Snitch

Deanna Johnson testified against a murderer to save her son. But in the projects, truth comes at a price.

It's 7 a.m. on April 16, and Deanna Johnson's alarm clock is going off. She ignores it, and lies so still she could be mistaken for a corpse. She does not open her eyes. She tries not to think about anything. If a woman refuses to acknowledge that one of the most terrifying days of her life has arrived, then maybe it hasn't.

But Deanna, a grandmother who lives in the most notorious housing project in San Francisco, who in her 48 years has been homeless, addicted to heroin, a prostitute, and a victim of domestic violence, is no stranger to reality. She knows that in two hours she will be on the witness stand sitting directly across from a murderer, breaking the most fundamental law of the projects: Don't snitch.

With a grunt, Deanna hoists her swollen legs over the side of the bed. She has fluid in her knees and a full figure to carry, so she walks with deliberation to the south-facing window to smoke her morning Newport. It'll help her wake up a bit — it was tough to get a good night's sleep when every little noise had her scared for her life.

The jitters have killed any semblance of appetite, so Deanna walks and feeds her guardian pit bull, Nina, but skips her own breakfast. She dons a crimson suit and matching head wrap, which covers the red and black braids that sweep dramatically across her head. Finally, she secures a silver cross around her neck and sets off down the hill to meet Inspector Kevin Jones of the San Francisco Police Department. He doesn't come to her door because that would draw the attention of already-suspicious neighbors.

The unlikely pair swings by the methadone clinic at 1111 Market to retrieve Deanna's daily dose, then proceeds to the homicide department at 850 Bryant, where she watches the tapes of her police interviews to refresh her memory. Finally, Jones escorts her to a special waiting room for victims, where she can rest and steel herself for the prospect of taking the stand.

"I just want to get this over with," she says. "I don't like to have to look at him."

By "him," she means Junk. At least, that's what everybody in the Double Rock housing project in the Bayview calls Jamal Butler. He's a convicted felon on trial for the brutal murder of a junkie named Allen Broussard, whom everybody called Tigaboo.

Deanna's testimony might send Junk to prison for life, and she thinks that's about right. Because of Junk and her testimony against him, she stands to lose her home, her fragile relationship with her son, and even her dog.

Exactly nine months before, Deanna had been puffing her Newport at the window. She did this almost every morning because it relaxed her, and she liked the view from the perch of the Alice Griffith Housing Project, popularly known as Double Rock.

Gazing into the distance, Deanna could see Monster Park shooting up above the greenery in Candlestick Point. She scanned the faraway row of pastel stucco houses ensconced in the hills above San Francisco Bay, then refocused on the more immediate scenery.

Below her window, a chain-link fence had collapsed into a straw-colored embankment strewn with trash — rotten furniture, toilet-paper rolls, a crushed Milwaukee's Best can. Next door, water crept from under the door of a vacant residence, where someone broke in and stole a vital piece of plumbing. Dilapidated identical two-story townhomes peppered the landscape, which resembled some unholy amalgam of landfill and war zone.

Deanna didn't mind living here. In fact, it was the best life she had ever known.

She grew up in Hunters Point without either parent. Her father left when she was three; her mother went to prison when Deanna was nine. Raised by an unaffectionate aunt with three children of her own, Deanna became pregnant at 17 and dropped out of high school. Then a guy introduced her to snorting heroin. A few years later, she was pregnant again. And again. And again. The last baby died of sudden infant death syndrome at three and a half months. Her oldest son was shot numerous times, then died of a drug overdose.

Deanna worked in a restaurant for six years, but eventually she quit and became homeless in the Tenderloin with her second husband, who beat her regularly for four years. She still has the scars on her forehead. Her aunt raised her surviving sons, Damian and Dominic. After her husband got beaten into a coma, she filled out an application for public housing and was accepted to a project in Potrero Hill.

That's when things started to turn around. Deanna got her boys back and become a regular visitor at the methadone clinic. There she was reunited with childhood friend Willie Hill, who agreed to drive her to and from the clinic. They soon started a relationship, but because of the domestic violence in her history, she refused to live with him.

In winter 2006, because of a plumbing problem, the Housing Authority transferred Deanna to Double Rock. There, she transformed her apartment into an immaculate but comfortable nook, tucked away from the messed-up world. She cooked her children's favorites — chicken tenders and french fries — kept a spotless house, took care of her sons, and walked her dog.

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