Saturday, 26 August 2023 07:07

Mississippi Goddam Chapter 4: The Investigator

Joel Wallace (left), a former special agent with the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, talks to Reveal host Al Letson. Credit: Jonathan Jones/Reveal

When a detective with the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation finds out what Reveal has uncovered, he begins to wonder whether Billey Joe Johnson’s case should be reopened.

Special Agent Joel Wallace of the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation was called in to investigate the death of Billey Joe Johnson Jr. He worked alongside two investigators from the George County district attorney’s office.

Wallace said that arrangement didn’t happen very often. And he now questions why they were assigned. “If you’ve got me investigating the case, then I’m an independent investigator,” he said. “But why would I need the district attorney investigator to oversee me investigating a case?”

The Johnson family was initially relieved because Wallace had experience investigating suspicious deaths. As a Black detective, he had dealt with racist backlash to his work.

Reveal host Al Letson and reporter Jonathan Jones visit Wallace, now retired, to talk about what happened with the investigation. When Wallace finds out what Reveal has uncovered, he begins to wonder whether the case should be reopened.

This episode was originally broadcast in November 2021.

Dig Deeper

Listen: The whole Mississippi Goddam series

Explore: Dig into the case files and documents about the death of Billey Joe Johnson.

Read: Johnson Case Must Not Remain a Mystery (2008 Sun Herald editorial)

Read: Getting to Police Accountability: A Blueprint for Mississippi (2017 American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi report)

Read: Death Investigation: A Guide for the Scene Investigator (2011 U.S. Department of Justice report)

Read: The Seven Major Mistakes in Suicide Investigation (2013 Law & Order Magazine article)


Reporters and producers: Al Letson and Jonathan Jones | Series editor and executive producer: Kevin Sullivan | Series producer: Michael I Schiller | Series digital editor: Nina Martin | Series assistant producer: Steven Rascón | Series production manager: Amy Mostafa | Series digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Fact checker: Rosemarie Ho | Reporting and producing help: Ko Bragg, Michael Montgomery and Laurel Hennen Vigil | Original score and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda with help from Claire Mullen, Najib Aminy, Brett Simpson and Ameeta Ganatra | Special thanks: Katharine Mieszkowski, Alexis Hightower, Jen Chien, Esther Kaplan, Sumi Aggarwal, Christa Scharfenberg, Michael Crosby, Robin Fitzgerald and the Sun Herald of Biloxi, Mississippi, for breaking the Harrison County Jail story

Mama Blue sang our theme song, which was written and composed by Nina Simone. Thanks to the Nina Simone estate and Music and Strategy. News and sports footage of Billey Joe Johnson courtesy of Gray Media Group Inc., WLOX-TV.

Series photos by Imani Khayyam. Logo design by Joan Wong.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Park Foundation.


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. It’s February, 2006, a chill is still in the air in Gulfport, Mississippi. Jeremy Powell was in seventh grade and he has a school assignment he’s been struggling with. He has to shadow someone at work.
Jeremy Powell: My aunt was like, “Well, you don’t want to go with your dad, he does auto mechanics. You don’t want to go with your uncle, he runs a HVAC company.” And we had a friend of our family, longtime friend, known her forever, she was a jailer at Harrison County.
Al Letson: She’s stationed at the intake desk at the jail.
Jeremy Powell: So she opened the doors when the inmates would come in or she’d close the gate or process people in basically. But we’re behind bulletproof glass, kind of like a one way scenario.
Al Letson: She works the night shift, so on the evening of February 4th, Jeremy goes with her to the Harrison County Jail.
Jeremy Powell: The first few hours was just like every day jail stuff. Inmates coming in, getting processed, and everybody kind of doing their job. I had all the jailers come and shook their hands, talk to them for a second. And hours went by with no situation, just anything out the ordinary happening.
Al Letson: And then Jessie Lee Williams, a 40-year-old Black man is brought in on a misdemeanor charge. Jeremy says, “It looks like Williams is intoxicated.” He doesn’t threaten anybody, but Jeremy says, “He’s a little belligerent.”
Jeremy Powell: When someone’s intoxicated, you don’t know what to expect. Right? But in no way, shape or form did I take that or anyone else should have took that, for that matter, as violent.
Paul McBee: And he was doing what they told him to do.
Al Letson: Paul McBee is also at the jail after being arrested for a misdemeanor. He’s there while Jessie is being booked. Paul would later tell investigators what he saw.
Paul McBee: And the officer said, “Well, get your shoes off and put them on the counter.” He bent over and took his right shoe off, set it up there, and as he went back down to get his left shoe, that’s when the officer hit and kicked him in the chest.
Al Letson: It happens in a flash. Jessie is just standing there surrounded by jailers, hands by his side, when the officer jumps on him. It’s caught on video surveillance. What comes next is brutal and hard to watch.
Correctional Officer Ryan Michael Teel beats Jessie relentlessly. Another officer moves in, not to stop Teel, but to hogtie Jessie. Even restrained, the beating doesn’t stop.
Paul McBee: They were still beating on him at that point and he was bleeding from the mouth. And that one cop walks up and he says, “Well, that’s crack head spit.” And they got some kind of a mask to keep him from spitting and biting, which he wasn’t spitting or biting, he was completely, pretty much not moving at all. And they sprayed that mace underneath the mask and then cinched it down around his neck. They pulled the mask down and sprayed the mace under it and then tightened it down.
Al Letson: Restraints, the mask, Jessie is barely moving, and still Officer Teel continues his attack.
Paul McBee: And then at that point he got back on top of him with his right knee in his back, and taking his left knee was just smashing him right in the face. And then he’d come up with all his weight and was coming down on the side of his head, mashing him into the concrete. And he did this a bunch of time.
Al Letson: And Jeremy, who’s just 14 years old at the time, is watching it all.
Jeremy Powell: When he was wheeled out of that booking control room, I knew right then that he wasn’t coming back. He was just so badly beaten that I didn’t feel that there was a chance.
Al Letson: Jessie Lee Williams dies two days later on February the 6th, 2006. The district attorney gathers members of law enforcement to figure out what to do.
Joel Wallace: We’re sitting there reviewing it with the district attorney, the FBI, the attorney general’s office out of Mississippi, Gulfport police investigators and Harrison County investigators, and the DA’s office and myself.
Al Letson: Special Agent Joel Wallace of the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation was one of the people in the room. He says, “It’s clear from watching the tape that Jessie didn’t provoke the officers.” He and an FBI agent, who was also Black, were assigned to the case.
Joel Wallace: We were told, “Then you handle it.” We started interviewing and investigating the case.
Al Letson: Joel works with the FBI to conduct interviews, review video surveillance and internal records. They exposed the rot at the center of the jail that went beyond Jessie’s case. In the end, Teel, the correctional officer who started the attack on Jessie, was convicted of beating him to death, plus attacks on other inmates. He was sentenced to life in prison. Nine other correctional law officers plead guilty for their role in abusing inmates at the jail.
Joel was celebrated for his work publicly, but privately he says he paid a steep price. Friends told him, “This would be the end of his law enforcement career.” You see, he’d crossed that blue line. He didn’t think there would be any consequences until he came home late one night.
A warning, this next incident contains a racial slur.
Joel Wallace: I remember came home that night, my wife is holding our two babies in her arm. She’s sitting on the sofa. I said, “What’s wrong?” And she said, “Joel, play the answer machine.” The voice on the phone said, “Nigger, nigger, nigger, we know where you live. We going to come and get you.”
Al Letson: That incident really shook Joel and his family. He started to think about retirement and what he would do next. Two years later, still working as an agent with the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, he got a phone call. A 17-year-old Black kid named Billey Joe Johnson had died during a traffic stop with a white sheriff’s deputy. That’s all he knew when he went to Lucedale, Mississippi to investigate.
This is a rebroadcast of Reveal’s serial investigation.
Speaker 5: (singing)
Al Letson: Mississippi Goddamn: The Ballad of Billey Joe. Episode Four: The Investigator.
Special Agent Joel Wallace was the lead investigator in Billey Joe Johnson’s death. After going through the case file, we had a lot of questions for him about how the investigation was conducted, like what was done to verify the accounts from eyewitnesses and law enforcement? Was foul play ever ruled out? And did he do more to find out if anything in Billey Joe’s life could have led to his death?
Finding Agent Wallace wasn’t easy because he’d retired from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation. I sent messages to people I thought might’ve been him on Facebook. My reporting partner, Jonathan Jones, called and texted several phone numbers we found, but nothing. Then our data reporter, Melissa Lewis, found an address for him. So on a reporting trip to Mississippi in 2019, JJ, producer, Michael Montgomery and I give it a try.
So yeah, that was definitely Joel Wallace’s house. It sounds like that was his mother maybe answering the door. She was a little hesitant. I just left my card there and told Joel to give me a buzz. She said that he was coming back today, and so I just told her that I’m a reporter and we wanted to talk to him about his career and a case that he worked on.
Michael Montgom…: Maybe we should get some lunch?
JJ: I think it’s lunchtime.
Michael Montgom…: We were saying oysters, Al?
Al Letson: Yes. But let’s figure out where the hell we are first. How far is New Orleans from here? I don’t know, because I’m saying we can get lunch in New Orleans.
JJ: But we’re not that close to New Orleans.
Michael Montgom…: No, it’s probably an hour and a half.
Al Letson: It’s 47 minutes, that’s nothing. It’s an hour and eight minutes. What else are we going to do?
JJ: Go meet the eyewitness?
Al Letson: Oh God, you’re such a joy killer.
JJ: I do love New Orleans. You really don’t have to twist my arm.
Al Letson: Let’s go to New Orleans, get a po-boy and then we’ll come back.
On our way to New Orleans, Joe Wallace gives me a call.
We are doing a story on a case that you worked on a long time ago, Billey Joe Johnson. Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So we’re going around and we’re just interviewing people about what happened and we’ve been talking to his family and looking into the case itself, and we were just wondering if we could come down and interview you and talk about your time working on that case.
He agrees, but he doesn’t want to do the interview at home, so he reserves a room at the library. We meet him a few hours later and it’s clear from the start, he had done his research on us.
Joel Wallace: I know Al already. August 8th, 1970.
Al Letson: There you go. You got me.
Joel Wallace: Not from Mississippi, born in New Jersey, moved to Florida. In Jacksonville.
Al Letson: Jacksonville.
Joel Wallace: No, I’m on by Jacksonville City.
Al Letson: Jacksonville. Jacksonville, Florida.
Joel Wallace: Yeah. His dad was a minister.
Al Letson: Is a minister.
Joel Wallace: He is a minister?
Al Letson: Is a minister.
Joel Wallace: Okay. Still is a minister.
Al Letson: Absolutely.
Joel Wallace: Yeah.
Al Letson: So you got me.
JJ: Mine too.
Al Letson: Seeing Joe Wallace in person is a little surreal. After listening to his voice in the interview tapes for so long, here he is in the flesh. He’s in his 60s, but looking at him, you wouldn’t know it. I thought he was late 40s, maybe early 50s. He’s about 5’10” or so, light-skinned Black man with a shaved bald head. Right from the start I sensed his trepidation.
Joel Wallace: Now, you the guy that called my wife’s phone.
Al Letson: I did text you.
Joel Wallace: And I’m going to tell you, you almost got yourself seriously in a real bad situation. I’m not trying to be funny.
Al Letson: For a moment it’s tense, like a summer storm in the South that seemed to come out of nowhere.
No, no, no [inaudible].
Then dissipates as fast as it started.
In the days after Billey Joe’s death, the Johnsons and members of the NAACP were initially relieved that Joel was the one handling the investigation. They had heard of him because of the Jessie Lee Williams case, and they weren’t the only ones who had faith in Joel. As we walked through the library, he hands me a newspaper clipping from his wallet. The edges are tattered, the paper is browning, it’s clear he’s held onto it for a long time. The headline reads, “Johnson Case Must Not Remain a Mystery.” It’s an editorial from the Biloxi Sun Herald. I figured Joel kept the article because the case had stuck with him, but later he would tell me.
Joel Wallace: It gives me some kind of confidence that the people, or some people, had confidence in my job performance. This tells me right here that this was the kind of person I was and that somebody appreciated it.
Al Letson: The editorial board in speaking of Joel says, “We came to think highly of his professional service, knowing his dogged investigation of the death of Jessie Williams in the Harrison County Jail. We consider him among the very best in his field.” It goes on to say, “What we expect and anticipate is that both the truth and justice will be attained through a deliberate and dedicated process.”
Joel Wallace: And that’s what I did.
Al Letson: When we come back, we sit down with Joel Wallace and start talking about Billey Joe Johnson.
Joel Wallace: I will always remember that case.
JJ: All right, let’s get into a little of the nitty-gritty, if you don’t mind.
Al Letson: That’s next on Reveal.
From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
We’d finally met the lead agent who investigated the Billey Joe Johnson case, Joel Wallace. We talked to him at a library for over an hour and he tells us about his background. His mother died when he was young. His older sister, she was the woman who answered the door when I left my card, raised him, his twin brother, and three other siblings. They were poor and Black growing up in Mississippi. They had to deal with a lot of racism. He talks about it like it forged him. He was a blade in the fire and it made him stronger, more enduring. But listening to him speak, it’s clear it also scarred him.
What was it like growing up here in Mississippi?
Joel Wallace: I said, I’m already mention I had a identical twin, we were at Catholic boarding school. I remember in 1976, Alex Haley came out with the movie, Roots. My twin brother and I were in class together and one of the kids in the class said, “Hey, Wallace, did you see your mother’s breasts on TV?”
Al Letson: Their mother had died a few years earlier and Joel’s brother was so furious that he got into a fight with the other boy. That got him expelled. And this was a big deal because it was their senior year.
Joel Wallace: But that hurt me because they kicked my brother out of school, and in our class there were only four Black out of 60 something. And I had to walk across that graduation stage without him. I could never forget that.
Al Letson: Joel wanted to make something of his life, so he joined the Army and served for two decades. He retired, then joined the Mississippi State Police and became a criminal investigator for the state.
The library starts to close and we still have so much more to talk about. So Joel invites us to his church to finish up. You see, after he retired from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, he became a minister.
I ride with him in his truck. On the way there, it feels like the ghost of the Harrison County case from 2006 is still clinging to him. While driving, Joel watches his rearview mirror the whole time, surveying the area for any threats. He asked me, “Do you see that car? Is it following us?” I tell him, “I don’t think so.” All I can think about is how that level of constant vigilance must be exhausting.
When we get to the church, JJ, producer, Michael Montgomery and I cram into his office. The room is small and can barely fit the four of us, but we make due. Before we move on, I want to point out that we’ve reached out to every official who was involved in the investigation. Only Joe Wallace and the medical examiner who performed the autopsy agreed to speak with us on the record about the case. So they’re getting all of our hard questions. Joel tells us he’ll do his best to answer them.
Joel Wallace: I might be not accurate on everything, but I don’t have nothing to hide. I’m transparent as…
Al Letson: He sits in his chair and takes us back to December 8th, 2008.
Joel Wallace: I picked the phone up, I believe it was my major that called. It was someone called and said, “Hey, we need you in Lucedale.” They told me there was an officer involved shooting. And I knew because I had worked numerous other officer involved shootings and I needed to get there as soon as possible.
Al Letson: Generally in Mississippi, when an officer is on the scene of a shooting death, the MBI conducts the investigation. That’s why Joel got called in. So he gets in his cruiser and drives from the Mississippi Gulf Coast to Lucedale, speeding the whole way. When he gets there, he notices two groups of people, one of mostly white folks behind the police tape, another down the street where Billey Joe’s family is gathering.
Joel Wallace: And I said, “What’s that large crowd on the bottom of the hill down there?” He said, “Well, that’s his mom and dad and the family.” I said, “Well, let me go talk to the family first.” I didn’t have to, but I felt like that’s what I needed to do because I saw the community, I knew it was people just like me. I could understand the hurt because what if it was my kid laying there?
Al Letson: The fact that there was already a group of people gathered, mostly African-American people who you said look like they’re your community. They’re like you. And then you walk up the hill and it’s a mostly white crowd surrounding Billey Joe Johnson. There’s a couple of officers there that are African-American, but on a whole, a mostly white crowd. Did you feel the tension?
Joel Wallace: When I arrived on scene, that was my reason really, besides caring for the family, but reason for going down there. Because, instinctively, I could tell that this didn’t look good. When I was talking to the Johnson family, I could hear folks making statements, “They killed him.” I had to say, “Look, I’m here to find out exactly what happened. I’m going to give you a fair investigation.” That kind of coaxed me into telling them that I would, because that was my job.
Al Letson: Joel takes some photos and helps document the crime scene. He’s told that Joe Sullivan, the deputy who pulled over Billey Joe, was allowed to leave the scene and is back at headquarters. He heads there to interview him.
Joel Wallace: Okay. I have previously gave you the MBI waiver right form, and you signed it and agreed to talk to us?
Joe Sullivan: Yes.
Joel Wallace: Okay, and the only ones present in this room is myself and you?
Joe Sullivan: Yes.
Al Letson: So this initial interview is a brisk 11 minutes.
Joel Wallace: Okay. And it was described as a red pickup trunk you said?
Joe Sullivan: It was red in color, went up on the light at the red light at Church Street.
Joel Wallace: Okay. And visibility was clear that you could see it?
Joe Sullivan: Yes.
Al Letson: He let Sullivan lay out what he says happened that morning.
Joe Sullivan: Yes, it was probably 50 yards away when I saw it go through the light.
Joel Wallace: 50 yards away? Okay. Okay. And once after you went through the intersection of red light, then you proceeded behind the vehicle?
Joe Sullivan: Yes.
Joel Wallace: Did you turn your blue lights on at that time?
Joe Sullivan: Yes.
Joel Wallace: You did?
Joe Sullivan: Yes.
Al Letson: One of Joel’s primary roles was to determine whether Sullivan was involved in the shooting. So we wanted to know what he did to double check what Sullivan told him, like did he check any businesses along the road to verify where Sullivan turned on his lights and started following Billey Joe?
JJ: I guess my question is, were you able to obtain any videotape which showed the car going through?
Joel Wallace: We tried at the bank, but that bank video, it was none there at all.
Al Letson: Joel is going off memory here. We checked out the bank video, but it turns out the footage they pulled was off by an hour, so it didn’t show anything.
While we’re talking to Joel, he brings up something that bothered him about the traffic stop. According to Sullivan, after they pulled over in the Bendell Carpet parking lot, Billey Joe got out of his truck and handed Sullivan his license. Sullivan then told Billey Joe to get back in his vehicle while Sullivan went to his cruiser to call it in.
Joel Wallace: Me, as a trained highway patrolman or investigator, I would’ve never let somebody that left their vehicle go back to the vehicle, because I always was taught that either you’re leaving a vehicle for drugs you don’t want me to see, a weapon, or you got something in that vehicle you don’t want me to see. That’s what I was taught. Why Officer Sullivan told him to go back to the vehicle, I don’t know.
Al Letson: An expert we consulted with said this stop is inconsistent with police practices. It puts both Billey Joe and Sullivan in danger because Sullivan doesn’t know if there’s a weapon in the car. Sullivan told investigators when people get out of their cars during traffic stops, he reacts differently based on the situation. With Billey Joe, he didn’t seem to consider him a threat.
In the first brief interview with Sullivan, Joel didn’t ask many follow-up questions. And while he told us he didn’t understand why Sullivan told Billey Joe to go back to his car, he never asked Sullivan that question. A little over a month later he interviews him again. This time Joel is not alone. The district attorney has assigned two investigators from his office to join him, Bobby Fairley, who had previously worked in the Sheriff’s office, and Scott McElrath.
Joel Wallace: They were with me and they were assigned to me from Tony Lawrence, the district attorney, which I normally don’t do interviews with DA investigators or anyone else. I normally do the interviews either with a partner of mine from MBI or I do it myself.
Al Letson: Why, in this case, were you assigned to other people to work with you?
Joel Wallace: That’s a good question. I was just directed to have, from the district attorney, to have McElrath. He was available to go with me on interviews.
Al Letson: I guess the question-
Joel Wallace: How frequent does that happen?
Al Letson: How frequently does that happen?
Joel Wallace: Not too frequent. And I’m not trying to put a mystery in this or anything, but not too frequent. If he got me investigating a case, this is the way I look at it, agencies don’t investigate their own case, right? Okay? Now, if you got me investigating a case, then I’m an independent investigator. But why would I need the district attorney investigator to oversee me investigating a case, when I’m the one providing the case to them for a case file? I’m not saying anything is shady or anything like that, I’m just saying because I didn’t see it at the time, I just saw it as a warm body with me to do the investigation.
Al Letson: Generally in these cases, the MBI would conduct the investigation and then hand off the results to the local district attorney. But sometimes the DA assigns people from his office to work with the state, which is what happened in Billey Joe’s case. This kind of thing happens all the time, all across the country. But the Mississippi ACLU says it’s a conflict of interest because county prosecutors end up investigating the officers they work with closely on a day-to-day basis.
Joel starts off the interview by telling Sullivan why he was called back in.
Joel Wallace: There’s some questions or some things that have came up since his investigation was conducted, and the investigation started on 8th December, 2008, and that was with Billey Joe Johnson Jr. You are aware that’s what we’re here for, right?
Joe Sullivan: Yes.
Joel Wallace: Okay.
Al Letson: Investigators asked Sullivan to once again tell them what happened the day of Billey Joe’s death. Sullivan gives more or less the same version of events as the first time, and Joel asked Sullivan about his background in law enforcement.
Joel Wallace: How long have you been a law enforcement officer, Joe?
Joe Sullivan: This year will be 19 years.
Joel Wallace: 19 years. And you’ve been a patrolman most of your career, is that correct?
Joe Sullivan: Yes.
Scott McElrath: 19 years, Joe.
Al Letson: That’s Scott McElrath, one of the investigators from the DA’s office.
Scott McElrath: Joe, where else have you been a police officer, a law enforcement officer?
Joe Sullivan: I started in ’85 or ’84 in Humphreys County.
Scott McElrath: Humphreys, Mississippi?
Joe Sullivan: Right. And I worked from there in the police department there in Belzoni. Then I went from there to Gainesville, Georgia. Then from there to here, then back to Humphreys County. Then I went to Sharkey County. Then I came from Sharkey County, here.
Al Letson: McElrath asks whether he knows some of the people involved in the case.
Scott McElrath: Joe, you didn’t know Billey Joe Johnson?
Joe Sullivan: I never met him.
Scott McElrath: And you’ve never dealt with Billey Joe before?
Joe Sullivan: No.
Scott McElrath: So what about this little girl, this Hannah Haulinghead?
Joe Sullivan: I never met her or her parents.
Scott McElrath: Didn’t know Parker was the daddy. You don’t know any of them? Not related to…
Joe Sullivan: No.
Scott McElrath: … any of them. Are you related to anybody here in Georgia County?
Joe Sullivan: No.
Al Letson: That’s not true, but we’ll get back to that in a bit. Now, between the time Billey Joe died and the second interview with Sullivan, there are lots of rumors spreading through the area that Billey Joe didn’t shoot himself. Here’s McElrath again.
Scott McElrath: Nobody’s talked to you in advance about this kid, is that correct?
Joe Sullivan: No. I mean, the sheriff asked me if I knew him. I said, “No, I don’t.” Yeah, he quizzed all of us because all the rumors floating around.
Scott McElrath: Yeah.
Joe Sullivan: I said, “No, I didn’t know any of them.”
Scott McElrath: All right. And nobody has approached you about killing him?
Joe Sullivan: No.
Scott McElrath: Is that correct?
Joe Sullivan: No.
Scott McElrath: I need to start asking that question a different way instead of making a statement.
Al Letson: McElrath then tells Sullivan he’s tested positive for gunpowder residue on his hands from the day of the shooting. They ask if he touched either his or Billey Joe’s shotgun during the traffic stop, he says he hadn’t. When the last time he fired his weapon was, he says, “At a gun range, about two weeks earlier.” Even if he got fertilizer on his hands from his wife’s flowers, he’s not sure. Experts tell us that as a deputy, he could have gotten gunpowder residue on his hands by handling his gun or ammo or even from clothing if it had been exposed. It’s easy to get on you and stays with you for a while.
Earlier we played part of the interview where Sullivan talked about his experience in other law enforcement agencies. Sullivan gave a brief account, but we dug deeper. From 1985 to 2008 he switched jobs at least eight different times. The next part is about something that happened in his previous gig, one where he worked less than a year.
Scott McElrath: All right, Joe, among the three of us, we’ve had some discussion about maybe some prior incidents and problems or similar circumstances. Do you feel comfortable talking about it?
Joe Sullivan: Yeah.
And now when I worked in Sharkey County, there was a boy shot who itself while I was on the scene.
Scott McElrath: While you were on the scene?
Joe Sullivan: Yeah. Me and two other deputies were there.
Scott McElrath: What were the circumstances that you…
Joe Sullivan: We got a call that there was two teenagers on drugs with guns. We got there, the mother came running out of the house with the gun and they disarmed her. And one of the other boys came out, me and two other deputies put him on back of the car and one of the other boys came out and ran back in the house. I was struggling with the boy in the back of the trunk, and the other boy went in the house where the other two deputies followed him in and he grabbed a shotgun and shot himself.
Scott McElrath: All right. And that was the other two deputies?
Joe Sullivan: Right.
Joel Wallace: That wasn’t Joe?
Joe Sullivan: No, it wasn’t Joe Sullivan.
Joel Wallace: Okay. Oh, dear.
Al Letson: So roughly a year and a half earlier, Sullivan was in an incident where another teenage boy shot himself with a shotgun. I want to be clear that we found no evidence of foul play in that shooting. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with Sullivan moving from department to department. We don’t know why he moved around, because the laws in Mississippi prevent us from getting that information. And that’s the problem, the secrecy that stops the public from learning about the professional behavior of officers in their community. Investigators don’t have that problem. They could have gotten Sullivan’s records, but those records aren’t in the case files. They ask the questions, but don’t probe deeper. After 27 minutes.
Joe Sullivan: That’s about all I get to wear now.
Scott McElrath: All right. Think anything about it.
Speaker 10: I can’t.
Joel Wallace: Joe, I can’t think of nothing else. Appreciate you coming in.
Joe Sullivan: [inaudible].
Al Letson: Joel and the other investigators end the second interview with Sullivan?
A couple of things stand out. First, how deferential investigators are with Sullivan. They tiptoe around subjects in a sort of buddy-buddy with him. The other, while they asked him some tough questions like did anyone approach him about killing Billey Joe, we didn’t find evidence in the case file that they ever seriously considered Sullivan a suspect. Remember how they asked Sullivan whether he was related to anyone in Georgia County? He said no, but that wasn’t true. His sister-in-law was an assistant district attorney there working in the same office that was now investigating whether he was involved in the shooting. We didn’t find evidence that she worked the case, but we spoke to an expert on legal ethics who said that her connection to Sullivan could have been enough for the DA’s office to recuse itself. Though that rarely happens. We tried to interview Sullivan ourselves. We sent letters, emails, made phone calls and reached out to family and friends, he hasn’t gotten back to us. But what’s clear is that Joel Wallace didn’t know about Sullivan’s connections.
So far we’ve been focusing on how Joel and the DA’s office conducted the investigation. Their work helped lead the grand jury to determine that Billey Joe had died after accidentally shooting himself. But in the last episode, we told you about a different theory that the Justice Department came out with in 2011. They believed it was most likely a suicide.
And you weren’t a part of the DOJ investigation. But what the DOJ investigation came back with is that he put the gun in his mouth and he shot himself that way.
Joel Wallace: That’s erroneous.
Al Letson: He totally disagrees. That’s exactly how Adele Lewis, the medical examiner in the case responded when we told her the same thing in the last episode.
Joel Wallace: Let me cut through the mess with you. What I got was in… I don’t know how to move or relocate in this room [inaudible].
Michael Montgom…: You want to do it outside?
Joel Wallace: No, I can’t do it outside. We can do it right here.
Michael Montgom…: Okay.
Joel Wallace: Okay?
Al Letson: Do you have the report so he can see…
At this point, Joel stands up to recreate what he thinks happened during the traffic stop. He sets up two chairs.
Joel Wallace: This is that kid’s truck. Right here.
Al Letson: One for Billey Joe’s truck.
Joel Wallace: This is a police officer’s car right here. Okay?
Al Letson: The other for Sullivan’s patrol car.
Joel Wallace: So the story I had gotten was was that he had went to that trailer that morning, had bammed on the door. And I hadn’t looked at case file one been since 2008, so don’t hold my memory to it because I’m not trying to make anything up. But somehow the officer seen him do a traffic violation at that intersection. He pulled him over.
Al Letson: Pulls him over.
Joel Wallace: He pulls him over. When he pulls him over, that officer’s sitting in that car right there, Billey Joe is sitting in his pickup truck. And then it was told that Sullivan went back to his car with Billey Joe’s driver license and sat there and couldn’t see whatever or couldn’t see, was what I was told, so he was trying to cover it up, trying to cover the gun up. And with all the clutter and everything that was in that truck, I mean, it was junk all in that truck. And he was fidgeting with that weapon, an old series [inaudible] gun, and went and pulled something on that gun. That gun went pow. And when it did, the gun went off, grazed his head…
Al Letson: Joel then lies on the ground to show us how Billey Joe fell.
Joel Wallace: When all that happened like that, a split second, he went like this, down on the ground, the door was open, laid there like that, and boom, that’s where he was at.
Al Letson: When he gets back up, JJ returns to the DOJ report.
JJ: Their conclusion, basically they agreed that he died of a gunshot wound, but they said that the barrel of the gun was inside his mouth when the gun went off.
Joel Wallace: If somebody had told me that, I would’ve marched right to Tony Lawrence’s office, the district attorney, and would’ve said, “Hey, we need to reopen this case. We need to look at this.”
If somebody showed me that DOJ report or told me something like that, that’s what we would’ve done. Because nobody, I’m telling you, nobody, I’ll go to my grave, nobody told me this until today. When I talked to you earlier and twice just now, you done sat here and told me that. I’m not an idiot. I wouldn’t have never set up nothing like that. I didn’t even see no DOJ report.
Al Letson: When we leave Joel, I can feel his earlier confidence in the case beginning to crumble. But that doesn’t affect his openness, he invites us to come back and talk some more. When we do, he starts to rethink how he handled some of his interviews during the case. That’s coming up next on Reveal.
From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
On that first meeting with Joel, we spent several days talking about the case. But one Sunday we went back to his church just to hear him preach. We thought it would help us understand him better as a person.
… he has done.
Joel Wallace: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Al Letson: Okay.
Speaker 11: Telling us back down and be in the shadow of somebody else. That devil is alive.
Congregation: Amen.
Speaker 11: Church of the living God resurrection…
Al Letson: Both JJ and I are preacher’s kids, and Joel’s church reminds me of the sanctuaries I went to in my youth.
Speaker 11: Lift your hands before Jesus.
Al Letson: The congregation is small and feels more like an extended family than parishioners. People smile and check in with each other. Everyone wants you to be comfortable. JJ and I don’t know anyone other than Joel, but somehow it feels like home. As the music plays, I think about growing up in the church as a kid. I didn’t really appreciate it. To be honest, hearing gospel music then put me in a funk because it meant we were going to be at church all day long, and I mean all day.
Speaker 11: He will approve your distant praise [inaudible]. Oh, we bless your name.
Al Letson: Joel’s wife leads the praise and singing part of the service. When she sings, I am taken back and filled with this longing for something simpler.
Speaker 11: Oh, God, yeah, yeah.
Al Letson: Fans, with Jesus on the front, and a funeral home advertisement on the back. Choir books, the edges of the page is trimmed in gold. Old folks giving you candy and trying to unwrap it so quietly so no one could hear it. It never worked.
Joel Wallace: The book of Colossians says that he took our sins and nailed them to the cross.
Al Letson: Joel gives a fiery sermon.
Joel Wallace: So whatever surface from our past embarrass us, Jesus said, “I paid for that.”
Al Letson: The church I grew up in was filled with men like him. The pastor of my church was a police officer and many of the deacons were as well. They were like my uncles, good, decent men who taught me a lot about life. I think maybe that’s why we were able to have such a strong rapport with Joel. There’s a familiarity there.
A few days later, we go back to the church for another interview. After discussing Deputy Sullivan and the DOJ’s conclusion, we wanted to understand how he approached the investigation. Over two months, Wallace and the DA’s investigators spent fewer than six hours conducting formal interviews with only 15 people. We wondered why he didn’t speak to more of Billey Joe’s friends and family to get a sense of what was going on in his life at the time of his death.
JJ: This is my list of formal interviews that you’ve done, that appears to have been done.
Joel Wallace: I don’t see their name there at all.
JJ: Were they formally interviewed?
Joel Wallace: Who?
JJ: The parents, Billey Joe Sr. and Annette Johnson.
Joel Wallace: Did I put them on recording and talked to them on that?
JJ: I don’t have it.
Joel Wallace: I can’t recall if they were or not, but I know I went down there and talked to them and told them I wouldn’t… Again, you hadn’t grasped what I’m telling you, they weren’t there when it happened.
Al Letson: So he’s saying he didn’t interview Billey Joe’s folks because they weren’t directly involved with the events of that morning when Billey Joe died. But in its guidelines on how to handle death investigations, the Department of Justice stresses the importance of gathering as much information about the victim as possible. Daily routines, habits, activities, who were his friends and associates. This will help investigators as they work to determine the cause, manner and circumstances of the person’s death. Instead, almost all of the information they gather about Billey Joe’s life comes from people who were involved in the case that morning, and that includes Billey Joe’s ex-girlfriend, Hannah Haulinghead, and her mother, Esther Parker. Joel interviews them twice. Once on the day of, and again about a month later. In the first interview, Hannah tells investigators she hasn’t talked to Billey Joe for a while.
Hannah: I haven’t talked to him in almost two weeks.
Joel Wallace: In two weeks?
Al Letson: A month later, Hannah and her mom get called back in, and Hannah says something different. She says, they talked on her birthday, December 5th, just three days before Billey died.
Hannah: He told me happy birthday and told me to be careful and be safe and wear my seatbelt wherever I went. I told him okay, and just kind of rolled my eyes at him because that was just the thing between me and Billey. And he told me he loved me.
Joel Wallace: If I would’ve pulled those two pieces, those two times together, listen back on both of those tapes, I would’ve said there was an inconsistency in her statement. But I don’t know if I did that or not. I don’t think I wrote that in the investigative. And I think maybe that was just an oversight. I don’t know. Because that was leading up to the actual incident that happened. It had nothing to do with that morning. Say, I’m there to investigate the who, what, when, where, and how of that day, what happened, what took place that day. Now, if there’s other information pertaining to that, then somebody would’ve furnished it to me. So she furnished me in an interview, the first interview that she hadn’t talked to him in two weeks. But I knew that wasn’t true, but I didn’t want to pressure her about it because I knew it wasn’t true.
Al Letson: Hannah says when she saw Billey on her birthday, it got really ugly. It was one of a series of incidents with Billey Joe in the days leading up to his death. This next part deals with some serious allegations.
Hannah: Wednesday after school is when he hit me and I got the bruise on my arm. And then Thursday at school, he pulled me by my hair and slapped me in the face.
Joel Wallace: Okay. Did anybody witness any of those incidences that occurred between you and Billey those days?
Hannah: I think that two people were walking behind us that seen us, seen him sling me up against the wall on Wednesday.
Joe Sullivan: Okay. Did you report it to anybody? Anybody at the school or your mother or your father or anybody that… On third you say he, what was it, slung you against the wall locker. And on the fourth he pulled you by your hair, did you report those to anyone?
Hannah: I didn’t tell anyone. I just talked to Samantha about it, but my mom found out later.
Al Letson: It’s not unusual for victims of abuse to stay quiet about it. And we’re going to get into these allegations in the next episode, but right now we’re focused on how Joel and other investigators responded. There’s no evidence that they tried to verify these statements, at least not in the case files.
After listening back to the interviews with Hannah and her mom, Joel is starting to look at the case with fresh eyes, thinking about what he would’ve done differently if he had known then what he knows now. But some of these questions he should have asked regardless. It was his job to determine how Billey Joe died. And if suicide or foul play were possibilities, he needed to look at what else was going on in the days and months before Billey Joe’s death, and that would’ve meant talking to people who knew him best. Joel is adamant that he wanted justice for Billey Joe, and he says that’s how he approached the job.
Joel Wallace: The truth makes a difference. It makes a difference for the person on the family that’s left behind. It makes a difference for the people involved in the relationship. It makes a difference for the community. There’s a difference in accidental discharge of a firearm. There’s a difference between suicide and accidental. There’s a difference between murder.
Al Letson: After spending almost seven hours with us exploring the different aspects of this case, Joel seems exhausted. My biggest takeaway from this interview is this one line from Joel.
Joel Wallace: I would’ve marched right to Tony Lawrence’s office, the district attorney, and when they said, “Hey, we need to reopen this case. We need to look at this.”
Al Letson: We need to reopen this case.
Tragically, less than a year after Billey Joe’s death, Joel would go through his own pain. His twin brother died under mysterious circumstances.
Joel Wallace: And I feel it was racially motivated, because he was dating a white girl, he went out with a white girl and somebody hit him. He got a spinal cord injury back of his neck.
Al Letson: Was anybody held accountable for it?
Joel Wallace: Nobody.
Al Letson: Let’s rewind a little bit. So your brother…
Joel Wallace: We were tight. I mean, we’re twins. We’re identical twins. When he hurt, I hurt. When he felt bad, I felt bad. And the night, May 16, I asked him, I said please. Just felt in my bones. He was telling me he was going to go out with this girl. She was a 21-year-old white female from the Kiln, from Kiln, Mississippi.
Al Letson: His brother, Johnny, went out that night with his girlfriend and something happened.
Joel Wallace: The story was was that he was, let me tell you somebody, he only drank, what’s that beer? Miller. Miller Light. He is a lightweight.
Al Letson: People at the bar said Johnny was taking shots and got drunk.
Joel Wallace: Johnny don’t drink no alcohol, he can’t stomach it and never could.
Al Letson: They told Joel he slipped and fell, hitting his head hard on the ground. But Joel didn’t believe it. Whatever happened, Johnny’s injury was catastrophic.
Joel Wallace: The doctors in the medical report says he took a blow to the back from what they could see, but they didn’t know how it was caused because nobody was there.
Al Letson: Johnny was in the hospital for weeks. He was paralyzed from the neck down.
Joel Wallace: When I was learning how to carry him and putting him in and out of car, getting him in a wheelchair, because I was preparing to bring him home so I could take care of him, and me and my wife. And he had a heart attack and a blood clot with me in the room with him.
Al Letson: Joel says his brother started hallucinating.
Joel Wallace: And he just get the sand off of him, it’s like post-traumatic stress. Get the sand off him. I’m like, “What sand, Johnny?” “I got sand all on me, Joel. You got to help me. You got to help me.” He was like, “You got to help me. You got to help me.” And I’m like, “What sand, man?” He’s like, “I got sand all over me, man. I’m drowning. I’m drowning.” I’m like, “Okay.” And I just thought pretending, I thought it was maybe the morphine, he was hallucinating. And the nurses came in and said, “You got to get out of here.” They pushed me out and they was doing CPR and trying to put a trache and everything else.
And then here comes the code blue squad coming down the hallway. They march in formation. It is real formal, they march in formation to the room. They go in, they clean the body up and do everything, and then they call you in to take a look, to see alone. And I told him, I said, “Man.” So then here comes his girlfriend down the hall. And I told her, I said, “Tell me what happened.” And she said, “You already know.” I said, “If I already knew, I wouldn’t be asking you. I just need to know what happened, I need closure.” And she never told us. Just never found out.
Al Letson: Next time on Reveal.
Joel Wallace: Was the family worried when he started dating a white girl?
Speaker 14: I was, point-blank period.
Speaker 15: I dated a lot of white girls in high school, so some of the dads didn’t want them talking to me or just punished them because they’re talking to a black guy and all kinds of stuff. It still happened.
Speaker 16: You can’t be seen in public because, Lord forbid, if somebody sees you, they’re burning the phones up to call and be like, “I saw this one was that one.” And, “Oh my gosh, she’s with a black man.” Oh, it’s just, it’s terrible, and it’s still that way.
Hannah: He made threats, but I know deep down in my heart he didn’t mean them.
JJ: Hey, Hannah. Thank you so much for calling me back. And I do apologize, that this is not the funnest part of my job is to keep calling people.
Al Letson: Our show was reported and produced by Jonathan Jones and me, and edited by Kevin Sullivan. Michael I. Schiller is our series producer. Steven Rascon, the assistant producer. Alaa Mostafa, the production manager. And Nina Martin, the digital editor for the series. We had additional reporting and producing help from Ko Bragg, Melissa Lewis, Michael Montgomery and Laurel Hennen Vigil. Thanks to Reveal’s Katharine Mieszkowski. And thanks to former Revealers Jen Chien, Alexis Hightower and Sarah Mirk.
Special thanks goes out to Michael Crosby, Robin Fitzgerald and the Biloxi Sun Herald for breaking the Harrison County Jail story. Mama Blue sang our theme song, which was written and composed by Nina Simone. Thanks to her estate and music and strategy. Our fact-checker is Rosemarie Ho. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production managers are the Wonder Twins, Zulema Cobb and Steven, my brother from another mother, Rascon. Original score and sound designed by the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man, yo, Arruda. They had help from Claire, C note, Mullen, Najib Aminy, Brett Simpson and Ameeta Ganatra.
Support for Reveal is provided by the Riva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Park Foundation, and the Helman Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.