Did Kelley Brannon “Get Into a Car?”

Painting of Kelley by stefan.the.alligator
Painting of Kelley by @stefan.the.alligator

One of the most confounding aspects of Kelley Brannon’s disappearance is the enigmatic end to her last voicemail. Her exclamation of “Oh, I’m getting in a car right now. All right, bye” seems to come as a surprise to her and cuts her off mid sentence.

These last words have divided those who have taken an interest in the case into two camps: those who think she got into a car in an attempt to hitchhike away from Live Oak, Florida, and those who think it’s a red herring.

On one hand, we have Kelley’s own voice claiming that she did so. In addition, Kelley had a history of sometimes making rash choices. With her car keys taken by her boyfriend, Eddie, and few options available, perhaps she did try to hitch a ride out of town, only to get into a car with someone with ill intent. There isn’t really any hard evidence to refute this claim. There isn’t any evidence to support it, either.

In her last voicemail, Kelley also claimed that she was reporting her car stolen and that she was getting her own room at the Sunshine Inn, neither of which occurred. If we leave aside the theory that the voicemail was tampered with, couldn’t her claim of getting into a car also be false? Could this all have been said for the singular purpose of angering Eddie, who refused to leave the motel room? There is precedent for this kind of verbal sparring between them, too.

At a quick glance, both hypotheses seem plausible. But before coming to a hasty conclusion, let’s slow things down and put ourselves in Kelley’s place. Have you considered not only how but why Kelley would have made the choices she did? Would they really be different from the decisions you would make in her situation?

Let’s first set the scene so we can better understand how Kelley ended up in the predicament she was in on July 14, 2020.

Kelley left Eddie in June, 2020 and traveled back to her hometown in New Hampshire. There is a selfie video from Kelley’s phone taken on June 27, 2020 where she was both furious at how Eddie had betrayed her and elated that she was free from his physical, verbal, and emotional abuse. 

Sometime after June 27th, Eddie traveled to see Kelley at her family home in New Hampshire and managed to convince her to give their relationship another try. Or at least that’s what we assume happened; the details are unknown. 

We don’t know how or why Kelley went from being jubilantly free from Eddie to traveling back down to Florida with him with the intention of driving to Detroit and purchasing a home together, but eighteen days later, Kelley would never be seen again.

We don’t have many hard facts surrounding Kelley’s disappearance. If there was any perishable forensic evidence, it had long disappeared before law enforcement started taking the case seriously. There is motel camera footage from earlier in the afternoon and evening showing Kelley walking around the parking lot, but there is apparently no footage of her walking off or getting into a car. We have seen some texts sent from Kelley’s phone to Eddie’s phone, but there’s nothing conclusive in them. We have her last voicemail, but it proves nothing. We’ve heard rumors that some of the semi-permanent denizens of the less-than-salubrious Live Oak Motel and Sunshine Inn said that they saw Kelley walk away from the motel towards town with her guitar on her back. The only official documentation we’ve seen regarding eye witnesses is from the private investigator’s report, wherein one woman claimed she saw Kelley walk away from the motel, only to rescind her claim the next day saying “she was high.”

Since we don’t have much evidence, we need to plot out all of the possible ways Kelley could have disappeared. Unfortunately, we have to make some assumptions about what happened based on verbal testimony from Eddie and others.

According to Eddie, he had a change of heart the night of July 14 and became concerned that Kelley was drunk and might drive intoxicated. He claimed that he “slipped [Kelley’s] keys off her waist” and held onto them for safekeeping. His truck was in for repairs, so Kelley’s car was the only working vehicle available to them. We have no evidence that this “key slipping” happened the way it was explained, but in Kelley’s last voicemail, she did claim that Eddie had stolen her car. This is perhaps what she was referring to, although we can’t be certain. 

Imagine the scene: Kelley is sitting in her car in the parking lot of an unfamiliar Florida town during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic without her car key or access to her motel room. She’s angry that she was tricked once again by Eddie, who turned out to not have changed one bit. She’s angry that she has to wait around in Live Oak while Eddie tries to get his truck fixed while she makes arrangements to house her beloved chickens. And now she’s angry her boyfriend is pretending to sleep in their motel room refusing to answer his phone while she sits in the parking lot, hot, tired, and alone.

Wouldn’t you be angry? 

Put yourself in her position. You still technically have your car, just not your keys. You can definitely get your keys back. Maybe not right now, but certainly in the morning. Eddie can’t stay inside forever. His dog is in the room, and he’ll need to be let out to use the bathroom. You could call the cops, but you don’t trust them and would rather they not get involved. Oh, and you have around $10,000 in your bank account that’s available to you, should you need it.

So. Do you wait it out? Do you start pounding on the motel room door? Or do you leave your purse and bank cards in the unlocked car, take your cheap guitar, and start walking towards a small town where nothing is open? And if you start walking, do you then get into a stranger’s car?

Let’s say you take the illogical and unnecessarily dangerous choice of walking down a desolate street at night. You stop somewhere along the way to leave an angry voicemail. This all seems plausible, especially if emotions were running high and intoxicants were imbibed.

But where things become difficult to rectify is if we assume that Kelley gets into a car. Recall that in the voicemail, Kelley is interrupted mid-sentence to say that she’s “getting into a car right now.” It sounds as if the car came up suddenly and that she expected it. There’s no doubt and no hesitation in her voice. There’s no talking with a driver. No inquiring where the car is going. Just straight up confidence that she’ll be getting into it. 

We need to remember that she had her own car, her purse, her chickens, and all of her worldly possessions with her. Instead of staying with her things, though, she’s just going to impulsively leave all of it? She even left small things behind that would be easy to bring, like her purse. 

As crazy as that seems, let’s think of the scenarios in which this could even happen, since so many think it did.

One scenario is that Kelley was trying to flag down cars on the road in hopes of getting a lift. Where to and why, no one knows. There are no drivers who reported seeing her on the road with her guitar slung on her back, but apparently the one car that does drive by pulls over and, without even the smallest interaction between Kelley and the driver, Kelley decides to get into the car on the spot. At 1am. In a strange town. Alone. As a woman. During Covid, which she was known to be extremely cautious about.

Wait, what? Who doesn’t even ask the driver who they are or where they’re going or whether they’d wear a mask? (Kelley was adamant about mask usage.) Nope, Kelley just gets into–or assumes she’s going to get into–the first car that pulls over.

Can you imagine doing that? Even if you were in Kelley’s situation, would you say you’re “getting into a car,” or would at least say to the driver, “Hey! I’m trying to get to XYZ! Which way are you going?” I’m not sure what the chances are that at 1am, the average driver on Howard Street in Live Oak, Florida would be beginning a cross-country, north-bound trip out of town, but I’d wager they’re not great. They’d probably be heading to the gas station for a pack of smokes.

Doesn’t this all sound a bit implausible now that we’ve teased it out a bit? And yet this is somehow one of the prevailing hypotheses of how Kelley disappeared.

Judging from Kelley’s tone of voice and choice of phrasing in the voicemail, it seems more likely that she either knew the person in the hypothetical car and/or was expecting the car to show up.

Let’s think about this a bit. While we have not seen Kelley’s phone records, the police have. Respectively, it’s safe to say that she didn’t call or text someone to pick her up or call a taxi or a car service. If she had, we’d either have an arrest by now or at least some more focused guidance from police. So, how would someone intentionally come and pick her up? Kelley didn’t seem to think she was in particular danger at the time–she was just angry–so pre-planning an “escape” would have been unnecessary.

Maybe someone she had met over the previous couple of days happened to drive by and they recognized Kelley? She certainly didn’t know anyone in Live Oak well, and friends and family were far away. Maybe someone from a store, bar, or restaurant that Kelley had visited pulls over. She recognizes them and without a second thought says… “I’m getting into a car right now.” Huh? That doesn’t make sense either. Not even a, ”Hey! Remember me? It’s Kelley. Can you help me? I need a lift.” Nope, just an immediate assumption of transportation under less-than-urgent conditions from a mostly-stranger in the middle of the night. Seems unlikely. 

How about someone she met at the motel? Any communication with them would have been done verbally and hence not leave a digital trail. Did they plan the ride at the motel but the pickup point was somewhere along the road? Or it happened in the parking lot but no one saw it and it wasn’t on the surveillance footage? Again, it’s possible, but improbable. It really all comes down to there being no reason to try to hitchhike out of Live Oak when in possession of your own motor vehicle.

There is one last thing that seems important to mention is that those of us who live in New York City–like Kelley had for years–often call car service taxis “a car.” As in, “it’s late, let me call a car.”, or, “I’m gonna call/take a car”, or, “oh, my car’s here.” This phrasing might be unique to NYC or maybe to urban areas in general. As such, it’s very likely Kelley would refer to a car service vehicle in such a way.

Are there such services in Live Oak at 1am? It doesn’t look like it. If there was a service still open, from what phone did she call them? A payphone? C’mon. Maybe the “getting into a car” part of the voicemail is an anachronism from a previous time and another place entirely. Something to think about, anyway. It’s no less or more likely that the other hypotheses.

So, let’s say she didn’t get into a car. This is, after all, possible, as there is no definitive proof she did. Where is Kelley Brannon?

Kelley Brannon’s Disappearance , Air Disasters, and the Laws of Learning

It’s been over 30 months since Kelley Brannon was last seen. To Kelley’s friends and family, this seems absurd. How could Kelley disappear into thin air? How is it that, all this time later, law enforcement seems no closer to finding her? I’d like to explore this today by using examples from aviation and learning theory.

The Law of Primacy

Kelley was last seen at a seedy motel in Live Oak, Florida on July 14, 2020. This seems almost a cliché location to disappear from. A late night vanishing from a small, poor town. Lowlifes and drug addicts abound. An angry woman with few options at her disposal. A voice message that states she’s getting into a stranger’s car. It seems obvious what might have happened: a tragic case of abduction, and presumably, murder.

Despite the fact Kelley hasn’t been found, and there are (apparently) no clues pointing to Kelley walking off, it seems that Live Oak law enforcement is still perplexingly fixated on the theory that she is “on the run.”

Why is this? I suggest it’s because of the law of primacy.

The law of primacy is one of the six laws of learning. The law of primacy states that things learned first have the most impactful and longest lasting impression. The thing that is learned first is more difficult to forget even if subsequent information proves the initial information false, or at the very least, dubious.

The Sticky Narrative

When Kelley’s boyfriend Eddie Emerson first reported Kelley missing to Live Oak Police Department’s lone detective Captain Jason Rountree, he established a quite strong and persuasive narrative. Kelley and Eddie had had an argument, Kelley was an explosive and unpredictable person, she was drunk, Eddie “slipped the [car] keys off her waist” that night, and she left a voicemail that states she got into a car. Of course, it doesn’t say what or whose car, and the other things she said she was doing in the voicemail didn’t happen. But this didn’t matter, because Eddie was also quick to mention her left-wing political leanings to, presumably, a right-wing Florida law enforcement officer (you’ll see why I say that later). This had immediate repercussions that rippled through the investigation to this day.

This narrative has not only stuck with the Live Oak Police Department, but it’s been consistently parroted by amateur true crime podcasters and professional journalists alike. No one seems to question one person’s mostly anecdotal sequence of events, which is strange considering Eddie psychologically and physically abused Kelley for many months according to police records, Kelley’s friends, and Kelley’s own writing.

It has been difficult if not impossible to get a hold of Captain Rountree to discuss all this. When we have been able to speak with him, he speaks of how hard he’s working on the case and spends many late nights. But we see that the LOPD Instagram page is full of publicly catered lunches, donuts, public appearances, and self-congratulatory posts, but never anything about Kelley. It’s difficult for us to stomach while our friend is still missing. I don’t believe his nights were later than ours, and several of us were simultaneously getting advanced degrees, working, and pursuing other professional development at the same time as trying to find Kelley.

What’s most troubling, though, has been what he’s said and done, or not done. He once said to us that “maybe she ran off with Antifa.” This is not only offensive, but it shows a complete lack of understanding of what “Antifa” is, apart from being a right-wing dog whistle phrase. It’s not a group or an organization. This is not even worth discussing.

The Mexico Incident

Another troubling incident was one involving a possible sighting of Kelley in Mexico. Kelley’s possible fleeing to Mexico was, for whatever reason, bandied about in the online true crime forums. I can’t remember whether Eddie posited this theory of whether it was someone else. It doesn’t matter because it makes no sense. Why would she flee the country? She’s not a spy. She had loads of friends to trust if necessary. Again, it’s not even worth discussing.

Anyway, even though Kelley’s friends are of the belief that she likely was killed the night of her disappearance, we looked into this Mexico sighting anyway. It was immediately clear to us that the photo of this woman was not Kelley. This poor woman was likely very mentally ill and probably a drug addict. All these things line up with that initial false characterization of Kelley. Primacy in effect again.

Even though the woman wasn’t Kelley, she did need help, so we called the local police in Mexico and asked for assistance. The police were very kind and responsive, and went to check on the woman.

Some time later, we see Captain Rountree posting on Facebook as to whether anyone knows how to get in touch with the Mexican police because this woman found in Mexico could be Kelley. Well, this was troubling as we had disproven this lead immediately and a long time prior. It also wasn’t hard to contact the Mexican police. We just Googled it.

So, despite our protestations and appeals to reason, Captain Rountree appears to still seriously consider the theory that Kelley could be a drug-addled misfit who might flee the country without contacting anyone she knows. It also took him quite some time to look into this woman in Mexico. Not only that, but he chastised us for “interfering” with the case by contacting the Mexican police. I think that was unwarranted.

Time Lost from the Start

From the moment Kelley went missing, Captain Rountree did very little to investigate the facts surrounding Kelley’s disappearance. Eddie’s story was taken at face value, and Captain Rountree assumed she had run away. Eddie’s domestic violence history, perpetrated in the state of Florida, no less, and immediately available to review by Florida police if they were so inclined to look for it, was either not sought out or was ignored. Second opinions were not asked for. Other agencies were not immediately involved.

I know adults are allowed to go missing, and the assumption that the missing person is murdered is usually unfounded. But with an abuse history, Eddie should have been looked into from the start just in case things didn’t turn out like they usually do in missing persons cases.

And then, four days after Kelley went missing, Eddie put Kelley’s things into the back of his broken pickup truck (remember, they were moving), put his things in Kelley’s car, and drove out of state. The vehicle’s registration was missing and therefore illegal to drive. It also wasn’t Eddie’s car. Kelley had just gone missing, but Eddie seemed convinced she wouldn’t be returning. The police let him steal her car and leave.

From watching shows like Forensic Files, I know that sometimes the most likely and seemingly guilty person is not the perpetrator. I get that. But, most of the time, it is usually a family member or abusive husband or boyfriend that commits the crime. That is simply a statistical truth, and that’s why Eddie deserved more scrutiny from day one.

While Captain Rountree focused on the story of a runaway woman, the prime person of interest and possible forensic evidence illegally drove out of state without even a thought by LOPD.

Kelley’s things remained in the back of Eddie’s dilapidated pickup in Live Oak for months and months. By the time Kelley’s things were returned to her mother, most of her clothing and possessions had rotted and become moldy in the Florida humidity and had to be thrown out.

Aviation Disasters and CRM

How does aviation fit into this?

Let me take you back to December 29, 1972. Eastern Airlines flight 401 departed New York’s JFK airport headed for Miami, Florida. During its approach to Miami, the three-person crew noticed that one of the lights that indicated whether the landing gear was down did not light up when the crew selected gear down. Unsure of whether one of the landing gear failed to lower or if it was an indication malfunction, the crew decided to put the plane in a holding pattern on autopilot over the Everglades.

All three crew then focused on troubleshooting the problem. With no one at the controls and their attention focused on the landing gear problem, the crew failed to notice that the autopilot had inadvertently been disconnected and the plane was descending. A few minutes later, the plane crashed into the Everglades, killing 101.

It was later determined that it was just a bulb that blew out.

Several other high profile airline crashes occurred over the next few years, resulting in a concerted scientific look at human factors in aviation disasters. The outcome was a set of training procedures called Crew Resource Management (CRM). In its essence, CRM training emphasizes teamwork, proper, decisive decision making, and egalitarian leadership (listen to and include your first officer) rather than totalitarian leadership (“the captain is always right”). This framework has had profound positive effects on not only aviation but other high-stakes and time-critical industries as well.

The Need for Teamwork

How does this apply to Kelley’s case?

In the months and years following Kelley’s disappearance, Kelley’s friends have worked extremely hard to bring other law enforcement agencies and professional search agencies on board. Every time, Captain Rountree refused the help. (Remember, the captain is always right). We had lined up a group called Pink Justice (now Seeking Justice, Inc.) who were willing to help search for Kelley’s body in the swampland of Florida. It was denied by LOPD.

We asked the local sheriff’s office for help, but they said that LOPD had the case and can’t get involved unless they were asked to.

We tried to get the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) involved (they did do a crime scene search of the motel room weeks after the disappearance), but they wouldn’t listen to us when we reached out. We’re unsure of what they’ve done for the case, if anything.

How about the FBI? Eddie crossed state lines with a stolen car. That car could have had forensic evidence on it. It was later returned to Kelley’s mom, cleaned, and sold. To our knowledge, it was never examined, and now it’s too late.

We have heard from Rountree that some of these agencies have been involved more than we know, but as we’ll explore in the next section, it’s likely a case of “too little, too late.” Decisive and immediate action could have changed the case. Bloodhounds could have searched the motel right away, but obviously by now, all traces of scent are gone.

We simply don’t know why Captain Rountree still believes Kelley could be on the run. We don’t know why he didn’t and still doesn’t seek out other agencies for help. We don’t know why when he’s offered help, he refuses it. Is it hubris? Is it that law of primacy still holding on?

It is beyond frustrating. He’s focusing on the light bulb.

Gabby Petito: a Parallel Case

Since Kelley went missing, Gabby Petito’s disappearance took the world by storm. The similarities in Gabby’s disappearance uncannily resemble Kelley’s. The law enforcement response does not.

Similarities: Gabby and her boyfriend, Brian, were on a road trip when Gabby went missing. Brian had a domestic violence history. Brian downplayed his violent history to police when questioned. Gabby defended Brian to the police (sadly, typical of an abusive relationship). Gabby disappeared after an argument. Brian fled the state after the disappearance. Brian did something illegal (Brian stole Gabby’s money, Eddie stole Kelley’s car) There are possibly more similarities.

Differences: Gabby’s direct family got immediately involved in the investigation. Gabby was younger and more conventionally prettier than Kelley. Because of that, there was strong and immediate media attention. The FBI was involved right away. The police were proactive from the start and staked out Brian’s home. They solved the case quickly.

The importance of media attention is debatable. I might say we have experienced more hurt and frustration than benefit from it. But the big difference is the CRM that was used by Gabby’s investigators. They quickly and decisively used all the resources they could because they knew time was of the essence. It was too late to save Gabby, but at least their family got some closure.

We Need a Change of Leadership

All of this is to say, we beg Captain Rountree to use CRM and get some other agencies on board with greater capabilities. In his defense, he’s only one man, and the sole detective in Live Oak. Who else will investigate the guy who stole wine coolers and gum from Publix? Kelley’s disappearance can’t be his only focus. We understand that. That’s why we want to spread the load. It may be too late to find Kelley, but I’m still confident that we can get justice and closure with the right expertise.

We need fresh eyes and ears on Kelley’s disappearance. Let’s get this case off autopilot and into capable hands.

CCTV: which way, and when? UPDATED

Kelley Brannon CCTV footage, The Sunshine Inn, July 14, 2020

CCTV footage of Kelley walking in the parking lot of The Sunshine Inn exists. We’ve seen it. Clips of it on WCTV’s pieces on Kelley and Paramount+/Efran Films’ episode featuring Kelley. It shows Kelley walking to and fro, sometimes southeast toward Live Oak and sometimes northwest toward… well, there’s not much in that direction.

The Live Oak Police Department has only released a second or two or her walking alone one way, then another. She never leaves the frame. We’ve now heard that the camera apparently does not record linearly but only in clips, perhaps using a motion sensor. This means there is no second by second, uninterrupted video footage of the parking lot. Perhaps what we’ve seen of the footage is all there is. Also, camera angle combined with the shape of the building prevented a clear shot of Kelley and Eddie’s motel room or Kelley’s car, if it was parked by the room.

What the CCTV camera saw

Of course, it neither confirms nor denies any of the given narrative of what happened on that far side of the motel: arguments, reconciliations, drinking and drunkenness, key stealing, going to bed, etc.

Unfortunately, the CCTV footage may not provide any clues as to Kelley’s disappearance.