13 Years Later: Father pleading for answers in death of George County High football star
The death of George County High football star Billey Joe Johnson Jr. has haunted his family since 2008. Now, they are hoping a new investigation will prompt authorities to reopen the case.
GEORGE COUNTY, Miss. (WLOX) - The Chevy truck that 17-year-old Billey Joe Johnson was in when he died still sits in the yard in front of the home where he grew up. Wednesday marked 13 years since the high school running back died after being pulled over by a George County deputy.
Billey Joe Johnson Sr. refuses to move the truck, leaving it there as a constant reminder that his son is gone.
“I just left it there. I can look out there and I can see it,” said Johnson Sr.
Now, even after all these years, the suspicious circumstances surrounding his son’s death continue to haunt him.
According to the official investigation, the teen died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. However, Johnson’s family members don’t believe that’s what happened.
“Justice hasn’t been served yet. I don’t know what happened,” said Johnson Sr.
A podcast released this fall agrees, laying out all of the evidence for why the case should be reopened as a suspicious death investigation.
Billey Joe was a standout football player at George County High. Because of his size, speed and play-making skills, the teen started on the high school’s varsity team when he was still just in middle school.
By the time he reached senior year, dozens of scholarship offers from perennial powers across the country were pouring in for the 17-year-old. In fact, the day he died, Billey Joe was on his way to Auburn University, which is where he likely would have signed, said his dad.
“Auburn was his favorite school. He liked Auburn but he hadn’t signed anything yet,” said Johnson Sr.
All of that came to an end on the night of Dec. 8, 2008, when Billey Joe died during a routine traffic stop with a sheriff’s deputy.
According to public records, George County Deputy Joe Sullivan pulled the teen over for running a stop sign and traffic light. The deputy reported he was in his patrol car checking Johnson’s license when he heard a gunshot and glass break.
Moments later, the deputy reported finding found the high school student on the ground, outside his truck, with a 12-gauge shotgun lying on top of him.
In 2009, a grand jury concluded that the “only plausible” explanation for Johnson’s shooting was that it was self-inflicted. His dad is adamant that Billey Joe didn’t take his own life.
“Oh no, he wasn’t suicidal in any way. No!” emphasized Johnson Sr. “You know, you’ve got a lot of things promised to you. You’re fixing to get ready to play football and stuff. You’re getting ready to go to college. How are you going to just end your life like that? Oh no!”
Four eyewitnesses said Sullivan was in his patrol car with the door shut when the shot that killed Johnson was fired. Both the State Coroner and an independent medical examiner also concluded that Johnson died of a self-inflicted gunshot. The U.S. Department of Justice also investigated the circumstances around Johnson’s death and declined to filed charges.
A grand jury later determined Billey Joe died of an accidental shotgun wound to the head.
Billey Joe’s dad has a hard time believing his son would accidentally shoot himself. The teen was an avid hunter who was very vigilant about gun safety.
“I just didn’t believe it. That was my first reaction. I didn’t believe it,” said Johnson Sr. “I had to go and see it. When I got up there, they wouldn’t even let me up there. That was the worst part about it. They let the coach and anybody else go up there. But I didn’t get a chance to go up there and my wife didn’t get a chance to go up there. One of the state troopers told me that if I walk up there passed the line, he was gonna shoot me.”`
The death of the young Black football star left the community divided across racial lines, with many noting that the deputy who stopped him that night was white. Others have noted that the father of Billey Joe’s girlfriend at the time, who was white, had reported a break-in at his home right before the 17-year-old was stopped by the deputy.
Now, a recently-released podcast from Reveal - Mississippi Goddam: The Ballad of Billey Joe - is looking at all of the available facts in the case in an effort to shine a new light and fresh perspective on the teen’s death. The podcast is the product of a three-year dive into the case by the Center for Investigative Reporting. Al Letson hosts the seven-episode series, teaming up with investigative reporter Jonathan Jones.
For three years, the duo retraced the steps Billey Joe took before he passed away. They then spent a lot of time talking with the officials, the Johnson’s family attorney, witnesses and people who knew Billey Joe. In their quest to uncover what really happened to Billey Joe that night, they also look at race and interracial relationships and how that may have factored into the death and subsequent investigation.
Ultimately, the pair found a “flawed death investigation, with law enforcement failing to follow leads, explore inconsistencies, corroborate witness accounts or complete crucial forensics tests.”
Johnson Sr. is now pleading with officials to reopen the case, saying he believes there is enough evidence and discrepancies from the initial investigation to merit a new one. It’s what Billey Joe’s late mother would have wanted, he said.
“My wife, she just couldn’t take it. She ended up having a massive heart attack. It was just too much on her at one time,” said Johnson Sr.
Reveal has posted all of the evidence they uncovered online, including investigative and forensic reports, dashboard cam footage, and more. To review those documents, click here.
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