Murders A-Z is a collection of true crime stories that take an in-depth look at both little-known and famous murders throughout history.
Like many others before and since, Mina Pajela came to the United States with nothing and through determination and hard work made something of herself. Born in the Philippines, she moved here in the 1970s and eventually became a successful businesswoman and a beloved member of her community in Provo, Utah. Her friends loved her, as did the people who worked for her at the Mira Vista retirement home she ran. One of them was a single mother named Kerri Fae Brown, who said of Mina, “She was very charitable, very sweet woman, I loved her dearly,” when interviewed by Oxygen’s “Snapped.”
Kerri Fae Brown was born in 1962, the youngest of seven children in the small town of Show Low, Arizona. “I had a great life,” she told “Snapped.” Adulthood, however, was not without its challenges. By age 33, she had been divorced twice and had three children, and providing financially for her family was not always easy. In 1995, Kerri started working as a 911 dispatcher, where she met Matt Misino, a police officer on the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation reservation. The couple dated on and off for several years and even had a son together, but never settled down permanently. In 2000, seeking a fresh start, Kerri moved to Orem, Utah, to stay with her sister Konny.
In Utah, Brown began looking for work and soon landed a job as an activities director at a Mira Vista Care Center, owned by 54-year-old businesswoman Mina Pajela. Since arriving from the Philippines, Mina had made all the right moves and become a successful businesswoman, amassing a small fortune. An active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where did volunteer work, she was described as a "fun, happy-go-lucky person" by friend Kay Wallis in The Desert News.
Kerri says she and her new boss “got close, really very quickly.” They worked well together and Mina trusted her with increasing responsibility at work. After 18 months there, Kerri was promoted to administrator at the retirement home. Police Chief Cody Cullimore told “Snapped”: “She was responsible for both accounts receivable and accounts payable with no double checks. So there was no one to monitor what Kerri was doing. She was given total access to the business.”
In the meantime, Kerri rekindled her sporadic relationship with Matt Misino, who would visit her on weekends. She eventually became pregnant with a second child by him. When she experienced complications with her pregnancy, Mina was happy to play nursemaid. “After I got pregnant, I was very ill and so she would make me try to eat these weird Filipino foods 'cause it was the thing that would cure me or make me feel better,” Kerri told “Snapped.”
On April 21, 2001, Kerri gave birth to a baby daughter. Matt Misino came up from Arizona for the birth, which was a caesarean delivery, or C-section. Unexpectedly, two days later she returned to the office. “Two days after having the C-section she comes into work, which she described that as she was being thorough and wanted to make sure things were taken care of,” Chief Cullimore told “Snapped.” Kerri stated she was just making sure the payroll went out in her absence. “I was the only administrative staff there,” Brown told “Snapped.” “I was doing everything and so without me payroll probably wouldn’t have got done.”
Just days later, on April 25, 2001, police responded to a 911 call of a woman trying to set fire to a car in the parking lot of an Eagles Lodge in Pleasant Grove, Utah. Witnesses on the scene said they chased the woman, but turned back to put out the fire. Chief Cullimore told “Snapped,” “Witnesses described her, I believe, as around 30-something years old, shoulder length brown, straight hair. She was clutching her stomach. She was kind of hunched over and not running very fast.”
When police arrived on the scene they found a Honda Accord with a burnt towel sticking out of its gas tank. When they looked in the car, they realized they were dealing with more than just a case of vehicular arson. Inside was the body of a woman covered in a blanket, dead from a gunshot wound to the head. It was Mina Pajela.
As police began their investigation, Mina’s bank told them they had noticed a series of bounced checks tied to her business in recent weeks. Once they started looking at the books of the Mira Vista Care Center, they discovered it had been defrauded of over $34,000 and that many of its financial records were missing from the office. Only two people were authorized to sign checks on behalf of the nursing home; Mina Pajela and Kerri Fae Brown.
When police interviewed Brown on April 27, she insisted she was innocent. She claimed on the day of the murder, she was at Utah Lake with her family, having a day at the park. Later, when witnesses saw a woman who matched her appearance fleeing from the car which contained Pajela’s dead body, she claimed she was shopping at Target. “She was deceptive,” says Chief Cullimore. “She would avoid answering questions. She would never volunteer any information.”
Days later, detectives executed a search warrant on Kerri’s home and found the missing financial records from the Mira Vista Care Center. They also found a photo from Utah Lake from the day of the murder and confiscated the clothes Kerri was wearing in it for possible testing.
In early May, Utah police traveled to Arizona to interview Matt Misino. He admitted being in Utah on the day of the murder, and at first denied any knowledge of the murder, before changing his tune. “He accused Kerri Brown of killing Mina,” Chief Cullimore told “Snapped.” “He made a statement that he thought she should be arrested for it.”
Misino told investigators his service weapon was missing the day of the shooting. When he asked Kerri about it, she said she wanted to secure it, and moved it. Detectives sent the gun off for ballistics testing. When the results came back they showed traces of Mina Pajela’s blood inside the actual barrel. In April of 2002, police arrested Kerri Brown for the murder of Mina Pajela and the embezzlement of funds from her business. “I was a little shocked to say the least. I was devastated,” Kerri told “Snapped.”
A preliminary hearing was scheduled for October 22 but before it began new prosecutor Sherry Ragan dismissed the charges, feeling there wasn’t enough evidence to secure a conviction. The investigation, however, didn’t end. Detectives looked into Brown’s alibi for the night of the shooting. Her cell phone records revealed she had been near the Eagle Lodge when she said she had been shopping at Target. They also tested the clothing she was wearing on the day of the shooting, which revealed gunshot residue.
In April 2004, Kerri Brown was re-charged with two felony counts of theft and first-degree murder. Her preliminary trial began that August, and if a judge determined there was enough evidence to prosecute, Kerri would face the possibility of life in prison. According to the Arizona Daily Sun, friends of Mina Pajela told investigators she had discovered Brown was stealing from her right before her death. There was also testimony from witnesses at the Eagle Lodge parking lot, who said Brown resembled the woman fleeing from the burning car. The judge felt there was enough there to bring a prosecution, but the state still worried it lacked sufficient evidence -- and a plea deal was offered.
On August 1, 2005, Kerri Brown pleaded no contest to second-degree manslaughter for the death of Mina Pajela, as well as a second-degree felony charge of theft by deception. By pleading no contest, she didn’t admit any guilt, but still accepted the legal consequences of a guilty plea. If she had hoped the plea would bring a merciful sentence, she would be disappointed. On October 13, according to the Deseret News, she received the maximum sentence of 15 years each for both counts, the two sentences were to be served consecutively. Brown told “Snapped,” “I was tired, honestly I was so tired of fighting it and it had been going on for so long. I did not want my family going through that anymore.”
She also told a judge: "It is assumed that I am admitting guilt [with the no-contest plea]. I assure you I am not. I have never admitted to any involvement."
Brown now admits she stole money from Mina Pajela, but insists she had nothing to do with her murder. According to Salt Lake City’s KSL, prosecutors believe that until she accepts responsibility for Pajela’s death, it is unlikely the Board of Pardons will consider offering her parole, which means she could serve her full 30-year sentence, if she lives that long. Now in her mid-50s, she is currently serving out her sentence at Utah State Prison.