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Oregon Woman Deemed 'The Puppeteer' Behind The Brutal Death Of Her Husband
Carolyn Exum was the popular girl in high school, whereas Allen Browning wasn't. When they started an affair together, she was able to convince him to get rid of her husband for her.
When Bill Exum was killed, it shocked those who knew him that someone wanted him dead. It turned out the murderer was someone very close to home.
On the evening of March 21, 1999, Gresham, Oregon police officers responded to a 911 call regarding 39-year-old William “Bill” Exum. Bill’s wife, Carolyn, had asked a neighbor to report the emergency: Bill had been attacked and killed in the family’s makeshift office in the garage during a home invasion.
Carolyn herself had suffered a head injury during the break-in. She was taken by ambulance to the hospital for stitches, while investigators combed through the office.
“It was a very violent scene,” investigators told “Mastermind of Murder,” airing Sundays at 7/6c on Oxygen. Blood spatter all over the office indicated that there’d been a vicious struggle.
Bill worked for Consolidated Freightways. He was a loving, hands-on father of four, and very active in his community and church. Who would want to kill him?
Investigators asked Carolyn who might have her husband in their crosshairs. She was stumped, she said, telling officials that Bill, who she met in high school, was “a very ordinary man, well-respected … and liked by everybody,” said Stacy Heyworth, District Attorney, Multnomah County.
Investigators observed blood on the pants Carolyn was wearing, which she said got there when she tried to help her husband. They collected the pants for DNA processing and further analysis.
While police awaited those results, the medical examiner determined that Bill died of blunt force trauma.
“He had 11 blunt strikes to his head,” said Heyworth. “His brains, his skull were essentially mush.”
The brutality indicated the murder was personal. The shape of the wound suggested that the weapon was not a knife, but a thin piece of metal.
Early in the investigation, detectives got a tip from a local florist who’d delivered a bouquet to Carolyn months earlier. The sender’s note suggested more than a friendship. Did Carolyn have a boyfriend? Could the motive for murder be jealousy?
Police learned that the sender was Allen Browning, who graduated high school with Carolyn. They appeared to have little in common in their school days.
“Carolyn was the bright, bubbly, popular cheerleader. Allen was shy, pimply, and didn’t appear to be involved in much of anything at school,” said Michelle Roberts, former reporter for The Oregonian.
Browning was divorced with a young son. He was living in his parents’ basement and worked at a print shop. The potential red flag? He drove a red truck. A neighbor had reported to police seeing a red and silver truck often parked near the Exum home.
After Bill’s funeral service, investigators questioned Carolyn about Browning. She said she hadn’t seen him for years but they had reconnected two years earlier. Because he was going through a rough time after the divorce, “she asked Bill to minister to him,” said Roberts. The flowers were a thank you for that, according to Carolyn.
By all accounts, Bill was helping Browning get his bearings. But investigators still had questions. Could he have killed Bill in order to have a chance at romance with Carolyn?
Browning’s ex-wife told investigators that Browning had an “obsession” with Carolyn that helped end their marriage. She said she'd found a disturbing note he’d written to Carolyn, which read, “I can live without my son, but I cannot live without you.”
Asked by detectives if she believed her ex-husband could have murdered Bill, she said yes.
The murder occurred when Browning’s ex-wife and son had been away on a trip. Upon her return, Browning never even mentioned Bill’s murder. That raised a red flag for both her and detectives.
Browning’s ex also told investigators that he kept a tool he called a fishwhacker in his truck. It was a pipe with an attached metal blade that could have made Bill’s fatal wounds.
Detectives covertly surveilled Browning. They installed a camera near a karate studio where Browning’s son and one of Carolyn’s children took classes. The camera caught the two getting into the van while the boys were doing karate.
“It was easy to determine that they were indeed having an affair,” said Heyworth.
With permission from the court, investigators bugged the apartment Carolyn and her children moved into after Bill's death. She could be heard having sex with Browning.
Detectives turned up the heat on Browning. They asked him if they could take pictures of his truck and seized the opportunity to see if the fishwhacker was in the vehicle. It wasn’t.
On May 9, police brought Browning and Carolyn in for questioning. They were placed in separate rooms.
“She very reluctantly admitted the affair, but then tried to really minimize her involvement with Allen,” said Claudio Grandjean, Police Captain, Gresham Police Department. She said they’d had sex just once — after Bill’s death.
Investigators figured that Browning would be the weak link. Detectives allowed him to hear Carolyn throw him under the bus. She said she knew he killed her husband but stayed silent out of fear for herself and her kids.
Browning was struck by the betrayal, so he told them about the months leading up the murder. Carolyn “slowly over time, took away Allen’s own agency, and on some levels, even his own identity,” said Roberts. She was in control.
Carolyn spoke of them having a fresh start but said they would need the payout from Bill’s life insurance policy, Browning told police. She also falsely told him that Bill has been abusive to her, according to “Mastermind of Murder.”
“It was obvious to everyone that the puppeteer in this case was Carolyn Exum and the puppet was Mr. Browning,” said Heyworth.
The plan was that Carolyn would lure Bill downstairs by promising him a sexual favor, and she would then tie his wrist to a chair and blindfold him. Browning struck Bill with the fishwhacker after that, and a violent fight ensued.
During the struggle, Bill’s blindfold came off. The last thing he saw was his wife helping his killer, according to “Mastermind of Murder.”
Browning told authorities he buried the fishwhacker behind his parents’ house, and they were eventually able to recover it.
Browning faced the death penalty, but in exchange for his testimony against Carolyn, it was taken off the table, according to court documents. A remorseful Browning was given a life sentence with a 25-year minimum.
With the help of Browning’s statements in court and blood evidence found on the pants she wore during the crime, Carolyn was convicted. She received a life sentence with a 25-year minimum.