3 decades of silence: The disappearance of Gina Dawn Brooks

Gina Dawn Brooks would become the poster child for cold cases in the St. Louis area. Years went by without a solid lead.
Published: Jan. 21, 2022 at 2:31 PM CST
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - You drive into Fredericktown from the north and you are struck by its beauty. Nestled in the northeastern foothills of the St. Francois mountains, the first sight you see is God’s Country Cowboy Church. With just over 3,000 residents, this was Norman Rockwell’s small town America.

Until it was ripped apart.

On August 5, 1989, Lieutenant Keith Despain was working the overnight shift at the Fredericktown Police Department. Despain has lived nearly his entire life in Fredericktown. His father was in law enforcement. His grandfather was in law enforcement. It was not a surprise that Despain would eventually rise to become the city’s police chief. If anyone knows the pulse of the tiny town, it’s Keith Despain. And his memory is vividly clear of that quiet, muggy August night in 1989.

Other than a bicycle found laying in the street, it was as routine as nights get.

Earlier, down at the local baseball field, a blonde-haired, green-eyed teenager named Gina Dawn Brooks was watching her brother’s game. It ended around 10 p.m., and Gina began walking home on Marshall Street.

She said goodnight to her mother Cindy Box, who went to bed. Gina, 13, then told her brother she was going for a bike ride. She left the house around 10:30 p.m., dressed in a blue-striped top, white shorts and sneakers, and rode through the quiet town. She was soon confronted by the occupants of an old, battered station wagon in front of First Street Baptist Church. Gina kept riding, turned the corner to High Street, where she stopped to talk to her boyfriend.

The station wagon came again. Soon, there was a scream, and the station wagon sped away with Gina inside. Her bike was found laying in the street. She was just five blocks from her home.

Around 2 a.m., Cindy awoke. She found Gina’s room empty.

A missing poster days after Gina disappeared in August of 1989
A missing poster days after Gina disappeared in August of 1989(KMOV)

She called police, and it didn’t take long for Despain to put two-and-two together.

“It was when Cindy reported Gina missing on a bicycle. It was like, now it hits me at home what that bicycle was,” he said.

By daybreak, Fredericktown was crawling with city, county, state and federal officials. Posters went up. Yellow ribbons hung from trees. There were marches and vigils.

Gina Dawn Brooks would become the poster child for cold cases in the St. Louis area. Years went by without a solid lead.

And then a letter from Connecticut, having nothing to do with Gina, changed the game.

Laura Michelle Dinwiddie had been murdered in St. Louis in 1975. That case also went cold. Nearly 20 years later, St. Louis homicide commander David Heath found a letter waiting for him from Dinwiddie’s mother in Connecticut, asking him to never forget the case.

Heath turned the case over to homicide detective Chris Pappas. As Pappas dug backwards into the Dinwiddie case, he discovered the original informer in that case was a then-14-year-old teenager named Nathan ‘Danny’ Williams, who fingered a friend for Dinwiddie’s murder. As Pappas looked into Williams’ background, he discovered that Williams had served a sentence not just for rape of a 13-year-old girl in 1979, but was now in prison for the rape and sodomy of a 10-year-old girl in 1989. That landed him a life sentence as a repeat offender.

Before long, Pappas had enough evidence to tie him to the murder in the Dinwiddie case.

Rob Girardier was Williams’ cellmate in the St. Louis City Jail. Girardier was in for drug charges. He had no idea what Williams was in for, but was about to find out when Williams had a court appearance.

“I seen the cameras looking out from the windows in the courthouse and he’s looking down at me and kind of waving with his hands down his back,” Girardier recalled. “And then I found out what his charge was and it kind of blew my mind.”

And then came Gina Dawn Brooks.

Despain, Pappas, and FBI Agent Bill Francis began the chase. And soon enough, the name Nathan ‘Danny’ Williams popped up again. They discovered Williams’ brother had a close friend who lived very near Gina’s home, and Williams frequented the area several times. A police source said during the investigation, Williams eventually agreed to take a lie detector test about Gina.

He failed it.

And that 1989 rape and sodomy case he was later convicted of? It happened one month after Gina’s abduction.

The noose began to tighten around Nathan Williams.

So what happened to Gina, and what is the evidence connecting her to Williams? To understand that, you have to invoke the names of Bryant Squires and Timothy Bellew, friends of Williams. All three would be implicated in her kidnapping.

As the years went by, the case went cold as investigators tried to tie Williams to the crime. The FBI arrived, using subterranean probing tools. A psychic said Gina would be found at the bottom of a quarry, so they drained it. A meat freezer was dug up on a suspect’s farm. The search spanned from the Canadian Mounties to the Cayman Islands.

Nothing.

The FBI then turned to an unusual tactic. They made a video tape, detailing the case, asking for help. But they weren’t asking just anybody. They distributed the tape to prisoners in the Missouri Department of Corrections, seeking information on anyone who might have been involved with Williams.

“Inmates do have a code of conduct when it comes to children,” Despain said. “The FBI was contacted and the same two names came up.”

Squires and Bellew.

“Squires was Williams’ best friend,” said Pappas. “Squires was the person that tied Williams to Gina.”

Bryant Squires would die of cancer in 1996. But before he did, he reportedly made deathbed confessions to two nurses implicating Williams and himself in Gina’s abduction and murder. Squires allegedly told the nurses he was the driver of the station wagon that abducted Gina. According to them, he said Williams held Gina in the back seat and killed her. Squires also said the pair was involved in other cases, but his confession of involvement in some of those have proven to be untrue.

Detectives believe Timothy Bellew was the third person in the station wagon that night. Bellew would be charged with second-degree murder in Gina’s case after telling investigators he saw Williams kill Gina.

But after his stories kept changing and falling apart, charges were dropped. Bellew was then charged with lying to FBI agents multiple times about the location of Gina’s remains. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 months in prison. Bellew would later be convicted in 1990 for sexually assaulting a 7-year-old girl, and sentenced to five years in prison. Today, he still lives in the Fredericktown area, but police officials refer to him as “unstable and not reliable.”

Finally, in 1998, nine years after Gina went missing, Nathan ‘Danny’ Williams was charged with her murder. Despain, Francis and Pappas had worked relentlessly on the case. It was Pappas who walked into Williams prison cell and personally served him with the murder warrant.

“He wasn’t surprised,” Pappas said. “He knew I was coming for him again. He couldn’t believe all the goods we had on him. He was like, ‘How did you get all this?’”

But the wheels of justice move slowly. Williams pleaded not guilty. Then in 2003, the murder charge was was dropped for fear of the possibility double jeopardy.

Madison County prosecuting attorney Dwight Robbins said at the time, “I am of the firm opinion that the State should not proceed to trial and risk the possibility of acquittal thereby losing any chance of retrying the case, should further evidence become available. The offense alleged is so egregious, and the consequences of conviction so great, that the prosecution should proceed only when the evidence is sufficient to ensure the likelihood of conviction.”

In other words, with Williams already locked away for life on the rape charge, time was on the state’s side to keep building a case.

“There is no statue of limitations on kidnapping or murder,” Despain said. “So it’s better to let it ride until maybe something does come forward.”

Something like a confession from Williams. But Williams knows a first-degree murder charge could mean the death penalty. Any hopes for Williams to confess may depend on a deal with prosecutors.

After years of interviews with acquaintances of Williams, detectives believe he could be connected to up to a dozen murders across the county. Today, he sits in a Jefferson City prison, where he won’t be eligible for parole until 2039.

Now 30-plus years after Gina’s disappearance, Despain, Pappas and Francis have all retired from their homicide investigation days.

Back in Fredericktown, Eric Hovis is now the police chief. Like Despain, Hovis was born and raised in Fredericktown. And like Despain, Hovis is never giving up hope.

“This is still an active case. We will never close it. We still get leads. I am constantly talking to the the highway patrol and the FBI. Until we can get closure, it will remain an active case. Whenever a story about Gina comes out, we get tips. With advancement in technology, you never know what one tip might make the difference,” Hovis said.

For Hovis, Gina’s disappearance hits close to home. He and his wife lost a daughter at birth.

“I know what that did to us,” he said. “I cannot even begin to imagine what this family has had to endure.”

Hovis vows he, too will see this to the end.

“I owe that to the family,” he said.

For Despain, the case has engulfed his adult life.

“Every day, something comes into my head. My wife can tell you that for the first several years after it happened, I’d wake up in the middle of the night and start writing down thoughts that were going through my head,” he said. “I couldn’t begin to count the number of hours I’ve spent, the people I’ve talked to, the miles I’ve driven.”

Despain says all roads lead to Williams.

“Danny Williams, I keep hoping and keep praying that a conscious comes forward on him and he admits to everything he’s involved in. It’s time to come out and say, ‘This is what I’m guilty of,’” he said.

We reached out to the FBI. They say new tips keep coming in.

“The FBI continues to track down tips using whatever resources necessary. Thank you to those who contacted us, even as recent as several months ago. If you have information, please use tips.fbi.gov to let us know.”

We reached out to Williams. He declined our request to be interviewed.

Williams’ lawyer, Joel Schwartz said, “I haven’t heard from Mr. Williams in over 20 years. All I can tell you is that he denies having anything to do with this.”

What do you say to a mother who has not only lost her child, but has had to endure this pain for 30 years? You say you are sorry, that your heart breaks, and that you pray someday, somehow, she finds peace. And then you are amazed how strong she is.

“I still have hope that someone might come forward with information,” said Cindy Box. “But as each year goes by, it just seems like it gets harder.”