Before the blast of gunfire, two weeks in a coma and his forced exile from New Orleans, the owner of the Jazz Daiquiris lounge on South Claiborne Avenue was just a self-made local bar owner whom everyone knew as “Mr. John.”
Now, the story of John Matthews and his survival sits at the heart of the federal racketeering trial of accused Central City gangster Telly Hankton, alleged Uptown hit man Walter Porter and two Hankton cousins.
Federal prosecutors have described Matthews, a 70-year-old Vietnam War veteran, as the bloodied “hero” in their attempt to take down Hankton and his murderous clan, and they are likely to dwell on his remarkable tale during closing arguments scheduled for Thursday.
Matthews returned to court last week to testify once more against Hankton, five years after he identified the alleged cocaine kingpin from Josephine Street as the man he glimpsed outside his daiquiri shop, standing over Darnell “Durney” Stewart during rounds of gunfire late on May 13, 2008.
Matthews caught a better look, he told a state jury, as Hankton ran past the daiquiri shop, turned the corner and headed down Louisiana Avenue seconds after pumping a line of bullets into Stewart’s face.
Matthews labored to the witness stand in that trial. His testimony, which helped convict Hankton for the murder, came less than a year after he said a pair of assailants burst through his front door and shot him multiple times in October 2010, allegedly under Hankton’s orders from jail to keep Matthews from testifying.
Matthews’ younger brother, retired mail carrier Curtis Matthews, was gunned down outside Jazz Daiquiris in October 2011, three days after a state judge handed Hankton a mandatory life sentence in Stewart’s killing.
“And of course, that’s the worst thing that I could ever dream of,” John Matthews testified last week. “Curtis was a kind, young guy. He was my baby brother. My ‘mini-me.’ We basically did everything together. ... Anything we had belonged to one another.”
FBI Special Agent Keith Burris testified this week that Curtis Matthews’ killing, allegedly committed by Porter, sparked a massive federal campaign against the Hanktons, leading a year later to an indictment naming Hankton and a dozen family members or associates in a violent drug conspiracy dating back two decades. Nine of them have pleaded guilty.
The feds had been eyeing various Hankton family members for years, Burriss said, but the killing of a witness’s brother prompted a far more urgent response.
On the witness stand, Matthews recounted a career — and a harrowing tale of survival — that owed a lot to a pair of skills he picked up after being drafted in 1969: weapons and booze.
“When I was in Vietnam, my captain tapped me to open a lounge for the enlisted men. So he gave me all of the necessary items to open a liquor facility and a game room,” he testified. “And so when I left and came back to the United States and (was) looking for a business to get into, I gravitated toward the liquor business.”
Matthews said he rented a building in the 3400 block of South Claiborne Avenue in 1977 and opened a liquor store, then took over a failed daiquiri business there in the early 1990s.
Over the years he fixed up the strip mall, he said, installing lighting and security cameras himself. The footage from those cameras later would help authorities piece together their case against Hankton and his cousin, Andre “Reese” Hankton, who faces his own federal murder charge in Stewart’s slaying.
Matthews said he opened another daiquiri shop on Downman Road in 2010 and was driving home from the new shop one night when he saw a car following him.
“I had a Derringer on me that evening. I didn’t have my .40-caliber, which I normally carry, because my lady got tired and she wanted to go home, and I didn’t want her to go home without a weapon,” he testified.
Matthews described the Derringer as a double-barreled pistol, loaded with a .45-caliber round in one barrel and a .410 shotgun shell in the other. He went inside his house on Glengary Road in New Orleans East and set the alarm, he said. “You think, ‘You’re home; you’re safe,’ right? So I sat in my easy chair and started watching the news.”
But he then decided to go looking for another weapon — “one of my other tools,” he testified.
“I made it almost to the foyer, and the door flew open and I was hit with a shotgun blast and an automatic, seemed like automatic weapon fire,” he testified.
“In combat training, everybody knows you got to get to the ground, get to the low point. And I could not get down — that’s how many times I was hit,” he said.
Matthews said he regained his senses and looked up to see a man standing in the doorway. He later identified him as Thomas “Squirt” Hankton, a cousin of Telly Hankton who recently pleaded guilty in the racketeering case, accepting a 25-year sentence.
Thomas Hankton was holding a 12-gauge shotgun and “had a little song he was singing,” Matthews testified. “And he said, ‘I missed your ... ass Wednesday.’ And I was just sitting there watching him, and he had a shotgun in his hand.
“Well, while he was saying that, he was fumbling with the shotgun, and he opened it to drop a shell in it. Around that time, I realized that I had my Derringer in my hand,” he said. “And I had it set to .410” — shotgun mode.
“So when he dropped his eyes, I raised my hand up, and when he looked, I had it up and I fired. And he ... took off.”
Matthews said he never saw a second shooter, but “I could hear the bark of more than one weapon.”
Prosecutors claim Porter was the other attacker and that Thomas Hankton paid Porter $10,000 for his help. A friend, Brian Hayes, testified that Porter regretted the failed hit and kept looking for Matthews to finish the job.
Ballistics testing tied a recovered 9 mm handgun used to shoot Matthews to three homicides. Among them was a successful hit on Christopher “Tiger” Smith, for which a jury convicted Porter in March. That killing came a month after the attack at Matthews’ home.
Prosecutors say Matthews survived 17 gunshots to testify against Hankton, though Matthews called it an undercount.
“I guess I was informed that I was hit 17 times, and so I took that as Bible, as they say in the Gospel,” he testified. “Until I went back to see my surgeon. He said, ‘Lord have mercy; look at you.’ He said, ‘Do you know how many times you were shot?’ I said ‘17.’ He said, ‘Mr. John, I stopped counting at 17.’ ”
Matthews said he remained in a coma for about two weeks. When he finally left the hospital, he also left town.
“I didn’t remain in New Orleans or Texas or any place close, no,” he testified. “Survival instincts, yes, sir.”
Matthews enlisted his brother to help sell the daiquiri business. Curtis Matthews was shot 14 times in front of the shop in October 2011. He was 61.
Witnesses said Porter may have mistaken him for his brother.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.