A retired Navy petty officer has been charged in connection with the death of 19-year-old Virginia college student Ashanti Billie, who was last seen on a Norfolk naval base in September and whose body was later found about 300 miles away.
Federal authorities announced Wednesday that Eric Brian Brown, 45, had been charged with kidnapping Billie, a resident of Prince George’s County, Md., before she moved to the Virginia Beach area to attend culinary school at the Art Institute of Virginia Beach.
Brown, a day laborer who appears to be homeless, allegedly abducted Billie as she arrived for work at a Blimpie’s sub shop on Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek on Sept. 18, according to charging documents unsealed in federal court in Norfolk. Brown has not been charged in Billie’s slaying.
On Sept. 29, Billie’s body was discovered in a wooded area behind a church in Charlotte, which is about 300 yards from Brown’s childhood home and was where Brown attended Vacation Bible School as a child, according to court documents. She was missing teeth, and the body was found on a plastic tarp.
Billie’s mother, Brandy Johnson Billie, said hearing of the arrest gives her “a form of closure.” She and her former husband, Meltony Billie, who have become advocates for families of missing people, said they had struggled to sleep knowing their daughter’s attacker was free.
“Hopefully,” Johnson Billie said, “this person can’t put anyone else’s family through what they put us through, what they put Ashanti through.”
Brown, who spent 21 years in the Navy, worked on the construction of the Blimpie’s last summer and had been overheard making crude sexual comments about Billie and flirting with her on occasion, according to charging documents. He frequently visited the sub shop.
Authorities said the incident began shortly before 5 a.m. Sept. 18 when video surveillance showed Billie’s car enter the naval base and circle the Blimpie. The driver appears to be wearing dark clothing, consistent with what Billie was wearing that day.
Shortly after 5:30 a.m., surveillance cameras captured Billie’s vehicle leaving the base, being driven by someone wearing light-colored clothing, according to charging documents.
About 10 minutes later, a person wearing light-colored clothing and driving a similar car was seen on surveillance cameras near a Norfolk construction dumpster, where Billie’s phone was later found, according to court documents.
Billie’s car was discovered in Norfolk on Sept. 23, and authorities found Billie’s pants, with one of her shoes caught inside them, in the back of the vehicle, according to the charging documents. There was dirt on the pants, as if they had been pulled off outside on the ground, and the car also appeared to have been driven off-road. Witnesses interviewed by investigators said they saw the car the previous week in the neighborhood where Billie’s body was found.
During an interview, Brown told FBI agents he was on the Norfolk naval base on the evening of Sept. 17 and at one point blacked out and had no recollection of what he did for several days after that, according to the court documents. Brown told investigators he could not remember if he did anything to Billie.
DNA taken from a sweatshirt and shirt found on Billie’s body matched that of Brown, according to charging documents.
Investigators also found that Brown searched Norfolk news sites, including “police looking for man,” “Norfolk police looking for man in connection with homicide,” “Amber Alert sept 2017,” “missing woman and baby,” and “missing woman and man,” according to charging documents. He made other searches on Charlotte news sites.
An attorney for Brown could not immediately be reached to comment Wednesday evening.
A family member, Anita Brown, who is married to Brown’s brother and had met Brown only one time, said the family would not comment on his arrest and asked for privacy.
“Our family is very upset about this,” she said. “We’re sorry this has happened”
Billie’s parents, who both served in the Army, said in interviews after her abduction that they thought she would be safe on a military base.
Johnson Billie said that while she was overcome with sadness in the past several weeks, she is finally starting to become angry. She said it’s upsetting that Brown’s behavior on the base had been unusual enough to attract attention.
“I feel that this could have been prevented,” she said, referring to her daughter’s abduction and death.
Johnson Billie said her daughter would always tell her when people flirted with her but never mentioned anything threatening.
“I’m pretty sure he was lumped in with the other people she said were flirting with her,” Johnson Billie said, referring to Brown. She then explained that her daughter was kind to anyone. “No one would ever be below her that she couldn’t speak with them.”
The mother said her daughter dreamed of becoming a baker or an executive chef. Billie was her mother’s only child, but she had six other half siblings and a longtime boyfriend.
Billie had lived in Texas, Germany, Alabama and New York before her parents moved to Maryland, where she graduated from Dr. Henry A. Wise Jr. High School in Upper Marlboro.
Joshua Stueve, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Virginia, declined to say if or when Brown would be charged in Billie’s death or if authorities suspect that anyone else was involved. Brown could face a maximum of life in prison if convicted on the kidnapping charge.
“The investigation is ongoing,” Stueve wrote in an email.