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Johnny Small

Other North Carolina Cases
Johnny Small released after more than 25 years (Photo/WRAL-TV)
On July 13, 1988, 32-year-old Pamela Dreher was found shot to death in her pet fish store, Tropical Paradise, in the Delgado Square shopping center in Wilmington, North Carolina. The cash register was empty and about $175 was missing. A .25-caliber cartridge was found on the floor near her body.

The owner of the store next door, who said he never heard a gunshot, discovered her body and called 911 at 6:21 p.m. The last transaction recorded by the cash register was at 5:49 p.m. when the no-sale button was pushed, an action that opened the cash drawer.

The crime was still unsolved in September 1988 when 18-year-old Nina Raiford called Crime Stoppers, which had offered a $5,000 reward that was later matched by North Carolina Gov. Jim Martin. Raiford reported that she had seen 15-year-old Johnny Small, whom she knew from junior high school, leave Tropical Paradise sometime between 5:40 p.m. and 6 p.m. when she was walking home from work at a McDonald’s restaurant about 2 miles from the crime scene.

Wilmington police questioned 19-year-old David Bollinger, who was a close friend of Small’s. At the time, Bollinger was living with Woody Ward, who owned a used car dealership. According to detectives, Bollinger admitted that he and Small stopped in the parking lot of the shopping center where Tropical Paradise was located because Small said he wanted to make a call. Bollinger said that when Small returned to the car, he was wearing a different shirt. Bollinger said that when he took Small home, Small gave him a $10 bill. When Bollinger asked him where he got the money, Small told him that he robbed the pet store and that he “had to shoot her.”

On October 29, 1988, based on Bollinger’s statement, police charged Small with first-degree murder and robbery with a dangerous weapon.

Bollinger was charged with being an accessory after the crime.

Small, who insisted he was innocent, went to trial in New Hanover County Superior Court in April 1989.

Raiford testified that she clocked out of the McDonald’s at 4:30 p.m. and headed home on foot. She said she was at the shopping center between 5:40 p.m. and 6 p.m. when she saw Small come out of Tropical Paradise and get into a car driven by Bollinger.

Raiford’s testimony was seriously undercut by her time card from McDonald’s which showed she clocked out at 5:53 p.m.—not 4:30 p.m.—which meant that she would have arrived at the shopping center after Dreher’s body had been discovered and police and emergency personnel were on the scene. Raiford’s manager testified that the time card was accurate.

Raiford also claimed that she had called Crime Stoppers in August after talking to a teacher and was not seeking the reward. However, a Crime Stoppers representative testified that Raiford called in September and noted the person who took the call checked off the reward box as the reason the information was provided.

The defense noted that Raiford did not mention Bollinger’s name or mention a second person at all in the call to Crime Stoppers.

Bollinger testified that on the day of the murder, he spent the afternoon smoking marijuana, taking Valium and driving around with Small. He reiterated his account that implicated Small.

Bollinger told the jury that after he took Small home, Small stuck the barrel of a .25-caliber revolver to his neck and threatened to shoot him if Bollinger ever told anyone what Small had done.

Bollinger said he then went to Ward’s home where he ate dinner, changed clothes and left with Ward for a car sale in South Carolina—about 90 minutes away—and returned about 1 a.m.

In response to a question from the prosecutor, Bollinger said he had not been promised any leniency in return for his testimony.

Jennifer Long, whose cousin was dating Bollinger, testified that Small told her that there were easier ways to get money than having a job. She also testified that he described being at the scene of the crime after police arrived and seeing the victim’s body lying in a pool of blood.

Raymond Brigman, Jr., a friend of Small and Bollinger, testified that in May 1988—two months prior to the murder—he had a .25-caliber handgun. He said that he took the gun with him on a trip to Charlotte, North Carolina, accompanied by Small and Bollinger. Brigman said that Small borrowed the car while they were in Charlotte and that the gun, which had been in the glove compartment, was missing when Small brought the car back.

Woody Ward, the owner of the used car business, testified for the defense that he and Bollinger went to a car sale in Conway, South Carolina, on the day of the murder. He said they had to be at the sale by 7 p.m. or he would not be allowed to bid. They therefore had to have left no later than 5:30 p.m.—when the police knew the victim was still alive because she had talked to her brother on the phone about that time.

Ward also testified that he saw no indication that Bollinger had been smoking marijuana and taking sedatives that day. Ward said he would not have taken Bollinger if he suspected Bollinger was impaired because he expected Bollinger to drive back any car he bought at the sale.

During closing argument to the jury, the prosecutor emphasized that Bollinger was not getting special treatment. “His charge is still pending and he has received no promise of anything to help him in the outcome of his case,” the prosecutor declared. “And he wasn’t questioned at all in the defense about that. Not one question, any questions relating to any possibility that there might have been any arrangement with the state and David Bollinger.”

On April 7, 1989, the jury convicted Small of murder and robbery. At his sentencing, Small, who was sobbing, told the judge, “I’m saying it ain’t fair, man. That’s what I’m saying. I never was in that pet shop at all.” Small was then sentenced to life plus 20 years in prison.

Over the next two decades, Small’s convictions were upheld on appeal and he filed several petitions on his own, without a lawyer, attempting to set aside the convictions—all without success.

In May 2012, Bollinger contacted the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence and said that his testimony at Small’s trial had been false—that he knew nothing about the crime. Bollinger said he came forward because his life had been plagued by health issues he attributed to stress caused by lying at Small’s trial and because he had met Dwayne Allen Dail, who had been exonerated of a rape conviction in 2007.

In December 2013, Bollinger signed a sworn statement saying that he had falsely implicated Small after the lead detective in the case had threatened him with the death penalty unless he cooperated. Moreover, Bollinger said his grandfather, a former police officer in Durham, North Carolina, had encouraged him to testify falsely, as coached by law enforcement, in return for dismissal of the charge of accessory after the fact. Bollinger said he was influenced by pressure from his grandfather to take the deal, as well as fear of his own prosecution.

Bollinger also said he had lied when he testified that he wasn’t promised any leniency on his case. In fact, the prosecution promised to dismiss the charges against him and did so after Small’s convictions were upheld on appeal.

In his statement, Bollinger said that he was with Ward on the way to South Carolina for the car sale at the time he testified he was with Small. Bollinger took a polygraph examination administered by a former FBI agent who said that no deception was indicated when Bollinger said he was not involved in the murder and that Small never told him he had shot and robbed the victim. The North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence got the prosecution file in the case and discovered that the prosecution had failed to reveal that police reports were filed on the night of the murder accusing Small of stealing a vehicle from Ward sometime between 5 p.m. and 1 a.m.—corroborating Ward’s testimony that he was gone during that time to attend the car sale. One of the reports said a neighbor of Ward saw Small take the car around 6 p.m.—the approximate time when Dreher was murdered.

The prosecution file also contained handwritten notes of a police interview with Mittie Parker, the teacher that Raiford said she had confided in shortly after the crime. The notes indicated that Raiford gave a vastly different account—that she went to the pet store to purchase fish for her sister’s upcoming birthday and saw the body on the floor. Those notes had been concealed from Small’s defense attorney.

The prosecution also failed to disclose reports showing that ballistic tests had been performed on shell casings found in Brigman’s back yard. The prosecution argued at the trial that Small had stolen Brigman’s gun and used it to kill Dreher. However, the prosecution offered no testimony regarding the comparisons between the backyard casings and the cartridge recovered at the scene of the crime—suggesting that the ballistics in fact excluded Brigman’s gun.

The file also contained a note reporting that Brigman’s gun had been recovered in Charlotte, so it could not have been used in Dreher’s murder.

Jennifer Long later testified that the lead detective told her what to say at the trial. Long said that the detective claimed he got the information from Long’s cousin, who was dating Bollinger, but that the prosecution did not want to put the cousin on the witness stand because members of her family were facing unrelated criminal charges. Long said she was paid $850 for her testimony—which never was disclosed to the defense—and that she felt she had been pressured to testify.

In July 2015, Christine Mumma, executive director of the Center on Actual Innocence, along with staff attorney Cheryl Sullivan, and former North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Robert Orr, of the law firm of Campbell Shatley, filed a motion seeking to vacate Small’s convictions.

In August 2016, after a four-day evidentiary hearing, New Hanover County Superior Court Judge Douglas Parsons vacated Small’s convictions and ordered a new trial. Judge Parsons ruled that Bollinger and Long had been coerced by police, that the prosecution claim that Small had access to Brigman’s gun was “false and without evidentiary value,” that Raiford’s testimony about seeing Small leave the pet store was not credible, that Bollinger’s testimony had been false and that the prosecution had failed to disclose to the defense evidence that was favorable to Small.

On August 11, 2016, Small was released on a signature bond pending a new trial. On September 7, 2016, the prosecution dismissed the charges. In April 2017, Small filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking damages.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 9/15/2016
Last Updated: 4/11/2017
State:North Carolina
County:New Hanover
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery
Reported Crime Date:1988
Convicted:1989
Exonerated:2016
Sentence:Life
Race:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:15
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No