Harrison County

Tammy Brown Gills was ‘busting butt’ to get her life together

Ruthie Casey said her niece, Tammy Brown Gills, 52, who was strangled at home earlier this month, was ‘her angel.’
Ruthie Casey said her niece, Tammy Brown Gills, 52, who was strangled at home earlier this month, was ‘her angel.’ jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

Tammy Brown Gills was her aunt Ruthie Casey’s angel.

“We were very close,” Casey said. “She walked over once or twice a week. We’d look at my yard and the flowers. She would help me with the flowers.”

The morning Casey got the word from a neighbor that her niece might have been killed, it was one of the hardest things to do — walk the five or six blocks to the four-unit apartment complex on 11th Street where Brown Gills lived, and see police and the crowd that had gathered there.

Brown Gills, 52, was strangled March 2 in her home. Twelve days later, Gulfport police arrested Willie Cenales, 34, and in her killing. Police said they didn’t initially report Brown Gills’ death to protect the investigation. They said they didn’t believe Cenales posed an additional threat to the neighborhood during that time.

“Tammy was a good person,” Casey said. “She attended church and Sunday school. Yes, Sunday school. She wanted to uplift you.”

Giving and friendly, she was very optimistic when it came to people, Casey said.

She could talk herself into and out of trouble, a high school teacher once told Casey.

“She could get a job by just talking” Casey said. “She had many jobs (in recent years). And when she didn’t keep a job, she would get another.

“When I asked her how she did it, she said, ‘They like me, Aunt Ruthie.’ All of us loved Tammy Brown.”

Her brother John Brown said people in the area knew her by her maiden name. She had been married briefly, not long enough for him to even meet her husband.

More recently, she had a boyfriend, not the man who was arrested in her death. Brown said no one in the neighborhood seemed to know much about Cenales.

Brown said his sister was active at the Little Rock Missionary Baptist Church.

“They created a position for her because she was nice and talkative. She was a greeter, like a hostess at a restaurant would do,” he said.

Good with hair

Brown Gills had an associate’s degree in business management and, as a hairdresser, took third place one year at Bronner Bros. International Beauty Show in Atlanta, her brother said.

It was the same year her mother, Rosilyn Eberhart, won first place in the hair competition.

They were serious competitors, he said. “If you saw them, it was like they were getting ready for a football game. They were really good at it.”

Brown Gills worked with her mother years ago at the popular Rosilyn’s Beauty Salon in Gulfport and ran her mother’s Slidell shop for years. Eberhart died in 2014.

Brown said his mother gave them everything growing up.

“We were the spoiled kids,” he said. “We were blessed. We couldn’t complain we didn’t have it, because we had it.” But his sister ran into bad luck and was regrouping.

“She had been busting butt getting her life together. Life had thrown her a bad curve. She was trying to achieve more in life.”

She had just gotten her daughter, Briya Brown, back into her life, and they were planning a visit.

“And this happened,” he said. He got the word something was wrong when a neighbor called him and said he needed to check on his sister.

Funeral Friday

Brown Gills’ family held her funeral at the Little Rock Missionary Baptist Church on Friday.

“It’s been really hard,” Casey said. “So grievous. It hurt.”

She said it was particularly hard because the death was kept quiet during the investigation.

“People would ask me, what’s going on?” she said. “We kept hearing things around the investigation — rumors of people being arrested and released — but really we knew nothing.”

Then came the arrest Tuesday.

Brown Gills’ pastor, the Rev. James Beal, said she was a lifetime member of the church, which is in the Gaston Point community. Her mother and whole family have been members, he said.

He said Brown Gills was outgoing, and they named her a greeter because of it.

“I believe in getting people off the pews and involved in the church,” he said.

He said she would come to him from time to time and say, “Pastor Beal, you got to pray for me, because I’ve been having a bad week.”

She couldn’t seem to get rid of bad people in her life, he said.

“I told her, ‘Sometimes the friends you’re telling me about bothering you, those are the ones you need to let go,’” he said. “It was hard for her.”

On Sunday, after her funeral, he addressed the church.

He said he told the congregation: “Tammy ain’t here anymore. Someone is going to have to fill the void and be a greeter.”

In honor of Tammy, he said, not one but two people stepped up.