The woman all the bloodshed was over left the witness stand in tears last Wednesday morning, and Judge Richard Henderson called a recess to give her time to compose herself before cross-examination by the defense.
Deborah Cano-Johnson had just related her eyewitness account of how her estranged husband, Marvin “Junior” Johnson, 33, and three other Willits men, had suddenly appeared in the Lake Mendocino Bu Shay campsite the afternoon of July 20th campsite that she shared with as many as 15 other homeless people, and shot two men, killing Joe Litteral, 40, and seriously wounding Brandon Haggett, 20.
“The car came roaring in, 70-80mph, and slid maybe 20 feet. Then all these men jumped out with guns. River and Anita, I think, grabbed the children and ran up the hill,” Mrs. Cano-Johnson had testified.
Two of the four defendants in the murder case, Marvin Johnson and Simon Thornton, 22, were present for Ms. Cano-Johnson’s testimony. The other two, A.J. Schnebly, 35, and William Hale Crocker, 30, who were only recently apprehended, will have their day in court next month.
Mr. Marvin “Junior” Johnson had made a confession during his interrogation by Homicide Detective Andrew Porter, even taking Detective Porter to the blackberry thicket in Potter Valley where he had ditched the murder weapons.
In his confession, Johnson said his friends were going up to the Bu Shay Campground to rob the homeless campers but that he had gone along just to get his wife back.
Johnson and his three compadres are all charged with Murder in the First Degree.
Robbing people who are by definition too poor to pay rent may strike the reader as a less than lucrative enterprise. I mean really, what's next, ransom kidnappings of the poor devils?
We've heard rumors of a roving gang of goons who call themselves something like the “Willits Mafia” who prey on the homeless in Willits. Those same rumors say the cops have turned a blind eye. Deborah Cano-Johnson referred to this “mafia” during her testimony when she said, “They’re the Willits-Something Mafia.”
She hadn’t heard right, or couldn’t remember the exact name, but she was sure they called themselves a “mafia,” she said.
Ms. Cano-Johnson had a pretty sordid tale to tell, even by Willits standards, but before she began, the court first heard from Brandon Haggett who had taken a .45 slug through the chest that afternoon at Lake Mendocino but was saved by from taking more slugs by his road dog.
Haggett, in custody on another matter, came to court in chains and was ushered to the stand by guards who kept him well away from the other two prisoners, Johnson and Thornton, who seemed to be itching their palms to get ahold of Haggett.
Haggett testified that he’d come to Willits from Montana to see his long-time friend Joe Litteral. He said that he and Joe Litteral were what street people call “road dogs,” which in the parlance of the street means the person you travel with and trust above all others. You have each other’s back at all times.
Mendocino County's ace new Assistant DA, Paul Sequeira, asked Brandon Haggett why he was in custody.
“Accessory to burglary,” Haggett said. “I pled to it and I’m serving my time.”
Mr. Haggett said he was about to turn 20, his birthday being October 25th and that he’d known Joe Litteral since he was 15. He was going on about how he and Joe had been staying in a motel room with some other homeless people, “My buddy River, River’s dad, an old guy named Pops, Anita and her kids and”—
“Just a minute, Mr. Haggett,” Judge Henderson interrupted. “I’m going to ask you to slow down, and let the attorney ask the questions, and you answer them one at a time. Just take your time, and allow the lawyers to complete their questions before you answer. Okay? Thank you. Go ahead, Mr. Sequeira.”
“Was Deborah Johnson ever at the motel room?”
“Yes, after we were there about two days she came crying to Joe, saying that Junior”—
“I have to object, your honor,” Mr. Mason complained. “The testimony is non-responsive hearsay,”
Judge Henderson said, “Again Mr. Haggett, just answer the attorney’s questions as briefly as you can and then wait for the follow-up. Do you understand?”
Haggett said he did.
Sequeira resumed. “Would it be fair to say she was upset?”
“Did she explain why?”
“And as a result, did she end up staying at the motel?”
“And as a result of her presence, did you receive any telephone calls from Marvin Johnson?”
“Who answered these calls?”
“I did, mostly.”
“Did Mr. Johnson tell you what he was calling about?”
“Yes, he was saying that we better give his wife back or he’d come and kill us.”
“Was she staying against her will?” Sequeira asked.
“Objection,” Mr. Perviance said. “Calls for speculation. The witness was only one of a number of people at the motel.”
“Objection sustained,” the judge said.
“How long did you stay at the motel?” Sequeira asked.
“About a week.”
“Where did you go?”
“To the Bu Shay Campground at Lake Mendocino.”
“And how many were there of you?”
“About 15, at that time.”
“What did you do?”
“Set up tents, started cooking, opened a few beers, went swimming with the kids; you know, we tried to have a little fun.”
“So, you were all in one campsite?”
“No, two. Some of the guys liked to drink, but those of us who didn’t were in another camp with the most of the women and the kids.”
“But the two campsites were side-by-side…?”
“Why did you go there?”
“We kept getting calls from Marvin Johnson saying that he was going to come and kill us, for one thing.”
“Ah, yes. But did Ms. Johnson ever express any desire to go back to her husband?”
“You mean Debbie? Hell, no.”
“Did you ever see him?”
“Hell, yes. He came up to the camp with three other guys.”
“Did you confront him?”
“Yes, I did. I said you guys need to turn it around. Now.”
“Wait a minute, back up.”
The lawyer flipped through some pages in his files. He seemed confused.
“So you confronted them alone?”
“Yes. I said, 'You can’t bring that drama here.'“
“Did you think you could work it out with them?”
“Yes, and I invited them into camp, gave them some beer and food, and we smoked some joints, and by the time they left, I thought we’d squashed it.”
“When did they leave?”
“Around 11 or 12.”
“And how long was it until you saw them again?”
“Not until the next day.”
“The 20th of July?”
“Yes. I was getting ready to make a meal for everybody. We’d taken the children to the Lake and gone swimming.”
“Had anybody been drinking?”
“We’d smoked some joints and had a few beers.”
“Do you remember what you were having for dinner?”
“Then what happened?’
“A green car came speeding into the campground, going 70-80 miles an hour, locked up the tires and skidded about 20 feet.”
“Then what did you see?”
“Four people jumped out, and I saw a .45 in the hand of one of them.”
“Did you know who they were?”
“Yes. A.J. Schnebley and Simon Thornton.
Thornton, sitting with his lawyer, grinned at the mention of his name. He’d been listening to the proceedings with the air of a guy who has already seen the same movie several times, and in stage whispers he was explaining each scene to his public defender, Mr. Perviance, who seemed to be getting a little impatient with his loquacious client.
“Was Marvin Johnson with them?”
“Yes, he got out of the right passenger side and said, ‘Debbie, get in the car!’”
“You said A.J. was armed.”
“”Yeah, A.J. had a shotgun.”
“Were their faces covered?”
“Yes. A.J.’s and Crocker’s were.”
“Did you know them from before?”
“Did you see Thornton’s face?”
“Yes, I could tell it was him. He’s that tall and skinny guy sitting over there with the lawyer.”
Thornton joked loudly about wishing he were tall and skinny. Nobody but him found it amusing.
“And Thornton had the .45. How did you know it was a .45?”
“I’ve been around guns; I know what a .45 is.”
“What did he do?”
“He started circling around us, told everybody to get down on the ground.”
“No. I grabbed a stick from the fire and ran towards him with it.”
“Why did you do that?”
“I was afraid for the lives of the children and my friends.”
“Where were the children?”
“Back by the tent. River and somebody else, Anita I think, picked up the kids and ran up into the brush, to a residence up on the hill.”
“Can you tell the court what you did?”
“I went up to Thornton and put the gun to my chest and said, 'Shoot me, shoot me.' Four times, I said shoot me.”
“Did he shoot you?”
“So then what did you do?”
“I wrestled with him for the gun. We went to the ground and I took it from him, but then I felt several blows to the back of my head, and Simon and A.J. took the gun from me. It was all a blur. But I remember I got into a fight with Thornton. I felt blows to the back of my head. I let go — stupidly — I let go of the gun. I was getting up to fight whoever was hitting me in the back of the head, and Crocker put the gun to my chest and pulled the trigger.”
“What did you see?”
“I dropped to my knees and saw Joe Litteral fighting with Thornton and another guy. Then I heard another shot. Crocker tried to put two more in me, but Joe stepped in front of him and saved my life. He’d already been shot and ran to my aid. I was very disoriented.”
“Did you see him point the gun at you?”
“Did you see what happened to Joe Litteral?”
“He dropped to his knees and said, ‘Oh shit, I’m dead’.”
After a long silence, Sequeira said, “Did Deborah ever go to the car like she was going to go with Johnson?”
“What did they [the invaders] do next?”
“They got in the car and sped away at about 80.”
“Then what happened?”
“Everybody made me lie down, and my buddy who was a medic in the Army put his finger in my wound to stop the bleeding … and saved my life … the bullet missed my heart by two inches.”
Mr. Sequeira had some photos of the crime scene which he entered into evidence.
Defendant Junior Johnson’s lawyer, Tom Mason, began the cross-examination.
“Mr. Haggett, you say you’re about to turn 20?”
“And you have a felony record?”
“Yes, that’s from last year.”
“And you are doing time on that currently?”
“Where is the motel you were staying at in Willits?”
“On Main Street.”
“And what’s the name of it?”
“And how many rooms did you have?”
“How many? Just the one.”
“So there were only one or two beds, and how many people?”
“9 or 10.”
“Did Mr. Johnson ever come by the motel?”
“And you talked to him the first time he called?”
“And he was mad that Debbie had left him?”
“And he threatened to kill you?”
“Did you take that to mean he was coming right away?”
“So you didn’t perceive it as an immediate threat. How many other times did you talk with him on the phone?”
“Did he talk to anyone else?”
“Yes, to Joe. Twice, I think.”
“How long, how much time passed between these calls?”
“Oh, he called right back.”
“He called back four times that same day?”
“Yes, in a matter of minutes.”
“What did he say?”
“He said, ‘You better let me talk to my wife or I’m getting some guys together to come over there and’—”
“And these calls were consecutive?”
“And these calls were all pretty similar?”
“And you pretty much shined it on?”
“But didn’t he call a couple of days later and talk to Joe.”
“Did you hear that conversation?”
“Just Joe’s side of it.”
“And what did you hear Joe say?”
“I don’t know. Joe was arguing with him saying, ‘I’m getting sick of your shit’ just as I was leaving.”
“Did Deborah ever talk to him?”
“What was that about?”
“I don’t know; I wasn’t there.”
“So you were staying at the Lark — where was Mr. Johnson staying?”
“I don’t know. I heard he was homeless.”
“And there were about ten of you at the motel?”
“We weren’t supposed to have that many, so we didn’t all go there at once.”
“I see. And how long were you at the Bu Shay Campground before the shooting?”
“About five days.”
“And who went there first?”
“Oh, let’s see. There was me, Joe, River, Pops, Anita and the two girls—”
“He’s just this old guy. His name’s Lance but he likes to be called Pops.”
“Who else was there?”
“There was Mountain, which is the father of River, and—”
“Is Mountain his real name?”
“Is River River’s real name?”
“Jennifer, Anita and the two little girls.”
“So you had one, or two, campsites?”
“First just the one, then later a van full of Joe’s friends who like to drink took over the other campsite.”
“Did you know any of them?”
“You grew up in Willits?”
“Did you know Marvin Johnson?”
“But the first time Marvin and the others came out there you invited them for beer and dinner?”
“And you say they stayed until 11 or 12 o’clock?”
“Did you ever see Deborah and Marvin talking during that time?”
“I did not.”
“But Marvin spoke to you and Joe, didn’t he?”
“So how many people were there, in all?”
“Probably about 15.”
Mr. Farris Perviance of the Public Defender’s office took his turn. He had Brandon Haggett draw a diagram of the scene. When this was done, Perviance said, “Where were you? — when the car pulled up… er, going fast — by the picnic table?”
“No. Actually, I was here, by the campfire.”
“Were there any other vehicles in the parking area?”
“Yes, Jennifer’s truck. And Anita’s.”
“Had any of you been drinking?”
“One beer. I don’t like drinking.”
“Yes. He had a few, about 12 all day.”
“How far are you from Crocker?”
“He put the gun right against my chest!”
“No, I mean later when he pointed the gun at you?”
“About 30 feet.”
“And where is Joe at this time?”
“Right here, with Deborah.”
“Did you recognize them as they came out of the car?”
“Only Johnson. Crocker and Thornton had bandannas on their faces.”
“And your focus was on the guy with the gun. Now, the kids are taken away — instantly — yes? So there’s 12-maybe-13 people now. Do you know A.J.’s first name?”
“No, but he’s six-foot-six and hard to miss.”
“So he gets out with the shotgun…”
“Now, you charge Thornton…”
“Yes, I do.”
“…And you say shoot me, shoot me, four times—”
This exchange was going so fast the court reporter had to stop the lawyer and witness to ask them to slow down.
Perviance took a breath and said, “So you didn’t know this guy from Adam.”
Thornton, the guy whose resemblance to Adam was in question, was grinning, his crooked teeth on full display, like he was watching a sitcom on TV.
Mr. Haggett said, “My mother was a meth addict and he was acting like he was on drugs.”
“At this point, had Johnson told Deborah to get in the car?”
“Yes. Everybody was scared shitless.”
“What time was it?”
“About three or four, I think.”
“So, your focus is on Mr. Crocker.”
“Did anyone come to your assistance?”
“When you started fighting with Crocker, did you know where Thornton was?”
“Did you know where A.J. was?”
“Yes. Right here, in front of the car with the shotgun.”
“So, at some point you lost control of the gun and somebody was hitting you in the head. Were they hitting you with a fist?”
“No, definitely not a fist. It was no fist. I know the difference and it was no fist.”
“So you’ve been in a lot of fights — how many fights have you been in?”
“How many times were you hit in the head?”
“I’d say at least three or four.”
“So, you’re getting off Crocker and Thornton shoots you in the chest. So you’ve been shot and you’re kneeling. So where’s Thornton?”
“So where was Thornton?” Perviance repeated.
“Uh, he was behind me, fighting with Joe.”
“Can you tell how much time elapsed between the time you were hit in the head and the shots were fired?”
“Uh… It happened too fast.”
“Was anyone saying anything?”
“No… Crocker starts to leave, then turns, and shot twice. He tried to put two more into me! But Joe stepped in the way. I don’t know if he was shot before he came to my aid. I heard other shots, but I believe the shotgun went off to scare people.”
“Remember anyone coming to your aid?”
“Deborah and my buddy who was a medic… and a pregnant lady.”
“Do you know Julia?”
“That’s the pregnant lady, probably.”
“Did you say anything to her?”
“Just that I don’t want to die here… I’d lost a lot of blood.”
A silence followed these words.
Then Perviance said, “Let’s talk about exhibit A.”
Exhibit A was the diagram on the easel Haggett had drawn.
“When you saw Simon Thornton the first time, he was exiting the car — which side did he emerge from?”
“He was driving.”
“He was. Simon Thornton.”
Perviance looked back at his client, who was grinning clownishly and wagging his head in contradiction to the testimony.
“Are you absolutely sure?”
“From what point did you observe him?”
“I was by the campfire, but I was watching Crocker with the .45.”
“Alright, you were watching Crocker, but you didn’t know his name…”
“The photos they showed me were old ones.”
“Who showed you the photos?”
“The cops told me they were old photos.”
“They told you that after you were arrested?”
“So they pointed him out to you?”
“Okay, you’re in a fight with Crocker and someone hits you in the back of the head, repeatedly — and it’s not with a fist. Then what?”
“I went to stand up and I let go of the gun to address whoever was hitting me in the back of the head — everyone said it was Thornton.”
“So you didn’t actually see him.”
“No… I did not.”
“And at that point Crocker shot you.”
“So the way you saw things, at that point, things were unreal, and other people helped you to fill in the gaps.”
The People's prosecutor, Mr. Sequiera, was calm. His star witness had been shaken and stirred, turned in circles until he was dizzy, like a kid playing pin the tail on the donkey at a Halloween party.
“Mr. Haggett,” Sequiera began, “not everything was unreal to you was it?”
“And you’re clear about the shooting and what people said, aren’t you?”
“And do you remember what Marvin Johnson said?”
“Yes. He said, ‘See what we can do, Deb? Now get in the car!’”
Mr. Sequeira said, “You can remember that — word for word?”
“I was shot, but I’m not stupid. Yes. I can remember his saying that even after being shot.”
The always entertaining Simon Thornton, grinning idiotically, blurted out, “I’m not stupid either — not as stupid as I look, I mean… Uh, or maybe I am, but — ha ha ha… hee hee hee…!”
Everyone in the courtroom was looking at Thornton. Nobody was laughing but him, and after his lonely mirth evaporated, Judge Henderson called a break for lunch.
“We’ll reconvene at 2pm,” he said.
Two hours later Mr. Thornton had been nicknamed Simple Simon by half the people in the gallery.* He seemed unable to keep a single thought to himself. As we filed back into the courtroom, Simple Simon was yakking endlessly to Mr. Perviance, asking all about how his lawyer had liked his lunch without waiting for an answer.
The object of all the bloodshed? The alleged Jezebel? Ms. Cano-Johnson? She's a lot older than her youthful pursuer, and it was hard to see in her a person who might inspire passion unto bloodshed, but this was the woman to die for.
Litterally, and Joe Litteral had come up dead, hadn't he?
For the afternoon session, Mr. Sequeira called the love object back to the stand. She came stumping forward on a noisy aluminum cane and stifled her sniffles to take the oath: “Deborah Cano-Johnson,” she would have the clerk understand. She daubed her eyes with a hanky and scooted her chair up to the microphone on the stand.
“Ms. Johnson,” Sequeira began. “Do you know Marvin Johnson?”
“Yesh,” she cried. “He’sh my husband, but we are in the process of getting a divorsh.”
Ms. Cano-Johnson spoke with either a lisp or a regional Midwestern dialect.
“How long have you been married?”
“Almost four years. We were married in Reno.”
“But you lived together before that, didn’t you?”
“Yes, about seven or eight years.”
“And have you always lived in Mendocino County?”
“No. We just recently returned from Nebraska.” (She pronounced Nebraska like a native: ‘Nerbrashker.’) “We got back to Willits the first part of May, thish year.”
“Can you describe your relationship?”
“Oh it’sh been up and down. He’sh been abushive to me and myshelf and my children. It wasn’t always-sh bad, but it wasn’t always-sh good… and then he got involved in meth and alcohol…”
“Did he beat you?”
“Yesh…sh,” the witness whimpered.
“Did he ever threaten to kill you?”
“Yesh… many times.”
“Did you ever leave him?”
“Yesh… many times.”
“He’d alwaysh find me…”
“Did you try to hide?”
“Yesh…but he found me and threatened to kill me and those I was hidin’ with.”
“Ms. Johnson, were you afraid?”
“Are you still afraid?”
She glanced up at lover man, Marvin Junior Johnson, shuddered and whimpered, “Yewsh…” she said, and broke down crying.
After a moment's pause to recover herself, Mrs. Cano-Johnson told how Marvin had been so abusive on the train from Nebraska that the authorities had put him off at a stop-over in Salt Lake City. But Marvin, not to be deterred in the pursuit of his heart's desire, caught up with her in Reno, the scene of their nuptials, and they continued on to Willits together.
“Looking for a way to get away,” she said. “I hid out, and finally ran into Joe Litteral.”
“Were you and Joe having a relationship?”
“Not at that time. I let him know what I’d been dealing with — Junior [Marvin Johnson] had been cheating on me,” she said with sudden vehemence. “I needed a way out, and Joe told me to go to a motel and he’d take care of me.”
“Do you remember the name of the motel?”
“Yesh, it was the Pine Cone Motel.”
“Do you remember who else was there?”
“Yesh. There was Joe and River and some other friends.”
“Did the defendant, Marvin Johnson, call on the phone?”
“Did you ever talk to him on the phone?”
“Did you ever hear Brandon talk to him on the phone?”
“Did that make you fearful?”
“Did you have any contact with him at all?”
“Yesh. I made arrangement-sh to meet him at McDonald-sh.”
“I went with another woman and Eddie Hanover came up to me and got me in a headlock and said, ‘No kicking, no shhcreaming, or elshe,’ then Junior came running up, trying to shtart shtuff, shaying ‘Where’s my dog?’ But he wanted me, poshesshion of me, but he ran into McDonald-sh and I ran back to the motel.”
This remarkable testimony was delivered with much sniffling and more tears.
Mr. Sequeira, unshaken by the testimony of the surreal encounter at the Willits McDonald's, continued.
“Did he threaten you?”
“Yesh. Me and whoever I wash with.”
“So it was a group decision to leave the motel?”
“Yesh, to keep me protected. We went to Bu Shay Campground. But he sent his search teams out to find me, so to speak, but I knew it was him.”
Mr. Sequeira said, “Ms. Johnson, you have to help me with something here.”
Deborah Johnson daubed her face with a wad of damp cloth, sniffed and swallowed.
“Ms. Johnson, how does he get all these people to do all these things for him?”
“Drugs and shtuff,” she said.
“Objection, your honor, Mason for the defense exclaimed. “This is speculation.”
“She’s well enough acquainted with how he gets people to arrange and facilitate his dealings that it is more than speculation,” Sequeira countered.
Judge Henderson relented. He’d allow the implication that Marvin Junior Johnson inspired loyalty by gifts of drugs.
“Pure speculation,” Mason persisted. “She doesn’t know how he gets people to do things, your honor.”
Henderson considered a moment and said, “Sustained.”
Mr. Sequeira’s witness was turning into more of a liability than an asset. He needed to get things back under control.
“So, Ms. Johnson… When they came up to the camp, what were you doing?”
“I wash cooking dinner for everybody.”
“What had you been doing?”
“We went shwimming, walking the dogsh…”
“Had you been drinking?”
“Maybe a beer…”
“Oh, no. I was too bushy. I had to make dinner before it got dark.”
(Brandon had testified that he was making the dinner…)
“A car pulled up, a black shiny car.”
“What kind of car?”
“I don’t know… it wash a fasht car.”
“The door opened and A.J. got out holding a shotgun. Then I looked over and Brandon wash fighting and got shot. Then Joe got shot, and Junior said ‘Get in the car, bitch.”
“Did you know A.J.?”
“Yesh. From the motel.”
“He was at the motel— ?”
“He’d been shent there to check on me.”
“Can you describe A.J.?”
“He’s six-six with a Mohawk.”
“Did you hear a shotgun blast?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
“Can you go over the sequence of the shooting?”
“Brandon was fighting with a guy with a gun and Brandon goesh down – I heard the shot. Then another shot and Joe went down. Then another shot and that’s when Junior said ‘Get in the car, bitch.' Then A.J. yelled, ‘That’s what you get for messing with the Willits-Shomething Mafia.' I was running to reshcue Joe and Brandon. I tried to shtop the bleeding, but Joe said ‘I’m dying… No use…”
At this point she broke completely down and Judge Henderson called a recess.
I went away wondering if the 9-5 sectors of the Mendocino County population had any idea that these people, and many others like them, are their neighbors.
(* For the morning session there was only me and another gent about my age who I suspect was the decedent’s father. All the others were either detectives, officers of the court, or idle lawyers.)