To teachers at Brainerd High School, Jumoke Johnson Jr. is a thoughtful yet troubled student who helps his classmates and finally is bearing down on his studies after years of complacency. A kid who still has a chance.
But mention his name to Chattanooga police officers and many call him a thug who wreaks havoc on the city and may do so for years to come. They say he's a gang leader and suspect him of orchestrating homicides and dealing drugs, allegations that he denies.
Although he's seen the inside of juvenile detention centers, group homes, foster homes and jail, he has no convictions on his record, but he faces 12 criminal charges ranging from aggravated assault to drug possession.
Despite his troubles with the law and being in and out of school, Jumoke still has a chance to graduate from high school Saturday -- the first person in his family to do so -- and he said that ceremony, those steps across the stage at Brainerd, the clutching of the diploma, are perhaps his last chance for a normal life. It marks an open door that he can walk through and break the pattern set by his father and grandfather, both acknowledged drug dealers who say Jumoke is heading down the same path.
"I want to walk across the stage and feel good about myself and go do something with my life," Jumoke said.
But six days before graduation, he sits behind bars after being sent to jail Friday by Hamilton County Sessions Court Judge Christine Mahn Sell, who was convinced by prosecutors that Jumoke is a danger to society.
Jumoke is one of more than 1,000 youths labeled as gang members in Chattanooga.
There's debate among officials on how to deal with them. Should they be thrown away or given a chance?
Jumoke is hoping for another chance.
One thing supporters and critics do agree on: Jumoke now confronts a fork on life's road. Which one he chooses will define him for the rest of his life -- however long that might be.
Jumoke (pronounced ju-MOW-key) awakens every morning and leaves his grandparents' home for school, a monitoring bracelet strapped to his left ankle, a result of the 12 charges now facing him.
The charges worry him.
"With my grades, I can graduate. With these charges, no I can't graduate," he said a couple of months before the graduation ceremony. "That's my main goal. To graduate and to see my child grow up."
He has a 1-year-old daughter, JuKaria, and he's expecting a son in October with a woman other than JuKaria's mother.
The charges range from a drug possession charge after police raided an apartment filled by a group of guys to accusations that he assaulted the mother of his child during an argument.
"Graduation is something that's important, not only to us, but for him to be able to walk across that stage. A lot of these boys, they don't look at themselves as living that long," said Jumoke's grandfather, 58-year-old Arthur Johnson. "They really don't. They look at themselves as being dead or locked up in the penitentiary before they graduate high school."
Ghosts from the past haunt the teen. When Jumoke was small, his drug-dealing father would take him around as he made his deliveries.
"This is what you are going to grow up doing, right here," Jumoke Johnson Sr., sitting in prison, remembers telling the boy.
Jumoke builds high, protective walls around himself, and those who know him say getting through is difficult. You must earn his trust, they say, and that's tough because everyone wants something from him. Teachers want him to do better, friends want him to get things done; he feels a responsibility to take care of his nine siblings.
"Jumoke tests people," said Brainerd Assistant Principal Maria Anderson, one of the people who believes the teen can forge a new path other than the one he seems destined to walk. "He will test you -- I think to see what you're made of, how you react to him, whether you can hold your own, whether you treat him respectfully, whether he is going to respect you in return. That's Jumoke, initially."
If Jumoke gets out of jail before Saturday, he'll don a cap and flowing, white gown and march to "Pomp and Circumstance." And he'll graduate within four years, something of an anomaly at Brainerd, where only a little more than half the students graduate in that time.
If the charges don't stick, it's possible one of the community colleges he has applied to will take him away from the streets. Or maybe the Navy will take him. Or maybe he's destined for prison, where his father has spent nearly a decade in connection to a murder.
"It would actually surprise most people in this city if they knew how intelligent this man is," said Brainerd Principal Charles Joynes. "The whole world sees him as this cruel, untamed beast. ... Jumoke is in the top 5 percent [of his class] intelligence-wise."
Jumoke's name commonly comes up in criminal investigations, police say. The department knows his name, from rank-and-file patrolmen up to Police Chief Bobby Dodd. He's charismatic, intelligent and doesn't sweat under pressure -- a lethal combination, they say.
"You can look at his face and not tell when he's lying," said Todd Royval, a sergeant with the Chattanooga Police Department's Crime Suppression Unit that documents gang members in the community. "He's very dangerous. He's very smart. He's got the gift to get people to do what he says."
Other gang members know Jumoke, too.
"I've had other people, gang members, tell me, 'I'm going to kill Jumoke Johnson,'" Royval said.
Jumoke has collected an assortment of charges, most of which are misdemeanors with the exception of an aggravated assault he picked up in a jail fight and an unrelated drug charge. And while police believe he is connected to several homicides over the years, he has never been charged.
"They ain't caught me with no gun. They ain't caught me with no dope," Jumoke said.
He's right. To the frustration of detectives, he is, at most, a "party of interest."
Royval acknowledges that no one has ever claimed that Jumoke threatened him into committing crimes for him, but the sergeant just sees that as evidence of Jumoke's talent.
"He gets them to want to do it," Royval said.
He is rumored to be connected to the Christmas Day shooting in which nine people were left wounded outside the now-shuttered Mosaic Church on Market Street.
"I can't prove it, but it's Jumoke," Royval said.
Jumoke says his name comes up after every shooting. He denies being involved.
"It was shooting after shooting that occurred. Everyone says I did all these shootings," he said.
Jumoke has lived all his life in the Avondale area, a neighborhood defined by a grim, hardened reality. Drugs, prostitution and about 21 shootings resulting in injury or death besieged the area and neighboring communities last year. About three out of 10 kids never graduate from Brainerd High. About one out of four residents is unemployed. Only half the residents between the ages of 16 and 64 work, according to the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies.
But it's home to Jumoke, all he's ever known. And the neighborhood knows him well. All the talk swirling on the streets about him, coupled with law enforcement's interest and knowledge of his father's persona, has fueled a mythological status for the teen. The reputation -- perceived or real -- is something he said he has a hard time living down.
"Everybody knows me. Some people like me. Some people don't," said Jumoke, who has a neatly trimmed mustache resting above his lips, a marked sign of manhood on his young face.
He's told he may not live to be old.
"They say, 'You ain't going to live long or you'll be in jail," Jumoke said. "That's what they want for me. I hear it a lot of the time and from a bunch of police. So, you get used to it, but you try to prove them wrong."
It's a hard thing for Arthur and Anna, his grandmother, to watch Jumoke leave the house. They fear it may be the last time they see their grandson. While they don't approve of all of his actions, they unconditionally love him.
"I don't produce angels," Arthur said. "I leave that to God."
In Arthur and Anna's home, a woven, wrapped basket sits near a window. Upon first glance it looks like potpourri stacked three quarters to the top, but it's actually petals of dried flowers that represent loved ones who died early, of murders or disease -- many of them young shooting victims.
"That's the dreaded pot," Arthur said. "We talk about the pot a lot. We're all going to end up in the pot."
Over the years, the petals have been moved from one container to another, each container a little bigger than the last.
Jumoke is pragmatic about whether there will be another petal in the basket for him.
"I mean, whenever the Lord wants me to die, it's my time," he said. "I ain't saying I want to die. That's what I don't want to do is die."
Despite Jumoke's troublemaking in school, there was one thing faculty at Brainerd High noticed immediately -- his ability to sway other students.
"He can influence them to do things in here and in the community," Joynes said. "He really can. He has influence. So many of them follow him. So many of them have respect for him -- be it positive or negative."
In the classroom, Jumoke has been able to curtail disruptions with simply a look or comment, according to school staff.
On one particular day, Jumoke walked past a pregnant teacher's out-of-control classroom. He asked to have a word with the class alone, Anderson said. When the teacher re-entered the room, the students sat quietly and attentively with their books open.
When asked about the story, Jumoke said, "She was pregnant. I didn't want her to stress. I just walked in there, talked to them and calmed them down. I tried to put in their mind they were more mature than they were acting. They were acting childish."
But there's a darker side to his charisma. Police believe he used the same influence to climb the ranks of the Rollin' 60 Crips street gang. Police documented him as a gang member last June after a raid at a residence in the 1900 block of Rawlings Street. Jumoke admitted to being a gang member, police say, and he is consistently seen with other documented gang members.
Jumoke says the gang members he sometimes hangs out with are just kids he grew up with.
On an early spring day, Arthur Johnson sits on his front porch and watches cars go up and down Laura Street. Even though the sun is shining and birds are chirping outside the rented small white-frame house, gunshots pop a block or two away.
There are no grocery stores, only one bank. Just convenience stores and liquor stores.
"It's easier for these kids to buy a bottle of whiskey and for them to get drugs than it is to get anything else," Arthur said.
The neighborhood is centered on a dilapidated apartment complex, Woodlawn Apartments, called "the Woodlawns" by residents and known for drug deals and for being Crips gang turf. But it's been the center of the small community for decades and still is, even though poverty is the norm. Nearly 60 percent of residents in the neighborhood live below the poverty level compared with the countywide average of about 15 percent, Ochs studies show.
"I've been unemployed for a long while. He can't see that [success] through me," Arthur said in a resigned voice. "A lot of it has been my own doing, my own unraveling, but he had to watch that, too."
Arthur says he used to deal marijuana out of the neighborhood recreation center, but changed his ways after seeing a boy throw a pool ball, striking a little girl on the head. The woman watching the children wept, and it made him want to help. He was able to quit selling and spent about 20 years coordinating events at the center near the Harriet Tubman public housing complex until he slipped into addiction in the late 1980s and became addicted to cocaine.
"I became the very person that I was trying to keep the kids from becoming," Arthur said.
The white powder would send him on a high that still haunts him. The fleeting euphoria would leave him looking for more. He says he's been clean for about 10 years but still considers himself a recovering addict. And because of his addiction, he has lost every job.
"My grandson has been dealing with death, destruction, drugs and stuff in these neighborhoods ever since he was a small kid," Arthur said.
He said it's almost like survival of the fittest.
"The strong survive, and weak are going to get preyed on. ... That's the hustler's mentality," Arthur said.
Success is a rare commodity in the Woodlawns, but Gerald Webb -- Jumoke's defense lawyer -- is one of those exceptions. A Brainerd High graduate who grew up in Avondale, he worked as a Hamilton County prosecutor before becoming a criminal defense attorney.
"My brothers and sisters, all of us graduated from Brainerd. All of us have graduated from college," said Webb, who noted he has brother who is a doctor and another who is an attorney.
When Webb talks to Jumoke, he tells him, "You can be born in those areas, go to those schools and still do well. That's the situation you're in. You can still do what you want to do. You can still live your life. You can have everything you want and do it legitimately."
But it's a struggle, Webb said.
"It's the lack of opportunity," he said. "It's the lack of hope."
Sometimes for Jumoke, it's hard to keep hope alive. Some doors are already shut because he's been jailed but never convicted. When he applies for a job, he must admit to spending time in jail. Employers never call him back.
"I don't know whether to lie or what," Jumoke said. "Should I tell them I haven't been to jail, and they do a background check and see I really have been to jail? Still ain't going to get a job. So might as well tell them the truth in the first place."
The last job he held was at 16 years old when he worked for Liberty Tax Service. He stood on the side of the road dressed up as Lady Liberty, waving to oncoming traffic.
To make money and help provide for his family, his grandfather said, Jumoke "basically did what everyone else did around here. You get into the lifestyle of what you see. ... He made a few pennies."
While some people believe Jumoke uses drug money to pay the bills -- something he denies -- on his 18th birthday, he was awarded nearly $18,000 in a settlement from a car accident when he was 11, court records show.
Jumoke's name is African and means "to be loved by everyone." His middle name is Ajamu, which means "he fights for what he wants." Arthur gave the same names to his oldest son, Jumoke Sr., because he was born prematurely and had to fight just to enter the world.
Jumoke Johnson Sr., 35, lives in Southeastern Correctional Facility in Pike- ville, Tenn. He wears a beard and gold-capped teeth. For the first time in his life, he's reading the Bible and trying to get his GED.
Johnson has nothing but time to think and said he now understands the mistakes he made as a young man. Jumoke Jr. is the oldest of 10 children he had in Chattanooga with numerous mothers, and he also has a few children in Georgia, including a set of twins.
"I was selfish," he said. "I wasn't thinking about anyone but me. I wasn't thinking about my choices. I wasn't thinking about children. I was thinking about what this money got me."
He has seen Jumoke two, maybe three times since he was locked up in 2005. Sometimes they talk on the phone.
"If you're having kids, they need you out there," he said.
He still remembers going down the path that led him to prison. He was 14 and needed a ride to school. His cousin picked him up in a flashy car. The girls called his name and waved to his cousin. It was all over after that.
"We choose our own paths. When you're in your teens, you feel like you're a man," Johnson said. "Back then, that was the life I wanted. I guess I wanted the car, the girls, the fast life. Being really stupid."
Johnson, who dropped out of Howard High School, achieved street success. At one time, he carried nearly $200,000 in cash from drug deals, he said, and had five cars.
When he gets out in a few years, he said he hopes he can be there for his family. He wants to make positive changes, but it's been a struggle, even in prison. Johnson recently was thrown into isolation for 10 days and had his visitation taken away for six months.
"Got messed up with cocaine," Johnson said.
He remembers meeting Jumoke's mother when he was 17 and already had begun to amass a small fortune dealing drugs.
"Typical hood stuff," he said. "I was a young dude getting money, and she was a little bit older. ... We slept around part of the time. Then came little 'Moke."
Jumoke previously lived with his mother, Shantele Landmon, who lives several blocks away from his grandparents. Several attempts to interview her were unsuccessful. Brainerd High officials say she has never showed up for scheduled meetings about Jumoke and she has never been in court when he was in front of a judge.
After his father went to prison, Jumoke had to step up. His siblings were counting on to him to provide extra things his father couldn't -- clothes, shoes or a haircut.
"My daddy had a lot of kids. I guess I had to step up to the plate and be a man," Jumoke said.
Jumoke carried his reputation from the street into the classroom.
"There was a lot of tension. It wasn't good," said former Brainerd High School Principal Frank Jones, who dealt with Jumoke in his freshman year.
On his first day at Brainerd High, he was sent home after a cafeteria incident between two groups of guys, a fight that had carried over from a shooting at a skating rink. Jumoke was at the skating rink and accused of being the shooter.
Jones asked Jumoke to change schools, but he refused. After more incidents in school he was ordered to go to Washington Alternative, the school for troubled teens. He flunked all his classes his freshman year.
But Jumoke did well enough at Washington to be able to return to Brainerd his junior year. He had no issues academically that would allow district officials to bar him from campus. They had to take him back.
Word spread from previous school officials that he was "a thug that had no manners, no desire to be in school and was going to tear everything apart," Anderson said.
Brainerd High School is 97 percent black. Many of the students' fathers are dead, locked away, or out of the picture.
When Jumoke first returned to Brainerd in his junior year, school officials were concerned, but then there was a change in administration. Joynes, who lived in Nashville public housing projects after moving from Bermuda, had replaced Jones. Joynes said he could relate to many of the kids with broken lives and, upon meeting Jumoke and other at-risk kids, he declared they all had clean slates.
"For me, what you need to do is prove what you're about now," he said. "Maybe you did all those things, but guess what? You have an opportunity to get it right now."
"I love my principal a lot," Jumoke said. "He don't try to judge me. He tries to help me. He's there to keep me in school."
Once Jumoke was back at Brainerd, he still had a couple of classes to finish. Not wanting to retake the classes but to enroll in new ones, he convinced the guidance counselors to allow him to finish the old classes online and to join two new classes so he could gain his credits for graduation, Anderson said. That's when administrators and teachers noticed something else about Jumoke: He's smart.
"He went into the library every day," Anderson said. "He had two computers going -- one for one class and one for the other class. He was working on both computers to complete his classes."
But despite his ability to learn, it didn't change the fact that Jumoke is a street kid.
During his junior year, there were fights. When administrators tried to break them up, Jumoke always seemed to be there, never in the center of the brawl but on the sidelines, watching, prompting. School officials noticed that the kids fighting would look to him for what to do next, Anderson said.
After one incident, he faced suspension for the rest of his junior year. For Jumoke, it was a turning point. His grandparents attended hearings with school district administrators and pleaded for him to be able to continue.
"He expressed a desire to be in school," Anderson said. "He had some of us in there talking on his behalf because he knew how much we knew he wanted to finish."
Jumoke's behavior began to change.
"I just felt that it was in me," Jumoke said. "I could be the one to resolve all these problems. I could stop all this."
The fights ended, Anderson said.
This semester he signed up for two math classes and a chemistry class. He's made A's and B's this year.
Two of Jumoke's schoolmates and a Brainerd graduate were murdered last year. Joynes keeps their pictures on his office wall.
"That's another fear: That someone's going to put out a hit on him and follow through with that," Joynes said. "People are not here when I'm sitting down one-on-one with Jumoke; they don't hear his thought process about what's going on and the sadness in his voice as he talks, 'Everyone thinks I'm just this thug criminal. That's not what I am.'"
"I said, 'Jumoke, if you've done all these things leading up to this point, then yeah, you are. You don't see it because in context of how you live, that's just normal,'" Joynes said. "'But to the rest of society, this is criminal.' ... We have some very good discussions. I've been very tough with Jumoke. I have to."
Mark Hamby, his English teacher at Brainerd, said he sees Jumoke helping other students when they're in need, for instance, replacing another student's ratty shoes.
In a recent day at school, Jumoke gave his tie to a student for his senior project presentation.
"You'll need it to get a good grade," Jumoke tells him. "They look at how you're dressed."
Joynes says that, for Jumoke to be successful, he'll probably have to leave Chattanooga and never come back.
"He knows he needs to get away from the city if he wants a fresh start in his life," he said. "What I'm hoping doesn't happen is that he finally throws his hands up, [says] 'No one is going to give me a chance I might as well do the streets and do what I got to do.'"
With Jumoke now sitting in jail, it's unclear whether he'll make it out in time for graduation.
On Friday morning, prosecutors strategically filed a motion to increase Jumoke's bonds -- doubling and tripling them -- on two different charges of domestic assault, one count of reckless endangerment and one count of aggravated assault, bringing the total to $135,000. Judge Christine Mahn Sell granted the request.
There was no attorney to represent him. There was no hearing. There was no notice given.
The motion was filed by Assistant District Attorney Rodney Strong, who cited older cases against Jumoke and an aggravated assault charge -- stemming from a jail fight -- that already had been addressed in Criminal Court. Jumoke was in court Friday on the assault charge and has no new violations or charges.
Webb was unable to represent Jumoke because of a conflict of interest -- his firm previously represented the victim in the jail fight -- but he tried to intervene afterward on Jumoke's behalf, explaining to Sell that the teen was on house arrest.
Sell snapped at him, "You don't like it? You can take it upstairs [to Criminal Court]" just after Jumoke handed over his personal belongings and was escorted out of the courtroom in handcuffs.
"What they did is wrong. It's not the process," said Webb, fighting back tears outside the courtroom. "I've never seen anything like it."
Strong said he "can't comment" on why he filed the motions and why he proceeded when he knew Jumoke did not have an attorney present for a hearing.
Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman, who is hearing all of Jumoke's cases when they are bound over to Criminal Court, was furious Friday afternoon.
"What you're telling me is you knew he didn't have an attorney and asked for his bond to be increased," Steelman said to prosecutors in his court after Jumoke was taken into custody.
Assistant District Attorney Brett Alexander, who represents the state in Criminal Court, argued that "we think there's ample proof that he's a danger to the community."
"It doesn't matter who it is," the judge later said, "Justice is supposed to be blind."
Steelman initially revoked Jumoke's bond a couple of months ago, putting the teen behind bars for three weeks. Then, with Jumoke's high school diploma hanging in the balance, he permitted the teen to be on house arrest so he could go to school, but that was it -- from home to school, from school to home. Nothing else.
"I don't want to hear about curfew violations. I don't want to hear any excuses," Steelman told Jumoke at the time. "You're at a fork in the road; you need to decide where you go from here. High school diploma or not, it's not going to do you any good at the Department of Correction."
On Friday, the judge described Jumoke as someone he's "put a lot of time and thought into, to make sure we can get his cases resolved."
Steelman said he was concerned about what happened in sessions court.
"I feel that it's an end run," he said.
A motion is expected to be filed Monday for Jumoke's release.
Contact staff writer Beth Burger at bburger@times freepress.com or 423-757-6406. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/abburger.