In a hearing Tuesday, Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell found that detectives had probable cause to charge James Johnson, 21, with aggravated rape, armed robbery, aggravated burglary and false imprisonment in connection with the April 9 attack on a woman in her Hickory Street home. Cantrell also upheld a separate set of charges of aggravated aggravated assault, armed robbery, sexual battery and simple kidnapping against Johnson in a April 1 attack on a woman outside her home on Cleveland Avenue in Mid-City, but the outcome of a third case against him — an April 4 home-invasion on Panola Street — remains pending.
Hickory Street rape
Tension was high in early April for both the New Orleans Police Department and residents of the east-Carrollton neighborhood after three previous home invasions. Police detectives were personally patrolling the neighborhood, and a woman on Hickory Street had asked a neighbor to keep an eye out, as she was worried about her own safety amid the rash of robberies, testified NOPD Detective Derrick Williams on Tuesday.
On the afternoon of April 9, she was bringing groceries inside when a man she didn’t recognize stopped to ask her for directions to a street somewhere else in the city, Williams testified. The victim replied that she didn’t know, then went inside, but the man followed her inside with a gun and forced her upstairs, Williams said. He took her clothes, tied her up with headphone wires, then began to force her to have sex with him, Williams said.
The neighbor, however, observed the exchange and called the police, Williams said. Detectives John Castelin and William Mullaly were patrolling nearby, and when they arrived minutes later, they were met with a roommate who had a key, the detectives said.
Inside, Johnson and the victim heard them coming upstairs, and Johnson told her he was going to pass the sex off as consensual, Williams said. He quickly untied her and placed the gun in a bathroom drawer, and the detectives found them in a bathroom, him wearing only pants, and her completely naked and cowering, Castelin testified. Despite Johnson’s story, the detectives knew something was wrong, and the victim was indicating to Mullaly under her breath that she needed help.
“It just seemed a little out of place,” Castelin said. “The little girl was shivering, trembling. She just looked like she was scared to death.”
They took Johnson into custody, and the detectives then found the gun in the drawer and the wires that had been used to tie the victim up, Williams said.
Johnson made two confessions to the crime, Castelin said. At the Hickory Street scene, “he was trying to get a detective to talk to him the whole time we were out there,” Castelin testified. While Johnson was handcuffed in the back of Castelin’s vehicle, Castelin was in the front looking in the wanted-suspect databases, and Johnson began to try to tell him about “something that had happened the week before,” but Castelin said he told him they could talk about it later.
Back at police headquarters, Johnson gave a videotaped confession, the detectives said. He admitted that he came into the Hickory Street home and sexually assaulted the victim, but he claimed to have two accomplices — his brother, Aaron Johnson, and a his sister’s boyfriend, Kevin Jones, Williams said. That information, however, didn’t fit the account of the victim or the witnesses, all of whom described only James Johnson.
Johnson also admitted that he took cash from the woman, and that money was found in the pants he was wearing, Williams said. Also in his pocket was the key fob to a Mercedes delivery truck, Williams said, that had previously been stolen from outside New Orleans and was seen near the location of a sexual assault a week earlier in Mid-City.
As in the Mid-City case, defense attorney Amanda Fraser’s questioning did not directly challenge the detectives’ account of the events at Hickory Street, instead just seeking to clarify the timeline. She had no argument, she said, with the original charges filed in the Hickory case — aggravated rape, armed robbery, aggravated burglary and false imprisonment with a weapon.
Panola Street home-invasion
During his taped confession to the Hickory Street rape, Johnson also confessed to his involvement in the robbery of several women inside their home on Panola Street from a few days earlier, detectives testified.
In that case, two women were using a laptop computer in their home with the front door ajar on the afternoon of April 4 when they saw a group of three men pass, Castelin said. The men passed again a few minutes later, and a cat jumped off the porch, apparently startling them and eliciting a laugh from the women inside, Castelin said — until all three men rushed in the front door. One of the men — later identified as Johnson, shirtless, with script tattoos on his chest — held a gun and made them lie on the ground and bound their hands with telephone cords, Castelin said.
They quickly went through the house and took cell phones, credit cards and a laptop, Castelin said. They also took the key to a Fiat that Johnson later mentioned in his confession, linking him definitively to the Panola Street scene since the theft of that item wasn’t publicly known, Castelin said.In his confession, however, Johnson initially attempted to pin the Panola Street case on another, older brother, whom Johnson said looked just like him and even had the same tattoos on his chest, Castelin said. When family members confirmed that no such older brother exists, however, Johnson admitted to his involvement, and again named his brother Aaron Johnson and sister’s boyfriend (Kevin Jones) as his accomplices.
Johnson lives on Forshey Street with his brother and Jones, and one of the Panola victims’ cell phones and credit cards was found in the room that Jones shares with Johnson’s sister, the detectives testified. Detectives also found surveillance video that is of high-enough quality to place each of the three on the crime scene, Castelin said.
“If you know who the people are already, you can make out who each person is,” Castelin said.
Jones’ defense attorney, Colin Reingold, questioned the level of detail in that video extensively, saying that only limited evidence connects Jones to the Panola Street case — Johnson’s statement, which had its own inconsistencies, the property found in a room Jones shares with a sister of the other suspects, and this video. Reingold noted that Jones has consistently denied any involvement in the incidents, and that the Panola Street victims were unable to identify Jones as one of their attackers.
Reingold said that he wanted to call the other robbery detective in the case, William Mullaly, but that he had already left the court house. Glass said she “strenuously” objected, and that the defense was just embarking on a “fishing expedition” with the officers.
The attorney for the third suspect in the Panola case, Aaron Johnson, was already unable to attend Tuesday’s hearing because of an ongoing murder trial, so the attorneys had agreed to hear those issues next week. With that court date pending anyway, Cantrell postponed the remainder of the testimony and decision in the Panola case to that date as well.
No trial date has been set in the cases.