With the words “Demon” and “Kid” tattooed above his eyebrows, Donald Johnson walked one morning in January 2012 into a house where he had once lived on Devine Avenue in New Orleans East and rousted five of the seven people staying there with an invitation to smoke marijuana in the garage.
Johnson’s girlfriend, Andrea Price, and her cousin Jubbard Price skulked around the side of the house in the meantime, entering a kids’ play room off the garage.
The marijuana-smoking plan was all a ruse, and Johnson quickly moved on to what prosecutors said was the real reason for the visit: to rob the house, where police later found a stash of firearms, bulletproof vests and hand grenades.
He forced the five people into the garage, slicing the neck of one victim, smacking her with a gun and ordering her to move, Assistant District Attorney Bobby Freeman told an Orleans Parish Criminal District Court jury Tuesday during opening statements in the murder and kidnapping trial of Jubbard Price.
In the kids’ room, Jubbard Price was waiting, Freeman said.
“Get down, I’m in charge!” he shouted, raising a gun, according to Freeman.
Within minutes, three people would be fatally shot at close range and two others would be wounded. The gunfire killed 60-year-old Reyland “Diggem” Berry; Keishaune Keppard, 20; and the house’s owner, Troy Leslie, 37, who was sleeping in a back room with a girlfriend.
In the garage, the ones who lived had begged Johnson to just rob the place and leave.
“What do you want?” they asked, according to Freeman.
“I want souls,” Johnson responded.
Johnson and his two alleged accomplices fled in Leslie’s red Pontiac Grand Prix with a stolen home safe, headed for a “chop shop” that Jubbard Price suggested, Freeman said.
Even if Johnson was the only one to pull the trigger, as Price’s lawyers argue, Price was no less a key player, Freeman said.
“He wasn’t just some, I don’t know, accidental tourist,” Freeman said. “These people came together. They were acting in concert.”
Price, now 23, sat at the defense table Tuesday in a royal blue dress shirt on the first day of testimony in a case expected to run a few days.
He faces five counts of second-degree kidnapping and three counts of second-degree murder. He is the only one of the three suspects to stand trial in the triple killing.
That’s because Johnson is dead, having been shot by police the same day following a chase from New Orleans East to Gentilly. One of the victims called police, and the Grand Prix wound up wrapped around a street pole.
And last year, Andrea Price accepted a 20-year prison sentence, pleading guilty to manslaughter and kidnapping charges while agreeing to testify against her cousin in a deal with District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office.
That leaves Jubbard Price, who faces a life prison sentence if the jury of 11 women and one man convicts him.
Although Price allegedly confessed to his role in the crime, Tom Shlosman, who is representing Price along with defense attorney Nandi Campbell, told the jury there’s no evidence that Price ever fired a shot, or even knew Johnson.
“He didn’t shoot anybody, he didn’t stab anybody, he didn’t kill anybody,” Shlosman said.
Shlosman suggested that Price got caught up in a scheme of which he was unaware, brought along by his cousin. Andrea Price can’t be trusted, based on conflicting statements to police and her relationship with Johnson, Shlosman said.
Johnson “said he wanted their souls. We’re not making this stuff up,” Shlosman said. “This guy Donald Johnson was crazier than a bat in a belltower. He was a dope dealer. He was a dope user and a cold-blooded killer. He went with one goal in mind, and that was to kill.”
Andrea Price is expected to take the witness stand Wednesday.
While prosecutors recovered what they believed to be the murder weapon — a .32 caliber Davis Industries pistol — in the house, no DNA, fingerprints or other evidence points to Price as a shooter, Shlosman told the jury.
The testimony of Andrea Price “is all they got,” he said.
Urging the jury to “help us save this kid,” Shlosman cast the shooting victims in a dim light.
“We do know what was in the house was pimps, prostitutes, crack cocaine, shotguns, bulletproof vests and hand grenades,” he said. “I assure you the people in this house were not the Brady Bunch.”
Police Detective Jeffrey Vappie said as much on the witness stand late Tuesday while explaining why he didn’t ask every resident in the house what they did for a living. Leslie, the house’s owner, commonly allowed people to crash there, Vappie said.
During his testimony, it also came out that the house had been the scene of an earlier shooting, in 2011.
“There is no question they all smoked drugs. There’s no question they all sold drugs out of that house,” Vappie said.