October 01, 1997
Cleamon "Big Evil" Johnson is the "most cold-blooded killer in the entire city," by one detective's estimate.
"He's the type of guy you can have an interesting, articulate conversation with--laugh with, joke with," said homicide Det. Thomas Mathew of the Los Angeles Police Department. "He'd be cool to you. And then you turn your back on him, and he'd blow your brains out."
Johnson, 29, known as a shot-caller in one of the city's most notorious street gangs, once put out a contract on Mathew, the detective said. LAPD brass were concerned enough to have SWAT officers tag along with the detective.
"Even before the contract, I was always very aware whenever I was with Evil to be careful because I knew he would do me in a second," Mathew said. "He has beat us on so many cases, because no witnesses want to come forward."
Two witnesses did come forward in 1994 to testify against members of Johnson's gang, the 89 Family Bloods. They were both killed.
But Johnson's winning streak skidded to a halt after prosecutors were able to penetrate his protective cloak of silence with three witnesses who testified to his involvement in the 1991 murders of two rival gang members.
Johnson and a co-defendant, 25-year-old Michael "Fat Rat" Allen--already serving 35 years to life for another murder--were found guilty Sept. 2.
A jury recommended Tuesday that they be put to death.
As the clerk in Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles Horon's courtroom said the word "death," the two men sat expressionless. So did Johnson's parents and Allen's wife, sitting in the spectator section. Horon has scheduled sentencing for Dec. 12.
Prosecutors contend that Johnson gave Allen an Uzi and ordered him to kill the rival gang members. Allen gunned the two men down before dozens of witnesses, they say.
But during the initial 1991 investigation, no one would admit having seen the shooting. The reason was simple: Testify against Big Evil, he'll kill you, police say.
"I can't even tell you the way he kills without any kind of emotion," Mathew said of Johnson. "It's unbelievable. And he has this scary laugh. He personifies the term 'evil.' He would make a good candidate for an FBI behavioral profile. I'd like to see what some psychiatrist says about his mind."
Authorities say the 80 members of Johnson's gang are responsible for more than 60 slayings in the last decade. There were 32 killings on the gang's turf--a quarter of a square mile--between 1993 and last year--a homicide rate nine times higher than the city's at large.
The gang claims an area bounded by Central and Manchester avenues, Avalon Boulevard and 92nd Street.
Police say they conservatively estimate that Johnson has committed 12 murders. A police task force on the gang has put many members behind bars--including Johnson, who once served three years on drug charges. But Johnson's orders have penetrated prison walls, directing underlings to kill for him, authorities said.
A statement Johnson gave to police before his trial summed up his philosophy:
"I don't answer to nobody. What I do is what I want to do and when I want to do it."
The case that led to Tuesday's death penalty recommendation was revived this year after prosecutors found three witnesses willing to talk. A source close to the investigation said the three were in custody facing criminal charges of their own.
A key prosecution witness, Freddie Jelks, is a member of Johnson's 89 Family and is awaiting trial in another slaying. His co-defendant is Johnson.
Jelks said he saw Johnson give Allen the Uzi used to kill Donald Ray Loggins and Payton Beroit on Aug. 5, 1991.
Johnson "terrorizes the neighborhood because he can, and he enjoys it," Deputy Dist. Atty. Jennifer Lentz Snyder said in her closing argument.
Several residents along East 88th Street just west of Central, where Johnson grew up, painted a different portrait.
"No one on this block would say a bad word about Evil," said Bessie Dunn, 42, who has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years. "He was that type of guy that if you had a bunch of groceries in the car, he'd help you unload them."
Mathew said no one in the neighborhood dares say anything bad about Johnson.
A neighborhood teenager, who would identify himself only as Ya Ya, recalled when his mother's purse was stolen and she reported it to Johnson. Within an hour, the purse was back, he said.
However, even those who talk fondly of Johnson and Allen still admit that their mere presence caused problems.
"We'd have to hit the ground about four times a week with all the shootings," said a woman who requested anonymity. "But as far as [Johnson] and Michael, they were nice guys. I never saw them get ugly. They call them monsters, but I don't know that part of them."
Prosecutor Snyder described Johnson and Allen as predators and played an audiotape for the jury of a telephone conversation between Johnson and a fellow gang member. On the tape, Johnson ordered the killing of Mathew, prosecutors said.
"The most chilling moment of the tape," Snyder said, came when Johnson mimicked how Mathew would react.
"He's gonna be saying, 'Why me? Why me?,' " Johnson is heard remarking. That comment is followed by what another listener described as a "maniacal, bone-chilling laugh."
Mathew said Johnson wasn't shy about his role in killings.
"He would brag to me about killing people, say it right to my face," said the detective, who worked for eight years in the LAPD's gang unit.
Johnson's is not the case of a young man who turned to gangs because of a broken home life, Snyder said. His parents were in court every day. They refused to comment on their son other than to ask: "Why does the press print those lies about him?"
On 88th Street, Johnson's older half brother, Ricky Parker, was eager to talk.
Johnson got into gangs early and worked his way up in the neighborhood surrounded on three sides by rival Crips sets.
"Evil was a great street fighter," Parker said.
Parker said part of the problem that led to Big Evil's downfall was his fearsome moniker that tempted the police to try to bring him down.
"I always told him to get rid of that nickname," Parker said.