For seven seasons, the Discovery Channel has captivated audiences with Alaskan Bush People, the reality show starring the Brown family and their quest to live off the grid in a supposedly desolate part of Alaska. Billy and Ami Brown claim to have brought up their seven children by living off the land for several decades, though since the show has gained popularity, so has the scrutiny of the family’s so-called "bush living."
As of this writing, the latest season ended with Ami battling grave health issues, and the family moving to Colorado, so that they can still indulge their rural fantasy while staying closer to a hospital. While the Brown’s future certainly seems up in the air, much has been revealed of their past, especially when it comes to the patriarch and matriarch of this wild crew. This is the untold truth of Billy and Ami Brown.
Billy grew up wealthy
According to Capital City Weekly, Billy Bryan Brown had a nice life in North Richland Hills, Texas. He was given lavish gifts including "a new ski boat" at 14, "a new Camaro" at 15, and "the family Cessna 172" (a small airplane) at 16. But his whole life changed in 1969, when at the age of 16, he also lost his entire family — his mother, father, and only sister — in a plane crash.
According to Billy’s two memoirs, One Wave at a Time and The Lost Years — yes, he’s an author as well as a bushman — he became a ward of the state, and was somehow duped out of any inheritance by scheming judges and lawyers. It’s all pretty murky, as is much with the backstory of The Browns.
At any rate, this is where Billy’s wanderlust kicked in. Broke and homeless, he "criss-crossed America over the next 10 plus years," according to Capital City Weekly, at some point meeting Ami, and at another point, ending up with her and their two young sons in Alaska, and having to be rescued after getting "stranded for 18 months on Mosman Island." Somehow, this experience led Billy and Ami to realize that the Alaskan wilderness is where they were meant to be, and the rest is reality TV history.
Ami has a strained relationship with her family
Ami’s family estrangement has manifested itself a few times on the show, but also in a bizarre incident in which her mother, Earlene Branson, attempted to travel to Alaska to surprise Ami. According to Juneau Empire, after 37 years of estrangement, Earlene "made the 3,500 mile trip without confirmation from the Browns" only to find that they were vacationing in Malibu at the time. In what is probably the saddest sentence ever spoken, the 83-year-old Branson said of her daughter, "I want to hug her neck and see my grandchildren. I just want to see her before I die."
The whole thing was oddly planned and publicized by Earlene’s great-nephew, Chuck Gilbert, who even posted videos of the journey to a YouTube page called Memaw’s Trip To Alaska. For some reason, the page still exists, although all of the content has been deleted.
So what was Ami’s response to all of this? She accused her relatives of exploitation, and said that her father’s alcoholism "tore our family apart." She added, "Watching these things as a child, you learn from it. That is the reason why I don’t let them know where, physically, I am." For their part, Ami’s alienated kinfolk have accused Billy of being extremely controlling, and effectively brainwashing Ami against them. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Branson v. Brown.
Ami’s mom and brother have thrown lots of shade
Amora Lee Branson grew up outside of Ft. Worth, Texas. She was the youngest of three siblings, according to her mother and brother, Earlene and Les Branson, who spoke to Radar Online in an apparent attempt to refute some allegations made in Billy’s autobiographies. Les claims Ami "had a good childhood," and Earlene says she was "spoiled rotten," which is a stark contrast to Billy’s apparent claim that Ami "grew up dirt poor." Les and Earlene also contradicted Ami’s claims of growing up in a home "filled with violence," although they acknowledged that her parents’ divorce "brought her some pain."
Additionally, Les and Earlene claimed that Billy lied about his age when he convinced the Bransons to let him marry Ami when she was just 15-years-old. Billy was allegedly 26 at the time and had done plumbing work for Earlene when he met and fell in love with Ami. "[Billy] gave the impression that he was very wealthy and came from a wealthy family. He seduced us with the trappings of wealth," Les told Radar, adding, "We thought that he would provide for Ami, that he would keep her in school, and never keep her from seeing us. And we never saw her again!" Yeesh, and here we thought escaping to a frigid Alaskan forest would be a surefire way to escape family drama.
Billy’s secret kid wasn’t a secret at all
One of the big plot points in season 5 was Billy being reunited with a supposed "long lost daughter" from a previous marriage. He cryptically hinted at the failed marriage in The Lost Years, writing, "For those years of my life there’s not much I want to say," before describing his ex-wife as "mature for her years," and having told him that "She never loved me…and in less than a year she found she didn’t even like me." Presumably, it was from this marriage that Billy had two daughters, of whom he has been estranged for decades.
The show took full advantage of this storyline and even flew Twila Byars, one of Billy’s daughters, up to Browntown — the family’s ramshackle woodland homestead — for what was portrayed as a reunion of sorts. Except according to Channel Guide Magazine, it was quickly revealed that not only had the family known about Twila for quite some time, there’s also evidence on social media that Twila and Billy have been in contact over the years. Wait, does this mean we’re trying to say something on reality TV was fake?! We know, not exactly a shock. But shady secret daughters isn’t where the fraudulent activity ends for the Browns.
Billy and Joshua got busted defrauding the state of Alaska
In January 2016, Billy and second oldest son, Joshua, plead guilty to falsifying information on their applications for the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend or PFD, according to Juneau Empire. The PFD is "an annual dividend that is paid to Alaska residents from investment earnings of mineral royalties." To qualify, you have to have lived in Alaska for one entire year, as well as "intend to remain an Alaska resident indefinitely" at the time of your application, though you are allowed to live out of state for "varying reasons" and for up to 180 days.
Though they claim to have lived in the Alaskan wilderness for decades, it was revealed that Billy and Joshua "previously signed written statements admitting they left the state in October 2009 and didn’t return until August 2012," but continued to collect PFD funds through that time. In fact, a grand jury investigation led to charges for six out of the nine Brown family members related to the case, but those additional charges were dropped in exchange for Billy and Joshua’s plea deal.
In total, the family swindled the state out of $20,938 in PFD money. As part of the plea deal, Billy and Joshua were sentenced to 30 days in jail followed by community service; ordered to pay back the money as well as additional fines; and rendered ineligible for further PFD funds. Both men wound up serving their time via house arrest, rather than in the actual slammer, but the whole incident served to highlight two things. 1.) The Browns have almost certainly never lived entirely off the land. 2.) For at least three years, they couldn’t even stand to live in the state they claim to love so dearly for even half the year.
Billy has told conflicting tales about their original Alaska cabin burning down
As it stands, Billy has now given three different accounts of how the family lost their original, handbuilt bush cabin. According to the show synopsis on The Discovery Channel’s website, "the cabin where they lived for years was seized and burned to the ground for being in the wrong location on public land," which is an accusation that heavily implies that a government agency destroyed the family’s home.
But according to Radar Online, Billy wrote in One Wave at a Time that the fire was accidental. And in yet another variation of the story, according to Channel Guide Magazine, when talking about the fire during a segment on the show, Billy walked the whole thing back to: "My cabin burned and I wasn’t home. That’s all I can say." So, does he actually fear retribution from the alleged arsonist government agents, or was the whole thing a bit of extra drama cooked up to amplify the perceived drama of their situation?
Ami’s is battling lung cancer
As of this writing, The Brown family is in the midst of Ami’s ongoing fight with lung cancer. As chronicled on the show, her treatment has brought them out of the bush and into Southern California, then Colorado, so that she can receive the best care possible.
In an exclusive August 2017 interview with People, Billy revealed that Ami’s prognosis is not good. "It’s cancer. And there’s no primary but we’re gonna call it lung cancer," Billy says the doctors told them, adding, "At least 3B. It’s in both lungs, in the middle and sides of the lungs." He also said that Ami was given "as low as a 3 percent" chance of living in a separate interview during which Ami also expressed her thoughts.
She revealed that her dental issues, which were also captured on the show, led to the discovery of "a little capsule," which eventually led to the cancer diagnosis. She also said that the reason she wanted to keep doing the show as well as make her treatment public was to help people who may be going through a similar battle, and to "take away a lot of their fear" about what treatment entails. "I realized early into this that it’s very easy to want to give up and just die. And on the pessimist side, it could be my last days. But I have the will to fight," Ami told People.
Billy’s had health problems as well
Before Ami’s fight for her life became a plot point, the show also documented Billy’s struggle with some kind of vague seizure disorder, which in an echo of Ami’s current situation, also forced the family into the "lower 48" while he recovered.
Speaking exclusively with Radar Online, and in typically vague Billy fashion, the Brown family patriarch said, "The seizures have been going on since my coma, and what happened is they started progressing and lasting a lot longer, getting harder." Supposedly, doctors could never track the cause of the eight day coma, which also left him with a host of other issues. "Everything shut down: my kidneys, my lungs. My brain swelled to like 75 percent. They literally thought that I would be child-like if I did wake up. It was really bad thing that we’ve been fighting for almost 10 years now," Billy said.
Outside of another unspecified "kidney problem," which Billy describes as "one of those things that you might not want to go to doctors because they find out stuff," he seems to be doing fine now if the show is any indication.
Thought the backstory of these nature-loving folks is a bit dubious, it’s undeniable that they both love their children dearly, and are now dealing with a terrible situation that we wouldn’t wish on anyone. Hopefully Ami pulls through, and this lovable, if slightly questionable wilderness family can go on to many more adventures.