MAURICE DAWKINS CLUTCHES A PHOTO of his daughter Crystal that reminds him of a promise. During a family gathering last year, the powerfully built former Jamaican police detective made a vow intended to provide a measure of assurance to his four daughters. But in the end it foreshadowed unimaginable tragedy.

“I remember telling [my daughters] if anybody does anything to them, if it takes the breath out of my body, I will be there for them,” Dawkins says in his heavy Jamaican accent.

He was forced to keep that promise after Crystal Danielle Dawkins, his 18-year-old daughter, left the home they shared in Columbia, South Carolina, just before Thanksgiving last year to visit her estranged mother, Christine Bacon, at her Lancaster home near Los Angeles.

It was a trip the elder Dawkins opposed, having learned of it only a day before Crystal left on November 17. Dawkins and Crystal’s stepmother in South Carolina had just separated, and for this young woman who was “gentle and loving,” the emotional yearning to visit her mother in Lancaster had grown strong.

But things began to go awry three days into her trip to Southern California, when Crystal called her stepmother to report that her mom’s ex-boyfriend had been hanging around and had been so verbally abusive to her mother that the two women went to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s station to report him.

Maurice Dawkins believed all was well until November 25, when he got a gut-wrenching call from Crystal’s boss at a Popeye’s, saying his daughter hadn’t returned to her job on the day expected. He was horrified to belatedly learn from Crystal’s stepmother of the incident involving the mother’s boyfriend. And when he tried to reach his daughter by cell phone, he got an uncharacteristic silence — from a girl who was always reachable.

Only much later would he learn that Crystal and her mother were dead — their bodies left to decompose for weeks inside a house that deputies refused to enter. Today, Dawkins is pursuing a lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, saying their actions call into question the manner in which the department handles missing-persons reports, deals with perceived foreigners in trouble and follows up on such complaints.

When Dawkins called the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s station in Lancaster late last November to file a missing-persons report, he tells the L.A. Weekly, his request was denied. Distraught, he called Sheriff’s stations throughout Los Angeles County seeking help before taking matters into his own hands and flying to L.A. on November 27.

Dawkins says nobody answered the door at his ex-wife’s quiet house on Price Lane in Lancaster, and Sheriff’s deputies would not go inside. So he spent days surveilling the house in hopes that Crystal or her mother would show up — so much time, in fact, that neighbors began to befriend him.

“He seemed to really care for his family,” says Sasha Garcia, a neighbor of Bacon’s. “He was distraught. He was frantic, really.”

When Dawkins begged the deputies to break into the Price Lane house to search for clues, he says he was smugly told, “That’s not how we do it here .?.?. Who do you think you are?”

Little did the high-desert deputies know that Dawkins was not some helpless immigrant with a thick accent, but had been a celebrated tough-guy New York City whistleblower, who, in 1990, acted as the key courtroom witness against Darryl “God” Whiting, head of a vicious Jamaican crime ring. Dawkins’ own history gave him little patience with cops who didn’t stick out their necks. And as he saw it, the Lancaster Sheriff’s deputies played that role to the hilt.

So Dawkins launched his own probe, ultimately logging 17,330 miles in a desperate search for his daughter, scouring mountains, valleys and gullies throughout the Southland. “It was tormenting, it was frightening in the sense of not knowing what happened,” he says. “My experience in Los Angeles, I wouldn’t wish on anybody — even the guy that killed my daughter.”

His investigation led him to Las Vegas on a second trip last December, where Dawkins showed a picture of his beautiful young daughter to hotel clerks, gas station attendants and even prostitutes — and he began to have his worst fears confirmed. He learned that his ex-wife and her boyfriend, Christopher Anthony Brown, owned two rental properties in Las Vegas, yet one tenant said she hadn’t heard from her landlords in weeks.

When the tenant called Christopher Brown’s number, a male who answered the phone said Brown had changed his number. But, recalls Dawkins, how would a stranger recognize Brown’s name, or know that he changed his number? Says Dawkins, “That’s when I knew he killed my daughter.”

Dawkins immediately called the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s homicide bureau, imploring deputies to go to the home on Price Lane. “Somebody better get there before I get there,” he declared as he drove toward Lancaster.

THREE HOURS LATER, Dawkins was near Barstow when Detective Bill Marsh called him. Dawkins says the veteran detective was crying, and told him both women’s bodies were found in the house. “I was trembling, but I was trained in the police [academy], so that made it a little more easy to take it,” Dawkins says.

Marsh says Dawkins’ demand for action and his citizen’s investigation ultimately led to Brown’s January 18 arrest in Arizona by Pima County police. Dawkins would not give up “in his determination to raise awareness that wasn’t being addressed,” Marsh tells the Weekly. “Most of us as human beings, and particularly as parents — there’s a premonition, there’s a feeling. And he obviously felt it, he addressed it and he worked it hard. Sadly, there was something very wrong.”

Today, Brown faces two counts of first-degree murder in a special-circumstances case that could bring him the death penalty. Brown is known as a bad actor — Arizona’s Pima County Prosecutor Mark Diebolt says he is tied to Jamaican organized crime. He was convicted in Arizona in July for drug trafficking and will be extradited to Los Angeles in a few weeks.

Dawkins’ pursuit of justice has given purpose to a life devastated by grief. He says he sold his landscaping business to pay expenses he incurred searching for his daughter, sleeps two hours a day, has lost 40 pounds and is on the brink of clinical depression.

He has also launched legal action, filing a Notice of Claim — a precursor to a lawsuit — against the Lancaster Sheriff’s Station, alleging racial discrimination and negligence in handling his daughter’s disappearance. (Dawkins, his daughter, Bacon and Brown are all Jamaican-born blacks.) Officials say an internal-affairs investigation is also under way.

One of his attorneys, Abbas Kazerounian, says Dawkins’ legal team has enlisted a high-powered public relations firm, and is trying to involve activist Al Sharpton. Dawkins wants prosecutors to seek the death penalty for the two murders, but says pursuing legal action against the Sheriff’s Department is just as much a part of honoring his daughter’s memory.

Lancaster station commander Captain Carl Deeley defends the actions by deputies, saying that deputies interviewed Bacon and Crystal Dawkins at length before their deaths, after Crystal took her fears about Christopher Brown to them. Deeley says the mother, Bacon, “flat-out said there had been no violence in their relationship.” Moreover, deputies had no choice but to refuse Dawkins’ request that they enter the home on Price Lane, since they lacked any evidence that anyone was in danger, he says.

“I really feel horrible for him,” says Deeley. But “he’s looking for someone to blame, and the person to blame is the person who’s in custody now.”

Dawkins describes the experience as a “living hell” in a life that has seen significant low points. In 1989, he served jail time on drug possession charges and ended up homeless. While living in New York’s subways, he was approached by law enforcement officials seeking a street informant, and Dawkins ultimately infiltrated a Jamaican organized crime ring. Later, he was the star witness in a trial that led to Darryl Whiting’s conviction and life sentence.

Now, Dawkins says, he has to pursue a promise to his daughters that he made in happier times: “I have to live unto my responsibility .?.?. I will always be there for my children.”

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