Police records show Tampa woman endured abuse, forgave — until 911 call from car trunk, her last

TAMPA — Eleven times, she told police about his violence.

He punched her, she said, aimed a gun at her, shattered a glass table and fish tank, choked her, beat her while pregnant.

When they offered to prosecute, she forgave him instead.

The twelfth time she called police, it was from the trunk of her car.

Three days later, Jennifer Denise Johnson, 31, was found dead in an abandoned house, half-clothed, with two white bags over her head and fingernail impressions around her neck.

By then, a police officer had already telephoned the man people said had abused Johnson for three years: Vincent "Bud" Brown. "I did what I had to do," Brown's voice mail greeting said on Nov. 15 and 16. "And it's done."

• • •

Brown was Johnson's on-and-off boyfriend, her 2-year-old daughter's father — and now, police suspected, her killer. He turned himself into jail on an unrelated charge but told police nothing of Johnson's disappearance and death.

After weeks at Orient Road Jail, another inmate stepped forward with details, according to an account contained in 700 pages of documents and audio recordings released Wednesday by prosecutors.

Inmate Walter Brois said Brown told him about Johnson's killing, that he had strangled her during an argument over another man. He said Brown admitted to holding his hands around her throat until she fell unconscious. That he stuffed her body in a trunk, then listened as she pounded and cried for him to let her out.

"He knew she was going to put him in jail for a long time after what he did to her," a police officer wrote, recounting Brois' statement. "There was no turning back … he had to get rid of her."

In January, a grand jury charged Brown with first-degree murder and kidnapping.

• • •

The first time the couple met, it was at a club, friend Latonya Powe told investigators. Johnson's house had burned down. They shared a hotel room for a while. But as Johnson got back on her feet, their relationship became stormy fast, starting a cycle of fights and rapid reconciliations.

Four months into their relationship, Johnson called police, saying he punched her, threw a brick through her car window and held her and her sister at gunpoint. Days later, she withdrew her charges, saying he paid for the car repair.

Brown had past girlfriends, at least six with whom he claims to have fathered children. There were jealousies and arguments.

When Johnson was five months pregnant with Brown's baby, she found him with a woman and, according to a police report, he punched her.

Brown would drink and have midmorning rages, according to police reports and interviews. In September 2005, Johnson returned home after 3:30 a.m. to find broken glass everywhere.

Twelve days later, Johnson again dropped charges.

Powe said she wanted to step in and try to dissuade Brown from his abuse. But a friend warned her off. "You haven't got nothing to do with that," her friend told her, "because they're going to be right back lovey-dovey tomorrow."

People who knew the couple became familiar with allegations of his physical abuse. Written police interviews show that friends, family members and even Johnson's boss knew Brown often directed his temper at her.

Once, Powe said, she saw Brown punch Johnson, then rip off her clothes while others watched. No one called police. Powe and other witnesses told police Brown's beatings had left Johnson with a miscarriage and a broken jaw. Those injuries aren't among the ones she reported to police, records show.

On Nov. 9, nine days before she was found dead, Johnson told deputies Brown sent her a text message saying, "I will get you."

When she got home from a nightclub, she found her sliding glass door broken.

• • •

Authorities have been able to piece together details about Johnson's final hours. She was seen arguing with Brown at a lounge on 40th Street about 11 p.m. on Nov. 14.

They left together in her black 1996 Infiniti I-30. She was last seen alive between 2:30 and 3 a.m. at his parent's home in Tampa. At 5:30 a.m. on Nov. 15, she called a 911 dispatcher, desperate for help. "I don't know where I am," she said in the newly released audio. "I'm in the trunk of my car,"

Background noise makes it difficult to understand her as the Plant City police dispatcher asks again and again where she is.

After a minute and 20 seconds, Johnson's panicked call drops.

Police appear to be investigating leads that more than one person is involved in her abduction.

She never showed up at her daughter's second birthday party. Her cell phone records show the last text message she received and read came at 10:17 p.m. that Friday. At 8:43 a.m., her mother wrote: "Jennifer where u at."

By evening, the messages grow desperate. "If u don't come here right now," her mother wrote at 5:02 p.m., "im going to call the police."

• • •

Around 10 p.m. on Nov. 15, witnesses report seeing Brown at a party in Ybor, where he smoked marijuana and drank, the records show. When he was asked where Johnson was, he told a friend she was "stiff" in Lakeland.

One woman said she spotted Johnson's Infiniti parked near the house.

Another man said that two hours earlier, he called Brown, picked him up at his mother's house, drove Brown to Emma and 32nd Street and paid him $60 in exchange for cocaine. Then, Brown got out and walked toward a black Infiniti.

• • •

Powe has her ideas about what made Brown flip, she told investigators. In a taped interview, she said he wasn't happy Johnson seemed to have a new man.

She said she overheard Brown talking about Johnson's new life.

"If I can't be there, ain't nobody else going to be there," she remembered Brown saying, according to a transcript. "I helped her build that. … She didn't have nothing when she came to me."

Brown knew he had an outstanding warrant and was saving money to hire an attorney to fight the possession of cocaine charge. But he speculated out loud, Powe said, that if he went to jail, Johnson wouldn't be there for him like another of his women might.

"It just got weird at the end," Powe said, describing Brown to investigators. "Nobody wanted to hang around him because he was getting weirder and weirder."

Before Johnson's death, Brown got in a fight with a man at the Apollo lounge, Powe said. The man hit Brown with a baseball bat and Brown stabbed the man, Powe told authorities.

Afterward, Powe said, Brown spoke words similar to what she later heard on his voice mail: "I did what I came here to do."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

Public records released Wednesday in the murder case against Vincent Brown detail these encounters with the victim, Jennifer Johnson.

Feb. 20, 2005: Johnson tells police Brown punched her in the head, threw a brick through her car window, and pointed a gun at her and her sister threatening to "kill them both." By March 30, she drops charges, saying she lied about the gun and he paid for the car repair.

May 14, 2005: Johnson tells police she and Brown were out for her birthday when they got in a fight and he "went crazy," throwing clothes around, breaking a glass coffee table with a bar stool, beating her and pulling her hair. They had been dating six months.

Sept. 25, 2005: Johnson comes home to more broken glass. A table, mirror and vases are in pieces. A 50-gallon fish tank is smashed. Johnson tells police she was out with friends when Brown called at 3:30 a.m. to say she "needed to get home" and "pick her fish up off the floor." On Oct. 7, 2005, Johnson drops the charges.

Oct. 16, 2005: Johnson reports her passenger side window shattered by a brick. She tells police Brown arrived early in the morning. When she didn't answer the door, he threw a brick through her car window. Exactly a month later, she drops the charges.

June 26, 2006: Four months pregnant, Johnson calls police after she said she watched Brown crash his car into her car. She said he'd been knocking on her door, drunk, at 5:30 a.m. On July 24, 2006, she drops the charges.

July 13, 2006: Johnson, five months pregnant with Brown's baby, showed up at Brown's home to find him with another woman. Johnson told police Brown punched her. On Sept. 22, 2006, she drops the charges.

Oct. 28, 2006: Now nine months pregnant, Johnson tells police Brown grabbed her by the neck and threw her down.

Aug. 14, 2007: Someone reports a hit-and-run crash. A day later, Johnson calls police to report she was driving her car, arguing with Brown, when Brown hit her, causing the crash.

Nov. 19, 2007: Johnson was cutting the cake for her daughter's first birthday, when she and Brown started arguing. She soon noticed her cell phone missing. She said he used it to harass, threaten and curse people on her contacts list. The next day, she dropped the petty theft charge.

June 30, 2008: Johnson tells deputies she was leaving her apartment at 8:20 a.m., when Brown surprised her. He had been sitting outside her door, waiting. She and a witness tell deputies Brown choked Johnson, pushed her inside, hit her with a painting and then fled, leaving broken glass on the ground near her crying 19-month-old baby. On July 16, 2008, Johnson drops charges, writing in a court document, "He's went his way and I've went mine."

Nov. 9, 2008: Johnson's cousin is at Johnson's house sleeping at 3:33 a.m. when she hears a noise. Someone shattered the sliding glass door, sending shards of glass all over another young woman sleeping on the couch. The cousin tells deputies she saw Brown peering over the fence. Johnson shows deputies a text message Brown sent her: "I will get you," it said. Johnson tells deputies her tires were slashed the day before.

Nov. 19, 2008: Johnson found dead in an abandoned house in Lakeland.

Police records show Tampa woman endured abuse, forgave — until 911 call from car trunk, her last 04/01/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 4, 2009 11:42am]

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