To hear him tell the story, West Baltimore teen Deon Johnson was an up-and-coming boxer, hoping to punch his ticket to next summer’s Olympic Games in London. His boxing coach was equally optimistic, fondly recalling Johnson’s jab, his movement in the ring and his heart.
“He could’ve qualified for the 2012 Olympics. That’s how sharp he was,” said Marvin McDowell, who has seen thousands of kids come through his UMAR Boxing Program. “He was on his way, but when the incident happened, it threw him off and he just wasn’t the same person.”
“The incident” happened shortly after Johnson, who had just graduated from Frederick Douglass High School, left McDowell’s West North Avenue gym one July evening two years ago.
Its aftermath continues to ripple from Johnson’s neighborhood over to the city’s courts, where Johnson is scheduled to stand trial on Monday for attempted murder.
But Johnson’s real crime, says attorney J. Wyndal Gordon, was that he complained about what police did to him in 2009.
The dirt bike
Johnson did more than complain, in fact: He sued.
When his civil suit went to trial in January, he testified that around 9 p.m. on July 28, 2009, he was hanging out with friends at the corner of Mosher and Pennsylvania Avenue, a couple blocks from his mother’s home. Another friend arrived on a dirt bike.
“I just asked, ‘Could I sit on the bike?’” Johnson testified.
As he was sitting on the dirt bike (legal to own but not ride in the city) an unmarked black Chevrolet Lumina rolled up Pennsylvania Avenue.
Johnson and his friends knew the three white cops inside; they regularly patrolled the neighborhood.
But before Johnson could react, the Lumina, driven by Officer Scott Reid, ran into him, knocking him off the bike onto the pavement.
One officer — Johnson couldn’t say which — told him to “stay the f–– off the bikes.” Another, Officer Brandon Barnes, laughingly doubted Johnson was hurt and told him to get up. Then, the Lumina, with a third officer, Steven Kolacz, in the back seat, turned right on Mosher and disappeared from sight.
Johnson, then 17, was taken to University of Maryland Medical Center, where he was treated for minor injuries and released the next day.
“It messed up my future,” Johnson told the civil jury in January. He called the impact the “painfullest thing I ever felt.”
Johnson’s troubles were far from over.
On July 31, 2009, just three days after the run-in, Johnson and his mother, Aesha Holmes, appeared with Gordon, the attorney, at a news conference in Gordon’s downtown office to announce and decry what had happened. Johnson, who is listed at 5 feet 9 and 135 pounds in court records, sat with a boxing championship belt in front of him and crutches behind him, and several news outlets reported the event.
A couple of days after the news conference, Johnson was sitting on the front porch of his home in the 1500 block of Shields Place when Officers Kolacz and Reid “rolled through the block,” Johnson testified at the civil trial this year.
“He had, like, some seeds, some pumpkin seeds,” Johnson said of Kolacz, “and he had, like, took ’em out his mouth and, like, threw ’em on me.”
A few weeks later, on Aug. 31, according to Johnson, Kolacz, Reid and another officer found him again as he sat in his wheelchair with a friend. One of the officers called him a “snitch.”
“He said, ‘You think I don’t know what’s going on?’” Johnson testified. “‘You think I don’t know about you meeting with Internal Affairs?’”
(A police spokesman said he could not discuss any internal disciplinary action because it’s a personnel matter.)
Johnson said Reid threatened him and then slapped him before the officers left.
Johnson sued Kolacz, Reid and Officer Brandon Barnes on Oct. 22, 2009.
While the civil suit worked its way through the Calvert Street courthouse, Johnson’s bad experiences with police beyond downtown began to pile up.
Johnson turned 18 on Dec. 2, 2009.
The following day, he was charged with drug possession. Reid was one of the arresting officers. Prosecutors nolle prossed the case, declining to prosecute. The same thing happened — drug charges nolle prossed, but Reid was not involved — in March 2010.
More serious charges followed that April (burglary and assault) and again in July (burglary, assault and drug dealing). All were stetted, or put on the inactive docket, in October.
The only “guilty” mark on Johnson’s record to date is a June 2010 charge of possessing a contraband cellphone while in a place of confinement. He pleaded guilty in November.
Just a few days after Johnson copped to the phone-in-jail charge, back in the neighborhood, a rough patch along Pennsylvania Avenue between Martin Luther King Boulevard and West North Avenue, Avant Mayo was ambushed and shot multiple times in his torso.
According to the application for statement of charges, police believe Mayo was standing in the 1500 block of Argyle Avenue, adjacent to Johnson’s block on Shields Place, on Nov. 13 when five men, three of them armed with handguns, approached, fired and fled.
Mayo was transported to the University of Maryland R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center and survived.
He was in no hurry to tell police who shot him.
In an interview for this story, Mayo said he only knows the attackers’ faces, not their names, and that only one guy shot him.
He said the detective on the case, Brian Allman, visited him in the hospital and pressured him to name the shooters, making family visits contingent upon a lead to solve the case. But Mayo wouldn’t budge.
About a month later, police apparently got their break in the case.
Her name was Christina Moore, a woman from the neighborhood. She pleaded guilty to drug dealing in 2007 and is scheduled to stand trial in September for charges dating to last October.
It was on the latest drug charge that officers arrested her on Dec. 17, her 27th birthday, and brought her in for questioning regarding the Mayo shooting.
Moore gave a taped statement in which she named Deon Johnson and Deshawn Chambers, who also lived within a block of the crime scene, as the people who shot Mayo.
Moore also met with a different detective and identified Mayo as the man who had stabbed Brentt Jones, just a few days before and a few blocks away from where Mayo was shot.
According to the application for statement of charges in that case, Jones was arguing with Mayo at Pennsylvania Avenue and Dolphin Street on Nov. 10 when Mayo stabbed him a dozen times in the back.
That case, too, remained open until Moore talked to police a month later.
Court records show that separate detectives drew up the applications for statement of charges in the Johnson-Chambers and Mayo cases on the same day, Dec. 20.
Johnson and Chambers were arrested on Dec. 22.
Mayo, who remained free, heard about their arrest and called Johnson’s mother to say that her son had not shot him. She referred Mayo to Gordon, her son’s lawyer.
Mayo, who said he still has bullet fragments in his body, showed up at Johnson’s bail review on Dec. 27. Mayo wasn’t able to get into the room because he was a victim, but Gordon had him draw up an affidavit that includes a brief account of what happened the night he was shot.
Mayo described Johnson and Chambers as “good friends” he has known for years from the neighborhood and boxing and wrote they are “like brothers to me.”
“I’m 100% certain that neither Deon nor Deshawn shot me,” Mayo concluded.
Mayo said that after he wrote that affidavit and Gordon told prosecutors about it, the detectives pressured him to take it back. He didn’t.
He was jailed on Dec. 30.
“If you tell us that these were the shooters, we can erase all this,” Mayo remembers police telling him.
Mayo didn’t recant and stands by the truth of his statement.
“That was nothing I could take back,” Mayo said in an interview. “That’s the truth.”
The civil suit
Nevertheless, Johnson and Chambers were charged with attempting to murder Mayo, among other counts. Mayo faced similar charges for the stabbing of Jones. The three men sat in jail through the rest of the winter, into the middle of spring.
Johnson’s civil case against the officers went to trial in January. The jury awarded him $113,000, more than half of which was punitive damages.
“The police officers’ defense was more or less hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil,” Gordon said of the civil trial. “The three of them denied the event ever occurred … despite the damage to the right front bumper.”
The case settled in April for $42,500. Gordon said a few erroneous rulings threatened the verdict.
“And rather than fighting it and stretching it out … we settled,” Gordon said. “Deon needed something for his legal defense.”
Around the same time as the settlement, the criminal cases started to deteriorate.
Mayo’s attorney, Michele Murphy, remembers a man who identified himself as Brentt Jones calling her and saying “my client was sitting in jail for something he didn’t do.”
“’He’s not the guy who stabbed me,’” Jones said, according to Murphy.
Murphy believes Jones said the same thing to Assistant State’s Attorney Benjamin L. Davis III, the prosecutor on the case.
“He knew this was going to be an issue,” Murphy said of Davis. “I think they were aware that that was a problem from the beginning.”
Davis declined to comment.
Then there was Christina Moore’s inculpatory statement to police.
Moore, who works a nursing job at Fayette Health & Rehabilitation Center, has since disavowed those allegations as false. In an interview Friday, she claimed she was “high as a kite” and drunk as part of her birthday celebration when she gave the statements. Also, she recently had given birth. She had been at the police department for several hours when she made the allegations.
“I was basically telling these people anything because I was afraid,” she said.
She said she identified Johnson and Chambers — but only as people she knew, not as people she saw or conclusively knew shot Mayo. She had only heard — “hearsay, word on the street” — about the shooting. Same with the stabbing.
“What I was explaining to the police was, that was hearsay that he did it,” Moore said.
She said the police, besides referencing Johnson’s civil suit, believed the shooting of Mayo, whom she knows by the nickname “Brill,” was retaliation for the stabbing of Jones. But she doesn’t know anything about it, she maintains.
Moore said she told Assistant State’s Attorney Kelly Madigan, the prosecutor on the Johnson and Chambers cases, that her statement was false “several months ago.”
Like Mayo, she denies she has been the victim of coercion.
“Nobody never threatened me,” she said. “I came forward because I feel bad.”
Moore said she’s grateful the families of the defendants aren’t ones to dispense hasty street justice.
“I just thank God of that,” she said, choking up over the telephone.
Moore’s Dec. 17 statement, in written for or on CD, is not in the case file, and none of the attorneys who had access to it would release it. But defense attorneys in the case described what it said.
Jane G. Loving, who is representing Chambers as a private panel attorney for the Office of the Public Defender, said the inculpatory statement includes allegations that Johnson and Chambers are gang members.
Mayo’s lawyer, Murphy, also a panel attorney, described it as a “sort of a hearsay on hearsay.”
“The state knew they couldn’t go forward on just that,” Murphy said.
After Moore called the prosecutor on the day of Mayo’s trial to disavow her statement, Davis offered to stet the attempted-murder case. Mayo pleaded guilty to a separate drug charge so he could go home that day, Murphy said.
Johnson’s lawyer, Gordon, said Moore called him on May 26 to recant, and he has her “exculpating statement” on video.
“She indicated that she never said what they said she said,” Gordon said of Moore’s statement to police. “She said she was high.”
“She’s told me that that’s what she told the state as well,” Gordon said.
Moore said she will be in court on Monday.
“We’ll see what the state does,” Gordon said. “I know they’re not as enthusiastic about the case as they were in the past.
Monday is not Johnson and Chambers’ first trial date in the case. That was on April 28, just a few weeks after the stabbing charge against Mayo was stetted.
Mayo — Johnson and Chambers’ purported victim — was back in court, subpoenaed by Madigan, the prosecutor.
Speaking in the hallway outside the courtroom on April 28, Mayo did not appear to know that Moore was the one who put him, Johnson and Chambers in jail. He said he had seen her that morning, which Moore confirmed.
Then, as Johnson and Chambers were escorted down the hall to the courtroom by prison guards, Mayo told them he came to get them off.
But he never got the chance.
With the defendants’ families and friends in attendance, Judge Lynn Stewart granted the state’s request for a postponement.
The new date is Monday morning, and last week, attorneys in the case said they had no reason to believe it would be postponed again — other than that it’s in Baltimore City Circuit Court.
“I’ll be ready for trial and if there’s a court available, we may go,” said Loving, Chambers’ lawyer. “He’s not going to take any kind of plea, I can promise you that.”
A common problem
Agent Donnie Moses, a police spokesman, declined a request to speak to the officers involved in the civil and criminal cases. He said Gordon is doing his job, just as the police are doing theirs.
“That’s what he’s paid to do. He’s paid to raise doubt in the case that we’ve built,” Moses said. “Come Monday, the facts will speak for themselves, and whatever the outcome, we’ll be satisfied.”
Moses echoed the outside prosecutors and defense attorneys briefed on the case.
“We get witnesses, and sometimes victims, that recant their statements all the time,” he said. “[I]t’s something that we have to persevere through.”
Madigan has referred questions to an office spokesman, who declined to comment, citing agency policy regarding pending matters.
Brian Thompson, a former prosecutor turned defense attorney in the city, said Madigan could offer Moore’s original statement into evidence and try to convince a jury that her original words were the truth, not her subsequent statements.
Even so, Thompson said, “What jury’s going to convict?”
Harford County State’s Attorney Joseph I. Casilly said uncooperative victims and witnesses are a common problem. Either the person doesn’t want to “be ratting someone out” because of gangs or threats or they know the assailant, which is especially true in domestic cases, but seems to be the case with the neighbors in the Johnson and Mayo cases.
“You run into this all the time,” Casilly said.
Montgomery County State’s Attorney John J. McCarthy said uncooperative victims or witnesses aren’t unique to Baltimore, but he doesn’t envy the city’s issue.
“In Baltimore city and some of the other jurisdictions, they have challenges daily that we thankfully don’t have to confront on a daily basis,” he said. “Cases are hard enough without people recanting their testimony.”
Thompson summarized it as “just your typical ‘We’re not going to let the courts handle this, we’re going to handle this ourselves,’ which happens all the time.”
“There’s probably about a thousand of those a year or more,” he said.
The wrinkle in the Johnson case is the retaliation thread.
“The only thing that makes it a little unusual is one of the people involved has just sued the police, so that throws the potential retaliation in there,” Thompson said. “But you have recanting witnesses every day, especially in Baltimore city.”
Casilly, past president of the National District Attorneys Association, said police retaliation wouldn’t get very far.
“It is a good part of our system that you have prosecutors that look at this stuff separate and apart from what the police look at,” he said. “The whole system, as it moves through each level, is designed as a screening system to weed out the innocent or the not so guilty until you get all the way up to a judge or a jury.”
The next step
Gordon, a frequent and sharp critic of State’s Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein, insists the arrest and prosecution of Deon Johnson is “extremely retaliatory.”
“He’s been through a hell of a whole lot just because he had the courage to stand up to the police,” Gordon said, referring to the original officers as “cowboys.” “This has been my crusade with Mr. Johnson because he’s a very good young man and he’s got great potential in life and these officers have just been trying to destroy him.”
Johnson’s six months in jail, before he is convicted of anything, is part of “the whole warehouse game,” Gordon said.
He has filed an intent to sue the city for malicious prosecution, among other common law and constitutional torts.
First, though, there is the criminal trial to be won. Otherwise, in the eyes of the law, Johnson will be just one more promising young athlete who fell prey to the streets.
McDowell, who founded his boxing gym in the late 1990s, said he thinks the case against Johnson is “bogus” and “retaliation.” He doesn’t believe Johnson shot Mayo and said he plans to attend Monday’s trial.
“Like all the kids have their issues from time to time, but pretty much, he looked at me as a father figure, he respected me, he listened,” McDowell said of Johnson. “To me, he was an all-right kid.”