In December 1995, 27-year-old Craig Johnson was arrested on a charge of armed robbery after 23-year-old Derrick McGown told police that Johnson, armed with a handgun, had robbed him of $1,000 during a dice game in Algiers, Louisiana.
Johnson went on trial in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. McGown identified Johnson as the robber and told a jury how Johnson stuck a gun in his face and yelled, “Give it up.” McGown said that after he handed over the money, Johnson fired shots at him, but missed.
In July 1996, Johnson was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to 70 years in prison.
Later that year, the Times Picayune newspaper published articles detailing accounts from other men in Orleans Parish who said McGown had accused them of robbing him. After they were arrested and while they were being held in jail, the men said that McGown or an associate of his contacted their families and demanded payoffs in the thousands of dollars in return for dropping the charges against them. The newspaper disclosed that McGown had a lengthy criminal record that included 14 felony convictions and 34 misdemeanor convictions or arrests.
The articles prompted an investigation by police and the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office. In December 1996, pending armed robbery charges were dismissed against three men—all of whom McGown had accused of robbing him. The investigation turned up evidence that McGown claimed to have been an armed robbery victim at least 16 times in a period of less than four years. Only Johnson had been convicted—the other defendants’ families made payoffs so that McGown refused to press charges or their cases were dismissed after the scam was exposed
Also in December, New Orleans police arrested McGown on a fugitive warrant issued by police in Detroit, Michigan. McGown was wanted there on charges that he fired a gun through the door of an estranged girlfriend’s house and wounded two girls ages 2 and 3.
On January 10, 1997, prosecutors arranged for Johnson to be transported to court from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola for a hearing on Johnson’s motion for a new trial.
Johnson’s attorney, A.F. “Sonny” Armond, presented evidence to Judge Dennis Waldron that McGown claimed to have been robbed about a dozen times. McGown, Armond said, had a long record of convictions for narcotics and battery and pending charges of attempted murder for the shooting in Detroit.
Armond presented a statement from a police officer who suspected McGown was a scam artist and a statement from a man who admitted that he and McGown concocted a kidnapping charge in an attempt to extort $3,000.
The Times Picayune said McGown was cocky and belligerent on the witness stand and on several occasions smirked as Armond pointed out discrepancies in his statements.
McGown, who was known on the street as “Lil Fat,” testified that he had been robbed “13 or 14 times,” and guessed he was a target because he carried around large wads of cash.
After McGown finished testifying, Judge Waldron vacated the conviction and ordered a new trial. Several hours later, the District Attorney's office dismissed the case and the prosecution labeled McGown “a scam artist.” Johnson was then released.
McGown was sent back to Detroit where he pled guilty to assault with a firearm and was sentenced to two to 10 years in prison.
– Maurice Possley