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What happened Nov. 18 at 500 Pequot Avenue?

A year after Rachael Brown left southeastern Connecticut in 2003, she joined online shoe retailer Zappos.com and quickly became a confidant and close colleague of founder Tony Hsieh. Last month, Hsieh died after he was found locked in a storage area that caught fire at Brown's home in New London.

Hsieh died from smoke inhalation on Nov. 27 — nine days after the fire at 500 Pequot Ave., purchased by Brown for $1.3 million in August. Brown and Hsieh were reportedly dating.

Brown, 47, had lived on Foxcroft Road in Niantic for at least 10 years, according to public records. In 2004, she joined Zappos in Las Vegas as a temporary over-the-phone representative, one of its first employees. She was quickly entrusted with training its workforce, rising to prominence in a company that ties its success directly to workplace culture.

TechCrunch reported that Hsieh was in Connecticut with one of his two brothers when the fire occurred. One of Hsieh's assistants, Anthony Hebert, told Fox 61 Hsieh was visiting family and his "soulmate."

The Las Vegas Review Journal reported that Brown was known to be Hsieh's girlfriend and was at her New London home when the fire broke out about 3:30 a.m. Nov. 18. A group of Hsieh's friends also were there, the newspaper reported.

Firefighters responded to reports of a man who had barricaded himself or was trapped in the pool shed attached to the rear of the home. Black smoke was coming out of the shed.

Emergency dispatchers can be heard on audio of the radio transmission telling responding firefighters that "the male is barricaded ... he's not opening the door. Everyone else is outside the house. They're trying to get him to open up."

Firefighters forced their way into the shed, pulled Hsieh out and quickly extinguished the fire. Emergency medical personnel performed CPR on Hsieh and transported him to the hospital.

City building records show the shed was relatively new, one of several expensive renovations completed by the previous owner of the home that included a granite saltwater pool. Among other things, the shed contains electrical equipment related to the pool and a gas line for a heated outdoor shower, the records show.

The Connecticut Office of the Chief Medical Examiner reported Monday that Hsieh died from complications of smoke inhalation. His death was ruled accidental.

But there are many more questions than answers on what happened in the early morning hours at 500 Pequot Ave.

A Dec. 4 profile of Hsieh published by Forbes, titled "Tony Hsieh's American Tragedy: The Self-Destructive Last Months Of The Zappos Visionary," paints the picture of a man coping with mental health and addiction issues and revealing that friends and family had unsuccessfully attempted interventions. They also reported his increased use of "whippets," inhalation of nitrous oxide cartridges, and paying people to come stay with him in Park City, Utah.

The article cites a letter written to Hsieh by singer Jewel, in which she reportedly wrote, "I need to tell you that I don't think you are well and in your right mind. I think you are taking too many drugs that cause you to disassociate."

According to Forbes, Jewel also said, "the people you are surrounding yourself with are either ignorant or willing to be complicit in you killing yourself."

Culture at the forefront

According to Zappos, Brown was one of the company's first 100 employees in 2004, and after two months working the phones, she was asked by Hsieh to lead a team to teach employees the "company culture." She is also a well-known cellist in Las Vegas, performing with Nina Di Gregorio's Bella Electric Strings ensemble, according to the group's website.

She was featured in a Zappos website posting last year titled "Meet The Women Who've Changed Zappos History," which outlined her rise at the company.

Brown spearheaded Zappos' initial training programs, starting by hosting onboarding programs about Zappos' culture that became mandatory for every employee in the company, not just those working in customer service. The company said she left the training team in 2010 to oversee the production of Zappos' quarterly "all-hands" meetings.

"They were trusting me to teach culture before we had core values. If someone was a culture fit, I was to help them succeed," she was quoted as saying in the post.

A Forbes article published Nov. 30 said that company culture was at the forefront of Hsieh's success in business. The article's author, Luciana Paulise, called him "a company culture master."

Hsieh retired as the CEO of Zappos earlier this year. He had sold his company to Amazon in 2009 for $1.2 billion. Throughout his career, he was known for humanizing the workforce and workplace within his companies. According to his LinkedIn profile, one of his business mantras was to "Inspire, Connect, Educate and Entertain."

Another Forbes article, also penned by Paulise, listed Hsieh's top five leadership lessons: define core values of your company and run your business based on them; train leaders to be self-organized, engage employees and provide them with resources; drive employee engagement; "wow" customers with excellent customer service; and look for new business ideas everywhere.

To meet these goals, Hsieh implemented practices like providing every employee with four weeks of customer service training covering topics that includes the company's values and history. At the end of the training, Zappos offers its new hires $2,000 to quit to weed out employees who are not fully engaged.

The company's office has things like adult ball pits to keep things fun, Forbes reported.

A search for happiness

Hsieh's bestselling book published in 2010, titled "Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose," outlines his success as a businessman through the culture he developed for his companies.

The book, according to its description on Amazon, dives into Hsieh's dedication to making company culture the top priority; making customer service a part of the entire company, not just one department; applying research from the science of happiness to business practices and helping employees grow personally and professionally.

Hsieh found much of his own happiness, Forbes reported, in the quirky community in which he chose to live. He lived in an Airstream caravan in a tiny home trailer park in Las Vegas with two pet alpacas.

He also invested heavily in his community, in 2012 founding DTP, a for-profit venture with the goal of revitalizing downtown Las Vegas. According to Forbes, he also put $350 million into the downtown development to make the city similar to Silicon Valley.

Investigation continues

While Hsieh's death garnered international attention, New London police Capt. Brian Wright said Thursday that police and the fire marshal were continuing to investigate the incident in the same manner they would any fire in the city.

"We're exercising the same diligence that we would exercise with any other case for any other person," Wright said.

He would not comment on whether any alcohol, drugs or drug paraphernalia were found in the area where the fire broke out or whether the circumstances of the fire were being treated as suspicious. He said a report would be released once the investigation is concluded.

The medical examiner's office on Thursday said an autopsy was performed but would not release the results or say whether toxicology tests were performed to determine if there were drugs or alcohol in Hsieh's system at the time of his death. The office said it is possible for the manner of death to be changed after police and fire officials conclude their investigation.

The Associated Press reported that Hsieh left no will. Documents filed in court in Nevada on Wednesday on behalf of his family said they are "unaware of the existence of a fully executed estate plan and have a good faith belief that the Decedent died intestate."

Day Staff Writer Greg Smith contributed to this report.

t.hartz@theday.com

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