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Mother of Danziger victim still seeking justice

29th August 2011   ·   0 Comments

By Edmund W. Lewis
The Louisiana Weekly Editor

Sherell Johnson would like nothing more than to bury her murdered son, James Brissette Jr., and give him a final resting place.

But for now she has too much work to do.

That work includes continuing to fight for justice for James, who was gunned down by New Orleans police just days after Hurricane Katrina six years ago and helping her daughter Andrea Celestine to secure justice for her husband, New Orleans police officer Lawrence Celestine, who appears to have been murdered by another member of the police force.

Lawrence Celestine’s case, whose cause of death was initially listed as suicide, raised a flag with law enforcement officials because James Brissette Jr. is his brother-in-law and Celestine is also related to post-Katrina NOPD shooting victim Henry Glover, who was killed by police and burned in a car on the Mississippi River levee, by marriage. Both Lawrence Celestine and Henry Glover lived in Algiers and died on September 2, 2005.

NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas announced last year that the department is launching an investigation of Lawrence Celestine’s death with assistance from the FBI.

The youngest of Sherell Johnson’s three children, James Brissette Jr. was one of two people gunned down by New Orleans police on the Danziger Bridge in eastern New Orleans just six days after Hurricane Katrina.

James’ older brother, Robert, died from an aneurysm that caused him to become comatose on Thanks­giving Day 2004, just nine months before James lost his life on the Danziger Bridge.

Six years after James was murdered by members of the NOPD, his mother is still telling her son’s story and making certain that he did not die in vain. She spoke with The Louisiana Weekly less than two weeks after the trial of the officers involved in her son’s death and the subsequent cover-up ended.

“James was a quiet person,” Johnson told The Louisiana weekly. “He didn’t mix a lot. He was really kind of selfish. He was a selfish baby and a selfish big boy. He would sit back and look at people. He wasn’t a life-of-the-party type person. He was a quiet person and kept to himself.”

Johnson says her daughter Andrea was a teenager when James was born and doted on him like he was her own son. “We all spoiled him and his computer-user name was ‘Spoiled Rotten,’” she told The Louisiana Weekly. “He would tell everybody, ‘I’m spoiled rotten.’”

With Hurricane Katrina ominously approaching New Orleans, Johnson found herself scrambling to come up with a storm plan. Eventually, she decided to ask James to ask one of his friends from middle school if she and James could wait out the storm with the family in the Ninth Ward.

On Sunday evening, August 28, James and his mother packed some things and left their 8th Ward home and headed to the 9th Ward to wait out the storm on Burgundy Street with the Navara family.

“His mom knew that I was a single parent, that it was just J.J. and I,” Johnson explained. “J.J. spent a lot of time over there at their house and they all loved him. Their mom told me that they were destroyed when they found out what happened to James.”

Johnson remembers vividly what it was like as the storm headed into the city. “That Sunday, everything started shutting down —the television, phones, lights and the last thing to go was the gas but people were cooking on grills. The closer Katrina got, things started cutting off. The children played on the computer until the electricity went off.

“The next day Katrina passed completely over where we were,” Johnson added. “We went outside Monday morning and the sun was shining bright and it was hot. There were only 12 inches of water at the bottom step because the house was way upstairs. We were safe — we got through Katrina because we were by Mrs. Miriam Navara’s house.”

Johnson says she was very comfortable, thanks to Miriam Navara and her family.

“She treated us very well,” Johnson said. “They waited on me hand and foot. I did absolutely nothing. I slept a lot because my health is not 100 percent. I had a whole bedroom to myself.

Although city services were lacking and many residents had either left the city or headed downtown to the Louisiana Superdome, Johnson says those who rode out the storm on Burgundy Street had everything they needed to survive. “Across the street from the house was a water fountain that was in the middle of a church yard, and the water just flowed constantly,” she told The Louisiana Weekly. “We never were out of water. We would go over there to get buckets of water to wash clothing, wash our hands and flush the toilets.

“Also, helicopters were dropping down food and water in the church yard,” Johnson continued. “We always had plenty of food and water. It was miracle that that fountain never went off. The floodwater was at least three feet high but the water never ran out and never shut down. Then some of the church people came over and cooked a lot of food for the people in the neighborhood.”

That same day, James and his friend Vishma Navara decided to take a look around the neighborhood to see how much damage the hurricane had done to the city. After several hours the teenagers returned and told Johnson about high the water was in some sections of the Ninth Ward.

Johnson said that because New Orleans was still dealing with stifling late-summer heat, many who waited out the storm in the neighborhood where she was spent nights and evenings on their porches hoping to catch a rare summer breeze or any kind of respite from the scorching temperatures.

On several occasions, members of the Louisiana National Guard passed through the neighborhood and informed residents that the city wanted them to leave the area because it was unsafe to be there and no one knew when the floodwaters were going to subside. “We didn’t leave,” Johnson told The Louisiana Weekly. “We just sat there anyway.”

On Tuesday, August. 30, James, his friend and the friend’s little brother decided to go sight-seeing again. Johnson warned them not to leave, but they insisted on going. Even­tually, Johnson told them, ‘Okay, go see, but you better come right back.’ James said, ‘Okay Mama, we’re gonna come right back.’”

That was the last time Johnson would see her son alive.

Johnson said the two brothers returned three or four hours later without James. When she asked them about her son, they told Johnson that James had run into another friend, high school classmate Jose Holmes, one of the U.S. Justice Department’s star witnesses in this summer’s NOPD Danziger Bridge shooting trial.

As the sun went down, Johnson began to really worry about her son’s whereabouts and safety. “Everybody began to worry because it was getting dark,” Johnson recalled. “I said, ‘Now where is this boy?’ I said, ‘Well, maybe he’ll come back in the morning when there is light.’

“Miss Navara, the children and the neighbors began to get upset,” Johnson continued. “She said, ‘Aren’t you upset?’ I told her ‘If I say one thing, my heart will burst out of my chest. It’s best that I not say anything.’”

The morning brought no news about James’ whereabouts. “I looked and looked but James was nowhere to be found,” Johnson told The Louisiana Weekly.

The Louisiana National Guardsmen returned Tuesday night, August 30, and repeated the city’s instructions that the residents evacuate the area but the residents stood their ground. The Guardsmen visited the neighborhood Wednesday and reiterated the evacuation orders.

Sherell Johnson found herself beginning to panic as she continued to wait for her son’s return. “I said, ‘I told you that I can’t leave. I’m waiting for my son to come back. I can’t leave — I’m waiting for my child.’

“Every time they came they had weapons,” Johnson continued. “That Wednesday night they came back. My medicine was running low. I got scared and remembered thinking, ‘I don’t know which way to go, what to do.’”

Then she remembered that her son-in-law was a member of the NOPD. She gave the Louisiana National Guardsmen her son’s name and figured that her son-in-law could help her to locate James.

“That kind of eased my mind a little bit but I still was upset,” Johnson told The Louisiana Weekly. “But I did not know that my son-in-law was dead too. I did not know that.”

When the Louisiana National Guardsmen returned Thursday morning, Sept. 1, Johnson didn’t want to leave but was persuaded to leave after being reassured that every effort would be made to locate her son-in-law and enlist his help in finding James.

Johnson left with the National Guardsmen, but told rescuers that she wanted to go to Baton Rouge. Even though she told authorities that her family was in Baton Rouge, she and other evacuees were taken by bus from the Morial Convention Center to Louis Armstrong where they spent the night. She and others were instructed the next morning, Friday, September 2, to board a flight but were not told where they were going.

Johnson and others were shocked to learn that they were transported to Knoxville, Tennessee, where finding her son was only one of her growing list of concerns. “I said, ‘If I could just tell my family that I’m okay so they won’t worry — I’m alive, I’m OK,’ that would help me to deal with the situation,” she told The Louisiana Weekly. “But I was way in Knoxville, Tennessee by myself with no way to know where my son was and no way to contact the rest of my family because I lost my purse between leaving the 9th Ward and making it to the airport.”

Once she was able to locate her family in Baton Rouge, Johnson said she learned that her relatives there were told that they had to leave the makeshift shelter at a nursing home where they were staying and did not know where they were going to live.

“At the shelter in Tennessee, I told Red Cross workers that my son was lost in New Orleans and the rest of my family was somewhere out in Baton Rouge. The Red Cross helped me to put my profile on the Internet as well as J.J.’s,” she told The Louisiana Weekly. “That’s how my daughter and family found me.”

Although it didn’t take very long for the family to reconnect with Johnson, it wasn’t until October 2005 that Johnson was flown back to Baton Rouge and reunited with her family. Part of the reason for the delay was the additional threat and damage done in Louisiana by Hurricane Rita.

Because she was uncertain about how long she would be in Tennessee, Johnson had registered James for school there. Her plan was to remain in Knoxville for James’ senior year and return to New Orleans after graduation.

Before Katrina, she had planned to transfer James from Frederick Douglass High School to McDonogh 35 College Prep High School so that he could concentrate on his books and not have to worry about being bullied by his classmates.

“I didn’t want him in that environment,” she explained. “I thought it was too rough for him. I thought they were going to intimidate him because he had never had a fight with anybody. He was very passive and didn’t say much.”

Despite years of media coverage of the Danziger Bridge shootings and the subsequent trial, very little has been written or reported about who James Brissette Jr. was. Part of the rationale for Johnson’s interview with The Louisiana Weekly was to tell the world who the cops who killed her son took from her.

“J.J. was an avid reader,” Johnson recalled. “He loved to read and he loved to draw. He was quiet — you didn’t even know he was in the house — and he was so passive.

“It was me, him and my daughter (living together),” Johnson continued. “We had no parties, no drinking, no smoking, no arguing with or cussing out anybody — he wasn’t around any of this… James didn’t know about any of that. Our life was totally quiet. He didn’t know what it was to see people get into an argument and fuss and fight. We didn’t have any of that in our home. We went to church, something he loved to do, at Beacon Light Full Gospel Baptist Church.”

Johnson was unable to find a pre-K slot in school for her son. “They said ‘There’s nothing we could teach him — he knows everything,’” Johnson said. “He was reading before he even got to school and could write his name by the time he was three.”

He was skipped from first to second grade and was placed in gifted classes throughout elementary school. “He was gifted and stayed on the honor roll throughout elementary school,” Johnson said. “His teachers said that he would finish his work and disrupt the class because he was bored.”

James and high school classmate Jose Holmes were on the Danziger Bridge on Sept. 4, 2005 with the Bartholomew family, who was attempting to cross the bridge to get supplies for the family’s matriarch.

During the Danziger trial, Patrick Lane, a Louisiana State Police crime lab specialist, told the federal jury that a bullet removed from the body of 17-year-old James Brissette Jr. matched an AK-47 rifle that NOPD Sgt. Kenneth Bowen fired on the Danziger Bridge on Sept. 4, 2005..

Dr. Dana Troxclair, a forensic pathologist who worked for the city coroner’s office, said Brissette had seven gunshot wounds, including fatal wounds to the neck and the back of the head.

Tests detected trace amounts of alcohol in “purge fluid” — a byproduct of decomposition — taken from Brissette’s body. Troxclair said the alcohol most likely was naturally produced by bacteria in the fluid and didn’t come from drinking.

Dr. Vincent Di Maio, also a forensic pathologist, testified that James Brissette was shot at least three times while lying face down on the ground after he was fatally wounded by a shotgun blast to the head.

Di Maio, a government witness, said Brissette was shot at least six times by at least three different weapons — a shotgun, AK-47 and an M4 rifle. He said a shotgun blast to Brissette’s head would have immobilized him before three other shots wounded him.

As the jury was shown the black and white X-rays of Brissette’s body parts, Di Maio testified that some pellets in his skull and shoulder were missed by the autopsy.

When testifying about the pellets in Brissette’s shoulder, Di Maio talked again about the X-ray.

“In this shotgun blast, the person was behind him,” Di Maio told jurors. “This blast likely occurred when he was down, or going down.”

Di Maio said Brissette was shot several times as he lay dying face down on the concrete.

During closing arguments, Assistant U.S. Attorney Theodore Carter described the officers’ decision to fire upon unarmed civilians on the eastern New Orleans bridge without provocation. “They thou­ght they could do what they wanted to do and there wouldn’t be any consequences,” Carter said of the defendants. “It was unreasonable for these officers to fire even one shot, let alone dozens.

“There’s no excuse for that. There was no threat,” Carter said. “What is that? That’s attempted murder.”

Carter said NOPD Officer Robert Faulcon fired the “kill shot” from a shotgun, striking 17-year-old James Brissette in the head, mortally wounding him.

“The only thing James Brissette pointed at these officers was his back,” Carter said.

Johnson said she had no answers about James’ whereabouts or fate for a very long time. “We were turning over rocks and everything trying to find J.J., but we didn’t find out he was dead until over a year later,” Johnson said.

To make it to the Danziger trial verdict earlier this summer, Johnson and the families of the other shooting victims had to endure the cops responsible for these shootings being treated like heroes and New Orleans Judge Raymond Bigelow tossing out the indictments filed by then-Orleans Parish District Attorney Raymond Bigelow. While these things discouraged and disappointed her, she never stopped fighting for her son.

“I was on an emotional roller coaster at that time,” Johnson told The Louisiana Weekly. “It kept bringing my mind and spirit down, and when your mind and spirit go down your body sometimes goes down with them.

After the Madison family sought help from the Justice Department, the Feds stepped in to investigate the case. That led to a federal probe of several NOPD cases, including the Glover and Danziger cases. It wasn’t long before several NOPD officers began to enter guilty pleas and agree to cooperate with federal investigators.

“It seems like every three days one of the officers was pleading guilty,” she said. “That gave me faith and hope that one day the officers who killed my son would have to answer for what they did.”

On Aug. 5, 2011, former officer Robert Faulcon, Sgts. Robert Gisevius and Kenneth Bowen, Officer Anthony Villavaso and retired Sgt. Arthur Kaufman. Faul-con, Gisevius, Bowen and Villavaso were convicted on all 25 counts in the Danziger Bridge shootings and with taking part in the alleged cover-up. Kaufman, who investigated the shootings, was charged only in the alleged cover-up.

But while the five cops were convicted on all 25 counts, the jury didn’t find that the shootings of James Brissette or Ronald Madison amounted to murder.

Sentencing was tentatively set for December 14 but will likely take place in 2012.

Five other officers — Michael Lohman, Jeffery Lehrmann, Michael Hunter, Robert Barrios and Ignatius Hill, pleaded guilty on a variety of federal charges and agreed to cooperate with the U.S. Department of Justice as it continued its probe of the 2005 incident.

Johnson still takes issue with the jury’s refusal to classify the killings of James Brissette, and Ronald Madison, the 40-year-old who was mentally disabled, as murder. “The jury said that they were shot to death but they weren’t murdered,” she told The Louisiana Weekly. “I said, ‘Sit me down and explain it to me like I’m a two-year-old. I want the word ‘murder’ linked to their names.

“When you go and stand over somebody and kill them, what is that? You already shot them and went over there to shoot them some more… One of the EMT workers told me that he couldn’t believe what he was saw on that bridge. He said ‘I had never in all my life seen anything like that — it was a bloodbath.”

“I have been robbed a great deal because he was only 17,” a still-grieving Sherell Johnson told reporters outside the federal courthouse after the verdict was read. “There is nothing for James — nothing. No prom, no first car, no baby, nothing. My child will never have nothing. He will forever more be an urn of ashes.

“I want to thank the people responsible for his death. Thank y’all very much. They did a good job. They took the twinkle out of my eye, the song out of my heart and they blew out my candle, but it’s going to be alright because justice has been served. The day has come, the fat lady has sang and the curtain has come down. There’s nothing more to say.”

Johnson, like others, said she believes that the cases tried in federal court thus far are but the tip of the iceberg and that additional post-Katrina abuses will come to light in the years to come. “It’s just so much that I’m going to write a book,” she told The Louisiana Weekly. “And the more it unfolds, the worse it gets.”

Asked what she will miss most about James, Johnson said without hesitation, “Everything.

“He was my pride and joy. He didn’t get to do anything. He was 17 and in November he would have gotten his car. I won’t get to see the smile on his face when he dangled the keys to his first car. He also wanted to ride in a white stretch limousine for the prom and was making plans for the future.

“He talked about going to ITT Tech and a Marine recruiter told me that he was the only student in his group to pass the Marine test. The recruiter told me, ‘Mrs. Johnson, that is a very smart boy. James can go far; he can be anything and do anything he wants.’ I was so proud of James.”

Johnson said she and her son had a special bond. “I took my baby everywhere,” she said. “I wanted him with me as much as possible.

“He was just 17 and were just about to start doing stuff,” she added. “My child never got to do anything. He was just about to start living.

“Do you know he had just started talking to girls on the phone?” she asked. “He didn’t do that until he was 16. And I think he only took a girl to a movie twice — that’s it.

“I was so outdone. I said, ‘Y’all snuffed out my son’s life.”

Although the pain is still fresh, Johnson can smile and take comfort in the fact that James’ final hours were spent with a good friend. She laughed as she recalled Jose Holmes’ description of her son during the Danziger trial. “He said, ‘James was nerdy — he was a nerd,’” she recalled.

“That was just James. He didn’t say much and didn’t mix with everybody. You could have parties and stuff but J.J. would sit there and observe and look but he didn’t really interact with nobody. That was just him.”

In addition to the sentencing phase of the Danziger trial, Johnson still has to prepare for a civil court trial as well as the resolution of her son-in-law NOPD Officer Lawrence Celestine’s case.

Despite the dark days she has endured, Johnson says she is continuing to press forward and fight the good fight. “I was praying on it and I said, ‘Lord please let the right thing come out of all of this,’” she told The Louisiana Weekly. “Over the past few years I have been saying, ‘These people cannot get away with this; this isn’t right.’

“But I did do all I could do,” she continued. “They had his remains in some kind of metal container so all I could do was get a cremation. I have my child’s ashes. After all of this is over — whether it’s five years or 10 years from now — I’ll give my child a normal burial and his final resting place.”

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

This article originally published in the August 29, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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