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.