Who shot Billey Joe Johnson?
BENNDALE, Miss. – Billey Joe Johnson Sr. opens the driver’s-side door of his dead son’s Silverado and begins to examine some of the leftover splatter. It clings to the dashboard, leeches out of air conditioning vents. Some of it even found a resting place on the truck’s exterior.
“There goes a hunk of meat right there,” the father said, pointing to a nickel-sized fragment of his son’s brain. “How’d it get over here?”
In the back seat, a geometry book rests next to camouflage clothing and empty boxes of buckshot. Billey Joe Johnson Jr. often woke up at 4 a.m. to hunt before heading to George County High School, where everyone knew him as the football star who would escape crushing rural poverty by running from it.
Piles of recruiting letters litter the back seat, the remnants of life as one of the most sought-after running backs in the Class of 2010. Alabama wanted Billey Joe. So did Notre Dame. And dozens of other schools. He was ready to commit to Auburn. By many accounts Billey Joe was a popular, big-dreaming, clean-living kid. So it’s no wonder his father stands in the yard next to a single-wide trailer, trying to play forensic expert. Searching – like many in this rural community – for answers about who shot his son.
Local authorities stopped Billey Joe for a traffic violation on the morning of Dec. 8, and they say the truck is simply the site of a terrible tragedy. But to the elder Johnson, it’s a crime scene.
Nearly two months later, only one fact is certain: Instead of running out of George County as a football hero, Billey Joe was buried beneath it at the age of 17.
The George County Sheriff’s Department claims that on that fateful morning, Billey Joe attempted to break into the home of an on-again, off-again girlfriend in the nearby city of Lucedale. According to the sheriff’s department, he left the scene and ran a red light at 5:34 a.m. After a 1½-mile pursuit, Billey Joe got out of his truck, met sheriff’s deputy Joe Sullivan and handed over his license. Then Billey Joe returned to his truck, put a 12-gauge shotgun he used to target deer to his head and committed suicide. It was 5:40 a.m.
Sullivan’s patrol car was not equipped with a camera, and his is the only account of the event. Billey Joe’s friends and family don’t believe the story.
Billey Joe was black. Sullivan is white. The case, as such, is shrouded by race in this small community in the Deep South. Everyone wants answers. No one is getting them. The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and the local district attorney – the two bodies in charge of the case – have issued neither a ruling nor many pertinent details.
Tony Lawrence, the district attorney running the state’s investigation, met with the family Dec. 19 and urged patience.
“I have said from the beginning that this investigation will be exhaustive and not based on any timeline other than that which leads to the truth,” Lawrence said at the time. His office declined further comment this week.
With no answers and a state investigation that is dragging on, the region has descended into a cauldron of speculation, suspicion and conspiracy. Theories are easy to find, the truth all but impossible.
Johnson fixates on the truck that is stained with what is left of his son. The day after the incident, police returned it to the family as is. Rather than wash it, junk it or sell it, Johnson keeps it in a garage, driving it out to re-examine. He stares at it. He imagines his son.
He’s convinced someone forced Billey Joe on his knees, shoved the shotgun barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
“They must’ve tortured my baby,” Johnson says.
Here is what the police say about Billey Joe’s death: During a routine traffic stop, Billey Joe Johnson Jr. shot himself in the head.
He woke at 4:30 a.m. that day, a school day, at his parents’ trailer and took a shower. His dad thought he was going hunting. Instead, he drove 15 miles to Lucedale, the 2,700-person county seat and location of both his high school and a girlfriend.
Billey Joe’s truck had notes from multiple female admirers, and his friends said he enjoyed the attention offered to a star athlete. He’d already run for 4,000 yards in his high school career and helped make George County a state powerhouse. Everyone knew him. Many wanted to be with him.
One girl, whom Yahoo! Sports will not name since she is a minor, had been around the longest. It was a typical high school relationship – “they’d break up every day and then get back together,” said one of his friends, Drew Bradley. The fact that she was white bothered some people.
“It’s George County, it’s a little Southern town,” said Bradley, who is white. “You’ve got a bunch of racist people down here. You have people who hated on them because it was black and white.”
The alleged timeline of events on Monday, Dec. 8, 2008, leading up to the death of Billey Joe Johnson:
|4:30 a.m. – Billey Joe Johnson Sr. hears his son showering and preparing to leave the family’s Benndale, Miss. residence. He believes his son plans to go hunting before heading to school.|
|5:34 a.m. – George County Sheriff’s Deputy Joe Sullivan witnesses Billey Joe Johnson’s maroon Chevy Silverado run a red light at the corner of Church Street and Winter Street. He pursues the truck with his blue lights flashing and witnesses the truck running a stop sign at the 4-way stop of Winter Street and Old Highway 63.|
|5:37 a.m. – The Lucedale Police Department receives a 911 call from Esther Parker, who says her daughter called her and informed her that someone was attempting to break into a trailer where her daughter and ex-husband were living. Parker informs the LPD that her daughter is home alone.|
|5:39 a.m. – After a pursuit of nearly 1½ miles, Sheriff’s Deputy Sullivan witnesses the truck pulling into a service entrance near Benndale Carpet. Billey Joe Johnson exits the truck and informs Deputy Sullivan that he was on the way home “because his mother was sick”. Deputy Sullivan takes his license and instructs Johnson to return to his vehicle.|
|5:40 a.m. – While attempting to call in the license number, Deputy Sullivan informs dispatch that Johnson has shot himself and requests assistance.|
|5:40 a.m. – LPD Sgt. James O’Neal arrives at the trailer and secures the perimeter. He makes contact with Parker’s daughter, who informs him that the person who attempted to enter the residence was Billey Joe Johnson Jr. She says Johnson left before police arrived, but that she would like to go to the police station and “sign charges” against him.|
|5:48 a.m. – LPD Sgt. O’Neal departs for the police department, following Parker and her daughter in a separate vehicle. While in transit, he is informed by dispatch that Johnson had shot himself at service road near Benndale Carpet.|
|5:50 a.m. – LPD Sgt. O’Neal arrives at Benndale Carpet, where he observes the vehicle of deputy Sullivan as well as Johnson’s maroon Silverado, which is parked with the door open. As he pulls forward to make room for the pending arrival of an ambulance, O’Neal observes Johnson lying on his back on the ground, with his head pointed away from the open door of vehicle. Sgt. O’Neal observes a shotgun on top of Johnson’s body, and blood on the ground around his head.|
|5:55 a.m. – Paramedics arrive on scene. Dispatch is informed that Johnson is DOA.|
It was about the only unsettled part of his life. His friends swear he never drank or did drugs, a claim backed by a toxicology report that also found no trace of steroids. If anything, his biggest vices were hunting, playing video games and occasionally driving a little too fast.
“The photos on his cellphone contained one picture of a girl and after that it was deer, deer, deer,” said Jerome Carter, the Johnson family’s attorney and a managing partner in the Mobile, Ala., branch of the Johnnie Cochran Law Firm.
When gas prices soared last fall, Billey Joe moved into the Lucedale home of assistant football coach Darwin Nelson, whose son was a friend. It shortened his commute and provided comforts such as a swimming pool and a computer his parents’ unpainted, country trailer lacked. He stayed two months and was polite, prompt and respectful.
“He was a model citizen when he lived here,” Nelson said.
Even as new girlfriends came on the scene, the old one would return. There were rumors of a restraining order but no paperwork indicating such a filing was present in county court.
The girl lived with her father in a small trailer park near downtown Lucedale. Billey Joe had been there many times before when he pulled up in the predawn hours. She was home alone. Billey Joe’s cellphone records show there had been no contact between the two that morning.
According to an incident report filed by the Lucedale city police, the girl claimed Billey Joe tried to break in through the front door and later tapped her bedroom window before leaving.
As Billey Joe drove away, the girl called her mother, who in turn called police and said they wanted to “sign charges.”
It’s unknown whether Billey Joe knew about the call to the cops or what his state of mind was at that point. The girl’s family has declined comment and has refused to speak to Johnson family investigators, according to Carter. It’s a key mystery in the case and the center of much of the gossip.
After leaving the trailer, Billey Joe ran a red light as he headed in the direction of home. Deputy Sullivan observed it and turned on his blue lights in pursuit. A little more than a half-mile down the road, Johnson ran a four-way stop sign. Slightly less than a mile after that, he finally pulled into a driveway that serviced a few shops, including Benndale Carpet.
When Billey Joe stopped, he got out of his truck and approached the officer, according to Sullivan’s incident report. Sullivan told Billey Joe to hand over his license and return to his truck. Sullivan turned and walked to his squad car.
“When I went back to my vehicle I picked up the radio to call it in and heard a gun shot and glass breaking,” Sullivan wrote in his incident report. “I looked up and the black male fell to the ground and the gun he had in his hand fell on top of him.
“I called dispatch and advised them that the subject had just shot himself.”
Police have not publicly identified the gun, but Billey Joe’s brother Eddie Johnson said he bought a Ted Williams, 12-gauge, full-choke, pump shotgun at a local pawn shop about a year ago. The barrel of that model is either 27 or 28 inches in length. Carter had Billey Joe’s arms measured before burial and will determine whether they were long enough to pull the trigger when the weapon is produced.
There is only one other official eyewitness account of the crime scene, an incident report written by Lucedale police Sgt. James O’Neal, who initially responded to the girl’s home and then went to the site of the shooting.
“I approached the scene and observed a black male, identified as the suspect Billey Joe Johnson, lying on the ground outside the driver’s side door with a shotgun lying on top of him and blood on the ground around his head,” O’Neal wrote.
“He was lying on his back, his head away from the truck. The shotgun was lying on his body with the barrel pointing in the direction of his head.”
Although Billey Joe’s parents were on the scene soon, authorities asked Darwin Nelson, the football coach, to identify the body next to the truck.
Nelson said that when he arrived, the driver’s-side window had a bullet hole in it which appeared to come from the inside of the open door.
“There was kind of a jagged hole in the window, 3 or 4 inches across, almost like a lightning strike to the window,” Nelson said. “The rest of it was shattered, but still in place.”
There’s been speculation that the 3-inch magnum buck shots which Billey Joe favored for hunting would’ve blown the window out rather than left a bullet hole – thus eliminating his gun as the weapon and making suicide unlikely.
However, Andrew Scott, a former police chief in Boca Raton, Fla., who now works as an expert on forensics and crime-scene investigations, said that at such a close range it could’ve produced the hole Nelson described.
Here is what family and friends say about Billey Joe’s death: Billey Joe Johnson was shot in the head by someone else.
They start with his personality. He was calm, never violent, happy and hopeful. Last fall, he’d begun attending the First Baptist Church with friends and “gave his life to Christ,” according to his youth pastor, Rob Hilbun.
He had more friends than he could count – “that boy would be text-messaging in his sleep,” said his mother, Annette. His funeral was held in the biggest room in the county – the middle school gym – yet it struggled to contain the estimated 1,000 mourners.
Just a junior, he was fielding letters and recruiting pitches from college coaches Charlie Weis and Les Miles and taking visits to Alabama and Mississippi State. They saw him as the second coming of Walter Payton, a small-town Mississippi legend from not too far down the road.
He’d fallen for Auburn, where he saw himself fitting into the small-town environment with hunting woods close to campus. He’d affixed a school license plate on the front of his truck.
The future had become his focus – he’d started weight training and running. Inside his truck were registration forms for the ACT. He talked about helping his family, which had fallen on desperate financial times since his father, once a logger in the piney woods of Mississippi, went on disability with a bad back.
“We’re all over my uncle’s on the Friday before [his death] and he was just telling us he’s going to go to Auburn and go pro,” said Joseph Lee Bradley Jr., a cousin, the sophomore class president and no relation to friend Drew Bradley.
“We were throwing the football and he was telling what he was going to do for himself and his family,” the cousin continued. “His family can hardly afford anything. They have to borrow to pay for things. He didn’t like that. He wanted them to have money before buying stuff. He wanted them to have a better house.”
The family’s attorney, Jerome Carter, disputes the allegation that Billey Joe attempted to break into the former girlfriend’s trailer. He notes that there was no evidence of forced entry presented by police, and the powerful 6-foot, 205-pound Billey Joe easily could have gained forceful entry.
“An attorney right out of law school would’ve been able to completely decimate that case,” Carter said. “A simple kick of the door and he would have been in.”
As for the alleged self-inflicted gunshot, when the body was returned to the Johnsons, a state pathologist had cut out about one-third of his skull (the left, back side) and his tongue. Because the rest of him was intact, the assumption is the barrel was inside his mouth when it went off.
The kickback on a 12-gauge shotgun is considerable. Yet none of his teeth were broken and Deputy Sullivan said he saw Billey Joe still holding the barrel as he fell to the ground before it rested on his chest.
“I’ve shot that gun before and it kicked like a mule,” Johnson Sr. said.
Then there are the numerous acts that might appear to violate police procedure.
According to Deputy Sullivan’s incident report, Billey Joe traveled 1½ miles in police pursuit before stopping. Sullivan never called for backup or mentioned the fleeing in his report.
When the pursuit ended, Sullivan allowed someone who had just run to get out of the vehicle and approach him.
“It’s inconsistent with standard police practices and procedures,” said Scott, the former police chief. “It’s very unusual for an officer to continue for 1.5 miles and not to call for additional officers. [At the stop] it’s unusual for the officer to not draw his weapon and say, ‘Get back in the vehicle.’ “
One possible explanation, although there is no mention of it in the incident report, is that Sullivan knew it was Billey Joe. His play on the football field had made him a local celebrity.
His truck was easily identifiable. It had a vanity plate, and during the season cheerleaders had stickered on the back window his name and football number “21.”
Billey Joe had told friends he’d been pulled over by police dozens of times, including at least 18 times by one officer – not Sullivan. Friends admit he liked to drive fast on the country roads, so it’s possible those incidents were reasonable and police were actually cutting him a break by letting him off. Others think police routinely targeted him.
“He said it seemed like the police were all the time hating on him,” said friend Drew Bradley.
George County Sheriff Gary Welford declined comment for this article.
“He’d have never gotten out of that truck, never, never, never,” said cousin Joseph Bradley. “I’ve been in the truck with Billey Joe when we’ve been pulled over a few different times. He knew how to act. … They would ask, ‘Where are you going? Billey Joe would just hand his license [and say] ‘Home, sir.’ Then they’d let us go.
“He’d say ‘yes, sir’ and ‘no, sir’ to anybody,” Bradley continued. “He’d say it to the woman at McDonald’s. You know how you can’t tell if someone working at McDonald’s is a teenager or an adult? He said ‘yes, ma’am’ one time and the woman said, ‘Ma’am? I’m not a ma’am, you’re probably older than I am.’ “
Based on pictures of the scene, the distance between Johnson’s truck and Sullivan’s patrol car was no more than 30 feet. It would’ve taken Sullivan approximately 10 seconds to walk back from meeting Johnson, sit down in his seat and pick up the radio.
Billey Joe’s 1999 Silverado was an extended cab, but with an extra door only on the passenger side. Like many hunters, he stored the gun on the floor under the back seat. In those 10 seconds, he would’ve needed to return to the truck, climb in and, if the gun was in its normal spot, pull it over the seat, step back out and shoot himself.
It also would’ve been a split-second decision to end his life. If he was suicidal, why didn’t he shoot himself when he pulled to a stop? Instead he got out, approached Sullivan and said he was racing home because his mother was sick.
“He was trying to get out of a ticket,” said Carter, the lawyer. “If you’re going to kill yourself, you don’t care about a traffic ticket.”
Police have left open the possibility of an accidental shooting. However, it doesn’t explain why Billey Joe would’ve pulled the shotgun in the first place. Carter’s pathologist determined the shooting took place outside of the truck and was not a result of the gun mistakenly going off inside the cab.
Carter has asked for an opportunity to examine Deputy Sullivan’s uniform, which would show signs of being within close range of a gun being shot.
“We’ve received no response,” Carter said.
At some point, the window with the bullet hole was broken rather than preserved with a special film available to police. The pieces were swept under a row of mailboxes. Why the film wasn’t used and how much examination authorities performed on the window before it was broken is unknown. The result is the same – a key piece of evidence was lost.
“That would not be proper police procedure,” Scott, the former police chief, said. “You’d want to preserve that.”
Scott also said it was improper to return the truck to the family the next day. It still had tabs of measurement tape on it, indicating a forensic investigation, but remained a potential crime scene.
Almost immediately after the incident, both the sheriff’s department and city police turned the investigation over to the state.
Nelson, the football coach who was asked to identify Billey Joe’s body, said he saw Deputy Sullivan at the scene and didn’t notice anything suspicious – only that he appeared to be in a state of shock.
“He was very visibly shaken, like he seen something he hadn’t wished to see,” Nelson said. “What that is, I don’t know.”
In truth, only Sullivan and Billey Joe knew. Conspiracy theories conjure up mysterious murders. The local chapter of the NAACP has already “ruled out suicide.” Until the state releases its investigation – which could come as soon as next week – a vacuum of information has been filled by speculation.
Billey Joe Johnson Sr. remains convinced that his son was murdered by someone, although he doesn’t know whom.
Johnson Sr. was born in George County in 1965, entering the world at home because the local hospitals were still segregated. He got his unusual name because someone misspelled “Billy” on his birth certificate. In turn, he passed it onto his son.
He met his wife, Annette, in the ninth grade and says, “I didn’t know much about her except I loved her.” With limited means and fading health, he’s raised four children, the youngest a 9-year-old girl.
Now he stares at his son’s truck in the yard and shakes his head.
“He was just a country boy,” he said. “He never got a chance.”
Inside Billey Joe’s blood-spattered truck, amidst the recruiting letters from famous coaches and female classmates, near the ammo boxes and the pictures of wildlife, sat a copy of the Emily Dickinson poem “The Chariot.”
Lying eerily amongst the remains of a violent end to a promising life, the opening lines still call out:
Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me …