DETROIT — A year ago Antoinette Brown watched as President Donald Trump claimed to aid in the release of a trio of UCLA Basketball players, including LiAngelo Ball, that had been arrested for shoplifting in China.
She hoped and prayed that Trump, or anyone really, would do the same for her son, Wendell, a former Ball State football player who was detained in China following an alleged September 2016 bar fight as he attended a friend’s birthday party. Wendell, now 31, was in the city of Chongqing coaching American football, running a fitness company and teaching English as a second language.
She never heard from Trump. She did hear from a lot of other people, though, and while Wendell Brown did not make it home last Thanksgiving and won’t be home for this Thanksgiving, there is, after all this time, at least a light at the end of the tunnel.
Wendell Brown is now scheduled to be released in September of 2019.
“At least we know there will be an end,” Antoinette said Saturday as she fixed a client’s hair at the Kings and Queens barbershop and salon she runs with her husband on Detroit’s east side. “Ten months.”
While not the ultimate goal of the family, which include Wendell’s now 11-year old son, it represents a positive development in an otherwise nightmare series of events. It is a release date that is a year earlier than expected. Brown’s Chinese-based lawyer is still appealing for an earlier release and deportation based on good behavior.
It took until July 2017 for Wendell to stand trial on what almost everywhere else in the world was, at most, a simple bar fight. Wendell, a powerhouse, 6-foot, 225-pounder, maintains he was attacked that night when locals threw bottles at him and was merely defending himself. He notes that if he really wanted to injure anyone, he could have.
It took until July of 2018 for the judge to finally issue a ruling, finding him guilty and handing down a four-year prison sentence. The news crushed the Browns and their supporters.
However, in the interim a small army of people did come to the aid of Wendell, who came up in a dangerous and impoverished east side neighborhood, was a standout high school player at King High School and then a star linebacker at Ball State from 2004-08.
The Dui Hua Foundation, a non-profit that works with the Chinese government on these kind of cases, lobbied for him and declared, to the Associated Press, that “four years for a fight in a bar is extremely unjust and excessive.” Additional legal support came in.
A GoFundMe account raised over $25,000 to help the family issue a Chinese-demanded $50,000 payout for the “victim.” A group of Ball State alums provided the rest.
Fifty thousand American dollars equals 347,100 Chinese Yuan. The average Chinese worker makes about 74,000 Yuan per year, according to various studies. Receiving over four times that represented a significant payoff.
Yet it was enough for Wendell to be given a more favorable release date.
“I just want to thank everyone who helped us,” Antoinette said. “It wasn’t possible otherwise.”
She looked more relaxed than she had since this incident began and threw her world into chaos. She had been proud of her son’s ambition and enjoyed hearing about his adventures trying to navigate life in China.
“No matter how old they are, they are still your children,” she said.
Wendell had even been moved from a jail to a prison, which offers more comfort and an ability for him to communicate a little with everyone back in the United States. After not hearing or seeing her son for over two years, and worrying nightly about his condition in Chinese detainment, Wendell was allowed a 15-minute video chat back to the States. He linked up with not just his mother and son, but extended family. There are expected to be more calls in the future.
Antoinette said he appeared in good physical condition and had even grown a beard. He joked and expressed the kind of positivity and humor he always did.
“He looked and sounded great,” Antoinette said. “He kept making us laugh. I cried at first seeing him, but then he had me laughing so much. That night I slept well for the first time in years. I didn’t wake up until 10 a.m. I couldn’t believe it.”
There are still 10 months to go and dealing with the Chinese legal system remains frustrating, arbitrary and mysterious. Until he is on a plane home, nothing is certain.
However, this Thanksgiving will be better than last Thanksgiving, when the Brown family dealt with darkness, uncertainty and fear. They had to watch three famous UCLA basketball players receive help, but not their relatively anonymous former football player.
Now, at the very least, there is an end in sight. And next Thanksgiving promises to be the best of all.
“The Lord has given us something to be thankful for,” Antoinette said.
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