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Gary Johnson

Other Queens County, New York exonerations
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Shortly after 7 a.m. on December 21, 1996, 40-year-old Ira Epstein and his security guard, 38-year-old off-duty New York City police detective Charles Davis, were fatally shot as Epstein opened up his check-cashing business on Astoria Boulevard in Queens, New York.

The shooting prompted a massive mobilization of police officers to investigate. One witness, Gregory Turnbull, told police he was about 180 feet away, waiting for the restaurant where he worked to open. He said he saw two Black men walking toward the check-cashing store.

Bertha Ligon and her nine-year-old grandson, Jabron, were in their second-floor apartment across the street from the check-cashing store. Bertha said she saw two men push Epstein and Davis inside and then heard gunshots. While on the phone with 911, she saw one man come out wearing a green army jacket. She said she did not see the assailants’ faces. Jabron said he saw two people lying on the ground next to the front door and that two men ran out the door and got into a blue van.

Jeanette Felix told police that she was walking to get a newspaper around 7 a.m. when she saw two men flee the check-cashing store and Davis on the ground. One man was wearing a green army jacket and a knit hat.

Altagralia Duran said she was walking toward the check-cashing store and saw four men. She became suspicious and crossed to the other side of the street. She saw two men push Epstein and Davis into the store, heard gunshots, and saw two men run to a waiting blue van.

That day, a blue van was found nearby in the St. Albans neighborhood. The van had been the subject of a call to police reporting that three Black men were stripping it. The vehicle was later dusted for fingerprints, but none was found linking anyone to the crime.

Two days later, on December 23, police arrested John Mark Bigweh for selling marijuana. During questioning, he said on December 20, the night before the shooting, he was with his friends, “George Bell, Gary and Zebedia” on Northern Boulevard near 101st Street, about three blocks from the check-cashing store. Bigweh said he returned to the same area at 6 a.m. the following morning to buy some marijuana and saw George and Gary again. He said George had a “silver automatic gun” and that Gary was talking about getting “paid.”

Bigweh was questioned for two days. He ultimately gave a statement that he was a lookout for the attempted robbery of Epstein’s store. He said Bell and Gary Johnson were involved, as well as two others, “Jason” and “Roti.” Bigweh said Bell and Roti were armed and that Bell was the shooter. He said they were in a red van.

On Christmas Eve, police arrested Bell, who was 19, and Johnson, who was 22. Both were interrogated for several hours and both ultimately gave videotaped statements admitting involvement in the crime. Bell admitted to being the gunman and said that Roti—who was about 19 or 20—had recruited him for the holdup. During Bell’s videotaped interview with a prosecutor, Bell could be heard saying he was being “framed.” Johnson’s account was lacking in many important details. He said he was a lookout and was hung over. Both men recanted their confessions almost immediately. Both said detectives had physically abused them .

On Christmas Day, a woman told detectives that she bought crack from a man driving a red van. She rode with detectives canvassing the area until they saw a red van driven by 35-year-old Rohan Bolt, the owner of a Jamaican restaurant on nearby Northern Boulevard. Bolt said he was delivering laundry for his mother and denied involvement. He then was arrested. A detective later claimed that when he approached Bolt, he asked if his name was “Roadie,” and Bolt nodded affirmatively. Bolt would later say that was false and that he told the detective his nickname was “Jabba.”

Witness Turnbull viewed photographic lineups of Bell, Johnson, and Bolt. He identified Bell as one of the men he saw. When he looked at the lineup with Bolt, he did not identify anyone. Police said they interviewed Turnbull later and he said he recognized Bolt, but did not say anything because he was afraid. By that time, Turnbull had been more forthcoming. He said he first saw Bell and Bolt from about 240 feet away. He said that while looking out the window of a newsstand about 180 feet down the block, he saw them confront Epstein and Davis and push them inside the store. He said he heard two gunshots and saw two men—Bell and Bolt—run out and get into a blue van. Turnbull did not identify Johnson.

Turnbull also was shown a black baseball cap. At first, he never mentioned seeing it, but later said one of the men could have been wearing it. At trial, however, Turnbull recanted that statement, saying he only said it was possibly worn by one of the assailants so police would stop asking questions.

Bertha and Jabron Ligon also viewed photo lineups. Bertha identified no one. Jabron identified a filler in the lineup containing Bolt. Jabron did identify Bell, but only as someone he had seen in the neighborhood and not one of the men he saw fleeing from the crime scene.

Witness Felix viewed lineups with Bell and Rohan. He identified fillers in each as possible assailants. Witness Duran was unable to identify anyone.

In January 1997, Bell, Johnson, and Bolt were indicted by a Queens County grand jury. Bell was charged with capital murder and the prosecution said it would seek the death penalty. Johnson and Bolt were charged with second-degree murder. Other charges against all three included attempted robbery, burglary, and criminal possession of a firearm.

At the end of the month, Bigweh reached an agreement to testify for the prosecution. Eight days earlier, Bigweh had attempted suicide at Rikers Island. The prosecution, however, did not disclose Bigweh’s medical records to the defense, which included Bigweh’s history of hallucinations about his dead mother.

In May 1997, police arrested Jason Ligon, who was not related to Bertha and Jabron. After an interrogation, Ligon said he drove the van on the day of the crime. He was never prosecuted, however. Evidence showed he was in Washington, D.C. at the time of the crime. The prosecution did not dismiss the charges against Ligon until June of 2000—after Bell, Johnson and Rohan had been convicted.

On May 9, 1997, while Bell, Johnson and Bolt were awaiting trial, three men ambushed an armored car in Flushing, Queens. Two off-duty police detectives were seriously injured during a shootout. Three men were arrested—Aaron Boone, Robert Majors, and Bernard Johnson, who was not related to Gary Johnson.

A newspaper reported that police suspected Boone, Majors, and Bernard Johnson were involved in other similar crimes in Queens, including the ambush murders of Epstein and Davis. Boone and his twin brother, Ammon, had been under investigation for months and were believed to be the leaders of a violent robbery crew known as “Speedstick.” Part of that investigation involved examining the March 1997 murder of Jamal Clark, believed to be a Speedstick member.

At least two witnesses told detectives that the Boone twins were responsible for the check-cashing murders. One witness said that Clark—before he was murdered—admitted being outside the check-cashing store when “something went bad.”

The news coverage suggesting a link between Speedstick crimes and the murders of Epstein and Davis prompted defense attorneys for Bell, Johnson, and Bolt to repeatedly request information from the prosecution about that investigation and whether Speedstick was responsible for the Epstein/Davis murders. The prosecution repeatedly said there was no information to disclose.

At one point, the lead prosecutor of the Epstein/Davis murders, Queens Assistant District Attorney Charles Testagrossa, said the Boone/Majors/Johnson case was a “completely different case” with “no connection” to the Bell/Johnson/Bolt case. During Bell’s trial, defense attorneys learned that detectives had sought to compare bullets and shell casings recovered at the check-cashing store with ballistics evidence in the Boone/Majors/Johnson armored car case. The defense asked for the evidence to try to determine why the comparison had been ordered. Testagrossa’s co-prosecutor, Brad Leventhal, accused the defense of engaging in a “fishing expedition.” The trial judge, Arthur Cooperman, agreed, calling it “a fishing expedition in the Sahara Desert.” The records were not provided.

Bell went to trial in March 1999. The prosecution’s case rested on Bell’s confession, Turnbull’s identification, and the testimony of Reginald Gousse, who claimed that Bell and Johnson admitted their involvement in the crime to him while they were incarcerated at Rikers Island prior to trial.

Gousse was facing decades in prison for two armed robberies and as a result of his cooperation, he ultimately got five years. After serving that term, he was released.

In 2005, Gousse was charged with a murder in Nassau County. Gousse was arrested after Bell’s trial lawyer, Mitchell Dinnerstein, read of the crime and called police to say it resembled a prior crime that Gousse admitted to during his testimony at Bell’s trial. Gousse was convicted in 2006 of that murder.

The prosecution introduced telephone records showing that two early morning calls from Gary Johnson’s home were made to Bell’s home.

Because Bell’s defense team failed to file a pretrial notice of an alibi defense, the judge barred Bell’s mother and sister from testifying that he was at home at the time of the crime. The judge also denied a defense motion to present an expert on false confessions. And because no expert notice was served, Bell’s high school psychologist was not allowed to testify that testing showed Bell’s IQ was in the low 70s. The judge also excluded evidence that some details of Gousse’s account of Bell’s alleged confession were included in Bell’s legal papers. In particular, Gousse testified that Bell told him he shot Epstein twice—a factual inaccuracy that was reported erroneously in a news story in Bell’s papers.

On June 11, 1999, the jury convicted Bell of first-degree murder, attempted robbery, burglary, and criminal possession of a weapon. The jury declined to impose the death penalty and Bell was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Johnson went to trial in November 1999. The prosecution’s case consisted of Bigweh’s testimony that he took part in the crime as a lookout and that Johnson directed each participant as to their roles, Johnson’s confession, and Gousse’s testimony that Bell and Johnson admitted involvement in the crime.

Johnson’s defense case included testimony from Denise Bell, who was Johnson’s girlfriend at the time. She testified that Johnson called the Bell home at 6:20 a.m. on the day of the shooting and she invited him over. She said they were together at the time of the crime. Esther Bell, Denise’s mother, testified that she arrived home about that time and that both Denise and Gary were there and were still there when she left about 8 a.m.

On December 6, 1999, the jury convicted Johnson of second-degree murder, attempted robbery, burglary, and criminal possession of a weapon. He was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison.

Bolt went to trial in April 2000. Bigweh testified that he took part in the crime and said Bolt was the man he knew as “Roti.” Turnbull testified about his identification of Bolt after initially failing to identify anyone in the photo array.

Bolt’s mother testified that he picked up laundry from her and took it to a laundromat near the family’s Jamaican restaurant on Northern Boulevard. She said she arrived at the restaurant around 7:20 a.m. and Bolt was there.

Bolt testified and denied involvement in the crime. He said he was opening the restaurant at the time of the shooting. He denied that he was known as “Roti” or that he admitted to being called “Roadie.”

On April 13, 2000, the jury convicted Bolt of second-degree murder, attempted robbery, burglary, and criminal possession of a weapon. He was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison.

Bigweh pled guilty to attempted robbery and criminal possession of a weapon. He was sentenced to five to 10 years in prison. In 2003, he was deported to Liberia.

Just weeks earlier, in March 2000, Robert Majors and Aaron Boone had been convicted of the May 1997 Speedstick gang’s $80,000 armored car robbery that left off-duty police officers serving as security guards severely wounded. Boone was sentenced to 85½ years in prison. Majors was sentenced 90½ years in prison.

Bell, Johnson, and Bolt appealed in state court and their convictions were upheld. All sought relief in federal court, but all were unsuccessful.

In October 2019, Majors’s attorneys moved to vacate Majors’s convictions, citing reports that were turned over to the defense as part of a motion to vacate his conviction because his trial defense lawyer had provided an inadequate legal defense. The reports detailed statements from a witness who was part of Speedstick that Majors was not involved in the armored car crime. In addition, a witness said that his childhood friend and fellow Speedstick member, Jamal Clark, had admitted committing the Epstein-Davis murders with Ammon and Aaron Boone.

In May 2020, Majors was granted a new trial and in October 2020, the charges against Majors were dismissed and he was released.

Rita Dave, the attorney for Bolt and Johnson, and Marc Wolinsky, Scott Stevenson and Legal Aid Society attorney David Crow, attorneys for Bell, asked Bryce Benjet, the chief of the Queens County District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) to review the case. As a result, “A flood of additional exculpatory evidence from the Bell-Bolt-Johnson files, as well as from the files generated in connection with other Speedstick crimes, but withheld from the defendants at the time of their trials, began to emerge directly from Benjet and in response to a Freedom of Information Law request,” the defense lawyers said in a filing.

This included evidence that when Bigweh testified against Johnson and Bolt, he falsely testified that the first time the prosecution offered him leniency was in October 1999. In fact, he had signed an agreement in 1997, but it had been revoked when Bigweh refused to come to court for Bell’s trial.

The vast majority of the withheld documents related to the Speedstick gang and how it—not Bell, Johnson and Bolt—was responsible for the check-cashing murders.

Because the documents had been concealed, prosecutor Testagrossa was able, during his closing argument in Bell’s trial, to brand Bell’s defense lawyers as “despicable” for suggesting that others committed the crime and that there was no evidence to support a theory that others were responsible.

In 2021, the lawyers for Bell, Johnson, and Bolt moved for a new trial, citing the “egregious” misconduct of the prosecution for failing to disclose the evidence pointing to the Speedstick gang. “It is long past time to free these three innocent men. The motion to vacate their convictions should be granted without delay,” the lawyers declared.

Benjet filed an affirmation conceding that the convictions should be vacated, although he contended that Bell, Johnson, and Bolt had been prosecuted “in good faith.”

On March 5, 2021, Queens County Supreme Court Justice Joseph Zayas vacated the convictions of all three. “The district attorney’s office deliberately withheld from the defense credible information of third-party guilt,” the judge declared during a virtual court hearing. He said that the prosecution had “completely abdicated its truth-seeking role in these cases.”

In a 28-page ruling, Justice Zayas said that the prosecution had repeatedly said “in sworn affirmations” that the District Attorney’s Office had no evidence pointing to others being involved in the crime, “which, of course, was patently untrue.” The prosecutors, Testagrossa and Leventhal, delivered their responses “with aplomb,” Justice Zayas noted, and convinced the trial judge that the defense’s refusal to drop the issue was “an utter waste of everyone’s time.

“Testagrossa’s and Leventhal’s vociferous denials, however, were completely false,” Justice Zayas ruled. “It is now abundantly clear that their office possessed a significant amount of material that implicated the Boone-led Speedstick gang in this crime.”

That same day, Bell, Johnson and Bolt were released from prison, pending a decision by Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz on whether to seek to retry them.

Attorneys for the defendants were critical of Katz for failing to act sooner—when the documents were discovered in 2019. Mitchell Dinnerstein, who defended Bell at trial in 1999, told the New York Times, “This should have been done a year ago. What caused them to drag their feet?” Dinnerstein suggested Katz was trying to protect the prosecutors in the case, including Leventhal, who was still employed in the office as the chief of the Homicide Trial Bureau.

Testagrossa, who by then was Executive Assistant District Attorney for Investigations in the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office, denied he committed any misconduct. Less than a week later, he resigned from the Nassau office. Three weeks later, Leventhal resigned from the Queens office.

At the court hearing during which the men were ordered released, Bell said, “When this unfortunate journey began, I was only 19 years old. I was just a kid with no clear understanding of the law, or even my own rights. Thank you for giving me a second chance at life.”

On June 4, 2021, Queens County Supreme Court Justice Michelle Johnson signed an order dismissing the charges. In addition to the findings by Justice Zayas, the order said that the convictions also were being overturned because of “newly discovered evidence, which, if available at the time of trial, would more likely than not have led to a verdict more favorable to the defendants.”

At the hearing, Justice Johnson declared, “It is egregiously unfair that [Bell, Bolt and Johnson] were stripped of liberty as young men. When the criminal justice system fails, it fails everyone [involved].”

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 6/13/2021
Last Updated: 6/13/2021
State:New York
County:Queens
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Attempt, Violent, Burglary/Unlawful Entry, Gun Possession or Sale
Reported Crime Date:1996
Convicted:1999
Exonerated:2021
Sentence:50 years to life
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:22
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No