The Gangfighters Network is an organization designed to bridge the gap between academia and the criminal justice professions. For more information, visit and The focus is on gangs, initially adult gangs as it appears they have been ignored or absorbed into the mainstream society. There's a special focus on gang members in the military.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

After Tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Marine Left Dying on Tampa Street

St. Petersburg Times - Published Sunday, July 29, 2007
TAMPA - Just after the first bomb exploded in the Iraq war, Miguel Angel Suarez enlisted in the Marines.

His parents and five siblings warned him of the dangers abroad, but Suarez said he wanted to repay this country for the better life his family found after moving here from Mexico City when he was7 years old. It was March 2003, and this new war was his chance.

He survived tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. When his four-year enlistment was up this year, he signed up again. This time, he would work from a safer base in Tampa.

The insurgents never got him. But early July 21, Suarez was gunned down and left to die a mile and a half from his childhood home.

Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies say a 21-year-old gang member killed the Marine in a botched robbery attempt.

Jonathan Sanabria of 18425 Bittern Ave. saw Suarez, 25, walking home from a concert near the corner of North Himes and West Sligh avenues, deputies said.

In the ensuing scuffle, Sanabria pistol-whipped Suarez, shot him twice and left him lying in the street, deputies said.

They arrested Sanabria, described by deputies as a member of the Gangster Disciples gang of Chicago, Tuesday evening on a first-degree murder charge.

Sanabria, in jail without bail, told detectives it all happened because he wanted Suarez's gold chain.

"El Toro"

Pedro Suarez sat outside his West Tampa home Wednesday afternoon, cloaked head to toe in his little brother's full camouflage uniform, still wondering how anyone could kill Miguel.

This was the man who traveled to Mexico twice a year to surprise his 81-year-old grandmother with mariachis and flowers.

The Marine who stayed quiet about the dangers in Afghanistan and Iraq to keep his mother from worrying.

Miguel Suarez had been the baby of the family.

But in the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, everyone knew him as "El Toro."

He spoke in double entendre, making jokes that slid by most. Sgt. Jimmy Ray Sumaya always laughed.

"Finally," Suarez told him when they met. "Someone who knows what I'm talking about."

They became quick friends, and Sumaya encouraged him to re-enlist this year.

Suarez did and told his brothers he wanted to make the Marines a lifelong career.

a strange mood

The night he died, Suarez went to a Colombian Independence Day concert with a childhood friend, Janeth Valderrama.

In their tight-knit group, Suarez played the role of "the Fonz," she said. He razzed his friends, hassled waiters and never let himself - or his pals - make excuses.

"You wouldn't get the comfort; you'd get the truth," Valderrama said. In situations where some might offer consolation, he made people face reality: "Yeah, it was your fault."

Still, Suarez's friends trusted him not to judge or lecture them, said Liliana Villavicencio. He played pranks on them but was there when they needed him.

And despite his irreverence, he knew when to focus. Before exams at Jefferson High School, his normal goofing off gave way to diligent studying, Villavicencio said.

Suarez started out his usual self Friday night. Valderrama picked him up at the house he had just bought in Riverview. They drove to the concert at the Hindu Temple of Florida on Lynn Road. Suarez had a few drinks and danced with his friends.

But by 2 a.m. his mood had changed.

"He was really drunk and seemed really bored," Valderrama said. "I don't know exactly why."

She left him for a moment to check on her sister. When she returned, Suarez was gone.

When the concert ended at 3 a.m., Valderrama waited outside to see if her friend would emerge.

She called him on her cell phone, and after a long wait he called her back.

He apologized for his behavior and told her how much her friendship meant to him. But he also said he wanted to be alone, and told her to go home.

She could tell he was in a strange mood because he didn't crack any jokes.

She told him she wasn't going home until she knew he was safe, but the line went dead. Figuring Suarez was walking to his parents' house, she drove up Himes Avenue.

About 4 a.m. she saw the lights.

"Oh, great, they picked him up and they're going to put him in jail because of public intoxication," she thought.

Then she saw him lying on the street. She recognized his white undershirt and shoes. She begged police to let her talk to him, so he would know she had kept her promise. But they held her back as the paramedics worked.

That tortures her, she said.

"Maybe if he had heard my voice he would have reacted and not gone."

"god forgives"

Every afternoon since July 21, his family has prayed the rosary. Each time, about 100 people come to the house to join them.

His cousins drove 42 hours from Mexico to Tampa to mourn his death. His ex-wife, Yvette Martinez, flew in from Air Force service in Afghanistan.

Suarez was buried Thursday after a morning mass at St. Joseph's Catholic Church.

But the family's ordeal continues.

There's still the man with the pitchfork gang tattoo and more than 10 previous arrests awaiting trial.

Hating Sanabria won't bring her son back, said Hermelinda Suarez. The mother only had two words to say to him: "God forgives."

"I'd like to talk to him," said Sgt. Sumaya. "Ask him, 'Why?'<0x200A>"

Suarez was learning how to play the guitar. He had just gotten his motorcycle permit. He dreamed of one day starting a family.

What hits his friends the hardest is the way he died.

Suarez always said he hated gangs, thought they made people weak and robbed them of personality.

Suarez's friend Villavicencio is outraged by the senselessness of his death.

"He's a Marine," she said, "not some little hoodlum, to get shot in the street."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Are Gang Members Using Military Training?

Military Police Have Briefed Local Police That Troops Could Be Sharing Their Skills

July 28, 2007
Four U.S. Marines in South Carolina were recruiting local kids, some as young as 13, into the Crips street gang. (CBS/Richland Co. Sheriff)

A Quote

"The numbers are increasing like crazy around the U.S. and adding this extra fuel is just not going to help matters."

Hunter Glass


(CBS) Like most American cities, Columbia, South Carolina, has its share of problems, but nothing prepared the Sheriff Leon Lott for what his department discovered last August.

Four U.S. Marines – who proudly snapped pictures of each other – were recruiting local kids, some as young as 13, into the Crips street gang. The leader was a lance corporal.

"We have enough problems with local kids and what they are doing," Lott, the Richland County Sheriff, said. "But to have the Marines – someone who is trained – to come up here and recruit and give them the training they've had in the military, it scares me to death cause it tells me we're at war with these gangs."

It's a concern also raised by the FBI. In a recent report the agency warned: "Military training could ultimately result in more sophisticated and deadly gangs ... as well deadly assaults on law enforcement officers."

CBS News has learned that military police have briefed local authorities in major cities, including New York, about the rising danger that gang members in the military could share their skills with gangs on the streets. That could include combat, logistics, and even emergency medical skills.

"We heard about it in other places," Lott said. "We didn't think Columbia, South Carolina would be a place where the military would have influence on our gangs, but we had it."

Army investigators tell CBS News that there is absolutely no evidence that soldiers are using their combat training in gang activity, nor proof that gangs are sending members into the military to learn such skills. They insist the threat is low.

"We're not seeing this in this particular time – we're just not," said Colonel Gene Smith of the U.S. Army's Office of the Provost Marshal. "It's just a theory."

But there was an incident in which a disturbed Marine used his training to kill two policemen. In January, 2005, the Marine, who police say was associated with the Norteno street gang, shot to death two policeman outside a convenience store in Ceres, California.

Surveillance video shows him using a technique marines call "cutting the pie" – instead of cowering, he boldly attacks.

"Gangs are gaining strength across the United States," said Hunter Glass, a retired police detective who tracks gangs. "The numbers are increasing like crazy around the U.S. and adding this extra fuel is just not going to help matters."

The House of Representatives has passed legislation prohibiting service members from associating with street gangs. A Senate could vote could come next month. But there are also calls to raise enlistment standards, which have slipped to such an extent that one in 10 new army recruits has a criminal record.

"We were able in the 80's and into the 90's to say, 'you have to be special to serve your country because this is difficult work'," said Lawrence Korb, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense. "But now we are saying, 'we are so desperate for people, we are going to take anybody as long as you can walk through the door'."

A short term solution for the military and a future problem, some say, for police departments in their war against street gangs.

Gang activity more common in military

WASHINGTON, July 28 (UPI) -- Urban street gangs have moved from U.S. cities into the U.S. military, with gang graffiti even showing up on Humvees in Iraq.

Hunter Glass, a retired police detective in Fayetteville, N.C., where Fort Bragg is located, said strains on the military because of Iraq and Afghanistan make it difficult to keep gangs out of the military.

"It's obvious that many of these people do not give up their gang affiliations," Glass told CBS News.

The Army Criminal Investigation Command said the number of gang-related investigations increased from nine in 2004 to 61 last year. But officials said gang activity is still a tiny part of its caseload.

The increase coincides with the increase in the number of recruits given waivers for having criminal records. Membership in a street gang is not necessarily a disqualifier.

Stephanie Cockrell, whose son was killed in a gang initiation in Germany two weeks before his discharge, said that should change.

"I would have loved to have seen him with his child, I really would have -- that part is hard, that part is hard," she said.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Exclusive: Gangs Spreading In The Military

CBS News Talks To The Family Of A U.S. Soldier Killed In Gang Initiation
July 28, 2007
Shavon Striggles, a Marine corporal, poses in gang colors inside the barracks on Parris Island. (Richland County Sheriff)

A Quote

"I feel like I didn't prepare him enough to deal with this and I should have. But how would I have known there were gangs in the military?"

Stephanie Cockrell - Mother of Sgt. Juwan Johnson

(CBS) U.S. Army Sgt. Juwan Johnson got a hero's welcome while home on leave in June of 2004.

"Not only did I love my son - but my god - I liked the man he was becoming," his mother, Stephanie Cockrell, remembers.

But that trip home was the last time his family saw him alive.

When Johnson died, he wasn't in a war zone, he was in Germany.

"He had finished his term in Iraq," his mother said. "I talked to him the day before his death. He said, 'Mom, I'm in the process of discharging out. I'll be out in two weeks'."

On July 3, 2005, Sgt. Johnson went to a park not far from his base in Germany to be initiated into the 'Gangster Disciples,' a notorious Chicago-based street gang. He was beaten by eight other soldiers in a "jump-in" - an initiation rite common to many gangs.

"My son never spoke of joining a gang," Cockrell told CBS News correspondent Thalia Assuras.

Johnson died that night from his injuries. His son, Juwan Jr., was born five months later.

"I feel like I didn't prepare him enough to deal with this and I should have," his mother said. "But how would I have known there were gangs in the military? I could have had that talk with him."

Evidence of gang culture and gang activity in the military is increasing so much an FBI report calls it "a threat to law enforcement and national security." The signs are chilling: Marines in gang attire on Parris Island; paratroopers flashing gang hand signs at a nightclub near Ft. Bragg; infantrymen showing-off gang tattoos at Ft. Hood.

"It's obvious that many of these people do not give up their gang affiliations," said Hunter Glass, a retired police detective in Fayetteville, North Carolina, the home of Ft. Bragg and the 82nd Airborne. He monitors gang activity at the base and across the military.

"If we weren't in the middle of fighting a war, yes, I think the military would have a lot more control over this issue," Glass said. "But with a war going on, I think it's very difficult to do."

Gang activity clues are appearing in Iraq and Afghanistan, too. Gang graffiti is sprayed on blast walls – even on Humvees. Kilroy – the doodle made famous by U.S. soldiers in World War II – is here, but so is the star emblem of the Gangster Disciples.

The soldier who took photos if the graffiti told CBS News that he's been warned he's as good as dead if he ever returns to Iraq.

"We represent America – our demographics are the same – so the same problems that America contends with we often times contend with," said Colonel Gene Smith of the Army's Office of the Provost Marshal.

The U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command reported 61 gang investigations and incidents last year, compared to just 9 in 2004. But army officials point out less than 1 percent of all its criminal investigations are gang related.

"We must remember that there are a million people in the army community," Smith said, "And these small numbers are not reflective of a tremendous, pervasive, rampant problem."

The rise in gang activity coincides with the increase in recruits with records. Since 2003, 125,000 recruits with criminal histories have been granted what are known as "moral waivers" for felonies including robbery and assault.

A hidden-camera investigation by CBS Denver station KCNC found one military recruiter was quick to offer the waiver option even when asked, "Does it matter that i was in a gang or anything?" That is well within military regulations.

"You may have had some gang activity in your past and everything ... OK ... but that in itself does not disqualify...," the recruiter said.

Military regulations disqualify members of hate groups from enlisting, but there is no specific ban on members of street gangs. Sgt. Juwan Johnson's family says such a prohibition is long overdue.

"Just maybe we can save someone else's child ... somebody else's husband ... somebody else's father," his mother said. "I would have loved to have seen him with his child, I really would have -- that part is hard, that part is hard."

This month a military court sentenced two of Juwan Johnson's attackers to prison.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Second soldier is jailed in gang beating death

By Steve Mraz, Stars and Stripes
European edition, Wednesday, July 25, 2007

MANNHEIM, Germany — Sgt. Rodney Howell was sentenced to six years confinement and a dishonorable discharge Tuesday for his role in the 2005 beating death of Sgt. Juwan Johnson.

Howell, who faced a possible 19 years behind bars, is the second soldier in as many weeks to be convicted, sentenced to jail time and given a dishonorable discharge for killing Johnson. Last week, Pvt. Terrence Norman was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

An eyewitness testified that nine men beat Johnson for six minutes during a July 2005 Gangster Disciples initiation near Kaiserslautern.

Army Judge Col. Julie Hasdorff determined Howell’s sentence and verdict because Howell opted against a court-martial by jury. Hasdorff found Howell guilty of involuntary manslaughter, violating an Army regulation on hazing, conspiring to violate the Army regulation on hazing and making a false official statement.

Under the hazing charge, Howell was convicted for his own 2004 initiation into the gang, which took place when Kaiserslautern’s 66th Transportation Company was deployed to Tikrit, Iraq.

The judge found Howell not guilty of aggravated assault.

Howell was also sentenced to reduction to private and forfeiture of all pay and allowances.

The most serious charge Howell faced was involuntary manslaughter for his role in the July 3, 2005, jump-in initiation of Johnson, who died of multiple blunt force trauma the next day.

Before sentencing, Howell gave a tearful unsworn statement in which he apologized to Johnson’s wife.

Much of the prosecution’s case rested on the testimony of Pvt. Latisha Ellis, who said as a one-time gang recruit she was only a spectator to the beating.

Ellis testified that Howell was one of the current or former servicemembers who beat Johnson during the initiation ritual near Kaiserslautern.

“It is time for Sergeant Rodney Howell to take responsibility for his actions,” said Capt. Rebecca DiMuro, prosecuting attorney. “Sergeant Howell and his fellow Gangster Disciples conspired to initiate Sergeant Johnson in a jump-in/beat-in ceremony.”

With Ellis being the only source linking Howell and Johnson’s death, the details of her testimony were of vital importance, defense attorney Capt. Joe Venghaus said.

At the very least, Ellis was exaggerating when she testified Johnson was punched 220 times and kicked 12 times during the beating, Venghaus said.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense when we see the pictures of Sergeant Johnson,” Venghaus said.

Dr. David Posey, an expert in forensic pathology, testified for the defense that Ellis’ testimony of what happened is not consistent with injuries he saw in Johnson’s autopsy photos.

“I would have expected to see a lot more injuries to the head and neck,” said Posey, a retired Army colonel.

Ellis testified that Johnson was kicked in the chest repeatedly by the self-proclaimed gang leader, Rico Williams. Photos of Johnson’s chest and abdomen did not show significant damage.

“If [Johnson] was kicked in the chest, I’d expect to see some injuries there,” Posey said.

Under questioning from DiMuro, Posey said he saw injuries that would indicate Johnson was kicked in his left flank.

As for Ellis, DiMuro said when a crime is committed in hell there are no angels as witnesses.

“[Ellis] is no angel, but that does not mean what she told us is not true,” DiMuro said.

Next month, Staff Sgt. Alre Hudson is scheduled to stand court-martial for playing a part in killing Johnson.

Soldier gets 19 years in killingJudge gives midrange sentence to man with role in murder of comrade

ADAM LYNN; The News Tribune Published: July 25th, 2007 01:00 AM

A federal judge sentenced a Fort Lewis soldier to 19 years in prison Tuesday for setting in motion a series of events that led to the murder of his former Army buddy.
U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Leighton told Michael Antonio Jordan he bore responsibility for the death of Christopher Jerry, even though it was another man who fired the gun that killed him.

“A buddy, or a former buddy, is dead, and it’s because of you,” Leighton said during Jordan’s sentencing hearing at Tacoma’s federal courthouse. “You’re going to have to live with that for the rest of your life, sir.”

Jordan, 21, pleaded guilty earlier this year to one count of kidnapping that led to a death.

Federal prosecutors contend Jordan orchestrated the kidnapping of Jerry, his former roommate, the night of Aug. 30, 2005. Jordan intended to recover $1,500 he loaned Jerry, prosecutors said.

After he and others beat Jerry at a remote area of Fox Island, Jordan drove Jerry to Lakewood. Once there, Jordan enlisted help from members of a violent street gang in dealing with Jerry, according to court documents.

One of them, Thomas Evans Dunigan, made a plan to kill the 22-year-old man, a plan that gang member Markus Moore later carried out near a fence surrounding Fort Lewis.

Moore was sentenced last month to 29 years in prison for shooting Jerry. Dunigan was sentenced last month to 20 years for his role in the murder.

Jordan’s lawyer, Charles Johnson of Tacoma, told Leighton on Tuesday that Jordan deserved a sentence of 16 years, saying his client was an Iraq war veteran with no criminal history.

Jordan joined the Army at 16 to escape a life of gangs and crime but made poor judgments the night of Aug. 30 and the early-morning hours of Aug. 31, 2005, Johnson said. Diagnosed mental health issues played a role in Jordan’s decision-making, his attorney said.

Federal prosecutor Gregory Gruber argued that Jordan should get at least the same sentence Dunigan received.

While Jordan served honorably in Iraq, he betrayed the loyalty of a fellow soldier when he turned Jerry over to men who he knew to be violent gang members, essentially signing his death warrant, Gruber said.

“Who should value life more than a soldier who has seen death?” the prosecutor told Leighton. “None of this would have happened without Mr. Jordan.”

Given a second chance to address the court, Johnson countered that Gruber was unfairly using Jordan’s military service against him.

“He tried to make something of his life, and they want to punish him for it,” Johnson said.

Jordan declined the opportunity to speak on his own behalf.

Leighton then decided on a midrange sentence for Jordan, who faced 16 to 22 years under sentencing guidelines.

“You assembled the cast of characters,” the judge said. “You set it all in motion.”

Adam Lynn: 253-597-8644

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

NCO accused of beating chooses judge over jury

By Steve Mraz, Stars and Stripes
European edition, Tuesday, July 24, 2007

MANNHEIM, Germany — Sgt. Rodney Howell opted Monday for a judge to determine the outcome of his court-martial instead of a jury composed of fellow soldiers.

Howell faces five charges, including involuntary manslaughter, in a 2005 alleged gang initiation beating that resulted in the death of Sgt. Juwan Johnson.

Last Thursday, a jury convicted Pvt. Terrence Norman of involuntary manslaughter and associated charges in Johnson’s death. Shortly after the conviction, the jury gave Norman his maximum possible sentence of 12 years confinement, a dishonorable discharge and forfeiture of all pay and allowances. The next day, Howell and his attorneys requested court-martial by judge alone.

Howell’s court-martial began Monday in Mannheim with Col. Julie Hasdorff presiding as judge. As of Monday afternoon, the prosecution had called several witnesses. If found guilty on all charges, Howell could be sentenced to a maximum of 24 years behind bars.

Prosecuting attorney Capt. Rebecca DiMuro said the case was about Howell’s taking responsibility for the results of his actions.

“Like wolves on a piece of meat is how the eyewitness will describe how for six minutes nine men beat Sergeant Johnson,” DiMuro said.

As many as nine current or former servicemembers beat Johnson at the initiation to the Gangster Disciples on July 3, 2005, near Kaiserslautern, eyewitness Pvt. Latisha Ellis said.

Howell punched Johnson multiple times during the initiation and hosted a July 4, 2005, cookout in which a cover story was concocted, Ellis testified Monday.

Defense attorney Capt. Jeffrey Fox acknowledged that Howell was close with some of those involved in the case but those were relationships forged when Kaiserslautern’s 66th Transportation Company was deployed to Iraq in 2004.

“The government is trying to confuse you with guilty by association, which they can prove, and guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, which they can’t prove,” Fox said.

Ellis testified using many of the alleged gangsters’ nicknames such as “Hurt,” “Peewee” and “Zay.” When asked by defense attorney Capt. Joe Venghaus what they called Howell, Ellis said Howell was called by his last name.

Venghaus questioned Ellis’ credibility, noting that she has been convicted of making a false official statement to investigators in the case. Venghaus pointed out that not until February when she made a deal with the government did Ellis reveal to prosecutors what she was now saying in court.

Ellis testified she lied when first talking to investigators in August 2005 because she was scared of Rico Williams, a former Ramstein Air Base airman and the self-proclaimed leader of the Gangster Disciples in Kaiserslautern.

Also on Monday, autopsy photos of Johnson were displayed that showed abrasions and bruises on his back, flank and arms. Col. Kathleen Ingwersen, who performed Johnson’s autopsy, said he died of multiple blunt force injuries.

“If he would not have received these injuries, he would not have died at that time,” she said.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Soldier gets 12 years in gang-related beating death

Private is first to be convicted in Sgt. Juwan Johnson case, gets dishonorable discharge
By Steve Mraz, Stars and StripesEuropean edition, Friday, July 20, 2007

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — Pvt. Terrence Norman was sentenced to the maximum punishment of 12 years’ confinement and given a dishonorable discharge Thursday for the 2005 beating death of Sgt. Juwan Johnson.
A six-member jury of two officers and four enlisted soldiers took less than three hours Thursday to find Norman guilty of involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, violating an Army regulation on hazing and conspiring to violate the Army regulation on hazing.
The charges of aggravated assault and violation of the Army regulation on hazing were later dismissed during the sentencing phase because they were deemed excessive given the involuntary manslaughter conviction.
The panel deliberated for 45 minutes.
After Norman left the courtroom, he tearfully embraced a few friends before being escorted into a room.
Norman becomes the first soldier convicted in the case surrounding Johnson’s July 3, 2005, “jumping in” to join the Gangster Disciples. An eyewitness to the beating testified Tuesday that Norman was one of nine men who repeatedly punched Johnson during the six-minute initiation.
In an unsworn statement read to the jury, Norman called his actions “very stupid and completely unacceptable.” He apologized to Johnson’s family.
“My actions led to the death of your son and husband,” said Norman, 22. “… I am sorry for the pain I have caused you.”
Stephanie Cockrell, Johnson’s mother, testified that she had a particularly difficult time accepting the fact that her son survived a tour in Iraq only to die by the hands of his fellow soldiers.
“You expect in wartime to get the call or perhaps the knock on your door,” she said. “Never in a million years did I expect someone to say to me that your son was beaten to death by other soldiers.”
Johnson’s wife, Kenika, gave birth to the couple’s only son five months after he died. She testified that sometimes it is hard to look at Juwan Jr. and not cry because he looks so much like his late father. Kenika Johnson said she has no idea how she will tell her son what happened to his father.
“I guess I’ll just have to tell him the truth,” she said. “I don’t know how that will go.”
Prosecuting attorney Capt. Jocelyn Stewart recommended to the jury that Norman receive the maximum sentence.
“Do not forget Sergeant Johnson’s pain,” she said. “Do not forget the pain of his family that continues, the pain of that little boy who will grow up fatherless.”
Capt. Chandra LaGrone, defense attorney, told the panel prior to sentencing that Norman was ready to face the consequences of his actions.
“He was and is a young, impressionable kid, who made some very poor decisions,” LaGrone said.
Others who participated in the beating will face courts-martial soon. Six other current or former soldiers and four current or former airmen either beat Johnson or were present at the jumping in, according to testimony from Pvt. Latisha Ellis, the lone Army spectator to the beating. Ellis’ murder charge was dismissed in February in exchange for her eyewitness testimony.
The court-martial of Army Sgt. Rodney Howell is scheduled to begin next week, and Army Staff Sgt. Alre Hudson is set to stand court-martial in late August.
The jury found Norman not guilty of a specification of violating the Army regulation on hazing. The not-guilty finding stemmed from an alleged 2004 Gangster Disciple initiation when Kaiserslautern’s 66th Transportation Company was deployed to Tikrit, Iraq.

Charges dismissed in gang-initiation beating death in Germany

By Steve Mraz, Stars and Stripes
European edition, Wednesday, June 20, 2007

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — The fate of the case against Spc. Bobby Morrissette in the 2005 beating death of Sgt. Juwan Johnson will rest in the hands of a new command.

On Thursday, Brig. Gen. Scott West, commander of the 21st Theater Support Command, withdrew and dismissed all charges against Morrissette, according to Joe Monchecourt with the 21st TSC public affairs office. West served as the convening authority in the case.

The decision was reached late Thursday, but the information was not released until Tuesday because Friday and Monday were training holidays for the Army.

West’s action was taken to comply with a May 30 ruling by Judge (Col.) James Pohl. Military prosecutors from the 21st TSC and commanders who had convening authority were disqualified from the case for not following protocol during the investigation into Johnson’s death, Pohl ruled. The disqualification surrounded a December 2005 interview of Morrissette in which prosecutors and investigators did not follow proper procedure. Pohl did not dismiss the charges against Morrissette at the late May hearing.

Morrissette’s current unit, the 1st Cargo Transfer Company, is scheduled to relocate from Kaiserslautern to Grafenwöhr in the coming months. Files in the investigation into Morrissette will be forwarded to the command that Morrissette’s unit will fall under for legal matters.

“The gaining command should be free to take whatever action is deemed appropriate,” Monchecourt said.

Upon the move, the company will remain under the command and control of the 21st TSC, but the legal jurisdiction would fall under the Joint Multinational Training Command, said Elke Herberger, a U.S. Army Europe spokeswoman.

Morrissette faced charges of involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, gang affiliation, hazing and making a false official statement in the alleged gang-initiation death of Johnson. Johnson died of multiple blunt force injuries on July 4, 2005, after an alleged initiation ceremony into the Gangster Disciples. Three other Kaiserslautern soldiers are facing courts-martial in the death.

West also dismissed charges alleging that Morrissette committed an indecent act and used indecent language in another incident.

Also on Thursday, West referred the case of another suspect in Johnson’s death to court-martial. Staff Sgt. Alre Hudson will stand court-martial on charges of involuntary manslaughter, hazing, aggravated assault and conspiracy to violate Army policy on hazing. A date for Hudson’s court-martial has not been set.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Expert testifies gang beating death was a rite gone wrong

By Steve Mraz, Stars and Stripes
European edition, Thursday, July 19, 2007

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — The six-minute beating in which nine men punched Sgt. Juwan Johnson more than 200 times was a Gangster Disciples rite of passage gone wrong, a gang expert said Wednesday.

Johnson was found dead in his barracks room hours after the July 3, 2005, beating.

Detective John Bowman, head gang investigator with the Killeen, Texas, Police Department, testified Wednesday during the third day in the court-martial of Pvt. Terrence Norman.

The 22-year-old Norman faces four charges, including involuntary manslaughter, in Johnson’s death. If convicted on all charges, Norman could spend 19 years behind bars.

The jury was scheduled to begin deliberating Thursday morning.

Under cross-examination by defense attorney Capt. Chandra LaGrone, Bowman testified that aspects of Johnson’s beating were unusual for a gang initiation.

Jump-in ceremonies for Gangster Disciples can involve three people beating an initiate for 60 seconds or six people beating an initiate for 30 seconds, Bowman said. Prior to the Johnson case, the longest Bowman knew of a gang initiation lasting was 90 seconds.

“I’ve never heard of a six-minute jump in,” he said. “That’s a long time for anybody to throw hands.”

Pvt. Latisha Ellis has testified the beating lasted six minutes. The number six holds particular significance with the gang because one of its symbols is a six-pointed star.

Johnson was scheduled to leave the Army three weeks after the date of his beating. Under questioning from LaGrone, Bowman said he never heard of a jump-in ceremony happening so close to the time a person was set to leave the area where a gang operated.

“Usually, jump-ins are for the good of the gang,” he said.

Col. Kathleen Ingwersen, the medical examiner who performed Johnson’s autopsy, testified that the 25-year-old died from multiple blunt force injuries and that, medically, Johnson’s death was a homicide.

Despite an eyewitness who testified Johnson was hit more than 200 times, Ingwersen said the autopsy showed Johnson did not have broken bones, chipped teeth or swollen eyes. She did not detect any bruising on his face at the time of the autopsy.

“I expected more injuries given the history of this, but I’m not surprised,” Ingwersen said.

The autopsy showed Johnson suffered severe injuries to his brain and heart.

The prosecution rested its case around 11 a.m. Wednesday, and the defense followed suit shortly thereafter.

In her closing argument, prosecuting attorney Capt. Jocelyn Stewart told the panel that when they consider every piece of evidence, she is confident they will convict Norman.

“The evidence presented over the past several days will leave you convinced beyond a reasonable doubt of the accused’s guilt,” Stewart said.

Defense attorney Maj. Sean Wilson called only two witnesses. Their testimony barely lasted 10 minutes.

During his closing argument, Wilson questioned the credibility of prosecution witnesses — particularly the testimony of Ellis, an eyewitness, and Spc. Terance Pope.

“The details will show how those stories completely and utterly fall apart,” Wilson said.

Staff Sgts. Roger LeBlanc and Sermior Mitchell both testified that they knew Pope to be untruthful.

Pope earlier testified that he drove Norman to a Kaiserslautern tattoo parlor sometime between July and September 2005 so Norman could get a Gangster Disciple tattoo covered up before speaking with Army investigators.

Also Wednesday, prosecutors dismissed Norman’s charge of making a false official statement. The dismissal lowered his maximum potential jail time from 31½ years to 19 years.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Witness testifies private hit sergeant many times during initiation ceremony

By Steve Mraz, Stars and Stripes
European edition, Wednesday, July 18, 2007

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — Pvt. Terrence Norman punched Sgt. Juwan Johnson more than 20 times in the face, back and chest July 3, 2005, during a gang-initiation ceremony near Kaiserslautern, an eyewitness testified in a court-martial Tuesday.

Norman also held up Johnson when he could no longer stand during the six-minute “jumping in” ceremony so others could strike Johnson, said Pvt. Latisha Ellis, an eyewitness to the beating. Johnson died of multiple blunt force injuries the next day.

Maj. Sean Wilson, Norman’s lead defense attorney, questioned the credibility of Ellis, who already pleaded guilty to lying to investigators.

Norman faces six charges in Johnson’s death, including involuntary manslaughter.

Ellis testified that Norman and eight other men beat Johnson during an initiation into the Gangster Disciples.

Norman is the first of three soldiers to stand trial this summer in relation to Johnson’s death.

A panel of two officers and four enlisted soldiers will determine Norman’s fate. If convicted on all charges, Norman could spend a maximum of 31½ years in confinement.

Tuesday marked the second day of the court-martial, which is expected to last through Friday.

Attorneys for both sides gave opening statements in the late morning, with Ellis — the first witness — taking the stand shortly after 1 p.m.

Nearly three hours later, she was still on the witness stand.

Norman hit Johnson “as hard as he could” during the initiation ceremony, Ellis said. After the beating, Norman helped Johnson to Johnson’s car and drove the white BMW away from the pavilion in Hohenecken, where the jumping in took place, Ellis testified.

Ellis, who contends she was a spectator and not a participant in Johnson’s beating, is the prosecution’s key witness.

Ellis was once charged with Johnson’s murder, but she made a deal with prosecutors.

In exchange for her testimony, a murder charge against Ellis was dismissed, but she pleaded guilty to making a false official statement for lying when first questioned by investigators in August 2005.

Because Ellis lied under oath in a sworn statement, Wilson questioned the veracity of her recollection of what happened on the evening of July 3, 2005.

“It’s a complete lie,” said Wilson during his opening statement. “It’s a complete fabrication.”

Ellis testified that seven men hit Johnson more than 20 times each, with two of them hitting Johnson more than 40 times.

Johnson did not have swelling, bruising or bleeding on his face after the beating, Ellis said.

Wilson classified the account as an “incredible story” that Johnson could be hit more than 200 times on the face and upper torso and not be bloodied, swollen or bruised.

In her opening statement, prosecutor Capt. Jocelyn Stewart said Ellis’ eyewitness account is exactly what happened that night.

Johnson’s jumping in ceremony was part of a systematic plan by the Gangster Disciples to bolster their numbers in Kaiserslautern, Stewart said.

“This was not a random act of violence,” Stewart said. “Sergeant Johnson was beaten that night because of a systematic plan.”

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Soldier pleads not guilty in sergeant’s death

First court-martial begins in alleged 2005 gang initiation beating that turned deadly
By Steve Mraz, Stars and Stripes
European edition, Tuesday, July 17, 2007

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — Pvt. Terrence A. Norman pleaded not guilty Monday to involuntary manslaughter in the alleged 2005 gang-beating death of Sgt. Juwan Johnson.

Norman is the first soldier to stand court-martial in Johnson’s death. Two other soldiers charged in Johnson’s death are scheduled for court-martial this summer.

Norman also faces five additional charges, including obstructing justice and conspiring to violate an Army regulation on hazing. All six charges against Norman stem from Johnson’s death, as well as other alleged initiations into the Gangster Disciples in Tikrit, Iraq, and in Kaiserslautern.

Norman, now with the 29th Support Group, deployed to Iraq in 2004 with the Kaiserslautern-based 66th Transportation Company. During its deployment from January 2004 to February 2005, the company primarily operated out of Camp Speicher near Tikrit.

Johnson, of the 66th Transportation Company, was beaten on July 3, 2005, near Kaiserslautern during an alleged jumping-in ceremony into the Gangster Disciples, a notorious Chicago-based gang. In pre-trial hearings, eyewitness Pvt. Latisha Ellis testified that nine men — mostly servicemembers — beat Johnson for six minutes. Johnson was found dead the following day in his Kaiserslautern barracks.

Following a morning of legal motions Monday, Norman entered a plea in the afternoon of not guilty on all charges. As of press time, military lawyers were selecting a panel from 12 potential jury members. At least one-third of the panel must be enlisted soldiers. Opening statements were not expected to begin until Tuesday morning.

Norman’s court-martial is expected to conclude Friday but could go into the weekend.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

A family looks for justice

There’s been no closure for GI’s death in 2005, allegedly from blows suffered in gang initiation
By Steve Mraz, Stars and Stripes
European edition, Wednesday, July 4, 2007

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — Like many of her fellow Americans, Stephanie Cockrell will set off fireworks tonight.

But in addition to celebrating July Fourth, Cockrell will remember the life of her late son — Sgt. Juwan L. Johnson, 25. The mother and son set off fireworks together on July 4, 2004, while Johnson was home in Baltimore on leave from Iraq. On July 4, 2005, Johnson was found dead in his Kaiserslautern barracks.

“It’s two years later, and there’s still no justice,” Cockrell said in a telephone interview this week.

The medical examiner who performed Johnson’s autopsy ruled the death a homicide from multiple blunt force injuries. Johnson died from wounds allegedly suffered during a gang initiation ceremony near Kaiserslautern. A soldier for six years, Johnson was deployed to Iraq with Kaiserslautern’s 66th Transportation Company, returning in early 2005.

While no one has been convicted, several soldiers have faced or will face legal proceedings, including three who will stand before courts-martial this summer.

In a March 2006 letter, Army officials informed Cockrell that eight military servicemembers were identified as suspects in Johnson’s murder.

“This is unreal,” wrote Cheryl Williams, Juwan Johnson’s great aunt. “Nothing is being resolved. There’s no closure for us, and who cares? Juwan was just another person killed. I hope his death means nobody will go through what Juwan went through.”

Courts-martial are scheduled this summer for three soldiers, all charged with involuntary manslaughter and other crimes related to Johnson’s death.

Pvt. Terrence A. Norman faces court-martial on July 16 in Kaiserslautern, and Sgt. Rodney H. Howell’s court-martial is scheduled for the following week in Mannheim. Staff Sgt. Alre Hudson is scheduled for court-martial on Aug. 21 in Kaiserslautern.

No one else has been charged in relation to Johnson’s death, according to the 21st Theater Support Command public affairs office.

Initially, two soldiers faced murder charges in Johnson’s death. In October 2006, Spc. Bobby Morrissette was charged with murder, becoming the first soldier charged in the case. Earlier this year when Morrissette was ordered to stand court-martial, he faced the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter. Morrissette’s involuntary manslaughter charge and other related charges were dismissed last month after evidence arose that prosecutors and investigators did not follow proper procedure during a December 2005 interview of Morrissette.

Pvt. Latisha Ellis was also charged with murder. After making a deal to testify for the prosecution as an eyewitness to the beating, Ellis’ most serious charges were dropped. At a summary court-martial, Ellis pleaded guilty to making a false official statement. She was reduced to the lowest pay grade and sentenced to 30 days of hard labor without confinement.

While Cockrell sets off her Fourth of July fireworks, she’ll remember her son. Cockrell knows she needs to get to the point where she can forgive, but she’s not there yet, she said.

“You know Juwan’s death happened, but nothing officially has been done to any individual because of it,” she said. “I’m blown back by what happened with Morrissette. I really wonder when does (Juwan’s) spirit rest. What message is the military sending to its soldiers or its potential soldiers?”