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Special Agent Joel Wallace of the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation was called in to investigate the death of Billey Joe Johnson. He worked alongside two investigators from the George County district attorney’s office. 

Wallace said that arrangement didn’t happen very often. And he now questions why they were assigned. “If you’ve got me investigating the case, then I’m an independent investigator,” he said. “But why would I need the district attorney investigator to oversee me investigating a case?”

The Johnsons were initially relieved, because Wallace had experience investigating suspicious deaths. As a Black detective, he had dealt with racist backlash to his work. 

Reveal host Al Letson and reporter Jonathan Jones visit Wallace, now retired, to talk about what happened with the investigation. When Wallace finds out what Reveal has uncovered, he begins to wonder whether the case should be reopened.

Dig Deeper

Listen: Check out the whole Mississippi Goddam series.

Read: 2008 Sun Herald editorial, Johnson case must not remain a mystery.

Explore: Dig into the case files and documents about the death of Billey Joe Johnson. 

Read: 2017 American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi report, Getting to Police Accountability: A Blueprint for Mississippi

Read: 2011 U.S. Department of Justice report, Death Investigation: A Guide for the Scene Investigator

Read: The Seven Major Mistakes in Suicide Investigation, by Vernon J. Geberth, published by Law & Order Magazine in 2013.

Credits

Reporters and producers: Al Letson and Jonathan Jones | Editor and executive producer: Kevin Sullivan | Series producer: Michael I Schiller | Series digital editor: Nina Martin | Executive editor: Andy Donohue | Production assistant: Steven Rascón | Production manager: Amy Mostafa | Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Fact checker: Rosemarie Ho | Reporting and producing help: Ko Bragg, Michael Montgomery, Laurel Hennen Vigil and Melissa Lewis | Original score and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda with help from Claire Mullen, Najib Aminy, Brett Simpson and Kathryn Styer Martinez | Interim CEO: Annie Chabel | Interim editor in chief: Sumi Aggarwal | General counsel: D. Victoria Baranetsky

Mama Blue sang our theme song, which was written and composed by Nina Simone. Thanks to the Nina Simone estate and Music and Strategy.

Series photos by Imani Khayyam. Logo design by Joan Wong. 

Special thanks: Katharine Mieszowski, Alexis Hightower and Jen Chien, plus Michael Crosby, Robin Fitzgerald and the Biloxi Sun Herald for breaking the Harrison County jail story.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Inasmuch Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Speaker 1:Reveal is brought to you by Progressive. Are you thinking more about how to tighten up your budget these days? Drivers who save by switching to Progressive save over $700 on average, and customers can qualify for an average of six discounts when they sign up. A little off your rate each month goes a long way. Get a quote today at Progressive.com. Progressive casualty insurance company and affiliates. National annual average insurance savings by new customers surveyed who saved with Progressive between June 2020 and May 2021. Potential savings will vary. Discounts vary, and are not available in all states and situations.
Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.

It’s February, 2006. A chill is still in the air in Gulfport, Mississippi. Jeremy Powell was in seventh grade, and he has a school assignment he’s been struggling with. He has to shadow someone at work.
Jeremy Powell:My aunt was like, well, you don’t want to go with your dad, he does auto mechanics. You don’t want to go with your uncle, he runs an HVAC company. And we had a friend of our family, long time friend, known her forever. She was a jailer at Harrison County.
Al Letson:She’s stationed at the intake desk at the jail.
Jeremy Powell:So, she opened the doors where the inmates would come in, or she’d close the gate, or process people in basically, but we’re behind bulletproof glass, you know? Kind of like a one-way scenario.
Al Letson:She works the night shift, so on the evening of February 4th, Jeremy goes with her to the Harrison County Jail.
Jeremy Powell:And the first few hours was just like everyday jail stuff. Inmates coming in, getting processed, and everybody kind of doing their job. I had all the jailers come, and shook their hands, talked to them for a second, and hours went by with no situation, just anything out the ordinary happening.
Al Letson:And then Jessie Lee Williams, a 40-year-old Black man, is brought in on a misdemeanor charge. Jeremy says it looks like Williams is intoxicated. He doesn’t threaten anybody, but Jeremy says he’s a little belligerent.
Jeremy Powell:When someone’s intoxicated, you don’t know what to expect, right? But in no way, shape or form did I take that, or anyone else should have took that, for that matter, as violent.
Paul McBee:He’s doing what they told him to do.
Al Letson:Paul McBee is also at the jail, after being arrested for a misdemeanor. He’s there while Jessie is being booked. Paul would later tell investigators what he saw.
Paul McBee:And the officer said to him, “Get your shoes off and put them on the counter.” He bent over and took his right shoe off, set it up there, and as he went back down to get his left shoe, that’s when the officer hit and kicked him in the chest.
Al Letson:It happens in a flash. Jessie is just standing there, surrounded by jailers, hands by his side, when the officer jumps on him. It’s caught on video surveillance. What comes next is brutal and hard to watch. Correctional officer Ryan Michael Teel beats Jessie relentlessly. Another officer moves in, not to stop Teel, but to hogtie Jessie. Even restrained the beating doesn’t stop.
Paul McBee:They were still beating on him at that point, and he was bleeding from the mouth, and that one cop walks up and he says, “Well, that’s crackhead spit,” and he got some kind of a mask to keep him from spitting and biting, which he wasn’t spitting and biting. He was completely, pretty much not moving at all. And they sprayed that mace underneath the mask, and then cinched it down around his neck. They pulled the mask down and sprayed the mace under it, and then tightened it down.
Al Letson:Restraints, the mask. Jessie is barely moving, and still, Officer Teel continues his attack.
Paul McBee:And at that point, he got back onto him and was on top of him with his right knee in his back, and taking his left knee, was just smashing him right in the face. And he would come up with all his weight, was coming down on the side of his head, bashing him into the concrete. And he did this, I don’t know, bunches of times.
Al Letson:And Jeremy, who was just 14 years old at the time, is watching it all.
Jeremy Powell:When he was wheeled out of that booking control room, I knew right then that he wasn’t coming back, you know? He was just so badly beaten that I didn’t feel that there was a chance.
Al Letson:Jessie Lee Williams dies two days later, on February the 6th, 2006. The District Attorney gathers members of law enforcement to figure out what to do.
Joel Wallace:We’re sitting there, reviewing it with the District Attorney, the FBI, the Attorney General’s office out of Mississippi, Gulfport police investigators and Harrison County investigators in the DA’s office, and myself.
Al Letson:Special agent Joel Wallace of the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation was one of the people in the room. He says, it’s clear from watching the tape that Jessie didn’t provoke the officers. He and an FBI agent who was also Black were assigned to the case.
Joel Wallace:We were told, then you handle it. We started interviewing and investigating the case.
Al Letson:Joel works with the FBI to conduct interviews, review video surveillance, and internal records. They expose the rot at the center of the jail that went beyond Jessie’s case. In the end, Teel, the correctional officer who started the attack on Jessie, was convicted of beating him to death, plus attacks on other inmates. He was sentenced to life in prison. Nine other correctional officers plead guilty for their role in abusing inmates at the jail.

Joel was celebrated for his work publicly, but privately he says he paid a steep price. Friends told him, this would be the end of his law enforcement career. You see, he’d crossed that blue line. He didn’t think there would be any consequences until he came home late one night. A warning, this next incident contains a racial slur.
Joel Wallace:I remember, I came home at night. My wife was holding our two babies in the hall. She’s sitting on the sofa, and she says… I said, “What’s wrong?” And she said, “Joel, play the answering machine.” The voice on the phone said, “Nigger, nigger, nigger, we know where you live. We’re going to come and get you.”
Al Letson:That incident really shook Joel and his family. He started to think about retirement, and what he would do next. Two years later, still working as an agent with the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, he got a phone call. A 17-year-old Black kid named Billey Joe Johnson had died during a traffic stop with a white sheriff’s deputy. That’s all he knew when he went to Lucedale, Mississippi to investigate.

This is Reveal’s serial investigation.
Mama Blue:Alabama’s got me so upset. Tennessee made me lose my rest. And everybody knows about Mississippi, Goddam!
Al Letson:Mississippi Goddam: The Ballad of Billey Joe. Episode four, the Investigator.

Special Agent Joel Wallace was the lead investigator in Billey Joe Johnson’s death. After going through the case file, we had a lot of questions for him about how the investigation was conducted, like what was done to verify the accounts from eyewitnesses and law enforcement? Was foul play ever ruled out? And did he do more to find out if anything in Billey Joe’s life could have led to his death?

Finding Agent Wallace wasn’t easy, because he had retired from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation. I sent messages to people I thought might have been him on Facebook. My reporting partner, Jonathan Jones, called and texted several phone numbers we found, but nothing. Then our data reporter, Alyssa Lewis, found an address for him. So, on a reporting trip to Mississippi in 2019, JJ, producer Michael Montgomery and I give it a try.
Michael Montgom…:All right.
Al Letson:So, yeah, that was definitely Joel Wallace’s house. It sounds like that was his mother, maybe answering the door. She was a little hesitant. I just left my card there and told Joel to give me a buzz. She said that he was coming back today. And so, I just told her that I’m a reporter and we wanted to talk to him about his career and a case that he worked on.
Michael Montgom…:Maybe we should get some lunch.
Al Letson:Yeah.
Jonathan Jones:I think it’s lunchtime.
Michael Montgom…:We were saying oysters, Al?
Al Letson:Yes. But let’s figure out where the hell we are, first. How far is New Orleans from here? No, because I’m saying, we can get lunch in New Orleans.
Jonathan Jones:We’re not that close to New Orleans.
Michael Montgom…:No, it’s probably an hour and a half.
Al Letson:It’s 47 minutes! That’s nothing! It’s an hour and eight minutes. What else are we going to do?
Jonathan Jones:Go meet the eyewitness?
Al Letson:Oh, god, you’re such a joy-killer.
Jonathan Jones:I do love New Orleans. I mean, you really don’t have to twist my arm.
Al Letson:Let’s go to New Orleans, get a po’ boy, and then we’ll come back.

On our way to New Orleans, Joel Wallace gives me a call.

We are doing a story on a case that you worked on a long time ago, Billey Joe Johnson. Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, we’re going around, and we’re just interviewing people about what happened, and talking to his family, and looking into the case itself, and we were just wondering if we could come down and interview you, and talk about your time working on that case.

He agrees, but he doesn’t want to do the interview at home, so he reserves a room at the library. We meet him a few hours later, and it’s clear from the start, he had done his research on us.
Joel Wallace:I’m [inaudible] all this in the 1970s.
Al Letson:There you go, you got me.
Joel Wallace:Not from Mississippi. Born in New Jersey.
Al Letson:But lived in Jackson?
Joel Wallace:Moved to Florida, in Jacksonville.
Al Letson:Jacksonville.
Joel Wallace:No, I’m not about Jackson, Mississippi.
Al Letson:Jacksonville. That’s in Florida.
Joel Wallace:Yeah. His dad was a minister.
Al Letson:Is a minister.
Joel Wallace:He is a minister?
Al Letson:He is a minister.
Joel Wallace:Okay, still is a minister.
Al Letson:Absolutely. So, you got me.

Seeing Joel Wallace in person is a little surreal. After listening to his voice in the interview tapes for so long, here he is in the flesh. He’s in his 60s, but looking at him, you wouldn’t know it. I thought he was late 40s, maybe early 50s. He’s about 5’10” or so, light skinned Black man, with a shaved bald head. Right from the start, I sense his trepidation.
Joel Wallace:Now, you’re the guy that called my wife at home.
Jonathan Jones:I did text you.
Joel Wallace:And I’m going to tell you, you almost got chills to her. I’m serious, man. I’m in a real bad situation. Man, I’m not trying to be funny.
Al Letson:For a moment it’s tense. Like a summer storm in the South, it seemed to come out of nowhere.
Jonathan Jones:No, no, no, that’s fine.
Al Letson:Then dissipates as fast as it started.

In the days after Billey Joe’s death, the Johnsons and members of the NAACP were initially relieved that Joel was the one handling the investigation. They had heard of him because of the Jessie Lee Williams case, and they weren’t the only ones who had faith in Joel. As we walk through the library, he hands me a newspaper clipping from his wallet. The edges are tattered, the paper’s browning. It’s clear he’s held onto it for a long time. The headline reads, “Johnson Case Must Not Remain A Mystery.” It’s an editorial from the Biloxi Sun Herald. I figured Joel kept the article because the case had stuck with him, but later he would tell me…
Joel Wallace:It gives me some kind of confidence that the people, or some people, had confidence in my job performance. This tells me right here that this was the kind of person I was, and that somebody appreciated it.
Al Letson:The editorial board, in speaking of Joel, says, “We came to think highly of his professional service, knowing his dogged investigation of the death of Jessie Williams in the Harrison County Jail. We consider him among the very best in his field.” It goes on to say, “What we expect and anticipate is that both the truth and justice will be attained through a deliberate and dedicated process.”
Joel Wallace:And that’s what I did.
Al Letson:When we come back, we sit down with Joel Wallace and start talking about Billey Joe Johnson.
Joel Wallace:I will always remember that case.
Jonathan Jones:All right, let me, let’s just get into a little of the nitty gritty, if you don’t mind.
Al Letson:That’s next on Reveal.

We’d finally met the lead agent who investigated the Billey Joe Johnson case, Joel Wallace. We talked to him at a library for over an hour, and he tells us about his background. His mother died when he was young. His older sister, she was the woman who answered the door when I left my card, raised him, his twin brother, and three other siblings. They were poor and Black growing up in Mississippi. They had to deal with a lot of racism.

He talks about it like it forged him. He was a blade in the fire, and it made him stronger, more enduring. But listening to him speak, it’s clear it also scarred him.

What was it like growing up here in Mississippi?
Joel Wallace:I said I had an identical twin. We were at Catholic boys’ school. I remember in 1976, Alex Haley came out with the movie, Roots. My twin brother and I were in class together, and one of the kids in the class said, “Hey, Wallace, did you see your mother’s breast on TV?”
Al Letson:Their mother had died a few years earlier, and Joel’s brother was so furious that he got into a fight with the other boy. That got him expelled, and this was a big deal, because it was their senior year.
Joel Wallace:But that hurt me, because they kicked my brother out of school, and in our class, there were only four Black out of 60-something, and I had to walk across that graduation stage without him. And I could never forget that.
Al Letson:Joel wanted to make something of his life, so he joined the Army and served for two decades. He retired, then joined the Mississippi State Police and became a criminal investigator for the state.

The library starts to close, and we still have so much more to talk about, so Joel invites us to his church to finish up. You see, after he retired from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, he became a minister.

I ride with him in his truck. On the way there, it feels like the ghost of the Harrison County case from 2006 is still clinging to him. While driving Joel watches his rear view mirror the whole time, surveying the area for any threats. He asks me, “Do you see that car? Is it following us?” I tell him, “I don’t think so.” All I can think about is how that level of constant vigilance must be exhausting.

When we get to the church, JJ, producer Michael Montgomery and I cram into his office. The room is small, and can barely fit the four of us, but we make do.

Before we move on, I want to point out that over the past three years, we’ve reached out to every official who was involved in the investigation. Only Joel Wallace and the medical examiner who performed the autopsy agreed to speak with us on the record about the case, so they’re getting all of our hard questions. Joel tells us he’ll do his best to answer them.
Joel Wallace:In my head, I might not be accurate on everything, but I don’t have nothing to hide. I’m transparent.
Al Letson:He sits in his chair and takes us back to December 8th, 2008.
Joel Wallace:I picked the phone up. I believe it was my Major that called. It was someone called and said, “Hey, we need you at Lucedale.” They told me there was an officer-involved shooting, and I knew, because I had worked numerous other officer-involved shootings, that I needed to get there as soon as possible.
Al Letson:Generally in Mississippi, when an officer is on the scene of a shooting death, the MBI conducts the investigation. That’s why Joel got called in. So, he gets in his cruiser and drives from the Mississippi Gulf Coast to Lucedale, speeding the whole way. When he gets there, he notices two groups of people, one of mostly white folks behind the police tape, another down the street, where Billey Joe’s family is gathering.
Joel Wallace:And I said, “What’s that large crowd on the bottom of the hill down there?” He said, “Well, that’s his mom and dad and the family.” I said, “Well, let me go talk to the family first.” I didn’t have to, but I felt like that’s what I needed to do, because I saw the community. I knew it was people just like me. I could understand the hurt, because what if it was my kid laying there?
Al Letson:The fact that there was already a group of people gathered, mostly African American people, who you said looked like they’re your community, they’re like you. And then you walk up the hill, and it’s a mostly white crowd surrounding Billey Joe Johnson. There’s a couple of officers there that are African American, but on the whole, a mostly white crowd. Did you feel the tension?
Joel Wallace:When I arrived on scene, that was my reason, really, besides caring for the family, my reason for going down there. Because instinctively, I could tell that this didn’t look good. When I talked to the Johnsons, was telling the Johnson family, I could hear folks making statements, “They killed him,” and I had to say, “Look, I’m here to find out exactly what happened. I’m going to give you a fair investigation.” That kind of coaxed me into telling them that I would, because that was my job.
Al Letson:Joel takes some photos and helps document the crime scene. He’s told that Joe Sullivan, the deputy who pulled over Billey Joe, was allowed to leave the scene and is back at headquarters. He heads there to interview him.
Joel Wallace:Okay, I have previously given you the MBI waiver right form, and you have signed it. You signed it and agreed to talk to us?
Joe Sullivan:Yes.
Joel Wallace:Okay, and the only ones present in this room is myself and you?
Joe Sullivan:Yes.
Al Letson:So, this initial interview is a brisk 11 minutes.
Joel Wallace:Okay, and it was described as a red pickup truck, you said?
Joe Sullivan:It was red in color. When I went upon the light at… the red light at Church Street.
Joel Wallace:Okay, and visibility was clear? You could see it?
Al Letson:He lets Sullivan lay out what he says happened that morning.
Joe Sullivan:Yes, it was probably 50 yards away when I saw it go through.
Joel Wallace:50 yards away? Okay. Okay, and once after it went through the intersection, the red light, then you proceeded behind the vehicle?
Joe Sullivan:Yes.
Joel Wallace:Did you turn your blue lights on at this time?
Joe Sullivan:Yes.
Joel Wallace:You did?
Joe Sullivan:Yes.
Al Letson:One of Joel’s primary roles was to determine whether Sullivan was involved in the shooting. So, we wanted to know what he did to double check what Sullivan told him, like did he check any businesses along the road to verify where Sullivan turned on his lights and started following Billey Joe?
Jonathan Jones:I guess my question is, was there ever, were you able to obtain any videotape that showed the car going through?
Joel Wallace:We tried at the bank.
Jonathan Jones:Yeah.
Joel Wallace:But that bank video, there was none there.
Jonathan Jones:No?
Al Letson:Joel is going off memory here. We checked out the bank video, but it turns out the footage they pulled was off by an hour, so it didn’t show anything.

While we’re talking to Joel, he brings up something that bothered him about the traffic stop. According to Sullivan, after they pulled over in the Benndale Carpet parking lot, Billey Joe got out of his truck and handed Sullivan his license. Sullivan then told Billey Joe to get back in his vehicle while Sullivan went to his cruiser to call it in.
Joel Wallace:Me, as a trained highway patrolman, or investigator, I would have never let somebody that left their vehicle go back to the vehicle, because I always was taught that either you’re leaving the vehicle for drugs you don’t want me to see, or a weapon, or you’ve got something in that vehicle you don’t want me to see. That’s what I was taught. Why officer Sullivan told him to go back to the vehicle, I don’t know.
Al Letson:An expert we consulted with said this stop is inconsistent with police practices. It puts both Billey Joe and Sullivan in danger, because Sullivan doesn’t know if there’s a weapon in the car. Sullivan told investigators, when people get out of their cars during traffic stops, he reacts differently based on the situation. With Billey Joe, he didn’t seem to consider him a threat.

In the first, brief interview with Sullivan, Joel didn’t ask many follow-up questions, and while he told us he didn’t understand why Sullivan told Billey Joe to go back to his car, he never asked Sullivan that question. A little over a month later, he interviews him again. This time, Joel is not alone. The district attorney has assigned two investigators from his office to join him, Bobby Fairley, who had previously worked in the sheriff’s office, and Scott McElrath.
Joel Wallace:They were with me, and they were assigned to me from Tony Lawrence, the district attorney, which I normally don’t do interviews with DA investigators or anyone else. I normally do the interviews either with a partner of mine from MBI, or I do it myself.
Al Letson:Why do you not… Why, in this case, were you assigned two other people to work with you?
Joel Wallace:I mean, that’s a good question. I was just directed to have, from the district attorney, to have McElrath, he was available to go with me on interview.
Al Letson:How… I guess…
Joel Wallace:How frequent does it happen?
Al Letson:Yeah, how frequently does that happen?
Joel Wallace:Not too frequently. And I’m not trying to put a mystery in this or anything, but not too frequent. I mean, if you’ve got me investigating the case… This is the way I look at it. Okay, agencies don’t investigate their own case, right? Okay? Now, if you’ve got me investigating the case, then I’m an independent investigator, but why would I need the district attorney investigator to oversee me investigating the case, when I’m the one providing the case to them for a case file? I mean, I’m not saying anything shady or anything like that. I’m just saying, because I didn’t see that at the time. I just saw it as a warm body with me to do the investigation.
Al Letson:Generally in these cases, the MBI would conduct the investigation, and then hand off the results to the local district attorney. But sometimes the DA assigns people from his office to work with the state, which is what happened in Billey Joe’s case. This kind of thing happens all the time, all across the country, but the Mississippi ACLU says it’s a conflict of interest, because county prosecutors end up investigating the officers they work with closely on a day-to-day basis.

Joel starts off the interview by telling Sullivan why he was called back in.
Joel Wallace:There’s some questions, or some things that have came up since this investigation was conducted, and it started, the investigation started on 8 December 2008, and that was with Billey Joe Johnson, Jr. You are aware, that’s what we’re here for, right?
Joe Sullivan:Yes.
Joel Wallace:Okay.
Al Letson:Investigators ask Sullivan to once again tell them what happened the day of Billey Joe’s death. Sullivan gives more or less the same version of events as the first time, and Joel asks Sullivan about his background in law enforcement.
Joel Wallace:How long have you been a law enforcement officer, Joe?
Joe Sullivan:This year, it will be 19 years.
Joel Wallace:19 years, and you’ve been a patrolman most of your career, is that correct?
Joe Sullivan:Yeah. Yes.
Scott McElrath:19 years, Joe…
Al Letson:That’s Scott McElrath, one of the investigators from the DA’s office.
Scott McElrath:Joe, where else have you been a police officer, law enforcement officer?
Joe Sullivan:I started in ’85, or ’84, in Humphreys County.
Scott McElrath:Humphreys?
Joe Sullivan:Mississippi.
Scott McElrath:Right.
Joe Sullivan:And I worked from there, a police department there in Belzoni. Then I went from there to Gainesville, Georgia. And from there to here. And then back to Humphreys County. Then I went to Sharkey County. Then I came from Sharkey County here.
Al Letson:McElrath asks whether he knows some of the people involved in the case.
Scott McElrath:Joe, do you know… You didn’t know Billey Joe Johnson?
Joe Sullivan:No, I never met him.
Scott McElrath:And you ever dealt with Billey Joe before?
Joe Sullivan:No.
Scott McElrath:So, what about this little girl, this Hannah Hollinghead?
Joe Sullivan:Oh, yeah. I never met her or her parents.
Scott McElrath:The mom or the dad, you don’t know any of them? Not related to them?
Joe Sullivan:No.
Scott McElrath:Any other… Are you related to anybody here in George County?
Joe Sullivan:No.
Al Letson:That’s not true, but we’ll get back to that in a bit. Now, between the time Billey Joe died and the second interview with Sullivan, there are lots of rumors spreading through the area that Billey Joe didn’t shoot himself. Here’s McElrath again.
Scott McElrath:Nobody’s talked to you in advance about this kid, is that correct?
Joe Sullivan:No. I mean, the sheriff asked me if I knew him. I said, “No, I don’t.” He quizzed all of us, because of all the rumors floating around.
Scott McElrath:Yeah.
Joe Sullivan:I said, “No, I didn’t know any of them.”
Scott McElrath:All right. And nobody’s approached you about killing him?
Joe Sullivan:No.
Scott McElrath:Is that correct?
Joe Sullivan:No.
Scott McElrath:I need to start asking that question a different way, instead of making a statement.
Al Letson:McElrath then tells Sullivan he’s tested positive for gunpowder residue on his hands from the day of the shooting. They ask if he touched either his or Billey Joe’s shotgun during the traffic stop. He says he hadn’t. When the last time he fired his weapon was? He said at a gun range, about two weeks earlier. Even if he got fertilizer on his hands from his wife’s flowers? He’s not sure. Experts tell us that as a deputy, he could have gotten gunpowder residue on his hands by handling his gun or ammo, or even from clothing if it had been expose. It’s easy to get on you, and stays with you for a while.

Earlier, we played part of the interview where Sullivan talked about his experience in other law enforcement agencies. Sullivan gave a brief account, but we dug deeper. From 1985 to 2008, he switched jobs at least eight different times. The next part is about something that happened in his previous gig, one where he worked less than a year.
Scott McElrath:All right, Joe. Among the three of us, we’ve had some discussion about maybe some prior incidents, some problems with similar circumstances. Do you feel comfortable talking about it?
Joe Sullivan:Yeah. And now, when I worked in Sharkey County, there was a boy that shot himself while I was on the scene.
Scott McElrath:While you were on the scene?
Joe Sullivan:Yeah. Me and two other deputies were there.
Scott McElrath:What were the circumstances of it?
Joe Sullivan:We got a call that there was two teenagers on drugs with guns. We got there. The mother came running out of the house with the gun, and they disarmed here. And one of the other boys came out, and me and the two other deputies put him in back of the car, and one of the other boys came out and ran back in the house. I was struggling with the boy in the back of the trunk, and the other boy went in the house. Well, the other two deputies followed him in, and he grabbed a shotgun and shot himself.
Scott McElrath:What happened to the other two deputies?
Joel Wallace:That wasn’t Joe…
Scott McElrath:Not Joe Sullivan.
Joel Wallace:Okay.
Al Letson:So, roughly a year and a half earlier, Sullivan was in an incident where another teenage boy shot himself with a shotgun. I want to be clear that we found no evidence of foul play in that shooting, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with Sullivan moving from department to department. We don’t know why he moved around, because the laws in Mississippi prevent us from getting that information. And that’s the problem. The secrecy that stops the public from learning about the professional behavior of officers in their community.

Investigators don’t have that problem. They could have gotten Sullivan’s records, but those records aren’t in the case files. They ask the questions, but don’t probe deeper.

After 27 minutes…
Joe Sullivan:It’s all, it’s about all I get to now.
Scott McElrath:All right.
Joe Sullivan:Can you tell me anything about it?
Joel Wallace:Joe, I can’t tell you nothing, man.
Joe Sullivan:All right.
Joel Wallace:Appreciate you coming in.
Joe Sullivan:Whatever you want.
Al Letson:Joel and the other investigators end the second interview with Sullivan.

A couple things stand out. First, how deferential investigators are with Sullivan. They tiptoe around subjects and are sort of buddy-buddy with him. The other, while they asked him some tough questions, like did anyone approach him about killing Billey Joe, we didn’t find evidence in the case file that they ever seriously considered Sullivan a suspect.

Remember how they asked Sullivan whether he was related to anyone in George County? He said no, but that wasn’t true. His sister-in-law was an assistant district attorney there, working in the same office that was now investigating whether he was involved in the shooting. We didn’t find evidence that she worked the case, but we spoke to an expert on legal ethics who said that her connection to Sullivan could have been enough for the DA’s office to recuse itself, though that rarely happens.

We tried to interview Sullivan ourselves. We sent letters, emails, made phone calls, and reached out to family and friends. He hasn’t gotten back to us. But what’s clear is that Joel Wallace didn’t know about Sullivan’s connections.

So far, we’ve been focusing on how Joel and the DA’s office conducted the investigation. Their work helped lead the grand jury to determine that Billey Joe had died after accidentally shooting himself. But in the last episode, we told you about a different theory that the Justice Department came out with in 2011. They believed it was most likely a suicide.

And you weren’t a part of the DOJ investigation, but what the DOJ investigation came back with is that he put the gun in his mouth, and he shot himself that way.
Joel Wallace:That’s the wrong answer. Let me…
Al Letson:He totally disagrees. That’s exactly how Adele Lewis, the medical examiner on the case, responded when we told her the same thing in the last episode.
Joel Wallace:Let me cut you off. What I got was, and I don’t know how to move or relocate in this room right now.
Jonathan Jones:We can step out of here.
Michael Montgom…:You want to do it outside?
Joel Wallace:No, I can’t do it outside. We can do it right here.
Michael Montgom…:Okay.
Jonathan Jones:And do you have the…
Al Letson:At this point, Joel stands up to recreate what he thinks happened during the traffic stop. He sets up two chairs.
Joel Wallace:This is the kid’s truck right here.
Al Letson:One for Billey Joe’s truck…
Joel Wallace:This is the police officer’s car right here, okay?
Al Letson:The other for Sullivan’s patrol car.
Joel Wallace:So, the story I had gotten was, was that he had went to that trailer that morning, had bammed on the door, and I haven’t looked at the case file in a while. This is 2008, so don’t hold my memory to it, because I’m not trying to make anything up. But somehow, the officer seen him do a traffic violation at that intersection. He pulled him over.
Jonathan Jones:Pulls him over.
Joel Wallace:He pulls him over. When he pulls him over, that officer’s sitting in that car right there. Billey Joe was sitting in his pickup truck. And then it was told that Sullivan went back to his car with Billey Joe’s driver license, and sat there, and couldn’t see whatever, or could see, is what I was told, so he was trying to cover it up. Trying to cover the gun up. And with all the clutter and everything that was in that truck, I mean, there was junk all in that truck, and he was fidgeting with that weapon, an old Sears and Roebuck gun, and went and pulled something on that gun. That gun went pow, and when it did, it hit… the gun went off, grazed his head…
Al Letson:Joel then lies on the ground to show us how Billey Joe fell.
Joel Wallace:When all that happened like that, a split second, he went like this, down on the ground. The door was open. Laid there like that. And boom, that’s where he was at.
Al Letson:When he gets back up, JJ returns to the DOJ report.
Jonathan Jones:They reviewed… their conclusion, basically they agreed that he died of a gunshot wound, but they said that the barrel of the gun was inside his mouth when the gun went off.
Joel Wallace:If somebody had told me that, I would have marched right into Tony Lawrence’s office, the district attorney, and I would have said, “Hey, we need to reopen this case. We need to look at this.” If somebody had showed me that DOJ report, or told me something like that, that’s what we would have done. Because nobody, I’m telling you, nobody… I will go to my grave, nobody told me this until today, when I talked to you earlier, and twice just now, you done sat here and told me that. I’m not an idiot. I would have never said nothing like that. I didn’t even see no DOJ report.
Al Letson:When we leave Joel, I can feel his earlier confidence in the case beginning to crumble. But that doesn’t affect his openness. He invites us to come back and talk some more. When we do, he starts to rethink how he handled some of his interviews during the case. That’s coming up next on Reveal.

Do you want to know more about how we do what we do? Well, our weekly newsletter takes you behind the scenes. Our investigations change laws, minds, and sure, we like to say it, the world. Be among the first to read them. Just text “newsletter” to 474747. You can text “stop” at any time. Standard data rates apply. Again, text newsletter to 474747.

On that first meeting with Joel, we spent several days talking about the case, but one Sunday, we went back to his church just to hear him preach. We thought it would help us understand him better as a person.
Joel Wallace:How you guys doing?
Speaker 11:…back down and be in the shadow of somebody else. That devil is alive. Church of the Living God Resurrection.
Al Letson:Both JJ and I are preachers’ kids, and Joel’s church reminds me of the sanctuaries I went to in my youth.
Speaker 11:Lift your hands before Jesus.
Al Letson:The congregation is small and feels more like an extended family than parishioners. People smile and check in with each other. Everyone wants you to be comfortable. JJ and I don’t know anyone other than Joel, but somehow it feels like home.

As the music plays, I think about growing up in the church as a kid. I didn’t really appreciate it. To be honest, hearing gospel music back then put me in a funk, because it meant we were going to be at church all day long, and I mean all day.
Speaker 11:(singing)
Al Letson:Joel’s wife leads the praise and singing part of the service. When she sings, I am taken back and filled with this longing for something simpler. Fans with Jesus on the front and a funeral home advertisement on the back. Choir books, the edges of the pages trimmed in gold. Old folks giving you candy and trying to unwrap it so quietly so no one could hear it. It never worked.
Joel Wallace:The Book of Theologians says that he took our sins and nailed them to the cross.
Al Letson:Joel gives a fiery sermon.
Joel Wallace:So, whatever serpents from our past embarrass us, Jesus said, I paid for that.
Al Letson:The church I grew up in was filled with men like him. The pastor of my church was a police officer, and many of the deacons were, as well. They were like my uncles, good, decent men who taught me a lot about life. I think maybe that’s why we were able to have such a strong rapport with Joel. There’s a familiarity there.

A few days later, we go back to the church for another interview. After discussing Deputy Sullivan and the DOJ’s conclusion, we wanted to understand how he approached the investigation. Over two months, Wallace and the DA’s investigators spent fewer than six hours conducting formal interviews, with only 15 people. We wondered why he didn’t speak to more of Billey Joe’s friends and family to get a sense of what was going on in his life at the time of his death.
Jonathan Jones:This is my list of formal interviews that you’ve done, that appears to have been done.
Joel Wallace:I don’t see their name there, though.
Jonathan Jones:Were they formally interviewed? The parents, Billey Joe Sr. and Annette Johnson?
Joel Wallace:Did I put them on record and talk to them and all that? I don’t know if they were. I can’t recall if they were or not, but I know I went down there and talk to them, and told them I would… Because they weren’t, again, you don’t have… you don’t grasp what I’m telling you. They weren’t there when it happened.
Al Letson:So, he’s saying he didn’t interview Billey Joe’s folks because they weren’t directly involved with the events of that morning when Billey Joe died. But in its guidelines on how to handle death investigations, the Department of Justice stresses the importance of gathering as much information about the victim as possible: daily routines, habits, activities. Who were his friends and associates? This will help investigators as they work to determine the cause, manner and circumstances of the person’s death.

Instead, almost all of the information they gather about Billey Joe’s life comes from people who were involved in the case that morning, and that includes Billey Joe’s ex-girlfriend, Hannah Hollinghead, and her mother, Esther Parker. Joel interviews them twice, once on the day of and again about a month later. In the first interview, Hannah tells investigators she hasn’t talked to Billey Joe for a while.
Hannah Hollingh…:Mm-mm (negative). I haven’t talked to him in almost two weeks.
Joel Wallace:In two weeks?
Al Letson:A month later, Hannah and her mom get called back in, and Hannah says something different. She says they talked on her birthday, December 5th, just three days before Billey died.
Hannah Hollingh…:He told me happy birthday, and told me to be careful, and be safe, and wear my seatbelt wherever I went. And I told him, okay, and just kind of rolled my eyes at him, because that was just a thing between me and Billey. And he told me he loved me.
Joel Wallace:If I could… If I would have pulled those two pieces, those two times together, listened back on both of those tapes, I would have said something, there was an inconsistency in the statement. But I don’t know if I did that or not. I don’t think I wrote that in the investigation. And I think maybe that was just an oversight. I don’t know, because that was leading up to the actual incident that happened. It had nothing to do with that morning. So, I’m there to investigate the who, what, when, where and how of that day, what happened, what took place that day. Now, if there’s other information pertaining to that, then somebody would have furnished it to me. So, she furnished me in an interview, the first interview, that she hadn’t seen, hadn’t talked to him in two weeks. But I knew that wasn’t true, but I didn’t want to pressure her about it, because I knew it wasn’t true.
Al Letson:Hannah says when she saw Billey on her birthday, it got really ugly. It was one of a series of incidents with Billey Joe in the days leading up to his death. This part deals with some serious allegations.
Hannah Hollingh…:Wednesday after school is when he hit me, and I got the bruise on my arm. And then Thursday at school, he pulled me by my hair and slapped me in the face.
Joel Wallace:Okay, did anybody witness any of those incidents that occurred between you and Billey those days?
Hannah Hollingh…:I think that two people were walking behind us that seen us, seen him sling me up against the wall on Wednesday.
Joel Wallace:Okay. Did you report it to anybody? Anybody at the school, or your mother or your father, or anybody that… on the 3rd, you say he, what was it, slung you against the wall locker, and on the 14th, pulled you by your hair. Did you report those to anyone?
Hannah Hollingh…:I didn’t tell anyone. I just talked to Samantha about it, but my mom found out.
Al Letson:It’s not unusual for victims of abuse to stay quiet about it, and we’re going to get into these allegations in the next episode, but right now, we’re focused on how Joel and other investigators responded. There’s no evidence that they tried to verify these statements, at least not in the case files.

After listing back to the interviews with Hannah and her mom, Joel is starting to look at the case with fresh eyes, thinking about what he would have done differently if he had known then what he knows now. But some of these questions, he should have asked regardless. It was his job to determine how Billey Joe died, and if suicide or foul play were possibilities, he needed to look at what else was going on in the days and months before Billey Joe’s death. And that would have meant talking to people who knew him best. Joel is adamant that he wanted justice for Billey Joe, and he says that’s how he approached the job.
Joel Wallace:The truth makes a difference. It makes a difference for the person on the family that’s left behind. It makes a difference for the people involved in the relationship. It makes a difference for the community. There’s a difference in accidental discharge of a firearm. There’s a difference between suicide and accidental. There’s a difference between murder.
Al Letson:After spending almost seven hours with us, exploring the different aspects of this case, Joel seems exhausted. My biggest takeaway from this interview is this one line from Joel.
Joel Wallace:I would have marched right into Tony Lawrence’s office, the district attorney, and would have said, “Hey, we need to reopen this case. We need to look at this.”
Al Letson:We need to reopen this case.

Tragically, less than a year after Billey Joe’s death, Joel would go through his own pain. His twin brother died under mysterious circumstances.
Joel Wallace:And I feel it was racially motivated, because he was dating a white girl. He went out with a white girl, and somebody hit him in his spinal cord in the back of his neck.
Al Letson:Was anybody held accountable for it?
Joel Wallace:Nobody.
Al Letson:Let’s rewind a little bit. So, your brother…
Joel Wallace:We were tight. I mean, we were twins. We were identical twins. I mean, when he hurt, I hurt. When he felt bad, I felt bad. You know, the night, May 16, I asked him, I said, “Please.” Just felt in my bones. He was telling me he was going to go out with this girl. She was a 21-year-old white female from [inaudible], Mississippi.
Al Letson:His brother Johnny went out that night with his girlfriend, and something happened.
Joel Wallace:The story was, was that he was irritating somebody. He only drank, what’s that beer? Miller Lite. He was a lightweight.
Al Letson:People at the bar said Johnny was taking shots and got drunk.
Joel Wallace:Johnny don’t drink no alcohol. He can’t stomach it. He never could.
Al Letson:They told Joel he slipped and fell, hitting his head hard on the ground. But Joel didn’t believe it. Whatever happened, Johnny’s injury was catastrophic.
Joel Wallace:The doctors and the medical report says he took a blow to the back… from what they could see, you know, but they didn’t know how it was caused because nobody was saying.
Al Letson:Johnny was in the hospital for weeks. He was paralyzed from the neck down.
Joel Wallace:And I was learning how to carry him, and put him in and out of the car, and getting him in a wheelchair, because I was preparing to bring him home so I could, you know, take care of him. And me and my wife… He had a heart attack and a blood clot with me in the room with him.
Al Letson:Joel says his brother started hallucinating.
Joel Wallace:And he just, “Get the sand off me,” like post traumatic stress. He was just saying all this. Like, “What sand, Johnny?” “I got sand all over me, Joel. You got to help me. You got to help me.” He was just like, “You got to help me, got to help me.” And I’m like, “What sand, man?” He’s like, “I got sand all over me, man. I’m drowning, I’m drowning.” I’m like, “Okay,” and I just thought, for that, thought it was maybe the morphine, and he was hallucinating. And the nurses came and said, “You’ve got to get out of here.”

They pushed me out, and they were doing CPR and trying to put a trach in him and everything else. Then here comes the code blue squad coming down the hallway. You know, they march in a formation. Real formal. They march in formation to the room. They go in and clean the body up and do everything, and then they call you in to take a look, to see your loved one. And I told myself, man.

So, then here comes his girlfriend down the hall, and I told her, I said, you know… I said, “Tell me what happened.” And she said, “You already know.” I said, “If I already knew, I wouldn’t be asking you. Now, just let me know what happened. I need closure.” And she never told us. We’ll just never find out.
Al Letson:Next time on Reveal…

Was the family worried when he started dating a white girl?
Speaker 13:I was. Point blank, period.
Speaker 14:I dated a lot of white girls in high school, so you know, some of their dads didn’t want them talking to me, or just punished them because they talked to a Black guy, and all that kind of stuff. It still happens.
Speaker 15:You can’t be seen in public, because Lord forbid somebody sees you, you know, they’re burning the phone book to call and be like, “I saw this woman with that one,” and “Oh my gosh, she’s with a white man.” “Oh, is she?” It’s terrible, and it’s still that way.
Hannah Hollingh…:He made threats, but I knew deep down in my heart he didn’t mean them.
Jonathan Jones:Hannah, thank you so much for calling me back, and I do apologize that this is not the funnest part of my job, is to keep calling people.
Al Letson:If you’ve missed the first couple episodes of this series, you can listen to them on our podcast. While you’re there, be sure to leave us a review. It really helps spread the word.

Our show was reported by Jonathon Jones and me, edited by executive producer, Kevin Sullivan. Michael I. Schiller is the series producer. Steven Rascón is our production assistant. Nina Martin edited our digital material. Andy Donohue is Reveal’s executive editor of projects.

We had additional reporting and producing help from Ko Bragg, Melissa Lewis, Michael Montgomery, and Laurel Hennen Vigil. Special thanks to Katharine Mieszkowski, Jen Chien, and Alexis Hightower. Special thanks goes out to Michael Crosby, Robin Fitzgerald, and the Biloxi Sun Herald for breaking the Harrison County Jail story.

Mama Blue sang our theme song, which was written and composed by Nina Simone. Thanks to her estate and Music and Strategy.

Our fact checker is Rosemarie Ho. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production manager is Amy “The Great” Mostafa. Original score and sound design by the dynamic duo, J. Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando “my man, yo” Arruda. They had help from Clare “C Note” Mullen, Najib Aminy, Brett Simpson, Catherine Styer Martinez, and Ameeta Ganatra. Our digital producer is Sarah Mirk. Our interim CEO is Annie Chabel. Sumi Aggarwal’s our interim editor in chief.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Riva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Helman Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Inasmuch Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.
Speaker 16:From PRX.

Al Letson is a playwright, performer, screenwriter, journalist, and the host of Reveal. Soul-stirring, interdisciplinary work has garnered Letson national recognition and devoted fans.

Jonathan Jones is a reporter and producer for Reveal. In his two decades in journalism, he has produced a series of award-winning investigations on topics ranging from eminent domain to problems in the fertility industry. He has covered conflict and human rights in 10 countries, including Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Cambodia and Sri Lanka. In 2013, he teamed up with A.C. Thompson of ProPublica and PBS Frontline on a yearlong investigation into abuse and neglect at the largest assisted living company in the United States. In 2015, his exposé of Firestone's operations during the Liberian Civil War for ProPublica and PBS Frontline was awarded two News & Documentary Emmy Awards for outstanding investigative journalism and outstanding research, as well as the top Investigative Reporters and Editors Award in the large multiplatform category. In 2018, Jones, along with colleagues at WNYC's Snap Judgment, won the Best Documentary Gold Award at the Third Coast International Audio Festival for "Counted: An Oakland Story," which profiled those lost to violence in Oakland, California, in 2017 and the impact on their communities.

Kevin Sullivan is the executive producer of Reveal’s public radio show and podcast. He joined Reveal from the daily news magazine show “Here & Now,” where he was senior managing editor. There, he helped lead the expansion of the show as part of a unique partnership between NPR and WBUR. Prior to radio, Sullivan worked as a documentary film producer. That work took him around the world, with stories ranging from reconciliation in Northern Ireland to the refugee crisis during the war in Kosovo.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sullivan launched an investigative unit for CBS in Baltimore, where he spearheaded investigations on bioterrorism and the U.S. government’s ability to respond to future threats. He also dug into local issues. His exposé of local judges found widespread lax sentencing of repeat-offender drunken drivers. Other investigations included sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, and doctors who sold OxyContin for cash. Sullivan has won multiple journalism awards, including several Edward R. Murrow awards, a Third Coast / Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition award and an Emmy. He has an MBA from Boston University.

Sullivan is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Michael I Schiller

Michael I Schiller is a senior reporter and producer for Reveal. His Emmy Award-winning work spans animation, radio and documentary film.

“The Dead Unknown,” a video series he directed about the crisis of America's unidentified dead, earned a national News and Documentary Emmy Award, national Edward R. Murrow Award and national Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi Award.

His 2015 animated documentary short film “The Box,” about youth solitary confinement, was honored with a video journalism award from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California chapter, a San Francisco International Film Festival Golden Gate Award and a New Orleans Film Festival special jury prize, and it was nominated for a national News and Documentary Emmy for new approaches.

Schiller was one the producers of the pilot episode of the Peabody Award-winning Reveal radio show and podcast. He continues to regularly produce audio documentaries for the weekly public radio show, which airs on over 450 stations nationwide. Schiller is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Nina Martin (she/her) is the features editor for Reveal. She develops high-impact investigative reporting projects for Reveal’s digital and audio platforms and television and print partners. Previously, she was a reporter at ProPublica, covering sex and gender issues, and worked as an editor and/or reporter at San Francisco magazine, The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune, Health magazine and BabyCenter magazine. Her Lost Mothers project for ProPublica and NPR examining maternal mortality in the U.S. led to sweeping change to maternal health policy at the state and federal levels and won numerous awards. Martin is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Andy Donohue is the executive editor for projects for Reveal. He’s edited Reveal’s investigations into the treatment of migrant children in government care, Amazon’s labor practices, rehab work camps and sexual abuse in the janitorial industry. He’s been on teams that have twice been Pulitzer Prize finalists and have won Investigative Reporters and Editors, Edward R. Murrow, Online News Association, Third Coast International Audio Festival, Gerald Loeb, Sidney Hillman Foundation and Emmy awards. He previously helped build and lead Voice of San Diego, served on the IRE board for eight years and is an alumnus of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University. Donohue is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Steven Rascón (he/they) is a production assistant for Reveal. He is pursuing a master's degree at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism with a Kaiser Permanente Institute for Health Policy Fellowship. His focus is investigative reporting and audio documentary. He has written for online, magazines and radio. His reporting on underreported fentanyl overdoses in Los Angeles' LGBTQ community aired on KCRW and KQED. Rascón is passionate about telling diverse stories for radio through community engagement. He holds a bachelor of fine arts degree in theater arts and creative writing.

Amy Mostafa (she/they) is the production manager for Reveal. She is a UC Berkeley School of Journalism alum, where she focused on audio and data journalism as a Dean's Merit Fellow and an ISF Scholar. She has reported on science, health and the environment in Anchorage for Alaska Public Media and on city government in Berkeley and San Francisco for KQED. Her work also has appeared on NPR, KALW and KALX. Mostafa holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and public policy. She has most recently reported on housing and aging in the Bay Area. She is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Sarah Mirk (she/her) is a digital engagement producer for Reveal. Since 2017, she has worked as an editor at The Nib, an online daily comics publication focused on political cartoons, graphic journalism, essays and memoirs about current affairs. She works with artists to create nonfiction comics on a variety of complex topics, from personal narratives about queer identities to examinations of overlooked history. Before that, Mirk was the online editor of national feminist media outlet Bitch, a podcast host and a local news reporter. She is also the author of several books, including “Year of Zines,” a collection of 100 handmade zines, and “Guantanamo Voices,” a collection of illustrated oral histories of the world’s most infamous prison. Mirk is based in Portland, Oregon.

Jim Briggs III is the senior sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. He supervises post-production and composes original music for the public radio show and podcast. He also leads Reveal's efforts in composition for data sonification and live performances.

Prior to joining Reveal in 2014, Briggs mixed and recorded for clients such as WNYC Studios, NPR, the CBC and American Public Media. Credits include “Marketplace,” “Selected Shorts,” “Death, Sex & Money,” “The Longest Shortest Time,” NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics Radio” and “Soundcheck.” He also was the sound re-recording mixer and sound editor for several PBS television documentaries, including “American Experience: Walt Whitman,” the 2012 Tea Party documentary "Town Hall" and “The Supreme Court” miniseries. His music credits include albums by R.E.M., Paul Simon and Kelly Clarkson.

Briggs' work with Reveal has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2016) and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards (2018, 2019). Previously, he was part of the team that won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for its work on WNYC’s hourlong documentary special “Living 9/11.” He has taught sound, radio and music production at The New School and Eugene Lang College and has a master's degree in media studies from The New School. Briggs is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Fernando Arruda

Fernando Arruda is the sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. A composer and multi-instrumentalist, he contributes to the scoring, recording, editing and mixing of the weekly public radio show and podcast. Prior to joining Reveal, Arruda toured as an international DJ and taught music technology at Dubspot and ESRA International Film School. He co-founded a film scoring boutique called Manhattan Composers Collective and worked at Antfood, a creative audio studio geared toward media and ad spots. Arruda worked with clients such as Marvel and Samsung and ad agencies such as Framestore, Trollbäck + Company, Buck and Vice. Arruda releases experimental music under the alias FJAZZ and has performed with many jazz, classical and pop ensembles such as Krychek, Dark Inc., the New York Arabic Orchestra and Art&Sax. His credits in the podcast and radio world include NPR’s “51 percent,” WNYC’s “Bad Feminist Happy Hour” and its live broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The Hitchhiker.” Arruda has scored extensively for theatrical, orchestral and chamber music formats, some of which have premiered worldwide. He holds a master’s degree in film scoring and composition from NYU Steinhardt. Arruda is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Claire Mullen worked at The Center for Investigative Reporting until September 2017. is an associate sound designer and audio engineer for Reveal. Before joining Reveal, she was an assistant producer at Radio Ambulante and worked with KALW, KQED, the Association of Independents in Radio and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. She studied humanities and media studies at Scripps College.

Najib Aminy is a producer for Reveal. Previously, he was an editor at Flipboard, a news aggregation startup, and helped guide the company’s editorial and curation practices and policies. Before that, he spent time reporting for newspapers such as Newsday and The Indianapolis Star. He is the host and producer of an independent podcast, "Some Noise," which is based out of Oakland, California, and was featured by Apple, The Guardian and The Paris Review. He is a lifelong New York Knicks fan, has a soon-to-be-named kitten and is a product of Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism. Aminy is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Brett Simpson (she/her) is an assistant producer for Reveal. She is pursuing a master's degree at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where she focuses on audio, print and investigative reporting. She has received fellowships from the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, the National Press Club, the White House Correspondents’ Association and the UC Berkeley Human Rights Center. She is also the graduate researcher at UC Berkeley's Investigative Reporting Program. Most recently, Simpson reported breaking news for the San Francisco Chronicle and covered the coronavirus outbreak in the San Francisco Bay Area for The New York Times. She received a bachelor's degree in English at Princeton University, where she twice won the Ferris Prize for Outstanding Undergraduate Projects in Journalism. Simpson is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Kathryn Styer Martínez

Kathryn Styer Martínez (she/ella) is a production assistant for Reveal. She studies audio and photojournalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She is also a Greater Good Science Center reporting fellow, focusing on Latino well-being.

Martínez was the 2020-21 Toni Randolph reporting fellow at Minnesota Public Radio, the 2019-20 New Economy Reporting Project fellow and the former director of KGPC-LP FM, Peralta Community Radio. Her work has appeared in El Tecolote, The Oaklandside, MPR News, National Public Radio, Outside Online, Talk Poverty, New Life Quarterly and Making Contact.

She earned bachelor’s degrees in Raza studies and political science from San Francisco State University.