Keyona Griffin’s story — Her tragic and unsolved murder

By Chege Karomo — ON Oct 05, 2022
Keyona Griffin
Keyona Griffin/Facebook

The final moments of Keyona Griffin’s life were captured in a 911 call to a dispatcher in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “I need help,” Keyona whispered. “Can you just hurry up, please. He’s trying to kill me. He already killed my auntie. Can you hurry up, please?”

If you are a fan of true crime on TikTok, you’ve likely seen videos detailing Keyona’s murder and the questionable police reaction to her distress call. 

Keyona Griffin and her aunt, Cherletta Baber-Bay, were killed in March 2019 at 553 Sheldon Avenue SE. Could a more thorough response by police have saved Keyona’s life or, at the very least, led to the arrest of Derrell Brown, the key suspect? This is Keyona Griffin’s story.

Police responded to Keyona’s call but didn’t observe anything suspicious

A year after the murders, Jaqueline Baber-Bey talked to Wood 8 about her granddaughters’ character:

“Keyona, she was just a brilliant smile, she lit up a room when she walked in and she was a ride or die. If she was for you, she was for you. If she wasn’t, she wasn’t. She was just a sweetheart, just a sweetheart. She’d do anything for anybody … I just miss her.”

Keyona lived at 553 Sheldon Avenue SE with Jaqueline, Cherletta, Derrell Brown, the suspect and Cherletta’s boyfriend. Cherletta’s body was found lying in bed under a blanket, with a bullet wound in the back of the head. She heard earphones on and probably didn’t hear the shooter approach. 

Police found Griffin’s body in an upstairs bedroom, nursing four bullet wounds, including one in the face. She likely heard or saw the murderer kill her aunt and was hiding in the bedroom. Keyona whispered when talking to the 911 dispatcher because she didn’t want to give away her location. 

Three officers arrived at the residence roughly eight minutes after Keyona’s call disconnected. Body cam footage shows one of the officers knocked on the front door four times, once with the knocker and thrice with his fist. Hearing no response, he jiggled the doorknob and discovered the door was locked. 

The dispatcher told the officers that the attempts to reach the caller had failed. Another officer peered through a window into the dining room area while another peeked around the back. ‘Nothing’ and ‘empty,’ the officers concluded. 

One officer suspected the caller was a ‘96 – cop talk referencing a caller with mental health issues. Roughly four minutes after arriving at the residence, the officers left. Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker explained the police’s actions:

“There was no blood. It’s a shut-up house. The house is a very protected — Fourth Amendment. You’ve got to have some pretty good reason to go in. There has to be something that drives them more than just a phone call because there’s people out there who prank call to get people, unfortunately.”

The Police Chief said the police regretted not showing more urgency

Onyah Griffin, Keyona’s mother, wondered whether the police would have acted differently had the call come from a wealthier, whiter area. Griffin said:

“I know people will say, ‘Oh, you want to pull the race card,’ and I don’t know their (the officers’) motives. It could have been because of the color of her skin. It could have because of the geographic location of where it happened.”

GRPD Sgt. John Wittkowski wrote to Wood 8 that the police react to every call depending on the information provided. “We simply cannot make entry into a house, short of a warrant, without cause,” Sgt. Wittkowski wrote. He added that the officers didn’t observe anything to justify forced entry into the house. 

Two hours and eighteen minutes after police left, Sanford Cummings II called from the same location, saying his sister, Keyona, wasn’t moving and there was blood everywhere. Cummings II tried performing CPR, but Keyona was long gone. 

In February 2020, Sgt. Wittkowski stated that, in hindsight, the officers would have broken into the house after Keyona’s call. “The officers and dispatchers are absolutely beating themselves up over this,” Sgt. Wittkowski told M Live. “At the end of the day, it’s a tough call. Some say, ‘Yeah, go in.’ Others say, ‘right call.’”

During the anniversary of the murders, Keyona’s family stated they still blamed the police for their response. Jaqueline said:

“They didn’t take it serious because where we live at, who they thought we were. That didn’t mean anything to them because if it did mean something to them, they would have handled it better.”

Griffins’ family said the fact that Keyona said someone was trying to kill her, not to merely assault her, gave police enough reason to barge into the house – but they didn’t. Sanford Cummings Sr., Keyona’s godfather, said:

“What was so senseless about this and just a tragedy and injustice is to walk up with no sense of urgency, no sense of importance, I mean just took their time.”

“At 1 o’clock you get another call to the same house and you come here, and you got to bring my family out in body bags because you didn’t care at 10 o’clock,” Jaqueline Baber-Bey added.

Keyona’s family didn’t notice anything suspicious about Derrell Brown’s behavior

Derrell Brown
Derrell Brown | Photo by Grand Rapids Police Department

Cherletta met Derrell Brown in the library; he was her first serious boyfriend. “Cherletta always saw the good in people and she just trusted that he was a good person and Keyona could see right through him,” Onyah Griffin said. 

Derrell had lived in the house for two years, but the family only knew him as ‘Jay.’ Brown was sweet and nurturing, the family said, but preferred solitude. Detective Kelli Braate wrote:

“What we were gathering was that most did not care (for) ‘Jay’ and did not speak to him often. We were told Jay did not have a job, he did not use Facebook as far as they knew, they did not know any of his family, and they did not have a phone number for him.”

A detective searching Cherletta’s closet found a box containing prison letters from Derrell Brown to Keyona’s aunt. Brown signed the letters as ‘Jay.’ The jail mail helped police officers identify Derrell Brown, a man with an extensive criminal history. 

The family only knew ‘Jay’ had gone to prison for failing to pay child support. However, his rap sheet contained a litany of criminal charges, including the 2005 assault of his ex-partner. 

Court records showed that Derrell tied her with cords, kicked and gagged her, urinated on her, and doused her with flammable fluid as her four children slept upstairs. The victim got away the following by getting on her child’s school bus and asking the driver to take off. 

Derrell didn’t face extensive jail time because the victim said in court that prison wasn’t the best option for him. Ultimately, Brown was convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence charge, despite the nature of the brutal assault. 

Jaqueline insisted that Derrell’s behavior didn’t arouse suspicion: “There were no red flags at all. That’s the reason why this is so maddening. Because what went wrong in that short span of time? … This man blindsided all of us … he betrayed us.”

Authorities are offering $25,000 for information leading to Derrell Brown’s arrest

Thirty-six hours after the murders, GPRD spokeswoman Sgt. Cathy Williams said Derrell Brown was a person of interest in the case. Sgt. Williams said:

“We do consider him dangerous and we don’t recommend the public try to approach him or talk to him about our interest in this investigation.”

Police considered Derrell a suspect because they’d linked the murder weapon, a 9 mm Hi-Point pistol, to him. The gun was registered to a woman who’d previously dated Derrell. The woman reported the gun stolen in July 2017, around the same time she dated Derrell. 

“This information provides a direct connection of Derrell Demon Brown to the Hi-Point pistol found at the scene,” Detective Sgt. John Purlee wrote. 

The police might have arrested Derrell had they breached the house after Griffin’s call. Their inaction gave Brown a three-hour head start, and he made the most of it. Surveillance footage revealed Derrell made several stops, including at Grand Rapids Children’s museum. 

Brown vanished after one of his former girlfriends dropped him off in the area of Leonard Street and Turner Avenue NW. Prosecutor Chris Becker said Derrell’s disappearance is unusual. Becker noted that Derrell’s experience with living off the grid has helped him evade authorities:

“People have social media, they have phones, they have things that you can connect, that you can trace. But even when Brown was here, he didn’t have a job. As far as we know, he didn’t have friends. So there were no phones, no social media.”

Sgt. Cathy Williams said Brown’s possession of many aliases makes it difficult to track him. Brown’s aliases include Darryl Robinson, Marcus Wright, Michael Richardson, Carter Brown, Derrick Brown, and Jay. Sgt. Williams said:

“Not only are we searching our databases for someone, but we’re having to search by four, five, six, seven names and those are only the ones we know about.”

In July 2021, the U.S. Marshals declared Derrell Brown one of the country’s 15 most wanted criminals. The agency believes Brown left Michigan and may be receiving assistance from relatives or associates. Derrell has family in Georgia, Arizona, Ohio, and Wisconsin. 

The Marshals are offering $25,000 for information leading to his arrest. “He [Brown] looks very unassuming and could literally be standing behind you in a grocery checkout lane,” Bruce Nordin, a U.S. Marshal, said

Candles lit during a vigil for Keyona and Cherletta led to Jaqueline’s death

Keyona and Cherletta
Keyona and Cherletta

In July 2020, a deadly fire tore through the Baber-Bey house, leading to the deaths of Jaqueline Baber-Bey and her grandson, Emareyon Cummings. 

Capt. Paul Mason of the Grand Rapids Fire Department said candles placed on the front porch during a vigil for Keyona and Cherletta caused the fire. Capt. Mason said:

“The first arriving crew found a heavy volume of fire on the front of the house. There was no one standing out front, yet there were cars in the driveway. So it’s a bad sign right from the start.”

He said Jaqueline and Cummings died from smoke inhalation after failing to escape the inferno. Capt. Mason added:

“It affected us all. Had a big impact on us. It’s just so sad… The incredible loss on top of the previous tragedy. That’s just the great sorrow of this whole event, and our hearts just go out to the family. It’s just terrible.”