published Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

Chattanooga officer's testimony alleges murder, intimidation by 1 of 32 charged in drug conspiracy

  • photo
    Judge Christie Sell fans out the assorted previous charges against Jumoke Johnson Jr. in front of attorney Gerald Webb at a hearing last year. At a detention hearing in January, Chattanooga Police Officer James Hixson testified Johnson has a reputation as a killer.
    Photo by Staff File Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

James Hixson Testimony
James Hixson Testimony

Though he's only 20 years old, police have known Jumoke Johnson Jr.'s name for years.

He has been suspected of being a gang member on the rise, able to get others to do his bidding. He faced state-level drug possession and assault charges while still in high school. Most were dismissed, often because few witnesses would come to court.

But Johnson took on a higher profile when he was swept up among 32 local men charged in a federal drug conspiracy made public in November. He was in court Tuesday along with his attorney, Hugh Moore, surrounded by eight other co-defendants in the alleged crack-cocaine conspiracy.

It was evidence gathered in the course of that investigation, along with street intelligence, that offers the best insight yet into whether Johnson deserves his reputation and what kind of crimes he may have been responsible for.

According to a court transcript of Officer James Hixson's testimony at a Jan. 9 court hearing, Johnson is a violent gang leader who has intimidated witnesses to prevent them from coming to court, had a witness beaten in jail and allegedly shot another person in the back of the head.

Hixson, who works drug cases as a Chattanooga police officer as part of his duties with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, testified in Johnson's detention hearing that wiretaps, video and audio surveillance showed Johnson buying large quantities of crack for resale and connected him to the larger alleged conspiracy.

Federal prosecutor Chris Poole then asked Hixson about Johnson's gang involvement.

"Mr. Johnson has a reputation in the street as being a killer," Hixson answered.

Later in the January hearing, Moore asked Hixson what proof he has that Johnson has killed, since his client has never been charged with murder.

"Mr. Johnson shot someone in the back of the head based upon people I've interviewed," Hixson replies.

Hixson did not divulge the witnesses nor the victim of the alleged shooting during testimony. Neal Pinkston, second-in-command at the Hamilton County District Attorney's office, said Tuesday that he could not comment on open investigations.

Moore challenged Hixson's statements, questioning the motives of witnesses who might simply be sharing information in exchange for favorable plea deals.

Earlier in that same hearing Hixson testified that while in custody at the Hamilton County Jail, Johnson, a police-validated leader in the local criminal street gang the Rollin' 60s Crips, ordered two men to beat up a cooperating witness being held at the time in Silverdale Detention Center.

The men did attack the witness, Hixson testified.

Moore also noted that Hixson had only interviewed the victim in the alleged jail beating and hadn't corroborated that account with other sources.

Hixson added that multiple witnesses familiar with Johnson told him that they wouldn't go to hearings in state court involving Johnson out of fear of retaliation by him or his gang.

During his back-and-forth with Moore, Hixson either smiled or laughed, prompting Moore to ask the officer to say why he thought the hearing was funny.

"It's not really funny as much as it is sad that such a threat to society has been allowed to make bond as much as he has," Hixson replied.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Bill Carter denied Johnson's bond request in January and Johnson remained in custody as of Tuesday.

•••

Johnson faces similar charges to most of the suspects who sat near him in court Tuesday -- one count of conspiracy to sell crack-cocaine and one count of possessing the drug to distribute.

The men were in court Tuesday for changes in court deadlines in their cases after Poole added another name to the now 34-defendant list.

  • photo
    Jumoke Johnson is led away from the bench by a bailiff after Judge Christie Sell doubled his bond and ordered him taken into custody on May 4, 2012.
    Photo by Staff File Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The defendants face a range of charges from drug conspiracy and distribution to weapons charges and carjacking. Their ages span from 19 to 44. Prosecutors say the conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine dates to 2009. Some of the defendants face up to life in prison. Others will likely see sentences of a few years.

The group was first publicized in a U.S. Attorney's Office news conference on Nov. 4 and called the "worst of the worst" by then-Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd.

Community outcry at public events and in meetings with officials has included family members denouncing the characterization of the men charged as being the city's worst criminals.

Dodd has since clarified his statement, saying he was referring to drug-related defendants, not that the men were the worst criminals in the Chattanooga area.

Hixson testified that Johnson was involved in the alleged drug conspiracy from May 2012 through May 2013. The beginning of that period was when the Times Free Press published an article detailing Johnson's troubled youth and attempts to graduate high school and go to college. He had many supporters at school and in the community who said he had the potential to do great things.

At that time Johnson faced state-level drug charges involving marijuana and cocaine possession, assault and driving charges. Most of his charges were dismissed and he attended Miles College in Alabama for one semester. He was arrested once at the college and twice in Chattanooga after returning home.

•••

The list of 32 defendants announced in November had grown to 34 as of Tuesday. Dewayne Campbell and Clifford Simpson were added to the list.

Campbell was arraigned Tuesday. Simpson remains at large, according to court testimony.

Three other men -- Milo Geiger, Dejuan Cooper and Johnny Caldwell Jr. -- also have not yet been arrested in the alleged drug conspiracy.

Eleven defendants have either pleaded guilty or agreed to do so.

Derrick L. Smith, Kentarius Nealy, Shannon D. Mitchell, Valentino Harris, Guy Wilkerson Jr. and Rodney Harris II have pleaded. They are scheduled for sentencing beginning April 14, with other dates scheduled until May 19.

Four men -- Tramale Johnson, Rahmon Christian, Donte Taylor and Stephone L. Reed -- have signed paperwork agreeing to plead guilty but have not yet had a plea hearing.

The 19 remaining co-defendants are scheduled for trials. The first of those is set to begin March 25. That date will likely change if any of the defendants not yet arrested are caught.

At least two of the suspects have requested to get married while in custody -- Kentarius Nealy to Kimberly Parks.

And Jumoke Johnson to Andrea Allen.

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter at tsouthCTFP.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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