By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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By Kyle Swenson
Even after the accident had torn their lives apart, Chuck and Sharon Brody still saw themselves as an average couple, nice people living what should have been an unremarkable existence. Chuck and Sharon had met at the basketball court in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn, where neighborhood kids played afterschool pickup games. Sharon was just 14. They'd become teenaged sweethearts, married five years later. In 1982, a former employer persuaded Chuck to take a managerial job with the Check Cashing Store in Miami — wooing him with promises of a company car, a $1,000 bonus, and moving expenses. The Brodys packed up and drove south with three young kids — Howard was 8, Michelle 6, and little Eric 3.
Life was good. Sharon took a job with the registrar's office at Broward Community College. They raised their family in a pleasant, concrete-block house in the Windward Isle community of Sunrise. The middle-class neighborhood just off Oakland Park Boulevard felt so safe that the kids played ball in the streets, swam in neighbors' pools, went inline skating. Once in a while, they'd take a trip to Disney World or drive north to Pennsylvania to visit friends. They celebrated birthdays and bar mitzvahs. They persuaded Sharon's parents to move south and buy a condo nearby, and the extended family grew closer.
By the time they'd lived a decade and half in Sunrise, Chuck and Sharon had launched their two eldest children into solid careers — Michelle was a licensed clinical social worker and Howard a salesman. The Brodys' third child, 18-year-old Eric, was due to graduate from Piper High School with a B average in three months. Eric had acceptance letters from Florida State and the University of Central Florida; he planned to major in business with a minor in radio broadcasting. Their youngest boy was serious and focused, with enormous hazel eyes rimmed with thick lashes and a mop of tightly curled dark hair. At just 120 pounds and five-foot-ten, he had a delicate, attenuated build. An introvert with a shy smile, Eric blossomed when he got behind a microphone. He DJ'ed for the high school radio station, broadcasting news, music, and sports. His one rebellion was the heavy-metal music he played at high volume until his dad yelled at him to cut it out.
Although the Brodys seemed like opposites — Chuck the voluble extrovert, fast talking, excitable, Sharon reserved and subdued — they were both cautious and pragmatic parents: None of the kids was allowed to own or drive a car until turning 18. Chuck had only recently handed down his 16-year-old royal-blue AMC Concord to Eric so he'd be able to get to and from his job selling sneakers and inline skates at Sawgrass Mills. The car was in pristine condition: leather interior the color of butterscotch, a red pinstripe running along the sides. Eric liked to tinker with the car's engine in his spare time.
On Tuesday night, March 3, 1998, the phone rang around 11 p.m. The Brodys had cooked dinner and settled down to watch TV in the Florida room with their son Howard, expecting Eric home from work any minute. It was Jennifer Jones, a family friend. Jennifer told Howard she'd had a call from a friend who worked as a radiation technician at Broward General Hospital. Somebody named Brody had just arrived by helicopter at the hospital with traumatic injuries. Where was Eric?
"We told Jennifer, as far as we knew, Eric was on his way home from work," Chuck remembers. But the Brodys were shaken. They pulled themselves together and jumped in the car to head to Broward General.
As they wound through the neighborhood approaching Oakland Park Boulevard, a Sunrise police officer stopped them. The intersection at 117th Lane was blocked off.
"They told us we couldn't go through," Chuck recalls. "I said, 'I know what this is. I'm family. I think my son was involved in this accident.' I showed them my I.D. But they didn't want to hear anything. They made us turn around. We had to drive back through the neighborhood to get out the other entrance."
That brief encounter at their car window that March night was one of few conversations the Brodys would have with any police officer for a long time, a realization that still pains Chuck and Sharon. "The Broward Sheriff's Office never even contacted us," Chuck says. "I finally had to go down to the Sunrise police station and ask for the accident report myself. But they had no record of it. BSO had taken all the files."
The first thing you notice about Eric Brody when you meet him today, 11 years after the night he was flown by helicopter to Broward General, is how beautiful he is. His hazel eyes are still enormous and intense. At 29, the shy, introverted boy is now gregarious. He wears a wicked, slightly ironic smile, as if he's forever on the verge of telling a slightly ribald joke.
The problem is, were he to tell that joke, you'd have trouble understanding a word of it, and even if you did, the joke might not make much sense. Were he to stand up, his long limbs, slender and graceful in repose, would wobble and collapse. The accident that Sharon and Chuck glimpsed that night before they were forced to turn their car around left Eric with a permanent, catastrophic brain injury. He behaves now like the victim of a massive stroke. His speech is badly slurred. His movements are spastic; his left hand is curled inward, practically useless. Eric's left side is partially paralyzed, and he's unable to walk without, as his father puts it, "bouncing off the walls." He's mostly confined to a wheelchair. The Brodys have cleared their immaculate house of any object or piece of furniture that might cause him to stumble. Although his personality is sweet and gentle and he seems alert, Eric's cognitive functions have been so weakened that his thoughts often follow no logical pattern. He remembers almost nothing of the accident.