronczniak also said Lane had a history of getting in fights over seemingly minor incidents, such as someone spilling beer on his shoe.
"In his mind, they had disrespected him somehow," Gronczniak said.
Lane has faced previous battery charges, including a 2002 fight in which he beat another man with brass knuckles, according to Duval County court records.
The group stayed at the Landing for a few hours, according to Gronczniak and Schuurman, then called a taxi to pick them up in the parking lot of the CSX building, located about a block from the Landing.
Statements from several bystanders don't specify by name which of the men hit Brown and what the other men were doing.
None reported hearing words exchanged before the beating.
But most of the witnesses described no more than a few punches being thrown, and Brown falling to the ground without fighting back.
Dakota Sorano, who was also catching a taxi at the CSX building, told police she saw one of the five men spit on Brown's face after he fell.
According to Schuurman, Brown approached the men while they were waiting in the CSX parking lot and said, "I'll see you on the top."
In a sworn statement, Gronczniak said Brown seemed to be talking about getting to the top of the CSX building, and said he walked over to the building and tried to get inside.
But in statements made to police, Gronczniak said the fight started differently.
Gronczniak told police Brown approached the group and "eyed" a friend's girlfriend. He said the girlfriend, Lindsay Jones, said, "What's up?" and said Brown cursed at her or the group.
According to Schuurman, Lane got up and approached Brown after he said he wanted to go to the top of the building, saying, "Who are you talking to?"
Then, according to both Gronczniak's and Schuurman's sworn statements, Lane hit Brown twice.
Foss hit Brown once, Schuurman said, and then Brown fell.
Canzano told police he had been waiting nearby to "tackle" Brown if he ran away.
And Robert Lee, a jail inmate with Canzano after Canzano was arrested, told police that Canzano said "he and Casey and Mark made sure the victim didn't get away."
Schuurman said he saw the taxi pull up as Foss hit Brown, and said the group rushed into the van.
Gronczniak and cab driver Steven Brown both said Lane and Foss congratulated each other for the beating on the cab ride.
Police pulled the cab over at about 10:30 p.m., and took the five men into custody.
Both Gronczniak and Schuurman said they had no idea Brown was dead until police told them later that night.
The autopsy report Brown died from blunt trauma to the head that damaged an artery and caused a "massive subarachnoid hemorrhage," or bleeding into the space between the brain and skull, according to an autopsy report.
Tests performed on Brown's blood also showed two alcohol readings, one of 0.26 and another of 0.27, the report stated.
Both readings are more than three times the legal limit for driving in Florida, which is 0.08.
Another test performed on fluid from Brown's eye showed a reading of 0.30 for alcohol.
The amount of alcohol in the eyeball fluid lags behind the amount in the blood stream, said Paul Doering, co-director of the UF Drug Information and Pharmacy Resource Center. It is standard in autopsies, he said, to test this fluid to help determine whether the person's alcohol level was increasing or decreasing.
The results in this case, Doering said, "probably indicate that the alcohol was on the way down."
Still, Doering said, the readings show that Brown had about 11 drinks in his body when he died - "a very, very high concentration of alcohol," he said.
Asked about the alcohol's effects on Brown during an attack, Doering said, "It would certainly make him not a very efficient defender of himself. It might give somebody a wide open shot at him. And maybe not able to see a blow coming. This is someone that is really drunk and probably isn't focusing correctly and probably isn't capable of looking after their own affairs without somebody to assist him."
Brown's father, Tom Brown of Merritt Island, said that's part of what makes the attack so hard to comprehend.
"When he's with his fraternity brothers, everyone knows what the heck is going on," he said. "It's not some big secret. They go out drinking in Jacksonville, or Gainesville, or Ocala, or wherever. From what I've been able to determine, my son's blood alcohol was so high, he was probably not walking in a straight line. He was an easy target. My son didn't have a chance. It wasn't a fight. It was a massacre."
Natalie Norwood, a cousin of Brown's from Merritt Island, said no level of intoxication justifies "the brutality and senselessness of this crime," and noted that Brown was not driving or engaging in disorderly conduct that night.
Brown was sentenced for driving under the influence in Marion County in October 2005, according to court records.
Since becoming UF's president, Bernie Machen has launched a crusade against excessive drinking among college students.
UF spokesman Steve Orlando would not elaborate on how the autopsy's findings might effect the annual Florida-Georgia game held in Jacksonville and Machen's opinions about the event nicknamed the "World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party."
"We have had talks with the city of Jacksonville. We did pretty soon after the incident happened," Orlando said. "It's all under discussion right now. A lot of things are on the table."
Norwood said she and her family hope that the events surrounding Brown's death will lead to changes at future games.
"We hope the environment, regardless of where it is, is made safe for fans and their families," she said.
Brown's father said he e-mailed Machen a few days ago to suggest that the annual game be held at the two universities rather than in Jacksonville.
"Every year, there's some kind of incident in Jacksonville at the game," Brown said. "Someone is beaten up; someone like me loses their son. Jacksonville either cannot or will not provide enough police protection to keep kids safe."
He said he hasn't received a reply. "Who am I?" he said. "Just another Gator who lost his son."

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