FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
Contact: The SpiritHouse Project
Contact Person Ruby Sales, Director
Telephone Number 706 323 0246
Fax Number 706 323 0211
Email Address firstname.lastname@example.org
Ruby Sales long time Civil Rights Worker, Educator and Human Rights Activist and Director of the national Social Justice Organization, the SpiritHouse Project, issues a national call for justice and accountability in the suspicious death of seventeen year old star athlete, Billey Joe Johnson, in the presence of a Deputy Sheriff in Lucedale, Mississippi on December 8, 2008.
Karen Nelson reported on the SunHerald.com site, “He (Billey) was looking forward to a banquet Monday hosted by a television station in Hattiesburg, where he was to receive honors and likely listen to recruiters about his options for the future.” Instead of celebrating this local hero, his family, school mates and neighbors will gather to bury him on Saturday December 20, 2008.
As the Director of the SpiritHouse Project, I recently returned from the communities of Lucedale and Benndale in George County Mississippi from investigating the suspicious death of Billey Joe Johnson who lay dead for more than seven hours while the sheriff refused to let Mr. and Mrs. Johnson see or identify their son’s body. The parents waited all day hoping and pleading to see their son. Over and over, the sheriff denied their requests although they permitted the high school coach and school superintendent Barbara Massey, to identify the body. This followed a pattern where only Whites were permitted to see Billey’s body. When Mrs. Johnson tried to move forward to see Billey’s body, the police tarped and sealed off the area where Billey Joe lay dead. At some point during the wait, Mrs. Johnson fainted. When she recovered, she continued to ask to see her “baby.” Her pleas went unanswered.
In youthful vernacular, he had it going on. He had offers from many schools for his football feats. USA TODAY reports Johnson rushed for 1,559 yards and 24 touchdowns this season. Several colleges, including the SEC's Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi and Mississippi State were recruiting him according to Rivals.com. "I've been coaching for 23 years and he was the best pure athlete to come through. He had speed and strength, a rare combination," George County coach Al Jones told the Sun Herald.
Mr. Johnson, Billey's father, as well as local Black folk who knew Billey well say that Billey saw these offers as an opportunity to give his family a better life.
Yet without warning or fanfare, Billey threw this all away when he, according to local police, “killed himself with a shotgun at daybreak at a store parking” lot across from lonely road in Lucedale, Mississippi. This young Black man, whose life was lived in the spotlight with adoring fans, coaches and college recruiters, allegedly committed suicide or accidentally killed himself.
This is the official story that the Sheriff and other George County officials would like for his family, community and public to accept and believe without questions or answers. According to their official report, a white deputy whose name they withheld for three days stopped Billey for running a red light and stop sign. In a press release on Monday, December 15, 2008, Sheriff Welford said “the deputy pulled Johnson over, then left Johnson and returned to his patrol car where he was preparing to conduct a driver's license check via radio when he heard a gunshot. The deputy said he saw Johnson lying on the ground by the driver's side door of the truck, a shotgun lying on him.” (SunHerald.com)
Another report filed by Sylvia Hall at WLOX TV says that “the deputy says Johnson got out of his truck and explained he ran the stop sign because he was on his way home because his mother was sick.” This raises an obvious and disturbing question. If he were on his way to see his sick mother, why would he kill himself?
Without the parent’s permission, the police took the body to Jackson, Mississippi for an autopsy. They made this decision without seeking or receiving the approval of parents. As a matter of fact, the parents were dismissed from participating in all major decisions concerning their son.
Three days later on Wednesday evening , December 10, 2008, the authorities finally permitted Mr. and Mrs. Johnson to see Billey’s body. According to Mr. Johnson, “they butchered Billy’s body like a pig.”
Mr. and Mrs. Johnson and local Black people do not accept the official story that Billey killed himself. Instead, they smell murder in this small Mississippi town where they talk about an unnamed white ex girlfriend “who set him up that morning” to be killed by a group of white men. With the help of the NAACP, Billey’s parents will permit an outside source to perform a second autopsy.
The family and community want justice. They need your help! They want the nation to know that their “baby boy” died under very suspicious circumstances. They want justice and accountability to make sure that the lives of Black young men have currency and value in our society. They want to uncover the truth of Billey’s death. For the Johnsons and the grieving communities of Lucedale and Benndale, this is the least that they can do for their favorite son of whom they were so proud and who was the light and hope of his family and community. They offer deeply felt testimonies of a kind and polite young man who befriended people of all colors and who wanted to succeed not only for himself but to help his parents.