The coal mining industry brought Jeannie’s Scottish maternal grandparents to Walker County. Jeannie’s paternal grandfather, George H. Davis Sr., “Papa Davis,” came to Brookside, Ala., not too many miles up the road, from Ohio when he was a very young child. He founded Pioneer Bottling Works in Brookside and delivered his popular soft drink product, Coca-Lula, with a horse drawn wagon. Papa Davis sold that business and came to Jasper after he was asked to develop the Coca-Cola franchise here. Devoted to this community and a staunch believer in the importance of education, Papa Davis gave property for the building of Walker College where the first building, Davis Hall, was named for him.
With the foundation of these far reaching roots in the Walker County area, Jeannie grew up on 9th Avenue and attended Memorial Park Elementary School, Central Junior High School and Walker County High School. She left Jasper at 17 for college in Mississippi and lived about four decades of her adult life in six other states and Washington, D. C., before coming home after retiring in 2007.
As a young wife and mother, Jeannie was a homemaker until the mid-1970s when her first marriage ended. She started her working life as an insurance adjuster in Jackson, Miss.
After a stint in Birmingham, she was transferred to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where she became the first female resident adjuster in the insurance company industry in 1979. In this business she handled wrongful death claims, often negotiating million dollar settlements. While Jeannie found this work demanding and rewarding, it required a “killer schedule.”
Hopeful that her successful negotiation skills acquired in the insurance industry would develop into equally successful interrogation skills, Jeannie went to polygraph school. After completing that program, she worked in the private sector for several years, specializing in criminal investigations. During that time Jeannie was employed as Manager of Investigations for a privately owned security company in North Carolina which did a lot of work for the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. In that position she also investigated for the United States Government Office of Personnel Management.
From North Carolina Jeannie’s career took her to Colorado where she became a civilian employee polygrapher for the Colorado Springs Police Department where she primarily worked on homicides. One of her nationally known cases there was the Heather Church murder. This 13-year-old disappeared from her home in Black Forest, Colo., while her mother took two of her brothers to scouting and church activities. Two years later Heather’s body was found by a drifter who lived nearby in an abandoned car. He was the natural suspect in the murder but Jeannie’s interview and polygraph test cleared him.
Several years later this crime was solved by Lou Smit, a well-known, longtime Colorado Springs detective who was always proud to point out that his more than 200 homicide investigations over his 30-year career had all resulted in convictions. Jeannie partnered with him on many cases before he retired. She described him as the ultimate professional who never tried to influence her results with any of his own preconceived ideas about the outcome. “Lou was great to work with.” Smit later came out of retirement at the request of the district attorney and worked on the JonBenet Ramsey case. He resigned after 18 months because he felt the authorities continued to unfairly focus on her parents as suspects in spite of significant evidence to the contrary.
In 1992 Jeannie was selected by the FBI Academy to attend advanced polygraph training in Quantico, Va. She was the only female in the group of 20 selected from across the country. One of the reasons she was chosen was to enable her to share her experience in the difficult task of giving polygraph tests to law enforcement officers with other examiners since the state of Colorado allowed these examinations when other states did not.
Jeannie later headed to Sacramento, Calif., to take a job on a temporary basis with the Office of the Attorney General, State of California, Department of Justice. She traveled all over the state to perform polygraphs needed by local authorities. She and her partner were called in when the Los Angeles Police Department wanted them to give O.J. Simpson a polygraph test. Her partner would administer the test and Jeannie would sit in and observe. However, Simpson refused the polygraph on that occasion as he was concerned that his dream on the night of the murders that he committed them might negatively impact his polygraph results.
From California Jeannie went to work for the Maui County Police Department in Hawaii until the position in California opened back up into a permanent job. She worked in California another 10 years until her retirement. These last 10 years in her career brought an array of nationally known cases.
She was part of the investigation of the murders of three tourists, a mother, her daughter, and a foreign exchange student, who were staying at one of the lodges in Yosemite National Park in the winter of 1999.
Jeannie did one crucial polygraph in this case on a man who had some personal belongings of the victims in his possession. Her interview and testing cleared him and a maintenance man at the park lodge was ultimately convicted of the murders.
Jeannie also administered all the polygraphs except one in the Scott Peterson case. After a five month trial he was convicted of murdering his pregnant wife Laci in December 2002. He refused to take a polygraph, but Jeannie did polygraph Amber Frey, Peterson’s girlfriend, who helped the authorities in their investigation.
In explaining what she actually did as a polygrapher in criminal cases, Jeannie noted that she conducted an extensive interview, sometimes for several hours, before beginning the actual polygraph test. Her interviews were made on a “soft level” aiming toward creating a close feeling with the person interviewed in about 15 to 20 minutes. She admitted her Southern accent was a plus in her interviews as it put people at ease. Her work was not over when the polygraph ended. Jeannie explained, “After you do a polygraph, if they are deceptive, you interrogate in hopes of a confession because that helps to solve the case… That was my strong point.” She smiled before adding, “A lot of people say I still tend to interrogate.”
When Jeannie was interviewing an individual, no one else was allowed in the room as responses, verbal and nonverbal, might be skewed by the presence of another person. Her average working time was three to six hours. But her longest session took about eight hours when she interviewed an award-winning police officer and ultimately got a confession. She did not polygraph individuals younger than 14 or those with seizure disorders as the highly stressful nature of this process could trigger a seizure.
Jeannie Davis Brandon spent 25 years in a male-dominated profession with a very high confession rate in her homicides. She worked with well-known law enforcement figures on several high profile cases. Considering herself a straightforward, honest person, she had a matching career which expected those qualities from others.
Lured by her deep family roots and the slower pace of life, Jeannie returned to Jasper several years ago with her spouse Stan Brandon, who was born and raised in Hayward, Calif., and worked about 35 years primarily as a detective on homicides and robberies. Stan smiles along with her when Jeannie explains she told him, “Don’t marry me if you don’t want to live in Jasper, Ala., when we retire.”
Despite the passage of almost four decades, Jeannie is proving that you can go home again as she and Stan continue to settle into their gentle, Southern lifestyle, become active in the community, make new friends, and re-establish connections with her old ones. With Jeannie’s strong sense of family and a life well-spent in a challenging career, home beckoned and welcomed them both with open arms.
Margaret Dabbs is a freelance columnist who resides in Jasper. Her column appears every other Wednesday in the Lifestyles section. Comments and suggestions are welcomed by contacting Dabbs at 387-2890.