OUT FRONT: Grotesque murder seen the doing of the ‘outsider’
ELK CREEK, Va. (AP) _ Smoke from the burning body and the sweet smell of gasoline filtered up through the trees. One woman saw the flames and heard the moans. She fled, stumbling through thorny brambles, running for her life.
It had sounded like horseplay. Those boys liked to tease. ``We’re going to take G.P. out there and put him on that white cross and burn him,″ one said.
Then there was blood thick on a pant leg, and a boast: ``Have you ever heard of the perfect crime?″
Three weeks after Garnett Paul ``G.P.″ Johnson, a black man, was doused with fuel, burned alive, then beheaded, a witness who stayed behind has told The Associated Press what she saw that night.
Now Hazel Louise Anderson is frightened.
``Lord, I wish I had never been there,″ she says, then adds, ``He could have killed me. Then there would have been nobody there to tell.″
To tell of a black man being teased about a burning cross. To tell about threats and blood. To tell how one white man suddenly had G.P. by his arms, the other by his legs.
``That was the last time I saw G.P. alive, or dead.″
Sheriff Jerry Wilson saw the smoke when he pulled off the two-lane highway at 6 a.m. and drove up the steep, dirt driveway to the trailer on the hill. Off on a rise, he saw Johnson’s still-smoldering remains.
A short distance away lay Johnson’s head.
Walking steadily away from the body and toward the sheriff was Louis Ceparano, a newcomer to the county. He showed no signs of the drink and drugs he would later claim to have consumed to excess, Wilson says, and made no fuss when arrested for murder.
Just hours before, Ceparano had invited Johnson, a slight, 40-year-old handyman, and three white friends to an impromptu birthday party.
But sometime before dawn, Johnson was hideously murdered. First appearances made the events of July 25 look like the most vicious of hate crimes. Wilson alerted the FBI, just in case. With Johnson ``the only black man there, that makes you think.″
Yet locals, black and white, including Johnson’s family, insist such a crime could not happen amid their own. Only an outsider could wreak such havoc and heartbreak.
``The people here are nice. We don’t see hatred in the people who are here,″ says Alice Johnson, the victim’s 77-year-old godmother. ``Some of my best friends are white people.″
``As far as the racial, it’s not the community,″ agrees Mary Thompson, a black woman who works in a jeans factory and whose sister dated G.P. ``It’s what moved INTO the community.″
Now it may be that everyone was right _ there was hate, but it came from within as well as without.
When party guests Christy Harden and Emmett Cressell Jr. reached the sheriff’s office 6 miles away in Independence, they reported Ceparano had dragged Johnson into the yard, set him on fire ``then bragged about it.″
Three days later, Cressell, 36, was himself charged with first-degree murder, accused of helping Ceparano, 42, carry Johnson outside.
Late last week, both were charged with robbery, for allegedly stealing Johnson’s watch, and Ceparano’s charge was upgraded to capital murder. A preliminary hearing is tentatively set for Sept. 2.
The U.S. Justice Department is investigating possible civil rights violations. Asked Wednesday about progress, Lee Douglass, a spokeswoman in Washington, said, ``We haven’t made a determination whether it’s a hate crime. We cannot comment further.″
Cressell denies the charges, says Sheriff Wilson, and Ceparano refuses to talk, except to tell The Roanoke Times he downed the anti-anxiety drugs Valium and Xanax along with bourbon, beer and moonshine the night of the party.
``I was pretty out of it,″ Ceparano says. ``I was there, but I really wasn’t there.″
He also suggested he’d been ``close″ friends with Johnson and offered a view of local race relations: ``Most Southern folks don’t like black people and call them `nigger’ anyway. They don’t seem to look at Johnson’s death as anything wrong. It’s like, `Good, another one is gone.‴
Wade Nugent, a white construction worker eating lunch at On the Way, a popular spot in Elk Creek, doesn’t see it that way. He wants eye-for-an-eye punishment.
``They ought to give them the same pain that G.P. got,″ Nugent says. ``I knew G.P. all my life _ he’s a good ol’ boy, as far as I’m concerned.″
In the mid-1960s, G.P. Johnson was one of two black children to integrate Elk Creek Elementary School. Adopted as an infant, he belonged to a family paid much esteem here.
Now his cousin, Patricia Johnson, a poet, searches for words.
``I’m sure a lot of black people can tell you they have relationships with people that were good, and they found out that they’re not,″ she says. ``I don’t have any friends who call me nigger. Ceparano said he used that word in reference to G.P. that evening.″
Just 5-foot-5 and 150 pounds, G.P. is described as lovable, sweet, helpful _ and a talker. He cleaned his godmother’s house and painted a cousin’s kitchen. He drove an ailing relative to the doctor three hours away in Roanoke. Winters, he dug out snowbound cars.
Johnson shared a tidy, white-shingled house with his 77-year-old widowed father, Garnett Sr. Among family photographs is his formal portrait in a Marine Corps uniform and a snapshot of G.P. in his high school football jersey.
Garnett Johnson’s soft, sad eyes brim. ``He was a good boy,″ he tells anyone who asks. ``He drank. But he never did bother nobody.″
Junior Cressell is a raw-boned 6-foot-2, with cropped blond hair and blue eyes. His bulging back and arms are splashed with tattoos.
``He’s dangerous, to tell you the truth,″ says Horace Hensley Jr., one of the few willing to be quoted by name talking about Junior. He lives in Speedwell, where Cressell keeps a trailer,
Hensley can’t say if Cressell is married, but he says he once saw the woman who bore Cressell’s four children in town with two black eyes.
At 19, Cressell was put away two years for burglary. Ten years later, he was convicted of fraud for keeping a rented video camera.
Last month, he was charged with assaulting a man who had to be hospitalized with a broken nose and a minor stroke.
Grayson County has 16,500 residents, 500 of them black. Most people farm or work in the mills. There is poverty, but new houses are going up and the occasional sports car and late-model Cadillac fly by.
When Louie Ceparano moved to Elk Creek, population 500, he brought more than the usual baggage.
In trouble with police much of his life, he had arrests for burglary and shoplifting and served two years for sexually abusing a child, say probation officials in Suffolk County, N.Y.
When he was younger, say old neighbors on Long Island, his father regularly threw him out. When his widowed mother died in April 1995, he turned the family home into a crack house. In May of that year, he was arrested for carrying crack cocaine; two months later, he was evicted, the house boarded up.
When he got to Grayson County, he was officially a fugitive, breaking the probation he’d received on condition he get treatment for drug addiction. The crime _ stealing three cartons of cigarettes _ was too minor for Suffolk officials to pursue him.
A month before the murder, deputies raided Ceparano’s trailer and seized a small amount of marijuana and a shotgun _ not allowed because of his felony conviction for sexual abuse. He was indicted but released on $15,000 bond.
Bearded and balding, with his remaining hair tied in a ponytail, Ceparano is strongly built, about 5-foot-10.
He was a ``friendly type of person,″ says James Bowers, discreetly squirting tobacco juice into a glass jar at his combination grocery-gas station-car lot-gun supply store.
If Ceparano stood out, Bowers says, it was because ``he was a Northerner. I mean, you know, a little different talk from the way people do around here.″
Lina Miller watched Ceparano grow up _ and go bad _ from a house across the street in North Babylon, N.Y.
Adopted and an only child, little Louie helped his father, Ciro, tend the vegetable garden and attended church with his mother, Carmela.
Later, Mrs. Miller watched Louie drop out of high school, wash out of Marine Corps basic training, put in two years in the Army and fail twice at marriage. Along the way, he fathered two sons and a daughter, teen-agers by now.
Told of the murder charge, Mrs. Miller, 64, lets out a sad sigh. ``I would think it was the drugs. It destroyed him.″
When arrested, Ceparano requested a court-appointed lawyer, saying he was an unemployed construction worker with property worth $30,000 and 33 cents in the bank.
Louise Anderson met Louis Ceparano about five months ago. Louie and Louie. She liked him. He needed her.
She is at a loss to explain the man she thought she knew.
``You tell me what caused it, and we’ll both know,” she says.
A self-styled hillbilly, she wears her light brown hair in a brush cut. She stands barely 4-foot-11 because of a severe swayback and the stubby, twisted legs she was born with.
But she drives a car and Louie relied on her to get around.
They’d spent the evening of July 24 together talking about his girlfriend troubles, when he got thirsty for beer. At a shop in Speedwell, they found Junior on the phone just before Christy Harden pulled up and announced it was her 21st birthday.
Then G.P., already intoxicated, rolled out of a neighbor’s car. He bought a 12-pack and climbed into Louise’s car.
The neighbor asked Louise to be sure to bring him home. ``Yes, ma’am,″ Louise assured the woman, ``I sure will.″
At Louie’s place, everyone gathered on the porch. Louie whipped up some pasta, and they listened to rock ‘n’ roll.
Miss Anderson says she drank little, diluting half an inch of liquor with Mountain Dew.
Miss Harden remembers drinking whisky. She’s an ample, amiable woman with chestnut hair that falls shaggily around a freckled face. A high school dropout with a 19-month-old son to raise, she buses tables at a restaurant in neighboring Wythe County.
At the party, she recalls crawling off to sleep on a loveseat about 2:30 a.m., the TV on full blast. Junior fell asleep on the floor nearby. She remembers Louie waking them to offer a spare mattress.
Around 4 a.m., Louise dozed off in Louie’s bedroom. She heard Louie bring G.P. inside to sleep, but G.P. wanted to keep talking.
Soon after, she heard Louie rousing the house. What he said brought her into the living room: ``We’re going to take G.P. out there and put him on that white cross and burn him.″
Louie had G.P. pinned on his back.
``I thought they was just picking at him,″ Miss Anderson says.
``I said, `Don’t worry, G.P., they’re just picking at you.‴
``They pick at me all the time,″ he replied.
Then Junior snapped the watch off G.P.’s wrist, she says.
``You won’t need the watch where you’re going, they’ve got their own time down there,″ she says Junior said.
Then, in an instant, Junior had G.P. by the arms, Louie had his legs, and they staggered into the yard.
The men returned, reeking of gasoline.
When Louise rose, Junior barked, “Don’t go outside! Don’t go!″ She obeyed. But through the kitchen door she saw something burning.
Louie rushed into the kitchen and grabbed her by the chin.
``If you don’t tell the story like I tell you,″ she says he warned her, ``I’m going to have you killed or I’ll do it myself.″
In the living room, meanwhile, Junior was speaking urgently to Christy. ``Louie was going to shut me up, that I was next,″ she says Junior told her. ``He said, did I want to live?″
It was then she saw G.P., a man she’d known all her life, sitting upright, burning in the dark.
``I seen him on fire. He was moaning, like he was in pain,″ she says. She threw up.
Junior and Christy ran. At the highway, she says, they flagged a car and headed for the sheriff. Her legs still show red scratches from the scramble.
Louise, terrified, unable to run on crippled legs, concentrated on cooperating with Louie. He’d reentered the house with blood staining his left pant leg. Blood in globs, she says, like jelly.
``I was scared, T-total to death. ... I did the best I could to keep myself alive,″ she says.
He threw his bloody jeans and gas-soaked tank-top into the wash.
Standing in his boxer shorts, ``he seemed calm as a cucumber,″ she says.
Then Louie pulled on camouflage coveralls and rubber surgical gloves.
``I figured he was going out there to do something with the body,″ she says. ``He told me they (the gloves) would have to be burned.″
He reappeared at the front door with his hands behind his back and asked her to light him a cigarette.
``He said, `Have you ever heard of the perfect crime?‴
He backed into the yard, his hands still concealed.
Louise was in the living room when the sheriff arrived. She told him the lie Ceparano demanded, that they met G.P. in Speedwell, took him home and hadn’t seen him since.
But later she broke down with her mother, who urged her to go back and tell the truth.
``I thought they was good friends,″ she says. ``They talked like they was good friends.″
Just east of Ceparano’s house, melted bottles and a deep pile of gray ash suggest household trash was burned here.
Beyond, on a sandy ridge above the house, is another scorched place. On a charred rubber mat, measuring roughly 3 by 5 feet, is the dark, shadowy stain of a body tightly curled. A shoeprint is visible and what appears to be an orange insole, slightly stuck to the mat.
Blessedly, this is not how people here will remember G.P. Johnson, their sweet-tempered, talkative friend and cousin and godson, who lost his way.
Today, waiting for justice to be done, Elk Creek is mending its broken heart. In time, says Miss Thompson the textile worker, ``We’ll all be the same. We’ll all be friends, and go on with our lives.″
EDITORS _ This story was reported with assistance from investigative researcher Randy Herschaft in New York.