In a case that hinged on the testimony of an Instagram model turned state’s witness, an Orleans Parish Criminal District Court jury on Thursday convicted a man accused in the sordid drowning deaths of a husband and wife in the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway in 2014.
Horatio Johnson, a 41-year-old businessman with a prior conviction for manslaughter, was found guilty of killing Kenneth and Lakeitha Joseph by having them tied to 30-pound kettlebells that were tossed off the Interstate 510 “Green Bridge” over the waterway.
The Reserve couple's bloated bodies were recovered weeks later.
The jury took less than two hours to convict Johnson by 11-1 votes on two counts of second-degree murder and one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice. The jury’s vote was unanimous to convict on one charge of obstruction of justice.
Prosecutors called 22 witnesses over the nearly two-week trial of Johnson, who now faces a mandatory life sentence. But much of their case rested on the credibility of his ex-girlfriend, who met him while she was a state prison guard and he was a convict serving time for a 1994 killing.
Brittany Martin, 28, spent eight months in the New Orleans jail after her May 2014 arrest on murder charges before turning on Johnson. Prosecutors said she came clean when she was confronted with evidence that Johnson was just using her to avoid conviction.
“She was a straight-up ride or die. She was going to go down in flames with him,” Assistant District Attorney Kevin Guillory said in his closing statement. “She went from being afraid to being in love to being a woman scorned.”
Meanwhile, Johnson’s defense attorney portrayed him as a successful T-shirt salesman with no motive to kill Lakeitha or Kenneth Joseph, his first cousin.
Attorney Bradley Phillips said authorities coached testimony from Martin, who was jealous of Johnson’s relationship with a more famous social media starlet and scared for her own fate.
“They want him to leave Angola in a pine box. Based on the word of liars. Based on the word of, literally, drug dealers. Based on the word of Ms. Martin, who literally was threatened (by prosecutors) with spending the rest of her life in jail,” Phillips said in his closing statement.
During hours of testimony, Martin wore all-black clothes and kept her head tilted away from Johnson as she recounted the story of their unusual courtship.
They met when he was in prison, and she quit her job as a guard after authorities began investigating their relationship. After his release in 2011, the pair reunited. Johnson encouraged her as she posed for photographs and built up an Instagram following in an attempt to become a model.
But Martin said their relationship soured on the night of Feb. 18, 2014, when she walked into a Metairie recording studio to see Johnson choking Lakeitha Joseph. She ran outside for air, but according to her a long night and morning had just begun.
Martin said she then accompanied Johnson to a desolate road near Manchac as he burned his clothes bloodied from beating the Josephs. The pair then went to a Kenner Wal-Mart, where he bought what prosecutors called a “murder kit” — two kettlebells, nylon rope to bind the Josephs’ bodies and degreaser to clean the blood-stained floor of the studio.
She said she then accompanied him and two other men to the high bridge between New Orleans East and Chalmette.
Prosecutors allege that co-conspirators Stephen “Future” Bradley, a rapper whose career was being managed by Johnson, and Amir “Blue” Ybarra, who owned the recording studio, threw the Josephs' bodies off the bridge. Johnson then peered over the edge of the span to make sure the job was done, Martin said.
Bradley, who is still awaiting trial, refused to answer prosecutors' questions despite an offer of limited immunity. Authorities said Ybarra fled before he could be arrested.
Lakeitha Joseph’s nearly naked body surfaced on March 10, 2014, with a nylon cord dangling from her leg. Twelve days later, her husband’s body came to the surface, with a rope still binding his body to a kettlebell. The coroner concluded that both had drowned to death.
Martin continued to date Johnson after the killings and sent him hundreds of explicit text messages, according to evidence presented at the trial. But she said on the stand that she lived in fear for her life.
Martin said Johnson gave her a chilling warning: “Remember to remember that you're a loose end.”
The official investigation began when the Josephs’ relatives reported them missing on Feb. 19, 2014. Days later, investigators received their biggest break in the case when the Josephs’ van was spotted in a Travelodge parking lot in suburban Atlanta.
Detectives quickly linked the van to an ex-con named Frank Mike Jr. When Mike was questioned, he told police that his “street nephew” Bradley had given him the van and told him to dispose of it.
Mike pleaded guilty to state and federal charges for trying to wipe the van clean of evidence and received a nine-year sentence in exchange for his cooperation with authorities.
Eventually, police tracked down Martin. In a crucial development, they obtained video surveillance from a Kenner Wal-Mart showing her and Johnson buying the Gold’s Gym kettlebells and other items for the “murder kit.”
Guillory said that even if jurors doubted Martin, who faces up to 40 years in prison after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice, they had to believe the video.
“The video that you saw tells the whole story,” Guillory said. “Especially when the defense has the nerve to stand here and say that at 1 o’clock in the morning, he’s just going along with his girlfriend to buy exercise equipment.”
Guillory said he had no qualms about using unsavory witnesses to convict Johnson.
“I don’t apologize for bringing in thugs, gangsters, OGs, because I once heard a wise man say that plans hatched in hell don’t have angels for witnesses,” Guillory said of his case. “Drown people alive? That’s certainly a plan hatched in hell.”
Prosecutors never laid out a concrete motive for the killings, but one witness offered a hint. Mike said on the stand that Bradley told him his crew had pulled off “a little move” with the van that netted them $200,000 and nine kilograms of cocaine. The lead detective on the case, Ryan Vaught, also testified that Kenneth Joseph’s brother sold drugs.
Phillips contended that it was actually Mike, an admitted drug dealer, who took part in the killings with Bradley.
“What I’m saying is that two known drug dealers, Stephen Bradley and Frank Mike, were trying to do a drug deal with Kenneth Joseph and his brother. … What I’m saying is that drug deal went bad,” Phillips said.
Phillips said every witness testified that Johnson had no involvement in the drug trade. But for the prosecution, the motive was irrelevant.
“Doesn’t matter if Kenneth Joseph sold drugs or not. So what. He broke the law? Sold cocaine? Does that mean he deserved to die? I never heard anything about his wife, Lakeitha. Does she deserve to die because her husband sold cocaine?” Guillory said.
The tumultuous trial was twice interrupted by emergency appeals — one of which stemmed from a mistrial ruling by Judge Benedict Willard that was overturned — and once by Hurricane Harvey. Meanwhile, tensions also flared between the attorneys leading the prosecution and defense.
Phillips alleged that Guillory and Vaught had coached Martin into a story that would take down Johnson. He pointed in particular to a tape-recorded conversation at the District Attorney’s Office in January 2015 in which Guillory can be heard talking to Martin about holes in her story.
“We want you to be able to tell a story. Your story, but we want it to be able to flow,” Guillory says. “When the time comes, let’s just say, let’s just say that your f****** answer was 'I loved him' … a jury will understand that.”
Guillory clearly resented the allegation. He said in his closing statement that after a day spent tangling with defense attorneys, “first thing I gotta do when I get home is take a shower.”