February 3, 2013

‘Right in front of our faces’

Woman wanted for 17 years used real name to evade arrest

Rachel Brown

— When Tonya Nickole “Snowy” Dice wanted not to be found, all she had to do was go back to using her real name.

It was that name, Jessica Lynn Keil, that she had been living under for at least a year in Dalton while authorities wondered where Dice, who had confessed to cleaning up a murder scene in Pennsylvania some 17 years ago, had fled, officials said.

The trail dates back to at least 1995 when officials say Keil, her then-boyfriend and another individual were on the scene when Freddie Walte Brumfield Jr., 18, was murdered in Greene Township, Pa. Officials still haven’t released all the details of the case as they have yet to charge the person who actually pulled the trigger, but news reports show investigators over the years have said Keil’s boyfriend was her pimp, and Brumfield was a known drug dealer.

For whatever reason, said Wayne Warren with the U.S. Marshals Fugitive Task Force, the murderer took a shotgun to Brumfield’s head and pulled the trigger. His body was later discovered lying in a ditch, but authorities believe the body had been moved from the mobile home where he was killed.

The woman known then as Tonya Dice was supposed to be in court to face a drug possession charge in 1995, but after she told investigators she had cleaned up the blood at the murder scene, she disappeared and wasn’t heard from again.

Warren said the task force became involved in May 2012 and finally located Keil’s home on Glenwood Avenue in Dalton across from the American Legion where she lived with her husband, two elementary school-aged children and a baby. She was arrested on Dec. 20 of last year on charges of criminal homicide and hindering apprehension/prosecution. She waived arraignment on Wednesday, Jan. 30, meaning she initially pleaded not guilty, and she is scheduled to be back in court in April, according to news reports.

What happened before all of that is a long and tangled story.

A dangerous criminal?

For 12 hours, Franklin County (Pa.) Sheriff’s Office Deputy Andrew Carter sat in the same car with the woman he’d been trying to find for about the past four years as he and others extradited Keil to Pennsylvania.

Carter said he wasn’t able to confirm all the details of her life story, but what she told him was “touching,” and in that ride from Dalton to Chambersburg, Pa., near where the murder occurred, she seemed a far cry from the stereotype of the dangerous criminal.

Based partly on what she told him during the ride and partly on his own research, Carter said Keil was adopted as a young child, and her parents live in Cincinnati. When she was 13, she ran away from home.

“At that point, she went down to Atlanta, Ga., and then met up with a couple of guys that were from Pennsylvania,” he said.

Exactly what went on in her life in Pennsylvania is not clear. Court documents show Tonya Dice was arrested in March 1995 when she was 21 for possessing 21 individually wrapped packages of crack cocaine that authorities said she planned to distribute. When she applied for a court-appointed attorney, she indicated in writing she had no money except for the $10 she had with her, that she had been living with a 39-year-old man up until a month before her arrest, and that she had two children, ages 5 and 3.

Dice marked on her application for legal assistance that she was married to the man, Johnny A. Foster, but authorities have referred to him only as her boyfriend. The report shows she once worked as a waitress, making up to $6 an hour once tips were included. She was released on her own recognizance.

Then on June 23, 1995, according to court documents, police interviewed Dice about Brumfield’s murder after a man who said he witnessed the murder told them about Foster. Dice told police she saw the murder, and that she used a mop and other household cleaning materials to clean up the blood, officials said; then she threw all the materials in the trash.

That’s what she told police, but as best as investigators can determine, instead of staying around she went to Atlanta.

“She had told the state police up in Pennsylvania that she planned on coming back to take care of her charges, and I guess she met some people down there in Atlanta that I guess just pretty much held her down there and made it impossible for her to make it to her court hearing — that’s what she said,” Carter said.

He doesn’t mean “held” as in they physically wouldn’t let her go, but whatever happened made her decide not to return. Sometime between when she left Pennsylvania and when she was arrested in Dalton, she had been married “two or three times,” Carter said.

“Whenever she left Pennsylvania, she went back to that original name (Jessica Keil), and that made it difficult for us to locate her because she went back to her name,” he said.

At one point, investigators thought they had found her when they discovered another dead body, according to news reports, but they soon learned they were mistaken. In 1999, a magisterial district judge in Pennsylvania issued a warrant for her arrest in the murder of Brumfield.

Search continues

In 1998, the television news show “America’s Most Wanted” profiled Dice and the work the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office and Pennsylvania State Police had put in to find her.

Freddie Brumfield was just one person in a list of family members who have been victims of violence. According to news reports, someone attacked his cousin, Joseph Brumfield, with a knife on July 19, 1997. His brother, Charles Brumfield, was shot and killed in Mount Union, Pa., in 1998.

By then, Keil had evaded authorities for nearly three years.

“Whenever she first left she went down to Atlanta and I guess she moved to Dalton shortly after that, and I guess met up with another guy and moved to I think Indiana and then moved to Las Vegas, Nev. — just all around — and then she finally made it back to Dalton,” Carter said.

Then an act by Keil started a chain of events that led to her arrest.

In May 2010, she was fingerprinted as she was trying to adopt a child. Information on which child she was trying to adopt and whether she was successful wasn’t immediately available. What is known is that put her into a database that would later lead investigators to find her.

Warren said a big lead came when a Georgia caller inquired at an agency in Chambersburg about an adoption and mentioned the name Tonya Dice. That had occurred years earlier, he said, but when the marshals got involved, they saw that note in her case file, did a reverse caller ID check and came up with Keil’s name.

“When we ran that information, we were able to determine that name was associated with Tonya Dice,” Warren said.

News reports from Pennsylvania media show officials thought at one time she might also be in Tampa, Fla., and that an informant who was in custody cooperated with authorities to try to find her. In May 2012, officials enlisted the aid of the U.S. Marshals. First a task force for the Pennsylvania area got involved.

On about Dec. 10 of last year, Carter said he ran her information through another system that showed a match for her fingerprints from the adoption attempt.

“I guess nobody had checked the system until I checked it in December of last year,” Carter said. “It was pretty much right in front of our faces for a couple of years, but I guess nobody checked this one resource.”

Carter said he got a picture of Jessica Keil from her Georgia driver’s license, and the U.S. Marshal in Harrisburg, Pa., contacted his counterpart in Atlanta. At least one person from the Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office who is assigned to the U.S. Marshals fugitive task force for the area was involved in Keil’s apprehension.

Warren said law enforcement officers did surveillance on Keil’s home in Dalton the day before they moved in, and saw her coming in and out of the residence.

“Once she was encountered, she gave up who she was,” he said.

Cold cases like this one are why the marshals’ fugitive task force was created, U.S. Marshal Martin J. Pane said in a press release.

“The combined skill of these investigators is why this fugitive was captured,” Pane said. “It is my sincere hope that the victim’s family finds some peace knowing the alleged perpetrator has been brought to justice.”

In plain sight

Atlanta’s Fox 5 television station had a news crew on site when Keil was arrested, and reported Keil had told her husband and children that this day might come, that she had a criminal history and might one day have to go back to face those charges.

Few neighbors seemed to know Keil. A woman next door said she once baby-sat Keil’s little boy, now an elementary school-aged child, but she knew very little about the family. A man at a nearby tobacco mart said she used to sometimes bring her children in with her when she bought cigarettes. At least once after she had the baby — whom Warren said was two weeks old when she was arrested — Keil would have the man come out to the car to bring her the cigarettes because she didn’t feel well enough to get out.

Beyond that, few people seemed to know much about her. A Hispanic man at the house where Keil was living said he was her husband, but he declined to talk about her or what happened.

Officials said Keil was a waitress at least for a little while when she lived in Dalton, although at a restaurant where she was supposed to have been employed even the most senior workers couldn’t remember her being there.

Pictures from the past few years show Dice changed her look dramatically at least once. When she was the young woman who had just left Pennsylvania, she had short, full, brown hair. At the time of her arrest, her hair was long, straight and very dark.

According to news reports in the Public Opinion, the Chambersburg newspaper, Keil recently used a third name, Jessica Perez, when she signed court documents.

What’s next

At the time of her arraignment hearing last week, Public Opinion reported she was still in jail. She was granted a $500,000 bond with conditions she be placed on electronic monitoring if she got out. That’s down from an initial $2 million bond.

Neither Keil’s attorney — one of the public defenders for the area — nor the district attorney returned calls seeking comment.

Local Department of Family and Children Services workers didn’t return calls seeking comment, but Carter said it’s his understanding that her husband is looking after the three children.

“It seemed like she had a good family back in Dalton and a good friend base to take care of her family,” he said.

For Tonya Dice — for Jessica Keil — for Jessica Perez — the 17 years of running are finally over. Carter said it felt odd for him, too.

“With all that time riding with her, I got to understand her more and where she came from,” he said. “It was a weird feeling for me, looking for this person for three or four years and actually facing her.”