Snitch

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

The morning of August 17, 2007, changed everything.

Deanna remembers puffing on her cigarette when she heard the gunshot. She had no way of knowing the havoc it would wreak on her life. She didn't even see the actual murder.

According to witness statements to police and the medical examiner's report, the story went like this:

Tigaboo had planned to sell a stolen car stereo to Melvin Priestly, who was known to his friends as Pumpkin. The deal was going down in front of Pumpkin's place at 69 Nichols Way, but Junk, who knew Tigaboo, seemingly had other plans. Wearing a black mask, he showed up behind Tigaboo and pulled out a black 9mm pistol.

"You think you're tough? You think you're hard?" Junk asked. Then he aimed the gun at Tigaboo's head and pulled the trigger. The bullet entered Tigaboo's skull, ripped through both hemispheres of his brain, and exited just above his left eyebrow, never to be recovered. He fell forward onto the pavement, dropping the stereo. Still spiked with cocaine, the blood of the emaciated 37-year-old addict rushed onto the sidewalk and slipped into the crevices. He was dead.

Seconds later, Deanna watched from her window as Junk ran up the concrete ramp between Nichols Way and Double Rock Street. This stretch is called the Cut. Junk's dreads bounced as he flew up the Cut and under Deanna's window.

He disappeared at the side of her home. Next, she heard a loud, furious banging at her door that sounded like the cops. Her older son, Damian, opened the door — and there stood Junk. He looked wild, Deanna remembers, which made her uneasy.

Junk was bad news. He would often come around to her home at 6 Double Rock with Big Carl, Damian's father. Though Junk was a convicted felon, Deanna had seen him with a gun before. And though her sons referred to him as Cuzin Junk, Deanna often reminded people that Junk was no blood relative.

Deanna crept halfway down the stairs; though her view was partly obscured by a wall, she says she heard everything. According to witness statements, Junk bragged to Damian about "taking a nigga out" on Nichols Way, and was "laughin' and shit" about the murder.

Junk then presented Damian with a balled-up camouflage jacket, and told Damian that he killed Tigaboo in retaliation for breaking into Big Carl's house ten years ago. Deanna heard him tell Damian he owed him a favor and that Damian should guard the murder weapon.

"Make sure nobody touch that gun," Junk told Damian before racing back out to inspect the aftermath.

When the door shut, Deanna barreled down the stairs and examined the jacket with her son. Inside were two black gloves with white stripes on the middle fingers and a shiny black 9mm pistol.

"Get this gun out of my house," she shrieked. Damian wrapped it back up and stuffed it in the living-room closet, then went to his room and made a phone call. "Mom trippin'," she heard him say.

Minutes later, Junk came back to get his gun, and then he was gone. But Deanna was smoldering. She worried that her son might now be an accessory to murder. Beyond that, it terrified her that Junk could kill a man, then brag about it. Why were black people always killing each other?

She had seen some shit in her life: four drive-by shootings, in fact, one of which was fatal. But she had never considered snitching until now. Her son was involved. She was involved. Cuzin Junk, who wasn't really a cousin at all, apparently cared so little for Deanna and her family that he had brought a murder weapon into their home.

Later that day, Deanna made three phone calls to the San Francisco Housing Authority tip line. She felt comfortable calling only because a monthly newsletter from the Housing Authority promised the tip line was anonymous.

Though recordings of the messages were difficult to decipher, a few sentences were clear. "The shooter was a man named Junk ... he had a 9-millimeter and he shot the guy in the head ... I don't want to be involved. ... Have a nice weekend."

The San Francisco Police Department has been struggling to stay on top of the city's well-publicized homicide problem. So far this year, 43 people have been murdered. Before April 1, the police had arrested suspects in only 8 of those cases.

In Double Rock, investigations can prove more challenging than usual, as police officers almost never get the information they need. Nobody in the community will talk. Everybody has reasons.

Sister Stephanie Hughes, the spiritual leader and unofficial matriarch of Double Rock, can tell you why. In her close-knit community, she says, everybody knows everybody's business. The streets talk. When somebody snitches, word travels fast and they die. Even when snitches opt for witness protection, they still die.

Everyone in Double Rock is familiar with the story of Terrell Rollins. Just two years ago, Rollins, the main witness in a gang-related killing, was shot dead in an auto body repair shop. He was in witness protection at the time, yet had come back to the city to fix his car. He was 22.

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