Sgt. Juwan Johnson: His death and what it’s meant for a gang
May 13, 2007
On July 4, 2005, Sgt. Juwan Johnson was pronounced dead in Kaiserslautern, Germany. To date, four soldiers have been charged with involuntary manslaughter in his death. This story is based on dozens of hours of testimony during three Article 32 hearings, Johnson's autopsy report and original reporting. The eyewitness account of what took place on July 3 and July 4, 2005, comes from the testimony of Pvt. Latisha Ellis, who brokered a deal with the government in exchange for her testimony. The hearings ended last week.
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany - They gathered near a McDonald's, awaiting the man who likened himself to the devil.
At the end of his broad shoulders and long arms hung massive hands, resembling claws. He put the fear of hell in people and beat it out of them. He bragged about killing a man. Before the night passed, he would play a role in killing again.
Rico Williams, a former airman at Ramstein Air Base, governed the dozen or so Gangster Disciples in the Kaiserslautern area.
And on the night of July 3, 2005, his disciples would join the devil in dispensing death.
Around 8 p.m. on the eve of Independence Day, 10 men and one woman met under the lingering summer sun near the McDonald's close to Opel Circle in Kaiserslautern.
The military made them soldiers and airmen. The gang made them family.
Tonight, they assembled as family, as gangsters, preparing to submit a soldier to a rite that could grant him entry.
Military titles and bearing mattered little. They went by their usual nicknames of Ty, T, Rome, Ray, Set, Peewee, Dunc, Nicky and - as Army Sgt. Juwan Johnson was known - J. Rock. Tonight, the men would jump J. Rock during six minutes of fury. But first, they had to wait for their leader.
An hour passed before the roughly 6-foot-tall, huskily built Rico drove up in a black Honda. The Disciples loaded into cars, and one hopped on a motorcycle, following Rico for five minutes down the road toward Hohenecken. Just past the village, Rico turned left, then right and led the convoy down a paved path canopied by trees and bordered by a horse pasture. The scene defied the impending brutality.
They parked at a pavilion not far down the path, unloaded and sat at the outdoor tables, making small talk for five to 10 minutes. The clock read shortly after 9 p.m. A light wind blew through but felt warm.
The time to initiate J. Rock had come. The 12 made their way inside the covered, wooden pavilion. Headlights from some of the cars shined toward the pavilion in an attempt to brighten the almost fully enclosed area.
The gangsters - Army Spc. Bobby "Set" Morrissette, Army Staff Sgt. Alre "Ray" Hudson, Army Pvt. Terrance Norman, then-Army Pfc. Arthur "Peewee" Newell, then-Army Pfc. Michael "Dunc" Duncan and Army Sgt. Rodney Howell - circled J. Rock in the space confined by benches and a grill pit.
Rico stood in front of J. Rock with Air Force Staff Sgt. Nicholas "Ty" Sims and Air Force member Jerome "Rome" Jones at Rico's side. Ty served as Rico's right-hand man. Air Force Staff Sgt. Themitrios "T" Saroglou held a flashlight and a timer. Not yet a gang member, Army Pvt. Latisha "Nicky" Ellis stood outside the circle.
The jumping-in ceremony began with Rico asking J. Rock if this is what he wanted.
J. Rock, a muscular 5-foot-3- inch, 182-pounder, sounded off with a "hell yeah."
And the devil unleashed hell.
With his full weight behind him, Rico landed a right-handed punch to J. Rock's left cheek that knocked out the 25- year-old for 30 seconds.
Peewee and Norman helped J. Rock to his feet. Again, Rico asked J. Rock if this was what he wanted. A slurred "yes" spilled from J. Rock's lips. Rico threw his whole weight behind another vicious right that connected in the same spot, dropping J. Rock a second time.
J. Rock stood up under his own power, at which time nine Disciples descended on him like a pack of wolves on a piece of meat. The punishment lasted six minutes.
As J. Rock stumbled back and forth, left and right, the mob followed his every step. Not long into the beating, J. Rock could no longer stand. Rico became furious and took it out on J. Rock's chest.
Curled on the ground in the fetal position, J. Rock tried to block Rico's kicks. Only during the kicks to his chest did J. Rock attempt to protect himself. The other damage he took willingly - at least while he remained conscious.
About two or three of the men held up J. Rock while others continued punching him all over his body. They took turns propping up the initiate so the others could get their licks in. One punch would knock J. Rock unconscious. The next blow would jolt him, restoring his consciousness until the following punch would put him under again.
One blow to the face caused J. Rock's upper teeth to gash the inside of his upper lip.
Those holding up J. Rock flipped him over so they could work on his back. J. Rock grunted and gasped for air. Worn out from administering brutality, the nine Disciples breathed hard.
After six minutes and more than 200 blows, T called time. The Gangster Disciples - now numbering one stronger - embraced J. Rock in a group hug. He was in.
But something went wrong.
Nicky, the lone woman present, thought only six men at a time would beat J. Rock for six minutes. The number six holds special significance for Gangster Disciples. The six-pointed star stands as a primary symbol for the Chicago-based gang. Each point on the star corresponds to a different value - love, life, loyalty, wisdom, understanding and knowledge.
But on this night, the pack of wolves could not contain itself.
There were three ways to join the ranks of the Gangster Disciples - or GDs - in Kaiserslautern: An initiate could get jumped in, blessed in or sexed in - where initiates have sex with gang members. Rico had blessed in Jeremy Starworth, a civilian in the area, just weeks before J. Rock's jumping-in ceremony. A sexing in had not taken place.
A jumping-in ceremony tests an initiate's toughness and love for the gang. It is not meant to bring permanent damage or death - what good would a disabled or dead member bring to the gang?
This group did not deal drugs, rob, perform drive-by shootings or anything typical of real gangsters. However, some members paid dues. Rico did collect personal and family contact information on his disciples that could be used in the event of an emergency. Rico shrewdly gathered the information for more sinister reasons.
Mostly the dozen or so GDs just met at cookouts and dinners. They hung out. They became family.
J. Rock lost bowel control. The smell hit the Disciples. T, an emergency medical technician at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, said J. Rock's defecation meant his insides were shutting down.
J. Rock couldn't control his breathing so the Disciples sat him on a bench and raised his arms over his head. This opened his airway and calmed the erratic breathing. The method worked, but the beating caused more severe internal damage the Disciples did not detect.
Talk arose about taking him to the hospital, but someone said too many questions would be asked. Another asked J. Rock directly if he wanted to go to the hospital. He declined, saying he was OK.
The Disciples helped J. Rock into his car, and Norman drove the 20 or so minutes to their barracks on Kleber Kaserne. Once at the barracks, sometime around 10 p.m., three Disciples carried the newest member of their family up the stairs to his room.
They enlisted fellow GD and Army Pvt. Florentino Charris to lift J. Rock's feet while two others helped carry him upstairs. Instead of joining in the jumping-in ceremony, Charris had stayed at the barracks. They pegged Charris to keep an eye on J. Rock and check in on him through the night and into the morning.
Some of the Disciples went to Black Sounds, a club in Landstuhl, while J. Rock's condition worsened.
J. Rock took a shower and returned to his room. Charris brought him water when he complained of thirst.
Nicky, who lived on Rhine Ordnance Barracks, called Charris between 6 and 6:30 a.m. on July 4. Charris told Nicky that so far J. Rock was OK.
A while later, Charris called back. He told Nicky that J. Rock turned blue and stopped breathing. Charris said he called an ambulance. After Nicky hung up, she curled into a ball on the floor and wept.
At 10:23 a.m. on July 4, a German doctor pronounced J. Rock - Sgt. Juwan Lavell Johnson - dead. Johnson had been a GD for about 12 hours.
Johnson died of multiple blunt-force injuries. Internally, Johnson had a bruise on a muscle that separate the chambers of his heart, bleeding under the membrane layers that cover his brain and blood seeping into tissue in his back.
That afternoon, some of the GDs met at Howell's off-post house for a barbecue. By then, they all knew Johnson died from the beating. Rico concocted a cover story. If anybody asked, a bunch of Turks beat up Johnson in downtown Kaiserslautern the night before, Rico said.
Those in on the conversation grew quiet when Rico issued his next edict. If anybody snitches, Rico said he would kill them and their whole family. He had killed before, and Rico knew where their families lived - thanks to the "emergency contact information" the gang members provided earlier.
The Disciples believed Rico's threat because of his size and reputation.
A few days later, the man who views himself as the devil fled Germany.
Almost two years later, his whereabouts remain unknown.
Somewhere the devil lurks.
Where it happened
Photos by Ben Bloker / S&S
The McDonald's near Opel Circle in Kaiserslautern, top photo, is where members of the Gangster Disciples met at 8 p.m. on July 3, 2005, prior to Army Sgt. Juwan Johnson's jumping-in ceremony, according to witness testimony. A group of 11 soldiers and airmen gathered near the fast-food restaurant and waited for the gang's leader, Rico Williams, to arrive and lead them to the location of the initiation ceremony, middle and bottom photos.
Court proceedingsIn late March, Pvt. Latisha Ellis pleaded guilty to making false official statements. Part of Ellis' deal is that she will be placed in the witness protection program at the end of the investigation and subsequent trials.
Four soldiers - Spc. Bobby Morrissette, Staff Sgt. Alre Hudson, Pvt. Terrance Norman and Sgt. Rodney Howell - have been charged with involuntary manslaughter and related Uniform Code of Military Justice violations in Johnson's death. The charges against Morrissette that stemmed from Johnson's death were dismissed last month, although a military judge is reconsidering the dismissal and is expected to make a final decision on May 30.
In addition to those named in the story, Ellis identified Artis Hudson, Selassi Thabiti and Terrence Knighton as Gangster Disciples. All three were or are in the Air Force, and their locations remain unknown. Hudson served as head of gang security. Thabiti and Knighton held security positions in the gang.
The investigation, now in its 22nd month, continues.