Monday, 04 September 2023 06:35

Mississippi Goddam Chapter 5: Star Crossed

Billey Joe Johnson Jr. and Hannah Hollinghead first started dating in ninth grade. On the left is Johnson in a high school yearbook. On the right is the couple at their 10th grade prom. Credit: Courtesy of the Johnson family

Billey Joe Johnson was a Black boy dating a White girl. That made the story behind his death even more complicated.

Billey Joe Johnson Jr. and Hannah Hollinghead met in their freshman year of high school. Hollinghead says Johnson was her first love, and in many ways, it was a typical teen romance. Friends say they would argue, break up, then get back together again. Some people were far from accepting of their interracial relationship.

On Dec. 8, 2008, they were both dating other people. According to Hollinghead and her mother, Johnson made an unexpected stop at her house, moments before he died of a gunshot wound during a traffic stop on the edge of town.

But it appears that investigators failed to corroborate statements or interview Johnson’s friends and family to get a better idea of what was going on in his life on the day he died. Reveal exposes deep flaws in the investigation and interviews the people closest to Johnson, who were never questioned during the initial investigation.

This episode was originally broadcast in November 2021.

Photos

The Rebels mascot is painted on a wall. He is a White man with white facial hair and a black suit, cowboy hat and cane.
The George County High School Rebels’ mascot is a White Southern colonel. Credit: Ko Bragg for Reveal
Cheerleaders in maroon and white uniforms raise their pom-poms.
Cheerleaders at the George County High School homecoming game in 2019. Credit: Imani Khayyam for Reveal
Billey Joe Johnson Jr.’s sister Tiffanie Johnson Bradley. Credit: Imani Khayyam for Reveal

Dig Deeper

Listen: The whole Mississippi Goddam series

Read: 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 Mieszkowski, Jen Chien, Esther Kaplan, Sumi Aggarwal, Christa Scharfenberg, Alexis Hightower and actor Steve Isom Phillips for reading the court transcript.

Mama Blue sang our theme song, which was written and composed by Nina Simone. Thanks to the Nina Simone estate and Music and Strategy.

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: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. It’s June 21st, 1948 in Ellisville, Mississippi, and Davis Knight is in love. He met Junie Lee Spradley a few years ago. They got married and settled down on a farm in Mississippi, but on this day that love is being put to the test. Davis Knight is in court. A grand jury is indicting him for violating the state’s law against miscegenation. That’s an antiquated word for an interracial relationship. There’s no recordings of that case, but we had an actor read the indictment.
Speaker 2: Davis and I, on the 21st day of June 1948 in the county and district the foresaid did, being a citizen of the state of Mississippi and a Negro or a mulatto male person with one eighth or more of Negro blood.
Al Letson: Davis appears to be White, but he’s facing charges because his great-grandmother was Black. In 1940s Mississippi, that heritage was enough to indict him.
Speaker 2: And being a person who is prohibited by the laws of the state of Mississippi from marrying a White person or a person of the Caucasian race did on or about the 18th day of April 1946, willfully and feloniously and unlawfully marry Junie Lee Spradley, a White female person, and did willfully, feloniously, and unlawfully live with her and cohabit with her as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the state of Mississippi.
Al Letson: Davis was convicted and sentenced to five years in Parchman Prison. State Supreme Court eventually overturned the conviction, but Davis and Junie’s marriage was short-lived. The couple separated a few years later.
In 1967, nearly 20 years after Davis Knight was convicted, the US Supreme Court finally overturned anti-miscegenation laws with the Loving versus Virginia case. But in Mississippi, interracial marriages were still in a gray area, because they were outlawed as a part of the state’s constitution. I should be clear, Mississippi is not an outlier. Most states had these same laws at some point in their history. But it wasn’t until 1987 that Mississippi voters passed an amendment to its constitution, guaranteeing the right to marriages that crossed racial lines. The vote was extremely close, 52% in favor, 48% against.
At the time, a political science professor at a mostly White private college in Mississippi told the Associated Press that some people just couldn’t bring themselves to do it. People still have deep-seated feelings about interracial marriages. He said the old phrase probably kept coming up, “Would you want your daughter to marry one?” As recently as 2011, there was still strong opposition to interracial marriages in Mississippi. A poll found that 46% of Republicans were against it.
The fear of Black men and White women being intimate, having babies, and cohabitating, was the fuel that White supremacy used to murder Black men. Many of their names fill the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Allegations of rape or even just a rumor of a Black man flirting with a White woman could end in death. And that’s the fertile ground where fears and suspicion took root for Billey Joe Johnson’s family.
You’re listening to the rebroadcast of Reveal’s Serial Investigation.
(singing)
Mississippi Goddam: The Ballad of Billey Joe. This is Episode Five, Star-crossed.
The Department of Justice stresses the importance of getting a full picture of a victim’s life by talking to friends, family, and acquaintances, but when the DOJ reviewed Billey Joe’s case, they didn’t do that. They did a mostly paper review, meaning they based their report largely on what they found in the case file created by Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and the local district attorneys office. After we interviewed Special Agent Joe Wallace, we realized investigators focused on interviewing people who reportedly crossed paths with Billey Joe the morning of his death. Joe Sullivan, the deputy who pulled him over, other members of law enforcement, and Billey Joe’s ex-girlfriend, Hannah Hollinghead, who said Billey Joe had made an unexpected stop at her trailer the morning he died. That gives a limited view of who Billey Joe was and what was going on in his life around the time of his death. Now we’re going to take a closer look.
On the day Billey Joe died, he had a lot to look forward to. He was planning to go to a student award banquet later that day. He had football scholarship offers from schools like Auburn and Alabama. He had a busy social life. Inside his trucks were notes from several girls. Friends say he dated a lot. On one of our trips to Mississippi, we stopped by the Johnsons’ place to check in.
Jonathan Jones: He is not in the mood to be friendly. Hey, Mr. Johnson. How you doing today?
Billey Joe Sr.: I’m doing just fine.
Al Letson: Billey Joe Sr., meets me and reporter Jonathan Jones outside his trailer on a warm spring daughter. His daughters, India, Tiffanie, and Tiffanie’s husband, Cedric Johnson, are also there. Cedric tells us that Billey Joe stood out from other kids because of his character. He thought he would have a big life, but he didn’t live long enough to get there.
Cedric Johnson: We know he wasn’t a troubled person. He wasn’t a young man to get in trouble. He’d do the normal thing.
Al Letson: Was the family worried when he started dating a White girl?
Cedric Johnson: Now that I can’t tell you, but I can tell you this. I was. Point blank period, the day I seen it, the day I seen it, I was totally against it. Now growing up as a young Black man in the South, no one have to tell me that I don’t need to date White girl. You don’t have to tell me that. I don’t think you ever going to feel that and know the results of that, of what that means. But somehow it’s like you born with a gene, certain gene, you’re born with it, that’s just the way it was with me. It’s like we know not to go there.
Al Letson: But as we know, Billey Joe did go there. He dated several White girls, but one stood out, Hannah Hollinghead.
Drew Bradley: I think honestly deep down he really did love her.
Al Letson: Drew Bradley grew up with Billey Joe and they played football together. He says Billey and Hannah couldn’t stay away from each other. They started dating freshman year. They were both athletes. In many ways it was a typical on-again, off-again high school romance.
Drew Bradley: They always argued and they’d break up. All his people would be like, “Man, just leave her alone.”
Al Letson: But Billey Joe was Black. Hannah was White. And Drew, who’s White, says racial divisions ran deep in Lucedale. He and Billey were able to bridge that gap, but they were two boys. No big deal. White girls dating Black guys, well that was a whole other story.
Drew Bradley: I mean, all the parents were like, “Oh my god. No. No. Oh my god.”
Al Letson: Generally, kids who were interracially dating kept it quiet in grade school.
Drew Bradley: Once we got to high school and they wouldn’t let it be a secret no more and it was all out in the open, the whole little town started whispering.
Al Letson: Another friend of Billey Joe’s experienced that racism firsthand.
RJ Spivery: I dated a lot of White girls in high school. Some of the dads didn’t want them talking to me or just punished them because they talking to a Black guy and all kind of stuff.
Al Letson: RJ Spivery says it wasn’t always just talk.
RJ Spivery: I had a run-in with one of my girlfriend, her dad came over here in front of my house. He followed me over here. We parked right there. He tried to zoom up on the side of me where I couldn’t get out but I actually got out. My dad was here though. He followed us through town.
Al Letson: What’d he say when he pulled up?
RJ Spivery: As soon as I got out the car, I went into the house. My daddy came out here and my daddy had words but it was all because she was with a Black dude.
Jada Havard: It’s still a big deal in that little town.
Al Letson: Jada Havard was one of the White girls RJ dated in high school.
Jada Havard: You can’t be seen in public because lord forbid somebody sees you. They’re burning the phones up to call and be like, “I saw this one with that one. Oh my gosh, she was with a Black man.” It’s terrible and it’s still that way.
Al Letson: We spoke to Jada’s mom, Amy, about this too. She says she didn’t like it when Jada started dating Black guys in high school.
Amy: I wasn’t brought up like that, and I did not like it. I disapproved of it, because my daughter done it and I disapproved of it. I’ll be the first to say I disapproved of it.
Al Letson: But she says she learned to accept it. Jada’s mom said that Billey Joe and Hannah would often hang at her house after school. They’d also spend a lot of time at Hannah’s aunt’s house, who lived in the same complex. She says Hannah would sneak around to see Billey Joe. And for the 10th grade prom, Hannah told her parents, Ester and Ed, that she was going with Jada, when she was actually going with Billey Joe.
Amy: Her parents didn’t even know she was going to the prom with him, because when my daughter told me they were going together I was like, “Oh my god, Ed is going to kill her.” But they ended up meeting. She ended up going to the prom with him. They never approved of them two, ever. I don’t know if it was really a racist thing, because I’m not going to say maybe it was full-blown racist, but I think it was just they had fought so much and there was always so much disagreement. Maybe they was just afraid it was going to be a major bad deal if they broke up. You never know what your kids say to the parents or whatever but I’m not going to just throw it all off on racism.
Al Letson: She said Hannah’s parents didn’t like Billey Joe, because he would roughhouse with Hannah. She heard he had thrown Hannah up against her locker at school. Now she never witnessed any of this firsthand. Jada and at least three other people we spoke to have a different opinion as to why Hannah’s folks didn’t like Billey Joe.
Jada Havard: It was all color-related. That was it. Bottom line, it was color.
Al Letson: Hannah’s mom wouldn’t do a recorded interview with us, and her dad never got back to us, so we weren’t able to ask them about this ourselves. After going through the case files, we could only find a couple times that investigators brought up the issue of interracial relationships. Scott McElrath of the DA’s office touches on it during an interview with Hannah’s aunt, Tammy Hollinghead. She’s the one that let Billey Joe and Hannah hang out at her place.
Tammy Hollinghe…: I have known about it since probably the beginning, which like I said, two, two and a half years. Overall it was a good relationship, but like every teenager, they argued and they fussed. But far as anything really bad, I can’t say they was.
Al Letson: Even in the questions you can sense how people in Lucedale might react to interracial relationships.
Scott McElrath: Hi. I ask this question. I don’t mean to embarrass you or anything, but you have pointed out to us that you yourself have some interracial children. Is that correct?
Tammy Hollinghe…: Yes, I do.
Scott McElrath: And Ed, Hannah’s dad, is your brother, right?
Tammy Hollinghe…: Yes.
Scott McElrath: Are there other interracial relationships in your family?
Tammy Hollinghe…: Oh yeah. There’s plenty of us. We have several cousins that’s got mixed kids.
Al Letson: When Billey Joe died, one of the first things many people thought was that it had something to do with him dating White girls. The NAACP, many of Billey Joe’s family, friends, and other community members, all brought this up to us. So did medical examiner Dr. Adele Lewis. But in our review of the case file, race almost never comes up. None of the investigators from the FBI or the DA’s office asked Hannah or her mother about it in either of their interviews. After months of trying to reach Hannah and Ester, one day JJ’s phone rings.
Jonathan Jones: Hi, Hannah. Thank you so much for calling me back, and I do apologize. This is not the funnest part of my job is to keep calling people, but I wanted to-
Al Letson: That’s next on Reveal.
From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Jonathan Jones: Hi, Hannah. Thank you so much for calling me back, and I do apologize. This is not the funnest part of my job is to keep calling people, but I wanted to-
Al Letson: After two years of trying to connect with Billey Joe’s ex-girlfriend, Hannah Hollinghead, my recording partner, Jonathan Jones, finally gets her on the phone.
Jonathan Jones: I really would like to talk to you and tell you about what we’re doing and just lay out everything for you. I don’t know-
Al Letson: She didn’t agree to a recorded interview, but she did speak to JJ for about an hour. She told him that she has a family of her own now, but no matter what she does, Billey Joe’s death has followed her. She says some people have accused her family of being involved. Months later, I also spoke to her. Again, not recorded. We talked in November 2021 while this series was first airing. She said now that this series has come out, there’s even more attention on the case and pressure on her family. She said Billey Joe was her first love and that he had a heart of gold. She told me she’s married to a Black man. She said her parents didn’t have a problem with Billey Joe because he was Black, it was because he was aggressive with her. She never wanted the public to know about it. She didn’t mention it to police in the first interview, but when she and her mom were called in for more questioning, she brings it up.
Hannah Hollingh…: Well, when Billey got really mad, he would hit me. I had several bruises from Billey, but I never wanted to tell my parents, because I didn’t want to take it any further. I didn’t want to get him in trouble, because Billey had everything going for him.
Al Letson: In the second interview, she tells investigators there were a series of incidents between her and Billey Joe before his death. Special Agent Joe Wallace, the lead investigator, mentions Hannah showed him her bruised arm on the day Billey Joe died.
Hannah Hollingh…: We had dated for two years on and off. When all this happened, we weren’t dating at the time. He actually had another girlfriend and I had found out about it. It was the time that he acted different. He was mad. He said things he didn’t mean when he was mad, made threats, but I know deep down in my heart he didn’t mean them. I mean, he was a great guy. He would give the shirt off his back to anybody, but Billey had anger problems that everybody seemed to overlook.
Al Letson: Joe asked Hannah about her dad.
Joe Wallace: Okay. And has he had any altercations or any conversations or anything with Billey Joe?
Hannah Hollingh…: Him and Billey talked.
Joe Wallace: I mean, I ain’t talking about talking. I’m talking about have they been in any arguments or disagreements about you and him dating or anything that you know of?
Hannah Hollingh…: I mean, of course they didn’t like the fact, but he never fought with… Him and Billey never had hard words.
Al Letson: He then turns to Hannah’s mom.
Joe Wallace: Have you, Ms Ester Parker, have you had any?
Ms Ester Parker: We had words. What I mean by that is we just didn’t agree. I did not like the way that he treated my daughter. It was always due to the fact that something, either he had pulled on her, jerked her around, something like that. It was never a good thing. It’s always bad situation. I’ve had to go to the school and talk to the school because he had pushed on her, jerked on her, pulled her around.
Al Letson: Hannah’s mom has brought in a handwritten affidavit from the beginning of the school year. It alleges that Billey Joe put Hannah in fear of serious bodily harm by making threats against her.
Ms Ester Parker: That stemmed to September when I had to go to the school. That was one of the times when he had jerked her out of the car at school in the parking lot and pulled her by the hair of the head and some other things.
Al Letson: We talked to RJ Spivery, who told us he remembers Ester coming to school all upset around that time, but isn’t sure why.
RJ Spivery: I was sitting in Miss Clinton class, and Coach Nelson come to the door and asked me to come out the classroom. I went out there, asked him what was wrong. He said could I come get Billey, calm Billey down. I’m like, “For what? What happened?” He’s like, “Ester up here, and him and Ester getting into it, and Billey upset.” He was like, “Can you come walk him off?” I said, “Yeah.” Then I went down there where they was. They was down there by the front office. I went down there [inaudible]. Ester kept walking away, and Billey was turning around to walk off. Ester was steady saying stuff. Then I’d turn around and tell Coach Nelson, “Hey man, you all just tell her to leave school.”
Ms Ester Parker: And it was that following Wednesday I went and made charges, harassment charges on him at justice court.
Al Letson: Investigators tried to verify this. They were told the case was sent to youth court, but there’s no further information about it in the case file. Billey Joe’s dad says no one got in touch with him about it. RJ and other friends we spoke to say they never saw Billey Joe hit Hannah.
RJ Spivery: No, I ain’t never saw none of it. I feel like if he was putting hands on her, you would know.
Al Letson: Allegations of abuse should always be taken seriously. We take them seriously. Investigators should’ve taken them seriously too. But according to the case files, they didn’t try to verify these claims, so we made every effort. Billey Joe Sr. said he’d never been told any of this, and the Johnsons don’t believe Billey Joe hit her. His older sister Tiffanie says:
Tiffanie Johnso…: He was a minor at the time. Why wasn’t my parents notified? They have all this they say, Junior was this and he was that, but you never try to get in contact with the parents to talk about it, discuss nothing, let them know that their son was beating they daughter. I mean, none of this. It was none of that. No police records, no charges pressed, no nothing.
Al Letson: Hannah says Billey Joe’s coaches protected him. His head coach, Al Jones, and one assistant coach told us they never heard of any abuse. We reached out to the school resource officer, a former teacher, high school counselors, and administrators. None of them agreed to an interview. The Johnsons even requested Billey Joe’s records, but they say the school would no longer have them.
During the second interview with police, Ester brings up a run-in they had with Billey Joe at the county fair.
Ms Ester Parker: I said, “Billey, look, we’ve asked you very nicely. Just leave her alone. That’s all I want you to do. We’ve been nice about it. Just leave her alone. That’s all we want you to do.” He was like, “I don’t have to listen to you. I don’t want to talk to you. You need to do something with her. I don’t want to talk to her.”
Al Letson: Ester also mentions a phone call she had with Billey Joe.
Ms Ester Parker: I was home for lunch. He called my phone. I let him talk, and then I finally told him, I said, “Billey, remember you called me, so now it’s time for you to listen to me. You know that I’ll never approve of the situation. You’ll never be welcome in my home, but I will always love my daughter and try to protect her.” And I said, “I want you to know if you hurt her, I’m going to see that something is done, and you need to know this.”
Al Letson: “I’m going to see that something is done.” It just hangs in the room, but investigators never follow up on the statement. When we interviewed Joe Wallace, he said after speaking with us, he would’ve conducted the interview differently. He would’ve asked some followup questions. On the days leading up to his death, Hannah describes Billey Joe as unraveling.
Hannah Hollingh…: Billey had good days and he had bad days. Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday were bad days for him.
Al Letson: She says they had a big argument in the high school parking lot that Friday, her birthday, after he told her that he started seeing someone else, but that he still loved her. After that she says Billey Joe kept trying to get in touch with her, leaving cryptic messages.
Hannah Hollingh…: And then Sunday he had sent my phone messages, but I would read them and delete them. Sunday night he had texted one of my other friends and said that things were going to be different on Monday, that everybody would know him and everybody would know me and George County would know who we are.
Al Letson: Investigators never really follow up on these allegations. They don’t ask her why she was deleting these text messages, and it doesn’t appear they try to check this out with Hannah’s friends. There are no easy answers here, but one truth. We would know much more about these accusations, both against and from Hannah’s family if investigators had followed up on what they heard, including this allegation from Hannah and her mom during their second interview with investigators.
Ms Ester Parker: The only thing that I can, just by sitting here listening to her, that I see that she’s leaving out is the fact that the Thursday afternoon prior to this happening, a statement was made in the barber shop where all these kids get their hair cut. He said, “It’s going to end and I’m going to take Hannah with me.”
Speaker 16: So, are you implying that Billey made a statement?
Ms Ester Parker: Billey made this statement in the barber shop Thursday afternoon prior to the 8th.
Speaker 16: Who did he make that to?
Hannah Hollingh…: I’m not sure. There was a bunch of boys.
Ms Ester Parker: There was a bunch of them in there and we were told that he made the statement and they all just brushed it off because they thought he was just talking.
Joe Wallace: What barber shop would that be? This is Special Agent Wallace.
Ms Ester Parker: It’s called E’s. It’s located in Palm Plaza next to the Pizza Hut here in Lucedale.
Speaker 16: Would it have been other high school students that he made this comment to or-
Hannah Hollingh…: Yeah, there were high school students in there.
Speaker 16: … were they football players of his, or friends of his?
Hannah Hollingh…: Yep.
Joe Wallace: Who were they? Let’s name them.
Hannah Hollingh…: RJ Spivery, Chavis Jones, and I want to say Aaron Ward was in there.
Al Letson: When I heard this part of the interview, I was shocked. It seems like they’re claiming Billey Joe threatened to kill himself and Hannah. Joe Wallace follows up.
Joe Wallace: How would you know that? I’m just asking. Devil’s advocate. How would you know? Somebody told you that he said that?
Hannah Hollingh…: Yeah.
Joe Wallace: Who would that have been?
Hannah Hollingh…: I think it was Chavis and RJ. I met them that morning of the 8th. I met them, and they said that he was talking about it in the barber shop. Then Aaron Ward text me a few days after that, and he told me that he didn’t know what had happened and everything, but he said that Billey had been talking about it in the barber shop but they all just looked at him and told him he was crazy.
Al Letson: JJ and I went through all the case files to see if investigators talked to anyone to verify this claim, that Billey Joe had talked about killing himself four days before his death, but there’s nothing. So we followed up ourselves.
Jonathan Jones: How many times you think you cut Billey Joe’s hair?
Ernest McCann: I’ve been cutting Billey Joe’s hair ever since I think he was in the 7th, 8th grade. He was big then.
Al Letson: Ernest McCann runs E’s Barber Shop. It’s in a strip mall next to an old Pizza Hut in Lucedale.
Jonathan Jones: How often would he come in for a haircut?
Ernest McCann: He would come in, if not every week, every other week.
Al Letson: The shop is like where I grew up getting my hair cut, a place where people gathered not just for a cut, but to talk to the barber and each other. It’s been over a decade since Billey’s death, but according to Ernest, not much has changed at the shop, same building, same barber. Our biggest question for Ernest was did he remember Billey Joe saying something like it was all going to end and he was going to take Hannah with him.
Ernest McCann: I never heard it come out his mouth. I never heard it. Just like I say, I never heard it. I never heard him talk about it. I’ve been cutting his hair for a minute and ain’t never heard him say anything in that way about killing somebody.
Al Letson: Ernest remembers the last time Billey Joe came in for a cut.
Ernest McCann: That was my last time cutting his hair before he got killed, so that’s how I remember that Thursday. Ever since that day when he got killed, it always been when I think of Billey Joe, I think of the last day I cut his hair. It wasn’t like, what, two, three days after he got his hair cut.
Al Letson: He says Billey Joe was alone that day, which was unusual, because he tended to come with a group of friends. Given what Ester and Hannah said, you’d think investigators would talk to Ernest.
Jonathan Jones: Did anybody follow up with you on this?
Ernest McCann: Never. I never talked to anybody about anything. No officers or lawyers or investigators or anything, none of those.
Al Letson: We also tracked down Billey Joe’s friends, the ones Hannah said were there when he made that statement at the barber shop.
Aaron ward: That’s totally false. That’s totally false. He never, ever said anything like it.
Al Letson: That’s Aaron Ward. We called him on his cellphone, so the sound isn’t great. He says, “It’s totally false. Billey Joe never, ever said anything like it.”
And you’re 100% sure you never heard Billey Joe say anything like that?
Aaron ward: Yes, I’m 100% positive.
Al Letson: We played it for Chavis Jones.
Hannah Hollingh…: He didn’t know what had happened and everything, but he said that Billey had been talking about it in the barber shop but they all just looked at him and told him he was crazy.
Chavis Jones: That never happened. Never happened.
Al Letson: Remember, Chavis is now a sheriff’s deputy.
Chavis Jones: And that’s what didn’t make sense. She told them in the meeting that we supposedly was witness to him saying that he was going to kill himself and her. Why didn’t they ever come talk to us? I never heard anything of that until I talked to you the first time. First time I ever heard of it, and it’s been years ago. I never heard anything about it. Why didn’t anybody say anything to us about it?
Al Letson: JJ and I asked RJ what he thought. Have you ever even heard about this conversation before?
RJ Spivery: Mm-mm.
Jonathan Jones: Why do you think she would make up a story that wouldn’t be true?
RJ Spivery: I don’t know. I think from listening to that, I feel like Hannah didn’t even know what her mom was talking about, because that’s when she said, “I think RJ and Chavis…” I mean, how can you think? That wasn’t too far ago. That was a… wouldn’t you say a month after that happened?
Jonathan Jones: Yes.
RJ Spivery: How you forget something that quick, something that important?
Al Letson: Both Chavis and RJ told us they weren’t even at the barber shop Thursday with Billey, just like Ernest the barber said. None of them ever heard Billey make that threat, not that day or any other. I don’t know what to make of Hannah and her mom’s statements to the police, but it was the job of investigators and the district attorney to follow up on those leads and they didn’t. This is a big problem, because the Justice Department cited statements from Hannah and her mother as part of the reason they thought suicide was likely. Their interviews carry a lot of weight because investigators didn’t do more work to check them out. Next we asked the people who knew Billey Joe best what his mindset was in the days before his death.
Billey Joe Sr.: Ain’t no way for him to kill his self. He wasn’t suicidal. I don’t know what they talking about.
Tiffanie Johnso…: At all. At all.
Al Letson: You’re listening to Reveal.
From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Before we move on, I should say that his segment deals with sensitive issues surrounding suicide and the emotional trauma around it. It may not be suitable for everybody.
JJ and I returned to Billey Joe’s home this summer. It’s a hot morning. Chickens are running through the yard. The trailer door opens and out comes Billey Joe Sr. We make small talk with him as we wait for his children, Tiffanie, India, and Eddie, to arrive.
Jonathan Jones: You’ve been doing all right?
Billey Joe Sr.: Yeah. We going through a lot of different things. Old back and then I messed my knee up.
Jonathan Jones: How’d you mess your knee up?
Billey Joe Sr.: It’s from my back. It just gave out on me. It gave out on me, and I fell and messed that inside of it up right here. I go to therapy two days out of the week.
Jonathan Jones: Oh, man.
Billey Joe Sr.: And that ain’t helping my back, man. Trying to do that exercise that making that much more worse.
Jonathan Jones: I’m sorry. You want to sit down? Are you okay standing?
Billey Joe Sr.: Oh, I’m good.
Jonathan Jones: All right.
Al Letson: When Tiffanie gets there, we start talking about the Justice Department’s report on Billey Joe’s death. Remember the Johnsons petitioned the DOJ to look into the case. On April 15th, 2011, a year and a half after his death, the DOJ sent a letter to the johnson family. Tiffanie reads this to us.
Tiffanie Johnso…: “Dear Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, please accept our condolences on the tragic death of your son, Billey Joe Jr.”
Al Letson: The family had a lot of hope that the feds would open a new investigation and give them the justice they believed local authorities hadn’t.
Tiffanie Johnso…: “We have determined that there is insufficient evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the allegation that Deputy Sullivan and any other officer-”
Al Letson: The grand jury had ruled that Billey Joe’s death was an accidental shooting, and that the wound path did not support homicide or suicide. The DOJ’s forensic experts disagreed with that and said the most likely cause of death was suicide.
Tiffanie Johnso…: “Accordingly, we all are closing this matter without pursuing a federal prosecution.”
Al Letson: Case closed. At this point, JJ and I have been visiting the Johnsons for two years. In all that time, we never really asked them about the possibility that Billey Joe killed himself.
Let me ask you guys this. It’s a hard question. Neither JJ or I want to ask it, but this is what’s going to come up when people hear the story.
It’s a hard thing to talk about, but I have to ask.
I got to ask you this. Is it possible that Billey Joe went to Hannah’s house, some craziness went down, he’s running, scared, he thinks that he’s messed up majorly, everything is falling apart, and he grabs that shotgun and kills himself?
Billey Joe Sr.: No. Ain’t no way.
Al Letson: What do you think about that?
Tiffanie Johnso…: I’m done talking. Let my daddy talk.
Billey Joe Sr.: I really don’t have too much to say about it, because ain’t no way for him to kill his self. He wasn’t suicidal. I don’t know what they talking about.
Tiffanie Johnso…: At all. At all.
Eddie: I mean, but why would you be suicidal when you got everything going for you?
Tiffanie Johnso…: Your whole life ahead of you and you was so excited about this football. Why would you do that?
Al Letson: I would say that some people would say that they think that Billey had a hard relationship with his family because he stayed a lot with his coach.
Billey Joe Sr.: He never had no hard relationship with his family.
Al Letson: So you guys just feel strongly like there’s no way that Billey Joe-
Eddie: No, it ain’t no way.
Tiffanie Johnso…: No way.
Billey Joe Sr.: Ain’t no way he killed himself.
Tiffanie Johnso…: No way.
Eddie: I’m around my brother every day.
Tiffanie Johnso…: Every day.
Eddie: We talked about everything.
Tiffanie Johnso…: Everything.
Eddie: He ain’t never-
Billey Joe Sr.: He’d come to the house all the time. I don’t know where they keep getting these accusations from, talking about that he had problem with his family. He ain’t never had no problem with his family. I don’t understand that.
Al Letson: That fall, Billey Joe had stayed with a friend whose dad was an assistant coach on the football team. Gas prices were high, and it saved him money on his commute into school from Benndale.
Eddie: Suicide, no. I mean, a happy person walking around every day, for what?
Tiffanie Johnso…: That’s what I was saying, because somebody had asked me that. I was more or less like, “Are you kidding me?” I’m talking like this is somebody that I helped raise. My parents worked. You know what I’m saying? I slept in the bed with my brother and kids. We talked about stuff. I talked to my brother Sunday, the day before. We talked forever, talked about everything. He didn’t sound like he was depressed to me. Nothing. Then all of a sudden Monday this is what you get? He was depressed? About what? What was he depressed about?
Al Letson: This is the same thing we heard from almost everyone we talked to, Billey Joe’s friends, coaches, and members of the community. None of them felt like he would take his own life. When I talked to his ex-girlfriend Hannah Hollinghead, she told me no one would ever be able to convince her that Billey Joe took his life intentionally. Of the dozens of people we spoke to, no one said they saw any sign that he was thinking about taking his own life or saw any sudden changes in behavior. Folks told us there was something special about Billey Joe. He didn’t drink or use drugs. He liked to drive a little too fast and played video games. They described him as a fun-loving kid, someone who always made you laugh, who would send a loving text message. His head coach, Al Jones, said Billey Joe formed special bonds with the people around him.
Al Jones: Billey Joe, the kids loved him, but he could also get very down on his self sometimes. Just highs and lows sometime, because if he didn’t score a touchdown he would get frustrated. You’re not going to score a touchdown. That’s just part of it. Just the mentality but the kids loved him. That was a tremendous impact. When you lose a player in high school, because the high school kids don’t think about death. They’re invincible. That’s just their nature.
Al Letson: The night before he died, he spoke to a friend, Ashley Oneal, on the phone. This was his last cellphone call according to records. Ashley told me that they were making plans to go Christmas shopping when he got back from the awards banquet. She says he seemed concerned about something, but he didn’t mention what it was.
Jonathan Jones: I guess the question I have is if he called you and was sounding a little stressed out, some people would say maybe he was considering killing himself then.
Ashley Oneal: No, we was going shopping. We was going to go shopping. He would not have killed his self. He was not that type of person.
Al Letson: Dr. David Jobes is a professor of psychology at Catholic University and one of the foremost experts on suicide. He told us that if suicide had been a possibility, investigators should’ve interviewed a lot more people.
Dr. David Jobes: If you really wanted to get it right, you’d be interviewing a dozen people who knew the decedent well and the days leading up to his death, piecing together a mosaic, and not just relying on one source where there might be an agenda or guilt and/or regret. And so that part of it is curious to me.
Al Letson: He wrote his doctor dissertation on determining suicide in sudden death investigations. We asked him to review the DOJ report. He said there were flaws in the investigation because a psychological autopsy was never performed.
Dr. David Jobes: It would be like a physical autopsy where you’re examining the body to look at the mechanisms and the causes of death. So it’s meant to be paralleled, but the parallel is not a body. It’s a set of interviews looking potentially at medical records, looking at therapy notes, if they exist. Mostly interviews of people that knew the person. You’d want to have a number of those interviews from different perspectives that you then pull together to formulate a sense about a psychological intent. And so I would not say from what I saw that a proper psychological autopsy was conducted in this case, which is a shame, because there’s enough equivocality to it that I would think some of that information would’ve been valuable to get.
Al Letson: Yeah. What type of things would you be expecting to see? What type of things in your death investigation checklist, express suicidal thoughts, verbal statements, that kind of thing?
Dr. David Jobes: It would be the kind of stuff where they’re dropping hints left and right. More than one person could’ve said he was talking about checking out or that maybe it’s not worth it or he was overwhelmed by all the scholarship offers, that type of thing. And so that you’d have more people basically saying, “Yeah, he didn’t seem quite right. There was a rapid descent. He would get in these very moody states and get pretty dark.” So there’d be a lot of corroborating testimony or evidence of people that knew the deceased, saying, “Yeah, it strikes me that this was something that was on his mind.”
Al Letson: Jobes says the DOJ jumped to conclusions because the investigators didn’t do this work. For example, they said Billey Joe had previously threatened suicide, but as far as we can tell, that was based entirely on statements that Hannah and her mom made to local investigators. We asked his friends and family whether he threatened suicide. They all said no. We couldn’t find any sign that the District Attorneys Office, State Investigator Joe Wallace, or the DOJ tried to verify Hannah’s statement. Remember, when I spoke to Hannah, she was adamant there’s no way he would ever kill himself.
In the DOJ’s report, forensic psychologist Dr. Rosemary Malone suggested another theory of why Billey Joe would kill himself. She wrote that, “Billey Joe must’ve been under acute stress in the moment, thinking he was being pulled over for breaking into Hannah’s house, and he killed himself as a spontaneous reaction.” I asked Dr. Jobes what he made of that.
Dr. David Jobes: There’s a lot of contention around that. The idea of sudden suicides or impulsive suicides is out there. Most of us kind of think that… It’s hard for me to imagine, for example, that I would get off this interview and then walk out and step in front of a car. It just doesn’t, in my experience, really happen that way. There’s usually some background or some evidence that this person’s had it on their mind to varying degrees. But as we start out the whole conversation, there’s a lot of people that would just rather look the other way. It’s an uncomfortable topic and people just don’t like talking about this.
Al Letson: No. No. It’s just vastly hard.
Dr. David Jobes: It’s horrific and there’s just no way that someone who loses someone this way ever is satisfied with why. That’s one of the most wretched aspects of losing someone this way.
Al Letson: And that’s why he says investigators should’ve broadened the scope of the people they interviewed, to get those answers for the family. To strengthen their conclusion that it was suicide, the DOJ said Billey Joe’s age, gender, and race were risk factors, since the rate of suicide increases among African American males during adolescence. I hadn’t heard that before, that young Black men are at a higher risk of suicide, so I reached out to Dr. Wizdom Powell. She’s a professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut, and she researches African American mental health.
Dr. Wizdom Powe…: I want to just back into this a little bit differently and respond a little bit to that assumption that his age, gender, and race make him more of a risk for suicide than other groups.
Al Letson: She says a 2021 study did find that African American boys had a higher rate of suicide, but that doesn’t mean an individual is more likely to kill himself. She says you need to understand what was going on in their life at the time, what stresses they were facing. So I told her about the evidence that the DOJ cited that led them to say Billey Joe killed himself.
They have two people who say that Billey Joe was suicidal, and not talking to his friends, and not talking to his family, and not getting any other proof to back that up.
Dr. Wizdom Powe…: It’s very difficult to know if a person is truly going to complete a suicide. When folks talk about warning signs, there are some obviously warning signs that we can look for. We know what those are, people talking about wanting to die, expressing a lot of guilt and shame, feeling empty, hopeless, changing their behavior, making a plan, or researching ways to die, taking dangerous risks right before the actual suicide. Those are the kinds of warning signs that one would be asking close members of the family and friends about. They wouldn’t necessarily show up often in non-intimate relationships or in non-familial relationships. It would be hard for me to understand why you wouldn’t talk to the family about those things, because of what we know about the intimacy of suicidal ideation and risk behavior. So, it’s just striking to me.
Al Letson: Everyone we spoke to, including Hannah, told us that Billey Joe was not suicidal. If investigators had asked those questions and gotten the same information when Billey Joe died, maybe the Justice Department would’ve looked at other possibilities.
Suicide is so hard to talk about. There’s a shame that can follow friends and family like a shadow. I know because I lost someone to it, and nothing made sense for a while afterwards. There’s like a black hole that consumes all the light. No matter how hard you try to understand, you’re just stumbling in the dark. When my loved one killed himself, I went through several stages of grief, disbelief, heartbreak, anger, until I found the penumbra between what is known and what is unknowable. I will never know why he did it, but what I do know is that he loved me and he didn’t do it to hurt me or anyone else. But the loss his family and friends feel is incalculable. So I’m asking you, please, if you’re feeling overwhelmed or having thoughts of suicide, you can call or text 988 to reach the Suicide Crisis Lifeline. Again, just call or text 988 for help. It can get better. It may not be easy getting there, but it’s worth it. You are worth it.
On the next episode on our series.
Speaker 25: It was multiple things. It was something we talked about. He was given such a hard time.
Al Letson: Friends and family believe Billey Joe was being targeted by the police.
Speaker 25: This is a kid who’s going about doing his thing and not really doing nothing wrong. You would be riding around with him and he would get pulled over for nonsense, just to be given a hard time.
Al Letson: By one officer in particular, who was not the deputy who pulled him over.
Speaker 25: Like I said, it ain’t nothing ever going to be on file. He never wrote no tickets. He just pulled us over and he gave us a hard time and harassed us.
Al Letson: That’s next time on Reveal.
If you’ve missed the first couple episodes of this series, you can listen to them on our podcast. While you’re there, be sure to leave us a review. It really helps spread the word. 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, 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, Esther Kaplan, Christa Scharfenberg, Sumi Aggarwal and Sarah Mirk.
Special thanks to Alexis Hightower and to actor Steve Isom Phillips for reading the court transcript. Mama Blue sang our theme song, which was written and composed by Nina Simone, thanks to her estate and Music & 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. Our CEO is Robert Rosenthal. Our COO is Maria Feldman. Our interim executive producers are Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis.
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 Hellman 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.

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