Shackled at the wrists, Antonio “Big Rico” Johnson had something to get off his chest.
“I never ratted on a child since I’ve been on this case. That’s the truth,” he told a jury.
Johnson, 41, then proceeded Thursday to describe a tearful confession from his son, Demonde “Lil D” Sandifer, claiming credit for a shooting spree in May 2012 that left 5-year-old Briana Allen dead, along with Shawanna Pierce, 33, who had been driving four blocks away when a stray bullet from an AK-47 struck her head.
Johnson said Sandifer also named his half-brother, Sam “Lil” Newman, and Tyron “T-7” Harden as his partners in the spray of fatal gunfire that rattled the city.
“I said, ‘What you crying for?’ He said, ‘Man, because I’m involved in something,’ ” Johnson testified. “He said, ‘Me and my brother and my friend had a shootout with the Allen family.’ He said it was just a shootout, and the baby got hit.”
The conversation took place perhaps a few weeks after the high-profile double killing. Before then, Johnson testified, Briana’s stepmother had approached him about street rumors, but Sandifer denied involvement.
“He told me, ‘No. Don’t believe whatever people tell you.’ I said, ‘Well, you know what goes on in the dark, it comes into the light.’ ”
Big Rico was the latest in a parade of co-defendants and other convicts to take the stand as prosecutors seek to bolster their case against Sandifer, 19; Newman, 19; and Harden, 21, in a gang racketeering trial that began last week in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court.
They are the last of 15 defendants, and the only ones to stand trial, from a 51-count indictment that wrapped together 15 murders and several other violent crimes in the cloak of a gang conspiracy involving alleged members and associates of the St. Thomas-area 110ers gang.
The 110ers case is among a half-dozen gang racketeering prosecutions brought by District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office in a bid to cast a wide net over street violence in the city.
Prosecutors have spent the second week of the trial largely focused on the May 29, 2012, shooting melee, in which little Briana was fatally shot on the porch of her great-grandmother’s house on Simon Bolivar Avenue while celebrating a 10-year-old cousin’s birthday.
Authorities say she and Pierce, a mother of three, were hit during an ill-fated attempt on members of the Young Melph Mafia, a rival gang closely tied to the Allen family.
Several members of that family, including Briana’s father, Burnell “Baldy” Allen, were recently convicted in federal court on drug conspiracy counts. Burnell Allen, who faces a life sentence, offered grudging testimony earlier this week under subpoena.
For his part, Johnson, a co-defendant in the 110ers case, pleaded guilty to racketeering and four counts of being an accessory after the fact to murder or attempted murder. Facing a life sentence because of prior drug convictions, he agreed to cooperate in exchange for an eight-year prison term.
Now in a work-release program in Rapides Parish, Johnson insists he’s no 110er and said he pleaded guilty for crimes “I have nothing to do with. Every charge that I got on me today is because of my kids.”
Sandifer is among 10 children Johnson said he has by six different women.
He acknowledged that, while in an Orleans Parish courtroom with Sandifer in a different case, he spotted Leo “Nitty” Riles, the 110er who was first arrested and indicted for the murders of Briana Allen and Pierce before authorities dropped the first-degree murder counts.
Johnson, described as a father figure who helped his kids and their friends evade the law, said he passed his phone number to Riles.
“I knew that he needed a lawyer for the case he fell on. I told him I’d help his parents get him a lawyer,” Johnson testified.
Prosecutors painted it as an attempt to keep Riles quiet.
It wasn’t Johnson’s first turn on the witness stand. Last year, he testified about Sandifer’s affiliation with the 110ers in a trial that ended with his son’s conviction and a sentence of 1 1/2 life prison terms for the 2011 killing of 22-year-old Milton Davis.
“I’m mad at my children,” Johnson said. “Whatever they did in life, I shouldn’t be charged for whatever they did. If I was going to be arrested for something my kid did, the other parents of children should be arrested too.”
Johnson sobbed and covered his face as he recalled a letter he sent to Newman, his stepson, from jail. In the letter, he urged Newman and others to accept plea deals of 25 to 35 years rather than risk a life sentence in the racketeering case.
“I had to do what I had to do to save myself, and the three of you have to do the same. In this game it’s every man for themself,” he read, pausing to weep.
He said he took an eight-year deal and didn’t have anything to do with the 110ers. “Please, please don’t try to take these people to trial, because you ain’t going to win, especially with all these n****s ratting on you,” he continued.
Following Johnson on the stand Thursday was a key player in the investigation leading to the massive indictment: Ja’On “Sticks” Jones, Sandifer’s girlfriend and self-proclaimed “mafia wife.”
Jones testified that she was with Sandifer, Newman, Harden and the alleged driver of the car, Stanton “Na Na” Guillory, as they left with an AK-47 before the shooting spree on Simon Bolivar.
That night, after the shooting, she claimed Johnson drove her and Sandifer to a motel on the West Bank.
Jones also recalled Newman laughing after the shooting, remarking that he had “killed a whole baby.”
Jones, 19, pleaded guilty to 10 counts in the indictment, including racketeering conspiracy, accessory after the fact to murder and seven counts of perjury. She received a 10-year suspended sentence, and on Thursday, she admitted she repeatedly lied to investigators and a state grand jury.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.