By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
By Howard Cole
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
By Leif Haven
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.
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.
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.
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.
He refused. "I can't get involved," he told her. "What you are doing is hazardous to your health."
Damian was right. Just recently, a bullet had pierced Deanna's living-room window, and Willie's tires had been slashed. Maybe coincidences, maybe not. Investigators had urged both Deanna and Damian to sign up for witness protection, but they repeatedly resisted. The possibility of relocating to Sacramento was getting thrown around a lot, and neither had interest in moving far from everything and everyone they knew. Deanna was willing to try somewhere like Treasure Island. Or maybe go back to Potrero Hill. But Sacramento? No way.
On each day of the murder trial, Junk had an attentive audience. On important days, there were as many as 15 people on his side of the courtroom, including his mother, aunt, three of his babies' mamas, two of his six children, and plenty of friends. In the intermissions, they'd all smile and wave.
Nobody from Tigaboo's family showed up.
On the first day Deanna Johnson took the stand, Willie came to support her. Five of Junk's devotees, including his mother, glared at Deanna as she slowly made her way to the stand. To them, Deanna was a liar and a drug addict. She was doing all this, Junk's aunt speculated, because she simply did not like Junk.
Deanna is not what the district attorney would call an ideal witness. In 2005, she pled guilty to assault, attempted robbery, and illegal possession of tear gas. (It was illegal because she had previously been convicted of several felonies.) She takes Seroquel for bipolar disorder, and though she says she's off heroin and crack, her son told investigators in November that Deanna had smoked crack recently. Her memory, she admits, is not very good.
But there Deanna sat, a reluctant yet key witness in an all-too-infrequent Double Rock murder trial.
Assistant district attorney Merin began his examination with simple questions. Was Jamal Butler in the courtroom?
"He's sitting right there," Deanna said, pointing at Junk. But he looked different than he had on the day of the murder. Short, tight coils replaced his dreads. Instead of camouflage, he wore a smart black suit and an electric-blue button-down shirt, though he seemed ill at ease in it. On several occasions, Junk loosened his collar and dusted off his sleeves, though they were perfectly clean.
After a few basic questions about Deanna's family, Merin drew her family tree on the chalkboard. He then asked her to identify photographs of the inside of her closet and the view from her window.
That's when Junk's eyebrows shot up and his lips crept into a tight smirk that seemed to say, how dare you.
Though Deanna was shaky on the stand, she essentially told the same story she had from day one: Junk brought a murder weapon to her house. He bragged that he killed a guy. She had come forward to protect her son.
The cross-examination didn't go as smoothly. Over the course of all the questioning, Deanna had given three versions of where she was when the gun went off: in her bed, at her window, and on her back porch. Her recollection of who was in her house that morning also varied. She told investigators that Lil' Carl and Damian's girlfriend, Tiffanie, were in the house, but on the stand she said they weren't. In separate statements, Deanna said she remembered being in two different places when she watched Junk leave her home for the second time.
Defense attorney Floyd Andrews didn't let those inconsistencies slide. He frustrated Deanna by pointing out her memory lapses, but she kept it together: "I'm not good with times and dates, but I know what I saw," she told the jury without being asked.
The most compelling portion of Deanna's testimony was her recorded phone calls to the Housing Authority tip line. Because she made those calls before she was evicted, that ruled out the possibility that Deanna was lying to keep her home. "What have you gotten out of testifying?" Merin asked.
"Nothing," Deanna said flatly.
When Pumpkin — who had been brought down from San Quentin — was called to the stand, an eerie silence enveloped the courtroom. In the docket, Pumpkin was listed as a "hostile witness." As minutes ticked by, the judges, lawyers, and cops whispered to each other, as did Junk's family members. Junk folded his hands in front of him in what looked like prayer.
The first signs of Pumpkin were the clinks of his chains in the hall. Then, in a flurry of orange jangling, he took the stand. In prison attire, his short, round body matched his moniker; he sported light facial hair and a rattail. He looked directly at the floor and refused to take his oath. Judge Carol Yaggy advised the court that Pumpkin had taken the oath that morning, and asked the prosecutor to begin his questioning.
"Mr. Priestly, do you understand why you are here?" Merin began.
"Where were you on the morning of August 17?"
"Could you please look at me?"
Pumpkin was ordered to answer the questions, but refused. He was then found in contempt of court and shown out. The jury would never hear about how, after the cops found him at Deanna's home, Pumpkin was arrested and interrogated. According to police department transcripts, during the three-hour interrogation Pumpkin broke down crying and admitted that he watched Junk kill Tigaboo.
Next on the stand: Damian Bradley. His hiding plan hadn't really worked out. On the previous Friday night, Damian stuck his head out the window to find cops approaching his home. He tried to escape out the back door, but was tackled by an officer. They rolled down the hill and both were injured.
In court, Damian wore a giant bandage over a laceration on his shoulder. While lifting up his shirt to show the jury, he grimaced. "I'm kinda sore," he said. "I can't raise my arm all the way up."
Damian is lanky and handsome, with a baby face and charming smile. Though he exudes confidence, he doesn't hide his emotions the way many hardened 20-year-olds from the projects do. Vulnerability aside, he seemed to have little respect for his mother. He told the jury that Deanna was on medications for mental issues, and couldn't be trusted.
Then he directly contradicted her testimony.
"On August 17, did Jamal Butler bring a gun to your house?" the prosecution wanted to know.
"No, sir. No, sir," Damian said.
"You told the cops he brought the gun to your house wrapped up in a green camouflage jacket," Merin continued. "You told them it was a 9-millimeter."
"I said that because they were telling me I'd never see my son again," Damian replied.
The jury viewed the taped police interrogation from November, when the cops had responded to Deanna's distress call by arresting Damian. On the portions played in court, it appears the interrogators were doing their best to terrify him. They tell him that his cellphone can be tracked, that's he's in a big pile of dog doo-doo, and that they're disappointed he's calling his mama a liar. If he doesn't talk, they say, his baby will grow up without a daddy.
Damian resists for more than an hour, and explains to the investigators what becomes of snitches. "Niggas killing your babies over this kind of shit," he says. "Niggas kill they baby mamas over this. Niggas kill they best friends over this kind of shit. ... This is not to be played with; this is some serious shit ... excuse my language."
When the investigators tell Damian his mother loves him, and that they're upset he's calling her a liar, Damian shakes his head. "She don't love me, man," he says.
"Your mama is one courageous woman," one police officer says. "And she loves you, whether you want to believe it or not. Kevin and I just spent over an hour with her, [and she was] crying about you."
"Where she go?" Damian asks. "'Cause I ain't got no ride."
Eventually Damian cracks and admits that Junk brought him the gun. He asks if he can be a confidential informant, and maintains a firm position that he cannot be involved. All he cares about is his son, he repeats over and over. He doesn't want to bring his son into this. When he finds out that the entire conversation has been recorded, he gets very quiet.
But on the stand, Damian insisted he was threatened and that he said only what the inspectors wanted to hear so they would let him leave. Finally, he broke into tears talking about his son, who died shortly after Damian's interview with the cops.
That might have moved the jury, but it apparently didn't sway its opinion of Junk. On Tuesday, May 6, before a courtroom of Junk's friends, family, baby mamas, and children, he was found guilty of second-degree murder. The jury also found him guilty of illegally possessing a deadly weapon.
On June 11, the judge will sentence him to somewhere between 60 years and life in prison.
When the verdict came in, Deanna Johnson was holed up at the police department. Because the jury had deliberated for almost a week, an acquittal or a hung jury seemed within the realm of possibility. Investigators didn't want her unprotected, especially not in Double Rock, so they had asked her to come down.
Then again, a guilty verdict wouldn't be good news for Deanna's safety, either. However things went that morning, the cops planned to try to get her into witness protection one last time. The last thing they wanted was more headlines about a witness getting whacked for coming forward.
They had a pretty solid plan.
When the investigators learned the prosecution had won, they told Deanna for the first time that she would not be able to stay in Double Rock. (Tim Larsen of the Housing Authority says this wasn't necessarily true, and that she could have gone through an appeals process.) So on the day the investigators most wanted Deanna to leave town, they made her believe she had no home to return to. She felt manipulated and used. "All I wanted was to keep my home," she said. "I feel like they played me for a fool."
She had no idea where she would go. Willie said she could live with him, but with her history of domestic violence, she wasn't interested. She had saved almost no money, and the city wouldn't help her find new housing, unless it was hundreds of miles from San Francisco. And just like that, Deanna was facing two options: homelessness or the witness protection program.
The plan was not negotiable. Police would escort her to Double Rock, where she would have ten minutes to collect her belongings. Then they would take her somewhere far away. She was not to return to San Francisco under any circumstances. She was not to tell anyone where she was.
The investigators handed her a pen.
Before Deanna could pick up her things, there was one additional stop. District Attorney Kamala Harris wanted to meet this brave woman in the flesh.
Officers led Deanna to Harris' office, where she was welcomed with a warm smile. Harris told Deanna how proud she was. How she wished there were more people like her who would stand up and do the right thing. Harris even gave her a housewarming gift — a large vase of white flowers Deanna didn't recognize. They looked like roses.
None of it made much of an impression on Deanna. They were nice flowers, but she had no home to put them in. As police guided her out of the office, she looked around. Everybody in this office will go home tonight, she thought. Meanwhile, she was going to a hotel. "I was feeling like my world was taken out from under me," she said. "Me and my son."
As police escorted her to an unmarked car in the basement, Deanna began to feel dizzy. "It was like a dream," she said. "Like it wasn't really happening."
When she arrived at her home, she noticed a number of black-and-white police cars. Officers were stationed at her front and back doors. She could swear there were more cops around her home than the day Tigaboo got killed. Her 17-year-old son, Dominic, still in his red 49ers pajamas, had gotten scared and sneaked out the back door.
Deanna called him back to give him the news. "My son was in tears," she said later. "He didn't understand what was going on. He didn't want to be yanked out of his room. It was like I was in another world from that time on."
Deanna grabbed a few changes of clothes and some toiletries, and said goodbye to everything she knew, including Nina the pit bull. In all the chaos, she had forgotten to ask whether the D.A. would help her find a temporary home for the dog. Turns out, they wouldn't. After the movers emptied 6 Double Rock, the dog remained in the vacant home until a friend from the methadone clinic agreed to take her, but wasn't sure he'd be willing to give her back. Two days later, he walked Nina off-leash and she got in a fight with another dog. Nina is now quarantined at the SPCA.
Aside from losing her dog, Deanna was rushed out of the life she had become comfortable with, and in the most embarrassing way she could imagine. "The whole neighborhood watched from across the street as me and my son put our belongings in the trunk of the police vehicle," she said. "It was awful. I wished I could just wiggle my nose and vanish."
As she got into the car, Deanna noticed a woman across the way, hanging her laundry on the line. The woman looked content. "I wished that was me," she says.
Since the day of Junk's conviction, Deanna has been staying at a faraway hotel with Dominic, who is "bored shitless." For nearly a week, Deanna was broke, and the District Attorney's office refused to give her cash. Just vouchers for food at Safeway. Deanna thinks it's because they didn't want her to have a way to get back to San Francisco.
She'll be looking for a home in which the District Attorney's office will put her up in for one year. Over that time, she plans to save as much money as possible and try to be a good provider for her sons.
As for Damian, he's in hiding. Deanna doesn't know when she will see him again, and worries constantly. She heard that her son is considered to be a snitch.