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On the morning of Billey Joe Johnson’s death, crime scene tape separates the Johnsons from their son’s body. Their shaky faith in the criminal justice system begins to buckle.

As Billey Joe Johnson’s family tries to get answers about his death, they get increasingly frustrated with the investigation. They feel that law enforcement, from the lead investigator to the district attorney, are keeping them out of the loop. While a majority-White grand jury rules that Johnson’s death was accidental, members of the family believe the possibility of foul play was never properly investigated. 

Explore the whole Mississippi Goddam series.

Additional photos

Family and friends of Billey Joe Johnson Jr. form a prayer circle outside the George County Justice Court on Feb. 11, 2009. Credit: Matt Bush/The Hattiesburg American/Associated Press
Reveal host Al Letson (right) and reporter Jonathan Jones stand in the parking lot of Benndale Carpets, where the incident occurred. Credit: Imani Khayyam for Reveal

Dig deeper

Read: The 2009 grand jury report regarding the death of Billey Joe Johnson Jr.

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

Share: Do you have information about the death of Billey Joe Johnson? Send us a tip.

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, Kathryn Styer Martinez and Ameeta Ganatra | Interim CEO: Annie Chabel | Interim editor in chief: Sumi Aggarwal

Mama Blue sang our theme song, which was written and composed by Nina Simone. Thanks to the Nina Simone estate and Music and Strategy. News and sports footage of Billey Joe Johnson courtesy of Gray Media Group Inc., WLOX-TV. Thanks to Jackson State for letting us use their documentary. 

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

Special thanks: Katharine Mieszowski, Alexis Hightower, Jen Chien, Esther Kaplan and Christa Scharfenberg

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.

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Al Letson:From the Center For Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson, and it’s May 1970. Tension blankets the country like a fog. The racial justice movements, women’s rights, and peace protests against the Vietnam War, well, it’s all coming to a head. Then, Kent State.
Speaker 9:Leave this area immediately.
Speaker 10:When four people lose their lives and nine are injured, the consequences are never justified.
Al Letson:On May 4th, the National Guard shoot at anti-war protesters on Kent State’s campus, killing four and wounding nine students. College campuses across the country explode with calls for justice. At the Historically Black College Jackson State in Mississippi, students are fed up, not just with the war and the violence at Kent State, but with years of dealing with racists driving through the middle of campus.
James “Lap” Bak…:Cars used to come through there quite often, and the white citizens used to come through, and sometimes they would holler at us, scream at obscenities, and throw eggs, and bottles, and bricks, or what have you, using the N-word.
Al Letson:That’s James “Lap” Baker. He was a student at Jackson State in 1970. On May 14th, just 10 days after Kent State, students in Jackson lash out. They throw rocks, anything they can get their hands, on at cars driven by white people through the campus. That night, an old dump truck set on fire. Students gather on both sides of the street to watch.
James “Lap” Bak…:Came back that evening and there was another little incident. But everything settled down. All this started on the 14th, so the 15th was when we heard the marching.
Al Letson:The marching sound was coming from the police. Around midnight, about 75 police officers show up, armed with submachine guns, shotguns, and rifles. They move through campus like an invading force, stopping near Alexander Hall, one of the women’s dorms. Students watch from both sides of the streets as one officer calls through a megaphone, “Ladies and gentlemen.” Before he can say anything else, someone throws a bottle at them. When it hits the concrete, it shatters with a pop. Police open fire into the crowd, shooting nearly 400 rounds.
Speaker 12:[inaudible]
Al Letson:Later, police would claim it started because a sniper in the dorm building had been firing at them, but the FBI finds no evidence of a sniper.
James “Lap” Bak…:So, no sniper was on the fifth floor. Here again, let’s think logically. If there were a sniper on the fifth floor, he would not have hit all of these students on both sides of the campus of Lynch Street. No way.
Al Letson:The police wound a dozen and kill two-
Speaker 13:Two young Negroes, a high school student named James Greene[crosstalk]
Al Letson:… 21 year old pre-law student, Phillip Lafayette Gibbs, and 17 year old high school student, James Earl Green, who was just going home after work. No charges are ever filed, and no one is ever held accountable. Lap says, “What happened at Jackson State is a part of a long history.”
James “Lap” Bak…:Mississippi’s always been a state that was very overt when it came to blacks and whites. Certain things you can’t prove, because certain things are hidden. I think it had to do with who the individuals were, meaning black students. It was racial, in my opinion.
Al Letson:This is Reveal’s Serial Investigation.
Speaker 14:(singing)
Al Letson:Mississippi Goddam, the Ballad of Billey Joe. Episode Two, The Aftermath. We’re dedicating seven episodes of Reveal to the story of Billey Joe Johnson, a 17 year old, black high school student who reportedly shot himself during a traffic stop with a white deputy in Lucedale, Mississippi. But this isn’t just the story of Billey Joe. It’s the story of America and how tragedies, like the killing of young, black men at Jackson State and the lack of justice and accountability, create the context for the world we live in. Incidents like that are why Billey Joe’s family never believed the official story of what happened to him, but it’s also an oversimplification. To really understand why the Johnsons lost faith in the investigation, you have to go back to the morning Billey Joe died, December 8th, 2008.

It’s barely above freezing in Lucedale. The sun won’t peek over the horizon for another hour or so. Just off Highway 26, in front of Benndale carpet and Furniture, you can see Billey Joe’s muddy, maroon Chevy pickup truck. It sits like an abandoned dream in the parking lot on the edge of town. Next to the vehicle, Billey Joe’s body is lying on the ground. Police lights flash, as people drive by on their way to work or school. Now, Lucedale’s a town of just 3,000 people, and it doesn’t take long for the word to spread. Something happened to Billey Joe at Benndale Carpets.
R.J. Spivery:My girlfriend at the time in high school, she called me, and she said, “You hear …?” She was crying. She was like, “You hear what happened?” I’m like, “No. What?” She was like, “Billey’s dead.” I was, “Billey’s dead?” She was like, “Yeah.”
Al Letson:R.J. Spivery is one of the Billey Joe’s closest friends.
R.J. Spivery:So, I jumped up and went straight over there.
Al Letson:On his way, he calls Chavis Jones, another good friend.
Chavis Jones:He called and was like, “Man, you know, they say Billey killed himself.” I’m like, “No. No.” He’s like, “Yeah.” He’s like, “We out here at Benndale Carpet now.” So, I jumped in my car. I left my cousin and them at the house. I jumped in the car and get out there.
Al Letson:Billey Joe’s Aunt, Nancy Bradley, gets a call from someone who heard that Billey Joe had been in a car accident. She immediately leaves work. When she gets to the scene, she sees a small crowd.
Nancy Bradley:I looked for my peoples, my peoples, brothers, cousins. None of them was there. I was the only one that was kin to him there. Everybody else was coaches, polices. I didn’t know some of them, because they was out of uniform, and they was all white people. I didn’t see no black people.
Al Letson:The police have blocked off the area with their cars. The ambulance is there, the sheriff, the coroner, the game warden, and two of Billey Joe’s football coaches. They’re all gathered around inside the crime scene tape, and they’re all white. Also there are the sheriff’s deputies, Lucedale police officers, paramedics, the crime scene investigators, most of them white, too.
Nancy Bradley:And when I was going to the body, that’s when the police stopped me. I didn’t see no one else come over there where I was or anything, nobody. I was just sitting there trying to call everybody I could know on the phone. No one. It was hours, hours. I sit and talked, and no one still didn’t talk to me.
Al Letson:A mixed crowd with a lot of black people begins to gather down the street from the scene.
Speaker 18:Well, they just had everybody backed off, roped off. You couldn’t go up there.
Chavis Jones:Police cars and stuff was there. Like I said, they parked us or they made us go over by the barbecue place. That’s where they had us at, and they were basically … You could see Billey’s truck from where we were standing.
Al Letson:Billey Joe’s parents don’t have a working landline or cellphone, so it takes a bit longer for them to find out. When they arrive, a large group of people are already there. The Johnsons wade through the crowd to the edge of the scene, hands touching them, some eyes averted. Billey Joe’s mom, Annette, barely contains her grief. They want to see their child, to identify the body, to understand what’s happened here. Billey Joe Sr says they’re told-
Billey Joe John…:“You don’t come no closer than that right there.” He said, “Ya’ll back on back. I’m going to put a thing, and none of y’all better not come past it.”
Al Letson:He says the police officer looks him in the eyes and says, “If you cross that line, I’ll shoot.” He’s told they have it all under control.
Billey Joe John…:He said, “We’ve got everything under control. We don’t need you over there.” What you got under …? You ain’t got nothing under control.
Al Letson:One of Billey Joe’s football coaches has already been asked to identify the body, while his parents are just a few yard away.
Billey Joe John…:We wasn’t treated fairly in no kind of way, because, point blank, they supposed to let me and my wife come up over there or let me come if they didn’t let me come. Let me go over there and see what’s what.
Al Letson:A reporter asked Billey Joe’s mother, Annette, what she thinks.
Annette Johnson:I can’t say nothing until they let me see him, but I know he didn’t kill himself.
Al Letson:But she doesn’t get to see her son’s body for several days. No one in the family does, not until after an autopsy is performed in Jackson and he’s sent back to a local funeral home. This will stay with the family and many in this community long after Billey Joe’s body is in the ground.

Two hours after the sheriff’s deputy radios in that Billey Joe shot himself, as the crowd continues to grow, a new vehicle pulls into the parking lot. It’s an unmarked police car, a black Dodge Charger, with its blue lights flashing. The car door opens, and a special agent from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations steps out, a man named Joel Wallace. Wallace is a black law enforcement officer. He knows exactly what the optics of this scene are. A black teen dead on the ground. A white police officer pulled him over. Most of the white people are inside the police line. Most of the black people are outside of it, cordoned off, with no voice.

Wallace walks over to the family. He gives Annette a hug and promises to investigate thoroughly. But Mississippi’s had a bad track record of investigating suspicious deaths, especially of black men. That system has been used to cover up racial violence, preserving white supremacy. Now, Joel Wallace might be a black man, but he’s also a cop with the same organization that shot up Jackson State in the 70s and killed James Earl Green, who was just 17 at the time, the same age as Billey Joe. The family and others might not be thinking about that specific case, but they feel the burden of it. When Special Agent Joel Wallace steps past the crime scene tape, he’s crossing a gap as wide as history. Meanwhile, down the road from the crime scene, Billey Joe’s friends, R.J. Spivery and Chavis Jones, get a phone call. It’s from another high school student, Hannah Hollinghead. She and Billey Joe had an on-again, off-again relationship.
R.J. Spivery:She’s like, “Meet me at the bank over there.” Me and Chavis slipped off, went up the road, and met her.
Al Letson:Do you remember what she told you?
R.J. Spivery:Yeah. She said she heard somebody trying to come in the trailer. She said she got scared. She said she didn’t know it was Billey’s car outside. “You didn’t know what Billey drove?” She was like, “No. I didn’t know.” She said she called her mom. Her mom told her she was finna call the police. She said that Billey stopped trying to get into the trailer and came to her window and said he was tapping at her window. She heard some sirens. When she heard sirens, he stopped. She looked out a window. He was running to his truck.
Al Letson:According to his ex-girlfriend, Billey Joe wasn’t going hunting that morning, like he told his folks, at least not right away. All of this just leads to more questions for the Johnson family. Was Billey Joe running away from Hannah’s house when he got pulled over? What does the autopsy say? And who is Joe Sullivan, the deputy who pulled Billey Joe over?

By the end of the week that Billey Joe died, the Johnsons are becoming increasingly frustrated that they haven’t been kept informed on what was going on with the investigation. They feel like they’re being left in the dark. So, Billey Joe Sr starts looking for someone else to help them figure out what happened to their son.
Billey Joe John…:Everybody was coming around, and so they said, “Well, they ain’t giving you what you need to do,” so they say, “Well, just start talking to the NAACP.” Then we just went [inaudible] with them, started me talking with them.
Al Letson:That’s next on Reveal. If you like what we do and you want to help, well, it’s pretty simple. Just write us a review on Apple Podcast. It’s easy and only takes a few seconds. Just open the Apple Podcast App on your phone, search for Reveal, then scroll down to where you see, “Write a review.” There, tell them how much you love the host. Your review makes it easier for listeners to find us, and, well, it really does make a difference. And if you do it, you will get a personal thank you from me, like right now, like thank … Not him. Not … You. Yes, you. Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. All right.
Speaker 21:Good evening. Thanks for joining us. Billey Joe Johnson Jr’s family and friends will have to wait well into the new year for answers about the death of the George County football star. Rumors and speculation about the circumstances of his death have been swirling.
Al Letson:In the days after Billey Joe’s death, the Johnsons, of course, were heartbroken, not just from their loss, but by how they were treated at the scene of his death. They weren’t asked to identify his body, and Billey Joe Sr is worried he will never see the results of the autopsy report. He says the police aren’t communicating with them, and they don’t know what’s happening in the investigation. So, he decides to go public with his concerns. District Attorney Tony Lawrence sets up a face to face meeting with the Johnsons. Afterwards, Lawrence tells the press it was a very informative and thorough meeting, but that’s not how Billey Joe Sr remembers it.
Billey Joe John…:He had called us down there one day down there, he was saying about this happened, that happened, you know, but I wasn’t hearing nothing that I wanted to hear.
Al Letson:Even before that meeting, the family had been so upset that they decided to get help from someone else.
Billey Joe John…:You know, everybody as coming around, and so they said, “Well, they ain’t giving you what you need to do,” so they said, “Well, just start talking to the NAACP.” Then we just went in there and started with them, started me talking with them.
Curley Clark:Initially, the NAACP had a prominent part to play in that, because the initial way that they wanted to try to frame it was a suicide.
Al Letson:Curley Clark was and is the vice President of the NAACP in Mississippi. He says early on the DA was leaning into a suicide theory.
Curley Clark:They were putting that out there that Billey Joe was distraught, because Hannah had rejected him, and that he panicked when the officer turned on his blue lights, and that he ultimately took his own life. We didn’t buy that scenario.
Al Letson:How did you back that up that it wasn’t a suicide?
Curley Clark:Well, from the standpoint of his state of mind, the situation that he was … I think he was within a week or so getting the letter to go to a prominent school. I don’t know if it was-
Al Letson:Auburn.
Curley Clark:Auburn. That he was looking forward to it, talked to a number of persons in his family, and friends, and so on and so forth. So, he had too much to live for than to be a person who’s going to … a suspect to take his own life.
Al Letson:The NAACP starts its own investigation, following leads from the community. They interview 15 people and hear that Hannah’s parents were against her relationship with Billey Joe, that her family had ties to the police department, and that some of the cops didn’t like Billey Joe.
Curley Clark:We got that information, and we tried to follow up from that standpoint. We made that information known to the District Attorney’s Office and requested that they take that into consideration, because we weren’t allowed to interview Hannah, or her mother or father, or the police officers involved.
Al Letson:While the NAACP works on its investigation, the family reaches out to other civil rights organizations, like Color of Change and the ACLU, and they get a lawyer.
Curley Clark:The family contacted the Janet Cochrane Firm, and once they did that, I took a backseat to it. I gave them all the information that I had, and then they were going to go forward.
Al Letson:Jerome Carter worked out of the Mobile office of the law firm founded by the late Johnnie Cochran, a big time defense attorney who gained fame for representing O.J. Simpson.
Speaker 23:Recently, I was in a car accident, and my lawyer got me $3.5 million.
Speaker 24:Stop lying. You’re an actor. You know you didn’t get no $3.5 million back. Tell the truth. Come on, baby.
Jerome Carter:I’m Attorney, Jerome Carter. If you want to keep most of your money, call me right now.
Speaker 24:That’s what I’m talking about, baby. Woo.
Al Letson:But Carter was not Johnnie Cochran. Most of his cases focused on personal injury, criminal defense, and family law. But still, he gives it a shot. He conducts interviews, hires a private eye, and gets an independent autopsy. He believes Billey Joe was outside of his truck with the door open when the shot was fired. In media interviews, Carter says he doesn’t believe Billey Joe could have killed himself, either by accident or on purpose. Investigators never seriously consider whether his death was a result of foul play, according to the case files we have. While Wallace, the Cochran Firm, and the NAACP are doing their own separate investigations, the Johnsons are dealing with their grief. Dan Wetzel, a journalist for Yahoo Sports sees it firsthand.
Dan Wetzel:There’s no devastation like a parent losing their child, particularly in a circumstance where nothing makes sense. They were very kind people, very humble people.
Al Letson:Dan meets with the family while they’re waiting to hear what investigators came up with. While he’s there, they show him Billey’s truck.
Dan Wetzel:The truck had never been washed, so it was … I’m not going to say it was the same as the crime scene, because this was maybe six weeks later, five weeks later, but there was forensics tape on it. I mean, the back of the truck still had all sorts of letters from colleges recruiting Billey Joe. There was ACT books. There was college books. There was homework. All around where the driver’s side door was there was still remains of Billey Joe’s head from the gunshot. It was somewhat surreal to see.
Al Letson:Surreal, but also concerning. According to the official story, Billey died right next to this truck. It’s very much a part of the crime scene. With the truck back, Billey Joe’s dad tries to draw his own conclusions.
Dan Wetzel:Here’s a father trying to analyze the blood evidence, the splatter evidence on the side of a truck that obviously none of us are equipped with the expertise to do. But there really wasn’t any other option at that point.
Al Letson:Two months of waiting, with rumors in the community, questions from the family, and silence from the authorities. Then the day comes. Monday, February 9th, 2009. Nearly 150 friends and family gather in mourning at George County Courthouse.
Speaker 27:We want justice.
Speaker 28:We want justice served.
Speaker 27:We want truth.
Speaker 29:We want justice.
Speaker 27:We want justice.
Speaker 29:We want truth and justice.
Speaker 27:We want truth. We want justice.
Speaker 28:Justice.
Al Letson:Wearing t-shirts, “In memory of our rebel,” with a photograph of Billey Joe in his football uniform. They hold up signs, “Community for justice,” “Who murdered our hero?”, and, “Justice in 2009, not 1900.”
Curley Clark:It was a very tense situation, because the word was out in Lucedale that Billey Joe’s death wasn’t by his own doing.
Al Letson:There’s news footage of District Attorney Tony Lawrence making his way to the courthouse. On the way, he’s presented with petitions.
30:This is who they have behind them. These are the 25,000 petitions [inaudible].
Al Letson:The petition expresses grave doubts that Billey Joe could have shot himself and calls on the DA to thoroughly investigate inconsistencies in the case, instead of taking the police version at face value. In the TV clips, Lawrence seems unsure what to do with these petitions.
30:Okay? All right.
Tony Lawrence:Thank you so much.
30:Thank you.
Tony Lawrence:I’m going to keep these?
30:Oh. They’re yours.
Tony Lawrence:Thank y’all.
Al Letson:Lawrence then makes his way to the chambers. The Grand Jury is chosen by the DA. In Billey Joe’s case, 18 of the 20 jurors are white. Only the District Attorney and his team are authorized to present evidence. There are no transcripts. So, everything that happens in that chamber is secret. We don’t know exactly what they heard or how the evidence was presented, but we have the list of people who the Grand Jury was scheduled to hear from that day, Special Agent Joe Wallace, the other investigators, cops, the medical examiner, Hannah Hollinghead, her mother, folks from the crime lab, and several people who said they drove by the traffic stop. Out of the first 17 witnesses scheduled, Wallace is the only black person. Near the end of the day, the DA calls the other black witnesses. There are 12 of them. Many were Billey Joe’s family members. Billey Joe Sr.
Billey Joe John…:You know, when they called me in there, I went in there in front of the Grand Jury saying what I had to say. Then they called another in there, but we don’t know who’s going in there, up in there when they had the Grand Jury up in there.
Al Letson:His Aunt Nancy.
Nancy Bradley:They didn’t ask me anything, when I got on the scene, when I came to the scene. I said they didn’t ask me anything about him. They just asked me, “How was he?”
Al Letson:… his uncles, Don Galloway and Arthur Fairley.
Don Galloway:They asked some questions about his love life.
Arthur Fairley:Well, I just told them what I know, and I just felt like they were hiding a lot of stuff from us that wasn’t adding up.
Al Letson:Some family members and other black witnesses feel like they were just called for show, as some kind of professor that authorities had listened to them. During that one day session, the Grand Jury heard from 30 people and reviewed 65 exhibits. By that Tuesday, newspapers were reporting that the Grand Jury had made up its mind and would reconvene on Thursday to announce its decision. The mood at the courthouse is just as intense as the first day. Everyone is on edge. Reporter Dan Wetzel is in the courtroom watching.
Dan Wetzel:The courtroom was full. It certainly was notable that in the crowd there was I think I counted about 100 African Americans, and there were just four white citizens there to hear what had happened, which was obviously a notable ratio that would cause someone to pay attention.
Al Letson:The Johnsons and their extended family pack into a side room to meet with District Attorney Lawrence. He tells them what the Grand Jury decided before announcing it to the public. Arthur Fairley, Billy Joe’s uncle, is furious.
Arthur Fairley:Tony Lawrence was there, and he wanted to explain what was going on, that Billey had killed himself, you know. He was telling us all that, and I was telling him, “No. That’s not true. Too much evidence that it don’t prove up to that. You can’t take no gun and from the gun inflicted wound that you got and say that he killed himself. It just don’t add up the way everything looked to me.” I finally just sat down and just be quiet, because I was getting pissed off and getting angry.
Al Letson:Billey Joe Sr says the DA’s explanation is absurd.
Billey Joe John…:How can you get a big, long gun like that and put it to your head and shoot you, and when you lay down, the gun laid on top of you? That don’t seem right. If you’ve got that gun away from you, you’ve got it by the barrel or whatever, and it accidentally shoots you, that gun is going to go out the other side of the truck or whatever. It ain’t going to stay right there where you at. And that gun kicked like a mule. I know it.
Dan Wetzel:I remember them all coming out of a side meeting room at the courthouse and just seeing, again, the pain and the anguish on the Johnsons’ face.
Speaker 34:The Grand Jury unanimously finds that the only plausible and scientific explanation for this incident is that the Sears and Roebuck 12-gauge shotgun accidentally discharged.
Al Letson:The Grand Jury finds that Billey Joe’s death was accidental beyond a reasonable doubt and that Deputy Sullivan was in his patrol car at the time. They say Billey Joe accidentally shot himself while trying to move his 12-gauge shotgun in the cab of his truck.
Speaker 35:The 9-page Grand Jury report, which outlines 15 findings of fact, was read before the packed courtroom of Judge Robert Krebs.
Speaker 34:The Grand Jury finds that Deputy Joe Sullivan could not have shot and killed Billey Joe Johnson Jr, as the forensic evidence and the wound track of Billey Joe Johnson Jr does not support homicide.
Al Letson:District Attorney Tony Lawrence.
Tony Lawrence:I suspect he was probably trying to maneuver the gun in a place to where he was trying to either unload it, get it out of the car to unload it, or something of that nature, and it discharged on him.
Speaker 36:The Grand Jury’s findings in Billey Joe Johnson Jr’s death were met with disbelief outside the George County Courthouse.
Speaker 37:What’s the next step?
Billey Joe John…:Well, we’re talking about it. We haven’t decided, but we’re going further with it.
Speaker 37:So, you don’t agree it was an accident? You don’t think your son accidentally shot himself?
Billey Joe John…:No. I really don’t believe that. But I ain’t accusing nobody of nothing, but I really don’t believe that.
Speaker 38:In the past two months, nothing has turned out the way the football star’s parents thought it would. Instead of looking forward to their son’s senior year of high school, they’re heartbroken and disappointed.
Billey Joe John…:But really I ain’t got no comment, because my heart is hurting too bad right now. I ain’t feeling too good right now.
Al Letson:The video of the family outside the courthouse is a memory trapped in amber. You can see the deep sorrow, the anger, in real time. This was the Johnsons’ big hope. They felt their questions and concerns were ignored, questions and concerns that came from their lived experiences in Lucedale, but also rooted in systemic racism. They thought they’d get answers. Instead, they head back home, convinced that authorities had not gotten to the truth.

When we come back, we start asking some questions the family felt were left out of the investigation. My reporting partner, Jonathon Jones, and I start by recreating the route Billey Joe took the morning of his death. This is a really tight window. Right? I mean, according to the GPS, we’re going to get their right around the time that he … GPS says we’ll be there right now at 5:24. What’s your speed right now?
Jonathon Jones:I’m going 65.
Al Letson:This is Reveal.
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Al Letson:After the Grand Jury, the Johnson family is still left with so many unanswered questions. They didn’t believe the official story, that Billey Joe had shot himself. They felt investigators didn’t take their concerns seriously. We needed more details about what investigators came up with that led the Grand Jury to its decision. On a cold December morning more than a decade after Billey Joe’s death, reporter Jonathon Jones and I get up before the sun. We decided to retrace what happened that morning. It’s difficult, because the time codes from the 9-1-1 calls, police dash cams, and dispatch logs were all over the place. They don’t match up at all.

So, we’re going to base the timing on the information that Special Agent Wallace got during police interviews. As we go, we’re going to play back some of the interviews and other materials in the case file. Now, we don’t know if what people say in these interviews was true or not, but it will help us figure out where to start asking questions. We begin with an interview from Billey Joe’s uncle, Don Galloway. He told police that Billey Joe got up early that day.
Don Galloway:5:10 [inaudible].
Al Letson:Don lives behind Billey Joe in another trailer. He remembers the exact time, because his wife woke him up early to give her a ride to work.
Don Galloway:Got to Billey’s house about 5:11. Junior pulled out in front of me.
Al Letson:So, that’s where J.J. and I start, at Billey Joe’s trailer at 5:11 AM. All right. Starting now.
Jonathon Jones:Stop watch starting.
Al Letson:We pull out and head towards the highway.
Speaker 42:Proceed to the route.
Al Letson:It’s early, so that isn’t a lot of traffic.
Speaker 42:Turn right onto Deep Creek Road.
Al Letson:The early morning darkness on these back roads is complete. For Uncle Don it’s only Billey Joe’s tail lights and the occasional sign breaking the night. Then his radar detector goes off.
Don Galloway:Beep. Beep. Then I said, “Baby, there’s one coming at us.” When I passed him, you could see his whole light on top, and you could see the whole police car. Both people’s in the car. It was that two heads in the car I seen, the police car. All right? I said, “Baby, that’s him.”
Al Letson:Don’s riding dirty. His license is suspended, and he doesn’t want to get pulled over. He sees Billey Joe turn down Fig Farm Road, a dark stretch that’s a shortcut to Lucedale. Don continues driving on the main road into town while Billey Joe drives off with a cop car following behind him.
Don Galloway:He slowed down by the Fig Farm Road and turned off right behind Billey Jr, the exact same way.
Al Letson:As Don looks in his rear view, he has one thought.
Don Galloway:I say, “Well, baby, Junior’s going over to that girl’s house again.”
Al Letson:That girl is Hannah Hollinghead, Billey Joe’s on-again, off-again girlfriend. This is where things get complicated. Billey Joe told his family he was going hunting. Uncle Don says he saw Billey Joe heading towards the trailer where Hannah’s dad lives. Her folks were divorced. We pull up across the street from Hannah’s trailer. Here’s Hannah’s first interview with investigators on the day Billey Joe died.
Hannah Hollingh…:It was about 5:26 this morning, and I was laying in the bed, and I heard it sounded like my screen door open. So, my dog started barking, and I told him to be quiet. I grabbed my glasses, because it sounded like somebody was trying to break into my house.
Al Letson:She sounds young. She had just turned 17 when all of this happened. Hannah says her dad was at work.
Hannah Hollingh…:So, my dog’s barking, and then I hear this big knock on the door, like somebody’s trying to beat the door in, coming in. I got my phone and called my mama and said, “Mama, hurry fast. Someone’s trying to break in.”
Al Letson:Her mom, Esther Parker, is sitting next to her throughout the interview.
Esther  Parker:I said, “What’s wrong?” She said, “Mama, someone is trying to break in the trailer. Please hurry.” So, I explained to her, “Call 9-1-1,” and I would get up and get there as soon as I could.
Hannah Hollingh…:But I was too nervous, and I couldn’t, because I didn’t know what to do, because I thought he was fixing to come in. My mama called 9-1-1.
Speaker 45:George County 9-1-1. What’s the location of your emergency?
Esther  Parker:Yes, ma’am. It’s a trailer park. It’s located right across from [inaudible]. I’m not sure the street address.
Speaker 45:Okay.
Esther  Parker:My daughter is in a trailer up there. She just called and said it sounds like someone is trying to break in the trailer, and she is in there by herself.
Al Letson:J.J. and I sit in the parking lot of the funeral home waiting until 5:31 to continue the route. Waiting for a minute takes a long time.
Jonathon Jones:She says that he got there around 5:24 and that he left around 5:31,5:32. That’s several minutes of trying to wake up Hannah.
Al Letson:Hannah says her mom called back.
Hannah Hollingh…:About 5:32,5:31 she called and asked if I was okay, just checking on me. Then I heard him coming around to my window and like tap on my window, on my bedroom window. Then I just sat on the bed, and my dog was still barking, going crazy. Then I heard a siren, so I knew that was my chance to look out the window and see who it was. I seen Billey running to his truck that he had parked across the street from the trailer park.
Al Letson:Now, according to Hannah’s account, Billey Joe was at her place from 5:26 to 5:32. That seems weirdly specific to me and a long time to be banging loudly on someone’s door that early in the morning. She says Billey Joe hears sirens, gets back in the truck, and heads down Oak Street.
Jonathon Jones:Yeah. It’s worth noting that Oak Street, the street that Billey Joe was driving down, leads you right to the police department. I mean, literally it’s like a block away from where he turns off.
Al Letson:We continue down the same road.
Jonathon Jones:Now, this area is well lit. We’re basically right outside the main downtown strip. There are street lights, traffic lights, and Christmas lights up as well.
Al Letson:This is where George County Sheriff’s Deputy Joe Sullivan enters the case. He tells investigators he was just coming on duty, planning to meet his partner at the Waffle House. He says he sees a red truck run a red light on Highway 26 and starts to follow him with his lights on.
Joe Sullivan:He was flying, probably 40, 45, 50 miles an hour.
Speaker 46:So, it wasn’t like he slow rolled.
Joe Sullivan:It wasn’t no casual roll through it. He blew it. He was going so fast he almost … He just about didn’t make that turn right there in front of O’Reillys in the left hand lane [inaudible] went around.
Al Letson:Sullivan says he turned on his lights and follows the truck roughly for a mile and a half. Billey Joe pulled over in Benndale Carpets parking lot on the edge of town.
Joe Sullivan:1039. It’s going to be on Highway 26 in front of Benndale Carpets. [inaudible] is boy, John, Sam, zebra, boy, John, Sam, zebra, personalized tag.
Speaker 47:10:4. [inaudible] boy, John, Sam, zebra comes back to a Billey Johnson in McClain. Should be a ’99 Chevy red [inaudible]. Expiration’s one of ’09.
Al Letson:Deputy Sullivan’s patrol car didn’t have a camera, so we can’t verify his account of the traffic stop with Billey Joe. Joe Wallace, the investigator we told you about earlier, interviewed Sullivan the day Billey Joe died. Here’s what Sullivan says happened.
Joe Sullivan:I got out of the vehicle to talk to the driver about the violations. He exited the vehicle, handed me his driver’s license, and advised me that the reason he ran the stop sign was because his mother was sick. I advised him to have a seat in the vehicle. I was going to check his driver’s license.
Al Letson:He returns to his patrol car with Billey Joe’s driver’s license. He says Billey Joe went back to his truck.
Joe Sullivan:He sat right on the edge, like turned towards the door.
Joel Wallace:Okay. So, do you know the position of his legs? Were his legs bent out of the truck or in the truck?
Joe Sullivan:I think they were just kind of sitting on the edge facing the door.
Joel Wallace:Facing the door?
Joe Sullivan:Yeah.
Joel Wallace:Okay. The door was open on the truck?
Joe Sullivan:Yes.
Joel Wallace:Okay. Then, I mean, you said you went back in and attempted to run the driver’s license. You reached your glasses.
Joe Sullivan:I reached up to get my glasses to read the license. I looked down. I grabbed the mic to call in the license, and I heard the gunshot and the glass break. I looked up and saw him fall with the gun in his hand.
Joel Wallace:You saw him fall with the gun in his hand?
Joe Sullivan:Yeah.
Joel Wallace:Okay. Then your actions after that was what?
Joe Sullivan:I called dispatch. I need an investigator at my location. The fucker just shot himself. I advised them what happened. Send me a paramedic and some help. I got out. I walked up to check him and could see that he was obviously dead.
Al Letson:Benndale Carpet has long since closed, but the building is still there. Over a decade later, J.J. and I park close to where Billey Joe died.
Jonathon Jones:All right. So, this is approximately where Billey Joe was. I would say that this area is pretty well lit, in the sense of it’s still very dark out here, but the storage units have lights on them. Now, also, you have to remember that we’re here and behind us would have been a police car with the flashing lights hitting it as well.
Al Letson:It is 5:37 right now. In going through the case files, investigators never challenged Sullivan’s version of events. They appear to accept what he says as the truth without digging much deeper. One way they might have been able to verify part of the story was by pulling surveillance footage from Route 26, the road where Sullivan followed Billey Joe. They passed banks, the hospital, and fast food restaurants, all places that tend to have video cameras.
Chavis Jones:I think a camera somewhere should have caught something.
Al Letson:Billey Joe’s friend, Chavis Jones, again.
Chavis Jones:I mean, I don’t know how good the camera was at the bank back then, but the ATM has a camera. That ATM kind of is at a corner. It should have caught something.
Al Letson:In 2008, Chavis was a high school football player, but today he works as a sheriff’s deputy in the next county over. How long you been in law enforcement?
Chavis Jones:I guess if you add on my correction time and all, since like 2012. I started out at the state penitentiary in Greene County in 2012. I’ve been in it ever since.
Al Letson:I wanted to know what he’d make of Sullivan’s account now through the lens of law enforcement. So, we play him an interview that Sullivan did with investigators.
Joe Sullivan:I got behind the vehicle. I was probably 25 yards behind it. It went through the four way intersection at Highway 26 and Old 63. I followed it for about maybe half a mile, and it pulled into the parking lot of the Benndale Carpet store.
Chavis Jones:I would have handled it totally different. For instance, you initiate your lights there and he doesn’t stop, you know what you do? Y’all been to Benndale Carpet?
Al Letson:Yes. It’s a good little bit.
Chavis Jones:[inaudible] far away.
Al Letson:Right.
Chavis Jones:That’s a pursuit. If you initiate your lights that far ahead and he don’t stop, you’re in a pursuit. Whenever he comes to a stop, you’re going to come out your vehicle at gunpoint and get them out the vehicle. They’re going to be detained. You’re basically going to do what they call a [inaudible] take down, because this person is running from you. You know? At that point, you’re thinking they’re running for a reason. Something going on that they’re running. So, the calmness that he had doesn’t make sense.
Al Letson:Although Deputy Sullivan pursues Billey Joe for a mile and a half, Sullivan doesn’t call it in until they get to the Benndale Carpet Store.
Chavis Jones:Like I said, at that distance … because when you initiate your lights … If I begin to do a traffic stop, I’m going to let dispatch know, “Hey. I’m trying to go [inaudible] 03 with this vehicle. They ran a stop sign.” I’m going to try to give them a license plate. If they don’t stop in a reasonable amount of time, I’m going to go, “Hey, dispatch. They’re still rolling. They’re not stopping. Me at that point, if my backup’s close, I’m going to get them rolling to me, like say because you never know what’s fixing to go down at this point. Some people stop and come out the car shooting. You know what I’m saying?
Joe Sullivan:I advised him to have a seat in the vehicle. I was going to check his driver’s license.
Chavis Jones:In the academy, they teach you if somebody gets out the vehicle, don’t let them get back in, because if they get out, you can be separating them from a weapon. You let them get back in, you give them that second thought to maybe pull that weapon and try to use it. The way that they said it happened, you’ve got somebody that ran a stop sign. If you’re pursuing this person or this person drives farther than you expected them before they stop, you know, after you initiate your lights, if that person got out the vehicle, I’m not letting them get back in.
Al Letson:Something else from the official version of events stands out. Hannah’s statements about Billey Joe banging on her door for five minutes. On the day Billey Joe died, Hannah told Chavis and R.J. the same thing she told police. I asked R.J. about it. I’m sure at the time all of y’all are kind of just reeling, because your best friend just died. Right?
R.J. Spivery:Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Al Letson:But in retrospect, if Billey was banging on her door, wouldn’t he say, “It’s Billey”?
R.J. Spivery:Yeah.
Al Letson:And if he’s tapping at the window, wouldn’t he be like-
R.J. Spivery:“Hannah.”
Al Letson:… “Hannah”?
R.J. Spivery:Yeah.
Al Letson:Looking back, this doesn’t make sense to Chavis either.
Chavis Jones:He always used to go to her house when her dad left for work, so it didn’t make sense that she said he was trying to break in and that she didn’t know who it was. It didn’t make sense. Who else would be coming to your house at that time of morning? You know? So, it’s kind of hard for me to believe that she didn’t know it was him. I don’t understand that part, because we all knew that he went to her house in the morning time. We all knew, so just her saying that she didn’t know who it was and she didn’t know until he ran out and jumped into the truck, that don’t make sense.
Al Letson:So, now we’ve been through the official story of what happened the morning Billey Joe died, based on what we found in the case files, but the files don’t answer all the questions. Like we said, we really don’t know the exact time of events, because the police time codes from recordings and logs don’t match up. Another thing, Billey’s friends said he’d go to Hannah’s house in the morning all the time, so why did she think he was breaking in? Sullivan said Billey Joe was flying down Highway 26. Why didn’t the officers who went to Hannah’s house see him? They were driving up the same road that Billey Joe was supposedly going down. Then there’s the point Chavis brought up.
Chavis Jones:Y’all been to Benndale Carpets?
Al Letson:Right.
Chavis Jones:That’s a pursuit.
Al Letson:That Benndale Carpets is a good ways from where Sullivan first turned on his lights. And at that stop, why did Billey Joe get out of the car after police pulled him over? Why would he have reached for his shotgun? These are some of the questions the Johnsons are left with, too. But when they met with the district attorney, they say they didn’t get answers and couldn’t believe the Grand Jury’s decision.

So, we mentioned how Billey Joe’s dad was afraid he would never see the autopsy report. Well, we have that report. Next week, we take a closer look. We start by examining the system that handles autopsies in Mississippi. When Billey Joe Johnson dies in December of 2008, what’s the state of the medical examiner’s office at that point?
Speaker 51:It was absolutely in transition. Things were still messy. They’re still messy now.
Al Letson:We take the autopsy report to outside experts.
Speaker 52:The original pathologist actually did a pretty decent job in describing the injuries and saying where the skull fractures are, so the error was in the interpretation.
Al Letson:Finally, we meet the woman who conducted Billey Joe’s autopsy.
Adele Lewis:My name’s Adele Lewis. I’m the state chief medical examiner for the state of Tennessee.
Al Letson:And show her another report that says she got it wrong.
Adele Lewis:Who wrote this? Is this a person who’s trained at all in forensic pathology, because it doesn’t seem like it.
Al Letson:That’s next time on Reveal. We’re bringing you along on this investigation with us. If you want to see the Grand Jury’s decision or photos from this episode, text JUSTICE to 474747. Again, text JUSTICE to 474747. Standard data rates apply. If you get tired of the messages, you can text STOP at any time. You can also follow us on Twitter, @Reveal, and I’m @Al_Letson. If you missed Episode One, you can listen to it on our podcast feed. While you’re there, leave us a review. It helps spread the word about this story.

Our show was reported and produced by Jonathon Jones and me and edited by executive producer Kevin Sullivan. Michael I. Schiller is our series producer. Steven Rascón is our production assistant. Nina Martin is the digital editor for the series. Andy Donohue is the managing editor of digital. We had additional reporting and producing help from Ko Bragg, Michael Montgomery, Laurel Hennen Vigil, and Melissa Lewis. Special thanks to Reveal’s Katharine Mieszkowski and Alexis Toomer. Mama Blue sang our theme song, which was written and composed by Nina Simone. Thanks to her estate and Music and Strategy. We got news and sports footage of Billey Joe courtesy of Gray Media Group Incorporated, WLOX TV. Thanks to Jackson State for letting us use their documentary.

Our fact checker is Rosemary Ho. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Thanks to former Revealers, Jen Chien, Esther Kaplan, and Christa Scharfenberg. 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 [Stier] 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 54: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.

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.

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.

Michael Montgomery

Michael Montgomery is a senior reporter and producer for Reveal. He reports on the criminal justice system, vulnerable populations, and the underground economy. Montgomery has led collaborations with the Associated Press, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Frontline, KQED and others. After completing a Fulbright fellowship in Eastern Europe, Montgomery covered the fall of communism and wars in former Yugoslavia for The Daily Telegraph and Los Angeles Times. He also worked as an associate producer for "60 Minutes" correspondent Ed Bradley and was a senior reporter for American RadioWorks. His investigations into human rights abuses in the Balkans led to the arrest and conviction of Serbian and Albanian paramilitaries and the creation of a new war crimes court in The Hague. As a reporter and producer, Montgomery has garnered national and international prizes, including an Overseas Press Club Award, Investigative Reporters and Editors Certificate, Edward R. Murrow Award, Peabody Award and Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University gold and silver batons. Montgomery is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Melissa Lewis is a data reporter for Reveal. Prior to joining Reveal, she was a data editor at The Oregonian, a data engineer at Simple and a data analyst at Periscopic. She is an organizer for the Portland chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association. Lewis is based in Oregon.