On a sun-washed July afternoon in 2013, about 60 people — friends, family, classmates — trekked the tree-lined streets of Tremont. They wore all white, a photo negative of funeral mourning. Some hands clutched clumps of white balloons, others flapped handwritten signs reading, “Justice for Brandon.” The group pooled together before a brick two-story building on Professor, steps away from Michael Symon’s Lolita. With a signal, the balloons took off, heads bent upward as the bobbing white shapes were swallowed up by the blue above.
For the event’s organizer, Lynn Cartellone, the rally was an attempt to corral attention back to the death of her 21-year-old son Brandon, murdered two years before in a nearby apartment. Although it was one of 88 homicides tallied by the city that year, the death stuck out in a lot of local memories: a grisly murder, dead-center in Cleveland’s trendiest gentrifying neighborhood.
But Cartellone quickly learned that in a city with rising body counts and gruesome spectacles of violence, one murder can easily get kicked to the back of the priority list. And today, five and a half years after Brandon’s death, Cartellone is still trying to redirect focus on her son’s unsolved whodunit — even going so far as digging personally into possible suspects.
“I basically feel like I’m my son’s ambassador,” she said recently.
Brandon was a third-year student at the Cleveland Institute of Art. He studied industrial design. The Valley Forge High School grad had two internships, multiple side jobs as an artist, and hauled pizza around on the weekends. “He was really trying to pay his way through school,” Cartellone says.
“Unfortunately, it was not all kosher,” she adds with a resigned laugh.
Brandon was selling pot, apparently growing his own product from three plants police would later find in his apartment. No kingpin or don, his modest operation was enough to pay car bills, but also may have attracted unwanted attention. “He did put himself in a very vulnerable position,” his mother says.
On July 26, 2011, Brandon’s girlfriend found him in his second-floor apartment in Tremont around 1:30 am. He was bound to a chair with belts and duck tape. There was a suspicious gash on his abdomen. He’d been strangled to death. “He was severally beaten,” Cartellone says. “It had to be more than one person.”
The police were knocking on her door before dawn that morning. A trained nurse, Cartellone’s mind immediately began churning with critical thinking, trying to grab hold of the pieces of the situation.
“I was on the phone every day and sometimes multiple times a day,” she says. “I did have to drag information out of them.” Cartellone learned that police had a suspect, someone who had been communicating with Brandon up until his death. “He had been texting Brandon all day trying to come over to buy some pot,” she says. “The very last text from that person was the last time that my son ever used his phone.”
The suspect, however, clammed up when approached by police. Cartellone says other aspects and avenues of her son’s case seemed to be ignored by the police at the time. When Cartellone was finally allowed to enter her son’s apartment, a neighbor approached and said she’d seen several men arguing with Brandon at his apartment door. “She saw them leave, she saw them come back,” Cartellone says. The mother had to tell police about the witness; she was eventually interviewed and identified photos of suspects. “The only reason that happened is because I presented the information.” Another neighbor who witnessed the front door propped open was also ignored, Cartellone says.
Part of the reason for the lack of movement: The detectives working Brandon’s murder were also busy with the Anthony Sowell case, which was then in trial. Cartellone kept at it, nudging the detectives relentlessly about their progress.
“I hate to sound so judgmental, but as citizens we’re not receiving justice, we’re not receiving a proper investigation,” she says. “It makes you wonder.”
The pace continued to be glacial. Relentless letter writing and public events like the 2013 rally failed to spark any momentum on the investigation.
Then, this summer, Cartellone stumbled on her own break in the case. Although she’s tightlipped with the information now, she will say that a friend approached her with names of possible suspects who have boasted about their involvement in the crime.
“These suspects lived in Tremont at the time, and still do,” she says. “I’m told they are currently repeating similar crimes, like breaking and entering and theft. That’s what I’m told.”
Along with Brandon’s girlfriend and another friend, Cartellone spent four hours deep-diving through social media accounts, stringing together the connections between the suspects. She printed out the information and handed it over to Cleveland detectives. “I told them I was putting a bow on it,” she says.
Then, more radio silence.
Six weeks back, Cartellone launched another barrage, hitting not only police officials with certified letters, but Mayor Frank Jackson, Prosecutor Tim McGinty, and local media. She apparently finally made headway, because phone calls and meetings were soon set up with Cleveland P.D. officials and members of the prosecutor’s office.
“This case remains an open investigation,” Cleveland police spokesperson Sergeant Jennifer Ciaccia told Scene recently. “There is no new information available for release at this time.”
Cartellone is hopeful. At the same time, she’s tired of having to basically poke and agitate for results. “It’s a balancing act,” she explains. “I want attention, but I don’t want to piss them off.
“But I’m mother bear. I’m not going to stop.”