Charles Robinson and Dan Wetzel, Yahoo! Sports, February 5, 2009
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 [Johnson]. 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 11⁄2-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 Investigations 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Billey Joe Johnson Sr. remains convinced that his son was murdered by someone, although he doesn’t know whom.
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 . . .