Snitch

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

Then there was Justin Lee. The 40-year-old had been both victim and key witness in a 2005 attempted murder case, and on January 7 — the same day Lee left witness protection — an assailant chased him through the Mission until he tripped and fell, then shot him dead.

But in Double Rock, it's not just the snitch who's in trouble, Sister Stephanie explains: it's the snitch's whole family. "The fear is not just for ourselves, but for our children," she says. "No police department is going to be right there with our children on a 24-hour basis."

Furthermore, Sister Stephanie doesn't like the cops' attitude. They're friendly only when they need something from somebody, she says, and otherwise, they've got no respect.

Deanna misses Nina, her pit bull, who didn’t qualify for witness relocation funds.
Simon Hayter
Deanna misses Nina, her pit bull, who didn’t qualify for witness relocation funds.
Sister Stephanie Hughes tried to lead her community in prayer after Tigaboo got shot.
Simon Hayter
Sister Stephanie Hughes tried to lead her community in prayer after Tigaboo got shot.

On the day Tigaboo got shot, Sister Stephanie brought a bullhorn to the murder scene with the intent of leading a prayer for the crowd that had gathered. "My heart was crying," she says. "I followed the spirit of God." Unfortunately, God led her across the yellow police tape, and Sister Stephanie found herself stuffed in a hot police car, windows up, for nearly a half hour. She knew what she did was wrong, and she apologized. But her detention was too harsh, she says, and cops were "on a power trip."

Not surprisingly, in their investigation of Tigaboo's death, homicide detectives were having trouble finding willing witnesses.

But on August 22 — two days after Deanna placed her final anonymous call identifying the killer — there was a miraculous breakthough in the case. The police found drugs and a weapon in Deanna's home, which gave them the leverage they needed to enlist her as a named witness.

Police had purportedly received a tip that Pumpkin was staying at Deanna's place. Because he was on parole, they didn't need a warrant. And when they showed up, the door to 6 Double Rock was wide open. Deanna — who is on probation — wasn't home.

The cops searched the house. They found Pumpkin; his mother, Terri Priestly (whom everyone calls Auntie); Damian and his half-brother, Lil' Carl; some crack and powdered cocaine; and a gun (not the murder weapon).

When Deanna learned her home was being raided, she thought the police had traced her anonymous calls. They wanted more information, she reasoned, and to keep her son from getting in trouble, she would have to give it to them. "I love my little son to death," she says. "I did what I thought I had to do." Deanna called Homicide, identified herself, and said she had information about Tigaboo's murder. She would tell them everything, but could they please not arrest Damian at 6 Double Rock?

Auntie and Pumpkin were arrested. Lil' Carl and Damian were not.

The same day, Deanna sat down and told investigators everything she knew. In return for her cooperation, she hoped that the cops and the Housing Authority would let the drugs-and-gun-in-the-house incident slide. She worried that the Housing Authority would have grounds to evict her, and what she wanted most was to be able to stay in Double Rock. That was her home.

A month later, the Housing Authority taped an eviction notice to Deanna's door. The police report from the incident had landed on a desk at the Housing Authority, prompting officials to evict everyone involved: Deanna, Damian, Pumpkin, Auntie, and even a man who had illegally sublet a room to Auntie.

Auntie was gone within three days, as the eviction notice required. For his parole violation, Pumpkin landed at San Quentin. Deanna and Damian, on the other hand, were permitted to stay.

Deanna says she was told by Inspector Jones that her eviction had been "put on the bottom of the pile," and that she could remain in Double Rock even though the Housing Authority refused to accept her rent. She prayed she'd get to stay, and says assistant district attorney David Merin led her to believe that was possible. "He said, 'We're going to make sure you are no worse off than when you met us,'" she says.

That is, if she testified in court.

The D.A.'s office declined to comment on Deanna's case, citing risk in confirming an individual's participation in the witness relocation and assistance program, but Captain Larry Wallace, the head of the program, said the district attorney has no power to delay or overrule evictions.

Damian would also have to be involved, and investigators asked Deanna to get him to come to the station. Damian refused, but they eventually got him anyway.

On November 28, a hysterical Deanna called the cops to report that Damian had pushed her and told her that if she snitched, she'd be killed. The cops seized that opportunity and arrested him. They interrogated him for more than three hours and told him that if he didn't cooperate, his newborn son, who had been born prematurely and was in the hospital, might grow up without a father. Damian would need to come back to 850 Bryant anyway, they told him, because he was going to be subpoenaed.

Three months later, in the middle of the pretrial hearing, Damian began to testify, but left during a break and went into hiding. Deanna again pleaded with her son to turn himself in.

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