Monday, 07 August 2023 06:40

Mississippi Goddam Chapter 1: The Promise

Billey Joe Johnson Jr. Credit: Courtesy of the Johnson family

Billey Joe Johnson Jr. was a high school football star headed for the big time. Then, early one morning in 2008, the Black teenager died during a traffic stop with a White deputy. His family’s been searching for answers ever since.

Billey Joe Johnson Jr. was a high school football star headed for the big time. Then, early one morning in 2008, the Black teenager died during a traffic stop with a White deputy. His family’s been searching for answers ever since.

More than a decade ago, Reveal host Al Letson traveled to Lucedale, Mississippi, to report on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. While there, locals told him there was another story he should be looking into: Johnson’s suspicious death.

During that traffic stop, police say Johnson died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. But for Johnson’s family, that explanation never made sense.

In the first episode of this seven-part series, Letson returns to Mississippi with reporter Jonathan Jones to explore what happened to Johnson – and what justice means in a place haunted by its history.

This episode was originally broadcast in October 2021.

Photos

The Johnson family stands in front of an old oak tree.
The Johnson family: Eddie (from left), India, Tiffanie and Billey Joe Sr. Credit: Imani Khayyam for Reveal
A photo of Billey Joe Johnson sits in a frame on a shelf
A photo of Billey Joe Johnson Jr. sits in his father’s home as a memorial. Credit: Jonathan Jones/Reveal

Dig Deeper

Read: On Feb. 5, 2009, days before the grand jury hearing on Billey Joe Johnson’s death, Yahoo sports reporters Dan Wetzel and Charles Robinson published an in-depth investigation into the case. (Yahoo News)

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

Credits

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 Mieszowski, Alexis Toomer, Jen Chien, Esther Kaplan, Sumi Aggarwal and Christa Scharfenberg

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.

Transcript

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: Hi, folks. This is Al Letson. And before we get started with today’s episode of Reveal, I have to give you a heads-up. Today’s show is the beginning of a multipart series that we first aired in 2021. The series covers some intense issues related to racism. Because of that, within the first three minutes, you’ll hear me repeat a racial slur that has been used against me. This is an incredibly personal show for me, so thanks for listening. Okay, here we go.
From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson and the year is 1991. I’m a senior in high school living in a little town outside Jacksonville, Florida, a middle class Black family in a mostly white neighborhood. On the surface, this is the American Dream. A big house, corner lot, manicured lawn, and a pool. But if you know what to look for, you can see the cracks. Confederate flags are everywhere you turn. Neighbors who refuse to talk to you because of your Blackness and the occasional racial slur you hear in the wind or spray-painted on the street. Racial intimidation, both large and small, was just a part of life so much so you don’t even think or reflect on it. You just bury it deep so you can live, and then one day the oppression you’ve been living with is reflected at you and you just can’t deny it anymore.
Speaker 2: Now the story that might never have surfaced if someone hadn’t picked up his home video camera. We’ve all seen the pictures of Los Angeles police officers beating a man they had just pulled over. The city’s police chief said today he was facing criminal charges…
Al Letson: When the footage of Rodney King’s assault by Los Angeles police officers made the news, the entire country had to take note.
Speaker 3: Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates looked at the tape and said he thinks assault with a deadly weapon will be one of the charges.
Daryl Gates: In our review, we find that the officers struck him with batons between 53 and 56 times.
Al Letson: I remember watching it and though I’d never personally seen cops be that brutal, I knew it could happen. At that point, I’d been slammed onto my car’s hood, chased out of a mall and called a nigger all by the police officers in the little town I lived in and I was only 18. It wasn’t a secret or a surprise. Most of the young Black men I knew had similar experiences. It was known. But no one seemed to care. I mean, who are you going to tell? The police? The federal government? I mean, they barely knew we existed, but I remember thinking maybe Rodney King’s video would change things because white America could see what people who looked like me had to live with.
Speaker 5: Not guilty rang through the packed courtroom over and over again. The four LAPD officers of the Rodney King beating case found not guilty on all counts except one.
Al Letson: Parts of LA went up in flames.
Speaker 5: Angry demonstrators went on a rampage taking control of the streets, and it’s been an ugly, terrible situation all night long.
Al Letson: But it was an ugly, terrible situation long before that night. Back then we called it a riot, but really it was an uprising. People were tired of living under oppression, and though I wasn’t there, I understood the rage on a cellular level because the message was clear. Justice in America looked different for different people.
I grew up, but those moments, they never leave you. They influence you in ways that are hard to predict. For me, I became a poet, a playwright, and then a journalist. I created a show on NPR called State of the Re:Union where we traveled the country and every episode we told stories from a different place. The show was about the big problems we face as a nation and how folks on the ground figured out solutions. You see, I wanted to understand America. Instead of hearing from talking heads, I wanted to listen to everyday people and we talked to everybody.
You’re listening to State of the Re:Union.
Speaker 6: No high diving, no back flipping, no belly flops and no-
Speaker 7: There’s a lot of people that don’t like Wyoming, and I think that’s great.
Speaker 8: This land is ending.
Speaker 9: I’m not a tree hugger. I’m not a activist. This is where I live.
Al Letson: I created this show because when I was in my small town, no one heard my story and I wanted to help other people’s voices be heard, and that led me to Mississippi. In 2011, following the aftermath of the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill, my producer Tina Antolini and I went to Lucedale, a little town in southeastern Mississippi right near the border of Alabama. I wanted to interview people who were doing oil spill cleanup.
Lucedale. So we are going by a very small quaint little downtown area that looks like a lot of small southern downtown areas.
Tina Antonlini: Seen better days though.
Al Letson: Yeah, definitely. But actually this one is not in that bad of shape. I mean, I’ve gone through some that don’t look so good.
In my eyes. The downtown looks like it’s hanging on despite the nearby Walmart. Down Main Street, compact brick buildings with aging signs hang over banks, restaurants, and shops. A tidy row of trees line the sidewalk on each side of the street. This is small town America. But as soon as we drive outside city limits, we’re plunged into the rural South. The highway cuts through the forest as we head west and cross the Pascagoula River. This part of the county is called Benndale, where our contact Glenda Perryman lives.
Glenda Perryman: Let me get my little stuff together. I’m ready. Grandbabies wants to go with me.
Al Letson: Glenda is full of energy. Her grandkids run behind her trying to tag along.
Tina Antonlini: They always do, huh?
Glenda Perryman: Yes.
Tina Antonlini: How many you got, Glenda?
Glenda Perryman: Three and one on the way. I’ll be back. Love y’all. I’ll be right back.
Al Letson: Which way we going?
Glenda Perryman: You can make a right right here.
Al Letson: The county is nearly 90% white. Glenda runs a nonprofit that’s focused on the small Black community. She’s introducing us to some day laborers who are doing cleanup of the oil spill on the coast, but first she wants us to understand where we are. So we go off the highways onto country roads, some paved, some not, where many Black folks live.
Glenda Perryman: All of these houses is just run down. People have no place to live. So you find families living like two and three families in one house.
Al Letson: We encounter house after house that are barely standing after Hurricane Katrina’s wrath. Keep in mind, Katrina happened in 2005. We’re visiting Lucedale almost six years later.
Glenda Perryman: This, see here, still a tarp on his house. This family here, when Katrina hit, it blew a tree inside their house and when it blew the tree in snakes came in. When they came back home, that’s when they found all the snakes and they never rebuilt. So we helped them build a house up further north. You go this way.
Al Letson: They Glenda points.
Glenda Perryman: They said that it used to be a tree right over there. When my husband was old enough to remember, they would use a doll and put a rope around its neck and have, what they call it, lynch rope. They would hang it up there every now and then to remind the Black peoples about what we’ll do to you.
Al Letson: After Glenda gives us the lay of the land, she introduces us to the workers. All Black men. They have calloused hands that look like they could spark flames if they rubbed together. We talk about their work and they ask about mine. And because I’m a journalist, every single one of them tells me about a case I should look into, the story of a local Black kid who died during a police stop, Billey Joe Johnson. He’d passed a few years before, but they talk about him like it just happened. The wound is still fresh. They tell me Billey Joe was a high school junior and star running back on the football team. He had offers from top colleges and there’s no question in their minds he was going pro. They wanted me to look into it, but they were all hesitant to go on record. When they leave, Glenda tells me she was related to Billey Joe.
Glenda Perryman: And he was dating a white girl. He was in love and she was in love too.
Al Letson: She said many people around there still didn’t approve of interracial relationships, including some folks in law enforcement. In December of 2008, a month after Obama was elected, a white cop pulled Billey Joe over. Authorities say Billey Joe handed the officer his driver’s license. The officer then went back to his cruiser to run a check. He said while he was looking down reading the license, he heard the gunshot. He looked up and Billey Joe was lying on the ground, blood pooling from his head, a shotgun on top of his body. Initially police said Billey Joe died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The official story didn’t make sense to Glenda and the workers. He was a football star with a bright future and everything to look forward to, and they wanted me to investigate. Standing in the sweltering heat of a Mississippi summer, I felt the history of this country, like the humidity in the air. It was all around me. From the ghosts of the enslaved Black people who worked the land to the shadows, cast by the trees, silent monuments to the victims of lynching, to right now.
See, I remember what it felt like to be a Black kid in a little southern town where it seemed like no one cared or could hear you, where justice was a theory you never saw in practice. So when they asked me to look into this story, there was only one answer I could give them, yes. I made a promise. A promise that I would look into the death of Billey Joe Johnson. It took me 10 years, but this is the story of where that promise led me. A family that refused to give up, a community torn, and the question of what is justice and how is it served? This is Reveal’s serial investigation.
Speaker 12: (Singing)
Al Letson: Mississippi Goddam: The Ballad of Billey Joe. In 2011, I left Lucedale and tried to make good on that promise. But here’s the thing, I knew nothing about how to report a story like this. I was still pretty new to journalism and the little show I was working for didn’t have the investigative muscle to tackle it. So I reached out to every newsroom I had contact with, but nothing. I mean, people wouldn’t even call me back. I couldn’t afford to go back to Mississippi for the story because our budget was too small. I pushed as hard as I could and kept checking in on the story from a distance, but ultimately I lost touch with Glenda, and then life got in the way. I was swamped with work and raising kids, and Billey Joe’s story just faded into the background.
But this is America and the issues of policing and justice always come back. It’s a predictable cycle. A Black person is brutalized or killed by a police officer, racial tensions explode, and rarely is anyone held accountable.
Speaker 13: Baltimore City leaders are urging patience this morning after another cop was acquitted in connection with the death of Freddie Gray.
Al Letson: Just like when I was a kid watching Rodney King.
Speaker 14: To Pittsburgh last night after a jury acquitted a white former police officer who shot and killed an unarmed Black teen as he fled a traffic stop.
Al Letson: And the list keeps growing.
Speaker 15: Philando Castile.
Speaker 16: David McAtee.
Speaker 17: Breonna Taylor.
Speaker 18: Dreasjon Reed.
Speaker 19: Atatiana Jefferson.
Speaker 20: Michael Ramos.
Speaker 21: Korryn Gaines.
Speaker 22: John Crawford.
Speaker 23: Tamir Rice.
Speaker 24: Alton Sterling.
Speaker 25: Eric Garner.
Al Letson: And every time the promise I made to Glenda would haunt me. The investigation left so many questions unanswered. Billey Joe died after being pulled over by the police, but we don’t know what happened. What I did know, his family didn’t believe the official version and they felt ignored by the system. His death didn’t make any sense to them and it didn’t make any sense to me either.
From time to time I checked to see if there had been any developments in the case. I would spend hours online looking for email addresses and cell phone numbers of family members, but it’s really hard to report on a rural community unless you’re physically there, and like I said, life got in the way. And then I started working for Reveal and one day, seven years after I first learned about this case, I found a number. Someone I thought might be a family member, so I left a message. A day later I got a call back.
Veronica Fairle…: This story has so much behind it and there’s no way one conversation is going to pull everything out. The documents and the testimonies from the witnesses, it’s going to be the only way you’ll get the whole story.
Al Letson: I’d been waiting for that phone call for eight years.
Veronica Fairle…: My name is Veronica Fairley. I live in Benndale, Mississippi. I married into the family in 2007.
Al Letson: And did you know Billey Joe at all? Because he passed away in 2008, right?
Veronica Fairle…: I did. Billey Joe would come over to the house in the afternoons when he’d get out of school. My husband would always try and help him make extra money, which a lot of people did because he was a awesome, very awesome young man. Amazing. He worked hard for what he believed in. His goal was to make pro football so that he can provide a better living for his mother. Billey and his mother had a very close relationship. He would help anybody in the community. I’m not just saying it, but he was a very respectable young man. Everybody liked him.
Al Letson: Veronica and I talked for close to an hour and if over the years I had a view of this case from 20,000 feet, Veronica was able to put me right on the ground in the middle of it.
Veronica Fairle…: The funeral home said that Billey Jr had only one exit wound and that was behind his ear. How was there only one hole if he shot himself? He should have had at least two. That was the way it entered and exit. Billey Jr had an open casket after shooting himself, supposedly with a 12-gauge shotgun.
Al Letson: Not only did she have anecdotal stories, she said she had documents.
Veronica Fairle…: I have a police report.
Al Letson: In order to push this forward, I need to see as many documents as you can possibly get me.
Veronica Fairle…: So let me ask you this and I hate to cut you off. How deep do you want to go in this? How deep do you want to go into Mississippi?
Al Letson: I want to go as deep as possible.
That’s coming up next on Reveal.
From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, you’re listening to Reveal. I’m Al Letson. The story of Billey Joe has been haunting me for 10 years. Two months after he died in a December 2008 traffic stop authorities ruled he’d accidentally shot himself, but many people didn’t trust that, especially the Black community. In 2018, after years of searching, I was finally able to speak with one of Billey’s relatives, Veronica Fairley. For her, the case wasn’t just about family, it was about something bigger.
Veronica Fairle…: Because God has to bring justice to Mississippi some type of way. If you look at now what we’re going through with Emmett Till, we knew that what happened to Emmett Till was a lie, but now the truth is coming out. And I believe in its own season, the same thing is going to be revealed about Billey Jr’s case.
Al Letson: Veronica said she had documents that according to her, could prove something was wrong with the investigation, but when I tried to follow up, I couldn’t reach her. I texted, emailed and called but never got a response. Since I couldn’t connect with Veronica, I had to find another way to get the police reports and other documents, but that was going to be difficult because well, this is Mississippi.
Speaker 27: (Singing)
Al Letson: That is the state song. Mississippi has one of the weakest public record laws in the country. Civil Rights and First Amendment attorneys in Mississippi will tell you that you pretty much have no chance to get documents of a death investigation from the DA or state investigators. When it comes to looking into the police, you can’t get personnel records, specific complaints or allegations of misconduct.
You can find out if an officer was kicked off the force and why, but it’s really difficult to learn the circumstances. The point is unless you get internal documents some other way, you’re stuck. Needless to say, if Veronica or someone had these documents, we needed them and with her going silent, I needed some help. Enter Jonathan Jones.
Jonathan Jones: My name is Jonathan Jones. I’m a reporter for Reveal from the-
Al Letson: JJ is an investigative reporter who’s had experience digging around-
Jonathan Jones: … to speak with Judge Tony Foyer-
Al Letson: … looking for people-
Jonathan Jones: I’m trying to get in touch with Ben Brown.
Al Letson: … and getting them on record.
Jonathan Jones: The number I have is 947-29-
Al Letson: And the first thing JJ told me was…
Jonathan Jones: What we really need to do is get our hands on the case file so we can figure out what investigators did and didn’t do. From there we can figure out what questions to ask and who to talk to.
Al Letson: We couldn’t look for documents and people while we were thousands of miles away in California. So JJ and I prepared to go to Mississippi in 2018. Before we get to that though, we should talk about race because there is no way we can separate race from this story or really any story in America. I’m Black, grew up in the south and that has definitely shaped my worldview.
Jonathan Jones: And I’m white. I was born in Scotland, moved to the United States when I was young, I lived outside DC, New York, and Philadelphia and all of that shapes the way I see things.
Al Letson: In this series, we feel like it’s important to talk about that upfront because race is tied so tightly to this story. Not because we’re going to Mississippi, but because the story takes place in America.
The first time JJ and I go to Lucedale, it’s been almost a decade since Billey Joe’s death. I wonder on the flight if it had been so long that his death had faded from the town’s collective memory. But one of the first people we talked to put that fear to rest. We get in late and go to a barbecue joint to eat. We don’t have our recording equipment, but this is what happened. We walk in and there’s music playing.
A bar against the wall, picnic-like tables fill the room. Not many people there, mostly staff. On the walls are pictures, head shots and the like of blue singers, many of them autographed. We take a seat. The waitress takes our order and heads back to the kitchen. A tall white guy looks at us, then comes over and introduces himself as the owner. A real friendly guy, he tells us about all the blues acts that have come through. We listen to his story and then he asks us what brings us to Lucedale. I don’t want to tell him. I got to say being in Lucedale makes me nervous at times. I mean we’re in the Deep South looking into a case where the police are involved and I thought it might be better to step carefully when we talk about what we’re doing, but JJ thought there’s no harm in asking.
Jonathan Jones: In a small town like this one, you never know if someone might have some sliver of information. So I ask, “Have you ever heard of Billey Joe Johnson?”
Al Letson: Had he? He says he’d been one of Billey Joe’s coaches and that he was actually at the scene right after Billey Joe died. He tells us his theory about the case.
Jonathan Jones: He thought that Billey Joe had been reaching for the shotgun to unload it when it accidentally went off.
Al Letson: He thinks the family would never be happy with the results of any investigation. Not even a day in and we’re hearing theories.
Billey Joe and his family lived in Benndale, the rural part of the county where I first learned about this story years ago. It’s impossible to find the Johnsons’ trailer using GPS. It gets us in the right area, but that isn’t saying much. We drive down several dirt roads that cut through pine forest. Most of those leading to dead ends. We knock on doors when we find them and get hopelessly lost until finally we stumble upon a relative who points us in the right direction.
The first thing you see when you drive up the dirt road to the Johnsons’ trailer is Billey Joe’s pickup truck. The same truck he was pulled over in and died next to. The vehicle has long since lost the war against nature. Faded from the sun, the maroon paint feels like a distant memory. Tall grass surrounds it on all sides, a final statement on the inevitability of time. Beyond the truck, a long overgrown field stretches out in front of the Johnsons’ old trailer. To the side near the dirt road, a beautiful oak tree acts as a natural canopy, a spot where people gather and hang out. Under it, old tires, piles of aluminum cans, and rusty metal furniture. Several other cars in various states of disrepair witness our arrival.
The Johnsons don’t live in a trailer park per se, but there are several more behind Billey Joe Sr’s trailer, mostly a community of relatives. Billey Sr emerges from his trailer wearing a blue wool cap, a yellow T-shirt from an old family reunion, and barefoot. He’s a big guy and seems hesitant to talk at first, but he can’t hide his smile when he talks about his son.
Billey Joe John…: Well, when it come to the young kids, he’ll always motivate them to go on and want to be the best that they can be in their life. That’s the type of person he was.
Al Letson: More of the family gathers around us. His older sister, Tiffany, and younger sister, India, lean on a car a few feet away, arms crossed, giving JJ and me the side eye. His uncle Don and other members of the family don’t seem to mind. They look at Billey Joe Sr as he tells stories of his son.
Billey Joe John…: You could see his baby pictures. He’s a big old. Some arms like that when he was little old bitty baby. He started walking when he was nine months old. He nine months old, he got rid of the pamper and the bottle.
Jonathan Jones: Nice.
Billey Joe John…: Yeah.
Al Letson: From a young age, Billey Joe was drawn to football.
Billey Joe John…: His mama worked at the Lucedale Sportswear and she had one of the balls and there was a foam football and every time she come in he always wanted to try to get that ball. And he was probably about a year and a half, close to two-year-old, and she gave him that ball and ever since then that’s all he knew is football, football, football.
Al Letson: It was an obsession that would transport him from his trailer and the backwoods of Mississippi to his own field of dreams. He wanted to play under the big lights. Even as a little kid he played in elementary school and by 8th grade, Billey Joe started teaming up with another football player, RJ Spivry.
RJ Spivry: And we met back up in middle school and we were best friends ever since.
Al Letson: They grew up together. RJ is long past playing on football fields, but you can tell he loves reminiscing about his high school glory days.
RJ Spivry: Football is the key thing around here. It’s Friday nights, everybody, the whole town come out.
Al Jones: Well you understand being a rural community, there’s limited act things. There’s Friday night, it’s not only people come out to watch a football game, it’s a social event too.
Al Letson: Al Jones is a Lucedale alderman now, but back when RJ and Billey Joe were playing, he was their coach.
Football is still a huge part of the community. On a warm autumn night in 2019, the stands are still packed with students, their families and folks from around town. The crowd cheers as the football players take to the field wearing maroon and gold uniforms. Cheerleaders get the crowd going. Almost everyone here in the stands and on the field is white, including the mascot for the George County Rebels, a cartoon character that looks like Robert E. Lee. Billey Joe made a big impression on Coach Jones.
Al Jones: That’s what’s amazing because as strong as he was, he was one of the strongest kids on the team, but he is one of the fastest kids on the team. And he was able to go sideline to sideline to stop and change direction. So he had a little bit of Walter Peyton type running back into him. When Walter would do a lot of dance, but when Walter to put his head down, he could turn and go up field and that’s what Billey Joe was. I mean, just be amazed at what he could do athletically.
Larry Shirley: Tailback Billey Joe Johnson has rushed for nearly 3,000 yards in his first two years on the varsity squad.
Al Letson: Larry Shirley was the play-by-play announcer for the local radio station.
Larry Shirley: When you put the film in slow motion, everybody looks like they’re running in slow motion except one guy, and that would be Billey Joe. He would look like normal speed. He was that much better than the other guys and he could make a cut. He could turn. He could do all those things you need to be able to do to survive on a football field and get away from the defensive guys.
Al Letson: And when Billey and RJ were together, it was magic on the field.
Larry Shirley: And Billey Joe, of course he could do anything. Billey Joe could hit his mark and go yards and yards. If he busted it loose, he could go the whole way. He always had that potential. So I would say that relationship was pretty good.
Al Letson: RJ says their sophomore year was a big one for the team.
RJ Spivry: We both had a good year. Had on a lot of good seniors on that team, but me and Billey was a big key to that team. So our sophomore year we made a name for ourselves.
Al Letson: They made it all the way to the state championship game that year.
RJ Spivry: That was our first time we won the state ever. Everybody around town knew us. Everywhere we’d go, all the kids knew us. Yeah, it was pretty fun.
Alonzo Lawrence: I show you videos, he was different. Way different. I think Billey would’ve been the best ever to play here, to be real.
Al Letson: Alonzo Lawrence was a junior on the team when Billey Joe was a freshman.
Alonzo Lawrence: You can’t compare nobody to Billey. He was different, man, I’m telling you.
Al Letson: These days, Alonzo’s a coach at the high school. He’s seen a lot of kids play and still Billey Joe stands out.
Alonzo Lawrence: I don’t know if you ever played a video game where you create your own player. He was one them create a player. Like no lie, he like create a player. So nah, ain’t nobody close to him. Ain’t nobody even nowhere near.
Al Letson: In Billey Joe’s junior year, what would turn out to be his last, the stakes were high. The team had lost a lot of seniors and in their place were a lot of inexperienced players. But on offense, Billey Joe and RJ continued to click and Billey Joe was getting noticed.
Al Jones: The number of recruiters were up dramatically because of Billey Joe’s talent.
Larry Shirley: The rebels hand the ball off to super sophomore running back. Billey Joe Johnson who has averaged 7.3 yards per carry, bagging 10 touchdowns. Johnson has exploded for 1,065 yards.
Al Letson: When Billey was on that field, he was focused. You can see it in this footage. He died before everyone had a camera on their phone, but we do have a rare audio clip of Billey Joe talking about the game.
Billey Joe John…: When I get the ball I’m just looking for hold. I learned how to read it a lot better so I get the ball I’m looking for hold, take off. When I see a hold I just bust it.
Al Letson: Billey had a lot to look forward to. He had six Division 1 schools offering him scholarships, including Auburn, one of the premier college football programs in the country. He had big dreams. Bigger than that trailer could hold. Everything he wanted was just on the other side of that scrimmage line.
Over the course of reporting this story, we’ve gone back to the Johnsons’ trailer many times. One of those days we talked under that big oak tree. His father remembers Billey Joe as a country boy. He loved riding horses, playing around on his four-wheeler and hunting, which Billey Joe Sr says was always a part of his family’s life.
Billey Joe John…: Well, when I went hunting, I went out there to get supper. Whatever season’s in that’s what I’m going to kill. And I raised all of them up, my kids when they were little till they got up grown, big enough where they can get on the stand by themself. I had them all right side of me the whole time when they was hunting.
Al Letson: Billey Joe Sr says his son knew how to safely handle a shotgun and was an avid hunter. He loved it so much that as a teenager sometimes he’d get up before dawn and go into the woods and hunt before school, which is exactly what he told his dad he was going to do the day he died.
Billey Joe John…: Well, that morning I heard him got up, started moving through the house and said, “Oh baby, where that boy going?” First of all that morning, somebody going to go hunting or something, so I didn’t think no more about it.
Al Letson: That would be the last time Billey Joe Sr and his wife, Annette, would see their son alive. As the family talks about Billey Joe, stories of his life bring smiles and knowing chuckles, but the story of his death does the opposite. You can feel the mood change. The gathered family members look away or down at the ground as we talk about his death. His mother, Annette, died a few years after him. One of the family members told me she died of a broken heart.
This was the first time JJ and I met the Johnsons, so we really didn’t know the family dynamic. Obviously there was grief over Billey Joe’s death, but in that moment I could feel the weight of his mother’s passing.
Billey Joe John…: It took a lot out of her. I can leave and go somewhere and I come back and she’ll be in there watching his videos and in there crying, just sitting there, her and the dog sitting. His dog. That was all the time. When you leave and come back, she’ll be in there and put that movie in there. She’d be in there crying. Her and that dog, sitting there crying and praying.
Jonathan Jones: And how long did that go on for?
Billey Joe John…: A long time for, I don’t know, two, three years.
Jonathan Jones: Was there anything that you could do to get her out of it or was she just like-
Billey Joe John…: I’d get her and we’d go places and stuff, but that wasn’t doing no good. She missed her baby. She missed her baby.
Al Letson: For years, the Johnson family fought for answers because the official story just never made sense to them. How could Billey Joe accidentally shoot himself at a traffic stop? He knew how to safely handle firearms. And driving around with a loaded shotgun, his dad says Billey Joe would have never done that, never. Let alone grabbing a weapon during a police stop. They can’t believe that at all. The family has so many questions.
Billey Joe John…: Well, I really need closure for my wife too, because she couldn’t take it and her heart couldn’t take it and she had a massive heart attack. Her heart couldn’t take it. She missed her baby and I need closure for her too.
Al Letson: Tiffany, Billey Joe’s big sister sits to the side most of the time with her arms crossed watching JJ and me. Now that her mother is passed on, she’s the matriarch of the family. I don’t want to give you the wrong impression because matriarch sounds old and that’s not Tiffany. She is vibrant in her thirties with kids of her own. She can laugh and joke around with her family, but when she looks at us, it’s a different story. The look on her face tells me she doesn’t trust us.
To break the ice, we ask her and her little sister, India, to lunch. We go to a little restaurant in Lucedale. I tell her, “I don’t know if we can do anything with this story. It’s not enough that we have rumors and theories of what happened. We need some kind of proof.” And that’s when Tiffany looks me in the eye and says, “I have the police case file.” Yeah, that was a surreal moment. JJ and I exchanged looks and I know we’re both thinking we got to get those files, but then Tiffany says she wouldn’t give them to us or for that matter, even show it to us. She worked too hard and long to get those files to just give them away.
Tiffany Johnson: If you guys are not going to help us, then I’m not fixing to give over nothing because I don’t want to keep doing this over and over and we not getting nowhere.
Al Letson: That story when we come back. You’re listening to Reveal.
From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. In the years since Billey Joe’s death, his older sister, Tiffany, spearheaded the fight to get justice for her brother. They tried to get the case files from the DA.
Tiffany Johnson: They didn’t give us anything, they weren’t willing to give it to us.
Al Letson: She talked to lawyers, activists and journalists all telling her they could help, but eventually one by one, from her point of view, they all seemed to disappear, which made her hesitant to talk to us. She said her family had gotten the complete investigative file from the DA’s office, but there was no way she was just going to hand it over to us. Whereas her parents’ trailer is tucked away in a rural part of the county, Tiffany’s place is close to the center of town, a cul-de-sac with small one story brick apartments. Now, the first time we sat across from Tiffany at her kitchen table was intense and because we were just getting to know each other, I didn’t record. But later that year we sat down, cut on the recorder and she looked back at how she got the case files.
Tiffany Johnson: Well, actually I went through the process of trying to find a lawyer to get them because we were denied of all that. Police officers here was telling us they didn’t have it. “We don’t have it. There wasn’t one there.” I mean just didn’t want to give it to us. So I went Googling around in Jackson and I run across this lawyer, Thomas Rollins. And I went up there and I talked with him and he told me, he gave me a fee of how much it’ll be.
Al Letson: The fee was just to get the case files. That’s it. He guaranteed Tiffany he could do it, but first they had to come up with the money.
Do you mind telling me how much was it?
Tiffany Johnson: If I’m not mistaken, I think it was like 950 or 1,000. Somewhere up in there.
Al Letson: So-
Tiffany Johnson: It might’ve been 850.
Al Letson: Somewhere close to $1,000?
Tiffany Johnson: Yeah.
Al Letson: Somewhere around $1,000, which y’all didn’t have.
Tiffany Johnson: Mm-mm.
Al Letson: But the Johnsons found a way.
Tiffany Johnson: We sold fish plates. We went out about fish, shrimp. My dad barbecued. We had baked potato salad. I mean we just bought food to sell and we sold plates.
Al Letson: And where’d you sell them at?
Tiffany Johnson: We sold them in Benndale. Some we sold here in Lucedale and some we sold in Jackson County.
Al Letson: And people would just ride up?
Tiffany Johnson: Yes. Yeah, they knew what it was for because we had up signs telling them what we was getting the money up for and a lot of them were very supportive and helped us out.
Al Letson: So you guys sold a lot of fish?
Tiffany Johnson: Yeah, a lot of people donated as well.
Al Letson: How long does it take to come up with the money?
Tiffany Johnson: It didn’t take long. We had the money before even the month because people was donating and then we had some that, “Just for your family.” They was just giving.
Al Letson: And so you got all of that money together, you went down to the lawyer, you gave it to him, then what happened?
Tiffany Johnson: He gave us the paperwork. He was working on getting the paperwork while we was doing the fish plates.
Al Letson: They did it. They got the case files, but she was hesitant to just hand them over to us with good reason.
I want to take you back to that day though that you first met Jonathan and I. We’re two strangers. I think Jonathan had talked to you on the phone a little bit and we’re coming in here talking to you about the case and you say to us you got these case files and immediately Jonathan and I are like, “We’d like to see it.” But you didn’t want to show it to us. Why not?
Tiffany Johnson: Because like I told you guys when y’all came down here, I have been giving… Everybody who come here wanting to help us, telling us they for the family, we going to help you get justice. So it was like that with everybody that come out, come across us. This is what we done. We just gave them all the information for them to just turn around and tell us they can no longer help the case. When you guys come along, I felt the same way. That’s why I said if you guys are not going to help us, then I’m not fixing to give over nothing because I don’t want to keep doing this over and over and we not getting nowhere.
Al Letson: Tiffany’s protective of these files. I mean in some ways they’re her mother Annette’s legacy.
Earlier today we were talking a little bit and you told me how much you missed your mom.
Tiffany Johnson: I miss her a lot.
Al Letson: How long ago did she pass away?
Tiffany Johnson: 2014.
Al Letson: Was she sort of leading the fight to get justice for Billey Joe?
Tiffany Johnson: Absolutely.
Al Letson: What kind of stuff was she doing?
Tiffany Johnson: Well, relative would just come in and bring people to talk with the family and they’ll pretty much lean on to whomever they may be talking to at the time and she would just be with them to push, to try to get justice, giving them information, everything that they needed to try to get justice for her baby. She dealt with it up until the point where she left. She dealt with it. She wanted justice. Just hurt.
Al Letson: At some point. I’m sure that someone said that she died because her heart was broken. Can you kind of explain that to me?
Tiffany Johnson: I can’t. I can’t.
Al Letson: All I could tell her was that if she gave us the files, we would try to understand what happened the morning Billey Joe died and if the authorities got it right. We’d go wherever the files led us and we won’t abandon this and leave her hanging. We’d keep her in the loop. I asked Tiffany if she’d ever looked at the materials.
Tiffany Johnson: Some of it. Some of it I did. A lot of it I just… It upset me, so I just I didn’t.
Al Letson: What about the rest of the family?
Tiffany Johnson: No.
Al Letson: Were you the only one that held onto them?
Tiffany Johnson: Yeah. I am.
Al Letson: After she agreed to share the files with us, I understood why she didn’t look at them. The images are graphic and disturbing. Pictures of her brother laid out on the ground, dressed in hunting camos next to his truck, blood settling into the asphalt. JJ and I went through the files. Both of us were amazed. There was so much there.
We went home feeling the gravity of that trip to Mississippi. All these years, thinking about this case and this young man, it hits different when you’re staring at pictures of his body in that condition. What was all theory becomes real.
We get home and start going through the case files. So there are 11 DVDs. You’ve got 911 calls and radio traffic.
911 Dispatch: George County 911. What’s the location of your emergency?
Speaker 40: Yes, ma’am. It’s the trailer park. It’s located right across from the funeral home.
Al Letson: Crime scene photos, the autopsy report, forensic reports, dash cam footage from the police department.
Speaker 41: An SO got a call-out here because they had stopped the vehicle out here by Benndale Carpet and it was the guy, they didn’t know it at the time, we didn’t either, Billey Joe Johnson.
Al Letson: The Mississippi Bureau of Investigations case report and audio interviews by the investigators.
Speaker 42: And that’s whenever I noticed there was blood surrounding his head area. And of course at that point I realized this person-
Al Letson: These files cover everything that the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and the DA did over the course of a two-month investigation.
911 Dispatch: … to Lucedale, okay?
Al Letson: As we go through these files, a few people begin to stand out.
Special Agent J…: This is Special Agent Joe Wallace of the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations. Today’s date is the 8th day of December 2008. Today’s date is the 11th day of December 2008. Today’s date is the 27th day of December 2008.
Al Letson: Wallace is a part of every interview. He’s an experienced investigator and a Black man, which initially gave the Johnsons some hope that their son’s death would get a fair investigation.
Special Agent J…: Can you go ahead and tell me about certain incidences that occurred in the morning right prior to when you first came on shift this morning, if you wouldn’t mind for me please?
Al Letson: Then there’re the people who drove by the scene.
Speaker 44: Well, I don’t really have anything that spectacular to say. I was coming to work and I saw the blue lights at Benndale Carpet store.
Speaker 45: There was a body laying on the ground and the officer was in his vehicle, was in his patrol car.
Speaker 46: There was no officer anywhere near the truck at that point. The officer was still in the… Let’s put it like this. The officer’s door was closed. There was still someone in the police car. Okay?
Al Letson: And of course, Joe Sullivan, the police officer who pulled Billey Joe over.
Joe Sullivan: At 26 and Old 63, the vehicle stopped in the parking lot of Benndale Carpet. I got out of the vehicle to talk to the driver about the violations. He exited the vehicle, handed me his driver’s license, and advised me that the reason he ran the stop sign was because his mother was sick.
Al Letson: Now, the one person who’s not in the files, but his presence is all over the case. District Attorney Tony Lawrence, who oversaw the investigation.
DA Tony Lawrenc…: I suspect he was probably trying to maneuver the gun in a place to where he was trying to either unload it or get it out of the car to unload it or something of that nature and it discharged on him.
Al Letson: That’s just a taste. There’s a lot in these files and we’re going to look at every single piece to try and unravel the question at the heart of the story. Was justice served in the case of Billey Joe Johnson?
Before we dig deep into this case, you and I, dear listener, need to have a covenant between us. There are a ton of true crime podcasts out there, some are really great, and if that’s what you’re looking for, I encourage you to find those because this is not that show.
I’m not asking the Johnsons or anybody else to relive the worst thing that ever happened to them for your listening pleasure. I’m not interested in commodifying Black death. I am interested in looking at the system and understanding it so that change may be implemented. I’m asking for you to go on that journey with us, but to always remember that Billey Joe Johnson is not a character in a podcast you love, but he was a human being whose life mattered, and that’s why we want to understand his death. I’m Al Letson and you’ve been listening to Reveal’s serial investigation, Mississippi Goddam: The Ballad of Billey Joe. Chapter One: The Promise.
If you want to dig into the documents we found while reporting this story, they’re available on our website at revealnews.org/casefiles. That’s revealnews.org/casefiles. You’ll find the Grand Jury Report, police investigative files, the autopsy report, and all the source documents that we use to put this story together.
Our show was reported and produced by Jonathan Jones and me and edited by Kevin Sullivan. Michael I Schiller is our series producer, Steven Rascón the assistant producer, Ala 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, who helped launch the project, Alexis Hightower, Esther Kaplan, Christa Scharfenberg, Sumi Aggarwal, and Sarah Mirk.
Mama Blue sang our theme song, which was written and composed by Nina Simone. Thanks to her estate and Music and Strategy. We got news and sports footage of Billey Joe courtesy of Gray Media Group and WLOX-TV. 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, Rascón.
Original score and sound designed by the dynamic duo, J 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. Our CEO is Robert Rosenthal. Our COO is Maria Feldman. Our interim executive producers are Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis.
In next week’s episode, JJ and I go on the road.
Speaker 49: Proceed to the route. Turn right onto Deep Creek Road.
Al Letson: We retrace the last moments of Billey Joe’s life.
This is a really tight window, right? I mean like according to the GPS, we’re going to get there right around the time that he… We’ll get there right around the same time.
Jonathan Jones: Right.
Al Letson: GPS says, we’ll be there right now at 5:24.
To see if the official version of events-
Joe Sullivan: He was flying, probably 40, 45, 50 miles an hour.
Al Letson: … makes any sense. Along the way, an early twist in the case.
Speaker 50: So my dog’s barking, and then I hear this big knock on the door like somebody’s trying to beat the door in, coming in. So I got my phone and called my mama and said, “Mama, hurry. Fast. Someone’s trying to break in.”
Al Letson: That’s next week on Reveal. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva 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.