On February 27, 2014, 18-year-old William Rush entered Judge Tom Gillert’s Tulsa County courtroom. He was in sheriff’s custody, and had been since late October the year before, when he was arrested and charged with first-degree murder for the shooting of Tiras Johnson.
Rush entered a plea of no contest to an amended charge of second-degree murder. First-degree murder carries only one of three possible punishments—life, life without parole, and death—so with this amendment in place, the court was able to accept the agreement reached between the Tulsa County District Attorney’s office and the Tulsa County Public Defender’s office, whose lawyers had decided Rush should serve 20 years in prison for killing Johnson. Under Oklahoma’s sentencing statutes, this meant Rush would have to serve a minimum of 17 years, 85 percent of his sentence, before he could become eligible for parole.
In addition, Rush was levied a $600 fine, approximately $2,330 in court costs, and a $150 “Victims Compensation Assessment.”
The Victims Compensation Assessment is a standard part of any punishment in the Oklahoma criminal courts. The money goes into a fund, administered by the District Attorneys Council and the Crime Victims Compensation Board, which is then dispensed to victims to cover things like economic loss, crime-scene cleanup, and medical or dental expenses. In homicide cases, the fund can be used to cover funeral expenses.
But not for Tiras Johnson. Not a penny of the $150 William Rush owed to the Victims Compensation Fund would ever go to Johnson’s family—because, according to the Crime Victims Compensation Board, Johnson was partly to blame for his own murder.
On January 17, 2014, Netarsha Johnson, Tiras’s mother, received a letter from the board, explaining that “[a]n award of compensation cannot be made if the victim’s actions contributed to the criminal incident. The incident appears to be gang related and the victim exercised poor judgment by choosing to be a gang member.”
At the bottom of the letter, these words appeared: “We extend our condolences for the loss of your loved one.”
Here’s what we know about Tiras Johnson: He was born on October 8, 1990. He had been 23 for five days when he died. He was the youngest of three siblings. He had no children. He suffered from schizophrenia. He loved music, gospel and rap in particular. He was good-looking and fit, with closely cropped hair and a thin mustache. He had lived in the Tulsa area his entire life, except for a short time when he was a little boy and his family stayed in Fort Benning, Georgia, while his mother was in the Army. He was named after a figure in the Bible, one of the grandsons of Noah. He went to Burroughs Elementary and East Central High School, but dropped out in the 10th grade. He lived with his mother, or sometimes his grandmother, and would occasionally stay with his father. His parents were divorced. For about three months in 2013, he’d worked as a detailer at Owasso Auto Spa. He loved the job, but there was a miscommunication about his schedule. He didn’t show up one day when he was expected. He was fired. It broke his heart.
At the time of his death, he was serving an 18-month deferred sentence for obstructing an officer, a misdemeanor. He had gotten the charge when police stopped him during a “warrant service attempt.” He gave them the wrong name; it’s not clear why. The police report indicates there had been a warrant for his arrest related to a marijuana possession charge, but that wasn’t Johnson (it may have been his brother). Johnson had only been in trouble one other time in his life: in December of 2010, when he was charged in Tulsa Municipal Court for shoplifting a laser sight from a Walmart.
That is the extent of his criminal history. Johnson was still paying the costs on his deferred sentence at the time of his death. The Tulsa County District Court issued a bench warrant for his arrest on December 30, 2013—two and a half months after he was murdered.
Death had put Johnson behind on his court costs to the tune of $476.50. That warrant is still active, and the case has been sent to collections.
On October 13, 2013, officers were called to the Tonight Inn & Suites, located at 8833 E. Admiral in Tulsa, in reference to a shooting. They found Tiras Johnson dead in the parking lot with three gunshot wounds, one of which was to the head. Johnson had arrived at the inn earlier that day with his cousin Keelan Smallwood and Smallwood’s cousin William Rush, who also went by “Cinco.” Devin Smart, Johnson’s stepbrother, had dropped them off to visit Smallwood’s girlfriend, Michelle Goree, who was staying in a room at the inn. Another woman, Ramiehyana Tiger, was also present, and carrying William Rush’s then-unborn child.
Smallwood later told the police he’d been in the room with Johnson and Rush, and that the two of them “kept on getting into arguments.” At one point during these arguments, Johnson told either Smallwood or Rush that if he had his gun he would shoot Rush. Ramiehyana Tiger later told police that Rush and Johnson “had been getting into arguments inside their room over gangs.” She said the three of them—Smallwood, Johnson, and Rush—later left the hotel room and went outside. Rush told her that if she heard anything, she needed to be quiet about it.
Rush, Johnson, and Smallwood went outside and stood around in the parking lot near a 7-Up machine. Johnson and Smallwood had their backs to Rush, facing south, toward the empty lot across the street or maybe toward the trees farther off down 89th. Maybe the two cousins were talking, maybe they were just silently taking in the night—the busy darkness, the scattered glow of streetlights and headlamps, the scant urban greenery, the rumble of I-244 behind them.
Then Smallwood heard gunfire. He saw his cousin fall. He immediately started running.
Tiger heard the shot, looked out the window and saw Rush fire a revolver at Johnson.
Because of the testimony that Johnson and Rush had argued about gangs, the Crime Victims Compensation Board determined that Johnson was a gang member. In addition, Detective Hill found a tattoo on Tiras Johnson’s body: 54 KBC. Hill told Johnson’s mother those numbers and letters were known to signify gang membership.
When a claim for victim-compensation funds is received, the victim coordinator for the local DA’s office sends a questionnaire to the investigating officer. One of the questions asks: “Do you have any reason to believe the victim was involved in gang activity.” Detective Hill said he marked “yes,” because of the tattoo, and because “the witnesses told us they had been arguing over ‘whose gang was better.’ ”
A Google search for “54 kbc gangs tulsa” will return a link to the website of a group called the Oklahoma Gang Investigators Association. On a page titled “Gangs by Region,” the OGIA site says, “The northeastern region consists of Tulsa and the surrounding communities including Okmulgee, Muskogee and Bartlesville. The largest gang in the area is the Hoover Crips. Their main sets are the 107, 54, 63, 57 and 27.”
I noticed the number 54, but there was nothing else regarding the letters KBC.
I also noticed this line, attributed to Ernest Hemingway, on the left-hand side of the page: “There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter.”
I sat in my office and reread those words and felt the way you do when you’re watching a horror movie by yourself, as though the space behind you has suddenly filled with a cold and reaching presence. What’s this trying to say? I thought. Who are these “hunters of men”? Did they mean the gangs, or did they mean themselves?
After several more phone calls, a sergeant at TPD’s Organized Gang Unit answered me in no uncertain terms: “54 KBC means 54 Kenosha Blocc Crip [54 is for 54th Street North and Kenosha is for Kenosha Avenue]. They are affiliated with the Hoover Crips, a well known criminal street gang.”
Oklahoma established the Crime Victims Compensation Board in 1981 “to provide a method of compensating and assisting those persons who become victims of criminal acts.” While the board’s office and staff are funded by the District Attorneys Council, it amounts to an entirely separate government agency: The board members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the senate; they serve four-year terms; and the board is regulated by state statutes, but with an administrative code of its own devising. The statues are written broadly enough that the board has full authority to decide what kinds of victims should have their awards diminished or denied, depending on their level of responsibility—as determined by the board.
In the years 2009 through 2013, the board received an average of $4,322.482.10 from Victim Compensation Assessments, and disbursed an average of $4,975,779.25. The board administrator conducts an initial evaluation of all claims and has authority to grant or deny any request under $10,000. The full board determines claims in excess of $10,000 and hears appeals lodged from administrative denials. Claims must be linked to certain categories of recognized expenses, like medical bills, crime-scene cleanup, grief counseling, income loss, and, of course, funeral expenses. The board will generally grant a claim, if it’s timely and the victim or the family has cooperated with everyone involved on the law-enforcement side. The board has power to deny a claim if the claimant was the actual offender, if the money would benefit the offender, or if the loss was recovered through a collateral source (like an insurance payment). The board also has power to reduce or deny claims where victims bear responsibility for their own suffering, even their own deaths.
On a close read of the board’s records, patterns emerged among homicide claims, which account, on average, for about 13 percent of all claims received. Most of those claims are to recoup funeral expenses—that’s what Netarsha Johnson was seeking—which are capped at $7,500. The most frequently cited reason to deny a homicide victim’s eligibility for compensation was “drug activity.” In three years, the board administrator denied 33 of these claims, and the full board rejected nine. And that’s only counting cases where “drug activity” was the only cited reason for the denial: there were several cases where “drug activity” was mixed with some other grounds for denial—gang activity, insufficient evidence, or an uncooperative claimant, for example.
There were 20 denials by the administrator for “gang activity,” and a further five denials by the full board. Even though the board has full authority under its own bylaws to grant diminished awards to culpable victims, it did not do this for any gang-related case in the years 2011 through 2013. There was only one reduction, in April of 2011, where the sole ground for denial was “drug activity.”
Here are the kinds of cases where the board found the victim still deserved compensation, but a diminished amount: A 25-percent reduction for “mutual combat.” A 25-percent reduction foralcohol and mutual combat. A 50-percent reduction for “provoking the offender.” A 10-percent reduction for underage drinking. A 50-percent reduction for playing with a firearm. A 50-percent reduction for bringing a handgun to a party and letting others handle it. The family of a male victim received a 50-percent reduction because of his “involvement with a known prostitute,” while a female victim’s eligibility was denied outright on the ground of “prostitution.”
I asked Suzanne Breedlove, administrator for the board, if there were any standards governing these decisions to reduce awards based on victim responsibility. She told me the area of “contributory conduct” was one that she and the board struggle with the most.
“In an effort to be consistent with the application of law as board members change, we train the board on decision precedents that have been set, advise them of the decision options they have available, and send them to national conferences where they can learn from other states,” she said. Often, she believes, a claim is diminished even though she or the board would like to award the claim in its entirety, but the reduction is necessary to keep the victims compensation system consistent with past precedents.
These precedents would appear to leave no room for people like Tiras Johnson. In all these records, I located only one instance where the board found gang activity, but still awarded funds, and even that case is unusual. Blake Ford, a 23-year-old inmate at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, was murdered on July 19, 2009. His family requested funds, but they were initially denied on the grounds that Ford had engaged in alcohol consumption and gang activity. Two months later, the decision was partly reversed, and the family received an award diminished by 33 percent—but only on the ground of alcohol consumption. It seems particularly difficult—perhaps even impossible—for one’s family to receive victim-compensation funds if the departed was allegedly involved in gangs.
It makes for a clear comparison, at least. If you’re Tiras Johnson and you have a gang tattoo and you get into an argument with someone who later walks up behind you and puts a bullet in the back of your head, you are more responsible for your own murder than someone who got drunk and intentionally provoked their killer. You are more responsible than a person whose death came as a result of playing with a firearm, or underage drinking, or mutual combat.
I asked the board administrator why gang membership is an automatic bar to compensation. She said, “One area that has been consistent among board members who have been appointed is that gang activity is illegal activity and the board believes they are bound by law to deny claims involving illegal activity.”
But underage drinking is illegal activity. Mutual combat is illegal activity. “Involvement with a known prostitute” is illegal activity.
Why is gang activity different? Why does this particular form of illegal activity seem to render a person categorically ineligible for victim compensation?
One argument might be that gang activity, like drug activity, is simply a greater social evil than those other forms of crime. So it would follow that a person involved in gangs, even minutely involved, is therefore worse than a person directly involved in a lesser evil, like underage drinking or prostitution.
It’s hard to avoid a more troubling possibility, though. According to the National Gang Center, the vast majority of gang members in the U.S. are persons of color: 46 percent of the American gang population is Latino and 35 percent is black; whites account for only 11 percent. An entrenched policy that keeps the families of murdered gang members from receiving victims’ compensation has the added consequence of excluding vastly more black and Latino survivors from the fund. It’s another way to close the circle of our common wealth, keeping whites in and leaving other races out.
I met Netarsha Johnson at her home in a trailer park in north Tulsa. She was living in Owasso, with Tiras, at the time her son was murdered, but she moved not long after his death. I don’t pry into this, but she gives the impression that her son’s murder, and the grief that came after it, disrupted her finances considerably. She’s an Army veteran, and served two deployments in the Iraq War. She was part of the initial invasion, then made considerable money afterward, also in Iraq, as a government contractor. Enough to buy her home in Owasso and to support herself and her son. Enough to afford Tiras’s funeral arrangements. For her, it wasn’t as much about the money as it was the idea that her child’s blood was on his own hands.
Netarsha and I spoke for two hours on an evening in the spring of last year. She told me about her family’s long-standing ties to Tulsa. She told me about her time in Iraq. She told me about Tiras.
The trailer house she lives in was cramped but comfortable. She sat on a pretty couch with black and gold upholstery, and I sat diagonally from her, on a love seat. She had a big-screen television still tuned to children’s programming from earlier in the day, when her grandkids had been with her.
The mere fact that she can speak the name Tiras seems unaccountable to me, as I think back on it. I listened to her talk about her son, and her life. She told me about a dream she’d had the morning after Tiras died, after several attempts to call him on the phone had failed.
“I put the phone down, and I laid back down, and I became very weary. I drifted. By this time it’s between 6:00 and 7:30. I drifted, kind of nodded off, but when I nodded off, there were two men that came to me. Two white men came to me; they were at the foot of my bed. And what was strange was, I knew why they were there. And I said ‘No. You don’t belong here. No.’ I closed my eyes, I said, ‘Father God in the name of Jesus, whatever’s going on: protect him. Cover him, right now.
“Something hit my window like this.”
Netarsha slapped her hand on the window behind her.
“I said, ‘NOOOOOOO!’ Bust out laughing. I knew. I knew. I sat up. I didn’t know what to do. I kind of balled up, on my bed, in the corner… and my doorbell rang.”
It was the police, come to tell her.
1. Tiras’s lawyer, Jill Webb of Tulsa, confirmed that Tiras had never been charged with marijuana possession and suspects the incorrect information in the warrant was related to his brother.
2. This information was obtained from the affidavit of probable cause, written by Detective C. Kevin Hill of the Tulsa Police Department and filed with the District Court on November 15, 2013.
3. The officer’s affidavit states, “Tiras told him that if he had his gun he would shoot ‘Cinco.’ ” So, with the unclear antecedent behind “him” we can’t tell if Tiras made this threat to Rush directly, or indirectly to Keelan.
4. The line is from “On the Blue Water,” a nonfiction story about elephant hunting and marlin fishing that Hemingway published in Esquire in April 1936. The line actually reads, “Certainly there is no hunting like the hunting of man and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never really care for anything else thereafter.”
5. VCA collections make up most of what the board doles out. But, the board also receives federal grant money under the national Victims of Crime Act (through which fines, fees, and assessments are gathered and disbursed for federal offenses). Plus, 5 percent of any money a state prisoner earns while incarcerated goes to the board, along with 20 percent of the interest earned on a prisoner’s savings account. Not a single penny awarded by the board comes from tax dollars.
6. This does not include disbursement data for 2011, which was not contained in the board’s annual report.
7. I sent an open-records letter to the board that requested whatever information was available on cases of homicide where funeral expenses were requested but denied. Because the board maintains records going back three years, I requested files from January of 2011 through December of 2013. This was tricky, because Oklahoma law exempts most of these documents from disclosure, even under the Open Records Act. The board was only willing to provide me with reports that included the names of victims requesting expenses, the claimant (i.e. next of kin), the board’s decisions on those requests (granted or denied, and if denied, why), and the county where the case originated. I wasn’t able to get a criminal case number, or even the name of the defendant who had committed the relevant crime. There were also no records whatsoever regarding the race of victims.
8. The NGC is funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, and works to provide “national leadership, information, training, and technical assistance that target gangs and street gang members of all ages.”
9. Those are the most recent numbers, taken from a 2011 survey that looked back to 1996. In the 15 years tracked by the NGC, the demographics remained highly consistent: The Latino share of the gang population moved from the mid-40s to around the 50 percent mark; black gang-members accounted for anywhere from the mid-30s to the low 30s to the high 30s; white membership remained largely constant, right around 10 percent of the overall American gang population (roughly tied with “All Other Races”).
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 6, Issue 1, January 1, 2015.