Miss. athlete was accused of break-in before death

Published 2:54 am Sunday, December 21, 2008

A high school football star who died during a traffic stop was identified as a suspect in a break-in moments before his death, according to police reports released Friday.

District Attorney Tony Lawrence released the documents after a newspaper requested them. Authorities say the teen died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, but the NAACP has questioned if he committed suicide.

Lucedale Police Department officers responded to a break-in call at 5:40 a.m. on the same day that George County High School athlete Billey Johnson, 17, of Benndale died from a gunshot wound to the head.

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A female, who was minor, said Johnson had tried to break into the house through the front door. She told police he then tapped on her bedroom window, according to the report filed by Sgt. James O’Neal.

The girl told authorities Johnson returned his vehicle and drove away just before they arrived. The girl told the officers she wanted to file charges against Johnson, according to the report.

While the officers were escorting the girl and her mother, Esther L. Parker, to the police department, they got a call about a traffic stop involving a sheriff’s deputy and gunfire, the report said.

O’Neal wrote in the report that when he and his partner, Officer Stuart Fairchild, arrived on the scene they saw Johnson “lying on his back, his head away from the truck. The shotgun was lying on his body with the barrel pointing in the direction of his head.”

Lawrence, who held a news conference Friday at the George County courthouse in Lucedale, said the investigation into Johnson’s death is ongoing and forensic tests haven’t been completed.

“This is a very difficult time for the Johnson family and the public, as we all want to know what happened,” Lawrence said in a statement.

Attorney Jerome Carter, who has been hired by Johnson’s family to investigate the case, said the release of the reports raises more questions than answers.

A log from the Lucedale Police Department shows the dispatcher received a telephone call at 5:48 a.m. that Johnson had shot himself.

“What is the relationship between the sheriff’s department and police department when phone calls are being made rather than open radio communication?” said Carter.

A dispatcher at the police department who didn’t want to be identified said it’s not unusual for agencies to communicate by phone when working together on cases.

The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People also is investigating the death. NAACP leader Curley Clark has said it’s hard to believe Johnson would take his life.

“This young man was a star athlete who had a very promising future,” Clark said.

Johnson was a tailback who rushed for more than 4,000 yards in his three-year high school career. A national recruiting service said Johnson had scholarship offers from Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, LSU and others. On the day of his death, he was planning to attend an awards banquet for athletes.

Carter said Johnson’s involvement with a 17-year-old white female “may be very relevant” to the case,” but did not elaborate. Clark said the NAACP investigation indicated that there may be an interracial element to the case.