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Whispers of lynching cloud hanging inquiry

Published Dec. 11, 2004|Updated Aug. 29, 2005

It's been 11 weeks since a worker in an office park found a horrifying sight in the neighboring woods: a black man hanging from a tree.

Police say they think Damien Johnson took his own life. But Johnson's family and an assortment of other people _ including a former Temple Terrace City Council candidate _ say they don't trust what the police are saying. They suspect he was murdered.

The specter of a black man found hanging conjures dark images from America's history of lynching. Because of that past, "it's hard for an African-American to take at face value the reports handed down by police personnel," said Ben Chaney, brother of civil rights icon James Chaney, a voting rights worker killed in Mississippi in 1964. Chaney said he is working to form a group called the National Coalition Against Lynchings to collect information about suspicious hangings in the South.

Critics of the Damien Johnson investigation are seeking answers they may never get.

On the night of Sept. 21, Johnson left his boarding house near the University of South Florida. The 24-year-old's body was found the next day, five miles away at Tampa Telecom Park off Fletcher Avenue.

A two-day police investigation concluded that Johnson climbed onto a limb 15 feet up, tied knots around the branch and his neck with a bedsheet, and dropped toward the ground.

Detectives and medical examiners say they found no signs of a struggle or bruises on Johnson's 6-foot-5, 170-pound frame.

Temple Terrace Deputy Police Chief Patricia Powers defends the department's investigation and says officers kept an open mind to the possibility of a lynching. But "all the facts supported a finding of suicide," she said.

Family and friends say Johnson was not the person police portray. They describe a struggling but ambitious father-to-be who had reasons to want to live.

Johnson's immediate family recently visited the spot where his body was found.

"Ain't no way Damien walked five miles ... and found that tree," said his father, Joseph Johnson.

After meeting with police last week, the family requested an independent inquiry by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The police, aware of the criticism, submitted their own request for an FDLE review.

The FDLE will review Temple Terrace's investigation, but will not conduct its own at this point, spokesman Rick Morera said.

Johnson is at least the sixth black man found hanging from a tree in the South since 2000. All of the hangings, including one last year in the Everglades town of Belle Glade, were ruled suicides.

Last year, the FDLE conducted an inquiry into the Belle Glade case, eventually concluding local police were right to label it a suicide.

The FDLE may not be the only outside group getting involved in the Johnson case. Johnson's family also met with a group of investigation critics, mostly local black residents. They say that by quickly ruling Johnson's death a suicide, investigators overlooked evidence that could support a homicide scenario.

The group is seeking help from two national civil rights groups: the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Independent reviews seldom end the debate, said Ray Velboom, special agent in charge of FDLE's violent crimes unit.

"Somebody could look at one of my cases and say they would have done something different," the FDLE veteran said. "You don't please everybody."

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Johnson was found hanging from an oak tree about 50 yards into the woods off Telecom Drive. Investigators couldn't immediately identify him. He had $150.52 in his front pockets, but his wallet was missing.

Scuff marks on his shoes and the seat of his pants led police to conclude he had climbed the tree and shimmied up a branch. A pair of sullied work gloves were neatly placed in a nearby "V" in the tree. Police didn't find any full footprints on the nearby ground.

Investigators used Johnson's fingerprints to identify him through police records, which showed he had spent nearly five years in a Georgia prison for robbery. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office also had arrested him in April on a false imprisonment charge in an incident involving his estranged girlfriend.

Two days after he was found, a few friends who had seen a police flier went to Temple Terrace police headquarters to confirm his identity. Through those interviews and others, police built a profile that influenced their decision that Johnson had committed suicide.

One of the friends, Terry Lee Wilson, told police Johnson was a devout Muslim and that he'd been doing temporary work on hurricane cleanups. He said Johnson had been "depressed, very down."

Police spoke with Johnson's estranged girlfriend, Latasha Chavous, who separated from him two months before the April domestic incident. She said Johnson called her four times the night before he died. He kept asking whether she was really pregnant, she said. She told police she didn't answer the last call.

Johnson had been living in a boarding house on N 22nd Street near USF. Neighbors said they saw Johnson leave the house the night before he was found with what appeared to be a full pillowcase slung over his shoulder.

Donta Howell, a tenant in Johnson's boarding house, told investigators he'd asked Johnson to leave the house because Johnson flirted with Howell's female friends and wouldn't reimburse others for food and beer he took.

Still, family members cling to memories of the man they knew, and they question whether he would have committed suicide.

Johnson was afraid of heights, his father said. He also questions how his son could have learned to tie such effective knots when he spent only a short time in Cub Scouts and never did outdoor activities with them.

That police can't say why Johnson would walk five miles to hang himself helps explain the divide. It also raises rumblings about unconscious racism. Johnson's family members say police in the small town of 23,000 would have investigated more thoroughly had he been white.

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Johnson's father described his son as an enterprising young man with a stubborn, argumentative streak. Going to prison for robbery at 17 took away an important maturing period in his son's life, he said.

Johnson lived with his father and aunt in Warner Robins, Ga., after his release in 2001. While he dreamed of being a fashion designer and an inventor, his reluctance to work caused tension, the father said.

"He always said when he died, everybody would know who Damien Johnson was," Joseph Johnson said. "After prison, he didn't want to put in the legwork for accomplishing it."

Johnson moved to Florida thinking he'd have more opportunities. But his girlfriend, Chavous, said she mostly supported both of them.

Relatives and friends say Johnson gravitated toward the Nation of Islam and its black self-help ideology. After prison, Johnson showed open hostility toward whites, said Vernita Adams, his aunt. Wilson, his friend from the USF area, said Johnson even stopped tying his shoes because he claimed it was the white man's way.

Despite his problems, Chavous said Johnson remained proud and eager to better his lot in life. He talked about working so he could help support their baby.

"I've been questioning (the cause of his death) since day one," Chavous said. "I know in my heart if he would have had his time he would have straightened out."

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Friends and family point to the missing wallet. They say Johnson was obsessive about taking it everywhere he went. They also describe him as a bit lazy, particularly about walking places, which makes it hard for them to understand how he ended up dead five miles from his home.

If someone killed him, that raises the question: Why would they take his wallet but leave $150 in his pockets? Johnson's friends say perhaps the wallet became a trophy of sorts.

Eddie Adams Jr., Temple Terrace's first black City Council candidate and the person spearheading efforts to reopen the investigation, said other factors should have raised doubts. For instance, Adams said, could Johnson really have shimmied up the tree and then the branch in the dark, balancing himself while tying two knots?

"The reason I got involved in this thing is I have a gut feeling," Eddie Adams Jr. said. "And I have more questions now than I did before."

Josh Zimmer can be reached at (813) 269-5314 or zimmersptimes.com.

Recent hangings of black men

1. Porterville, Miss.

Nick Naylor, 23, Jan. 2003.

2. Kokomo, Miss.

Raynard Johnson, 17, June 2000

3. Jackson, Miss.

James Daniels, 60, Aug. 2002

4. Wilkinson Co., Miss.

Roy Veal, 55, April 2004

5. Belle Glade

Feraris "Ray" Golden, 32, May 2003

6. Temple Terrace

Damien Johnson, 24, Sept. 2004

Sources: ESRI, GDT, USGS