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Big Evil’s Ride to Death Row

Michael Krikorian is a staff writer for the Fresno Bee. His last article for the magazine was on roses

In these days of support groups, Violet Loggins could start a large one for people whose husbands, sons, brothers, daughters or friends were murdered by one man. Loggins’ own mourning began seven years ago. Her husband, Donald Ray Loggins, worked at a local cable company, and since the birth of their son five months earlier, he had been as punctual as a Marine Corps reveille. He would pull into the driveway of their pleasant two-bedroom, South-Central Los Angeles home at 2:45 p.m. to watch the baby while Violet got ready for her swing-shift job. But on Aug. 5, 1991, Violet was sitting on the couch, cradling their child and staring at the telephone, wondering why her husband was so late.

Had Violet been outside at about 2:30 p.m., she would have heard distant gunshots, the sound of an Uzi being fired into the skulls of her 30-year-old husband and his friend, Payton Beroit, as they waited at a carwash on 88th Street and Central Avenue. It was the sound that symbolized the reign of terror of street gang leader Cleamon Johnson, who authorities say ordered the murders as he sat 100 feet from the carwash on the porch of his parents’ home, his throne.

Loggins and his friend were killed because they lived east of Central Avenue, a dividing line between Crips and Bloods. Evil says neither was a gang member, but Johnson, seeking to provide a newly recruited Blood with a mission to earn his stripes, spotted them and issued their death sentences.

“He tore my family apart,” says Loggins. “My husband was one of the good guys. He was always doing favors for people. Now I’m bringing up a child without a father . . . . All I have for my son are pictures. What do I tell him?”

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Few of the loved ones of Johnson’s victims, Violet Loggins among them, know the real name of the man who ruined their lives. But their eyes dart about nervously and anger distorts their faces at the mention of his street name.

This is the story of how a sweet young boy named Cleamon Johnson grew up to be “Big Evil.”

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By the early 1990s, the neighborhood controlled by the 89 family Bloods, Big Evil’s neighborhood, was among the deadliest in California. In 1993 alone, there were 12 murders in the gang’s half-square-mile turf. If all of Los Angeles had such a rate, there would have been 22,512 murders in the city, 4,635 more than in the entire United States last year. Big Evil was not responsible for all the mayhem, of course. But in a city with 100,000 gang members, he stood out.

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“Every gang has a bad ass, a shot-caller,” says LAPD Homicide Det.

Rosemary Sanchez. “Evil was the most violent one I ever knew about.”

FBI Agent Jon Lipsky says only famed Mafia killer Anthony “Tony the Ant” Spilotro was as violent. “Johnson has admitted to 13 murders by his own hands. That makes him a serial killer.”

In total, police attribute more than 20 murders to Johnson. But even using the lower figure to which Johnson has confessed, that means he murdered as many people as “Freeway Killer” William Bonin or “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez. In all likelihood, Evil’s relative obscurity has to do with where the slaughter occurred. No celebrities among these victims. No Palos Verdes bankers or Newport Beach realtors. These were innocents just trying to survive, or young gang members in way over their heads. Johnson’s defense tried to portray him as a victim of geography. “Evil is a product of 89th and Central,” said Joe Orr, counsel for Johnson’s co-defendant, Michael “Fat Rat” Allen. “With his charm, there’s no telling how far he could have gone. He was talented, but his abilities were diverted to the streets. If he had been raised in a different area, this would not have happened.”

His own mother, however, can’t believe it’s that simple. After a jury sentenced Johnson to death for Loggins’ and Beroit’s murders, she pondered her personal version of the question that has kept sociologists and criminologists and theologians bickering for decades. What makes a boy go bad? “I feel I gave him my all. I just don’t know what happened. Sometimes I feel I am to blame, but I did all a mother could do. I don’t know why it turned out like this.”

*

Cleamon Demone Johnson was born on Oct. 15, 1967, in Los Angeles. He had what many hard-core cases dream of--two loving parents. Aileen and Cleamon Johnson raised their son in a three-bedroom home on 88th Street. The white house had a large porch and a big backyard, complete with a pigeon coop that served as a playground for Cleamon, his two older half brothers, two younger brothers and a boisterous bunch of neighborhood boys. Norman Rockwell could have painted that scene, or the summer afternoons when Aileen gave her sons and their friends Kool-Aid and sometimes invited the neighbor boys to dinner, at which the family of seven said grace before eating.

Neighbors remember Cleamon as a sweet child with a big smile and an eagerness to help ladies bring groceries from their cars. He’d scan the bags, grab the most overflowing and wobble toward the porch, peering through the leafy contents to avoid curbs and steps. As a member of Boy Scout Troop 374, he earned many merit badges, including one he is still proud of: Survival. Like all boys with brothers, Cleamon learned to roughhouse from an early age, to fight back when the older boys slugged him, and to fight back tears when the punches hurt.

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That was a time when South-Central’s gangs still fought with fists, an occasional tire iron, a rare knife, and street trouble seldom spilled into homes. No one had yet heard the rumblings of an Uzi or AK-47 here. But in 1970, when Cleamon Johnson was 3, an epochal event occurred: Less than a mile away, some young men got together and started calling themselves the Crips. Things in South-Central would never be the same. Enter the era of families routinely ducking for cover, of sleeping on floors, of burying babies. Soon the “The City of Angels” was better known as the “Gang Capital of America.”

In response to the Crips, various groups of young men and boys from rival gangs--the Piru, the Bounty Hunters, the Brims and the Swans--banded together into a loose confederation that became known as the Bloods. Over time, large, well-armed Crips factions--East Coast Crips, Avalon Gardens Crips and, directly across Central Avenue, the Kitchen Crips--hemmed in Johnson’s neighborhood on three sides. That embattled horseshoe engendered the 89 Family Bloods.

One sweltering afternoon, when Johnson was 8, he was sitting on a fire hydrant at 84th and Towne when a car drove up. Teenagers got out and opened fire, shredding the body of his friend Darryl. It was Johnson’s first numbing, close-up view of death. Within a year he saw another boy murdered. Violence became part the backdrop, like the sound of jets descending toward LAX. Soon Johnson was caught up in it.

When word got home that he’d been fighting, Cleamon Johnson knew what to expect: “An ass-whipping.” But he doesn’t begrudge his parents their attempts at discipline. He says he enjoyed his childhood, and by all accounts, even during this time of schoolyard fistfights, he remained a good student, a curious, intelligent boy with a certain charm and bright smile. Cleamon’s parents took him and his brothers camping throughout the West. They understood the advantages such experiences offered, and because they sympathized with the children who came from broken homes, they often took along some of the pigeon coop boys. Cleamon was particularly fond of Oregon’s Crater Lake, a tree-sheltered pool of serenity atop a dormant volcano.

Though far from rich, the Johnsons spoiled their boys. At Christmas, when other kids received roller skakes, the Johnson boys got go-karts. What they couldn’t give them was immunity to the forces transforming the city. By the time he was 12 or 13, attending Drew Middle School near Watts, Cleamon was encountering young Crips hourly.

It was there, in the seventh grade, that he first tasted the thrill of being a bad ass. A larger and older Kitchen Crip had been bullying some youngsters. Johnson charged the boy, got the upper hand, and kept on going, smashing the boy’s face into a basketball pole until blood spurted onto the court. From then on, the other boys looked up to him. So did some of the girls. Nearly two decades before he received the death penalty, the battle for his life had begun.

From that point on, Johnson’s family found itself in a tug of war with the 89 Family. His parents dug in, pulling steadily; the gang yanked with adrenaline-filled spasms on the other side. The family pulled with love. The gang with power and fear. The gang won.

Johnson graduated to hanging with older, hard-core men, many of them ex-convicts. They were glad to have him on their side. “Evil was a great street fighter,” says Ricky Parker, Johnson’s half brother. “He was good with his hands, his elbows, his head, his feet, his knees, his teeth.”

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“He could really get down with his hands,” says a rival Kitchen Crip, one street fighter appreciating another. “It takes more than a gun to get respect.” Yet in this new Wild West, most gang members came to see a gun as survival gear. By the late 1970s, even the best street fighters had turned to firepower. Evil became as unfazed by shooting people as he had been at stomping their teeth in. From the most ruthless family members, Evil created a commando unit of sorts, which he called the 88 Monsters. Though he still lived with and respected his parents, on the street his rage would flow. Defending his outgunned ‘hood became an obsession.

“When his anger goes off, it is a something to check out, blood,” said a member of the Swans. “It was scary. He be getting like a hurricane, and you can’t stop him when he want to jack up someone. You know that he ain’t just talking, like so many other brothers. If he said it, I would say to myself, ‘Someone gonna die tonight.’ ”

*

Thanks, in part, to Evil, the LAPD and the District Atorney’s hard Core Gang Unit came to view the 89 Family as the deadliest small gang in the city. “Part of the reason they were so violent was that they were surrounded by much larger gangs on three sides,” says South Bureau Homicide Det. Christopher Barling, who testified as a gang expert in the murder trial. “To keep their little territory, 89 had to fight harder.”

Det. Thomas Mathew calls Johnson “the most cold-blooded killer in the city,” and sees himself as Evil’s nemesis. One of the gang’s traits, he says, was their turnaround time when it came to a retaliation shooting. “They were notorious for quick paybacks. Whenever we heard there had been shooting [on 89 Family turf], we would rush over to the rival’s turf and wait for them to come by. Sometimes they had already given the payback.”

But Evil wasn’t just fast. He was a street strategist, detectives say.

“Most gang members are reactionary, heat of passion,” says Barling. “You shoot us, we shoot you. Evil was different. Evil would think and plan things out.” He built a reputation for beating murder raps and for allegedly calling in several murders from behind bars. He even ordered the assassination of Mathew. For a time, an LAPD SWAT team shadowed the detective to counter the threat.

Evil’s crimes, meanwhile, were becoming street folklore. Barling recalls a 1991 assault on the Avalon Gardens housing project that Crips, Bloods and cops still talk about. “Evil had his guys do two other shootings just to get police away from Avalon Gardens,” he says. “He had guys in stolen cars waiting as getaway drivers. He had guys going into [the project] on the flanks. Then he led 10 of them--walking--into the middle of the project and fired off more than 200 rounds. It was lucky only one person died.”

Such tactics do not go unnoticed. In 1994, LAPD’s South Bureau homicide squad organized an 89 Family Task Force, consisting of detectives, FBI agents and the district attorney’s office. Their goal: bring down Evil for good. To succeed, however, the task force needed something authorities had always failed to get--witnesses who would take the stand. Many times Evil had been arrested as the prime suspect in a murder case and many times he had walked. His myth grew as word spread that he was untouchable. “How many times you gonna get arrested for murder then get out right away?” asks the former girlfriend of an 88 Monster. “Everyone in the neighborhood was talking about it. He gonna get out and kill you if you ratted on him. It was really simple.”

In 1994, Gloria Lyons told authorities that she saw an 89 Family member kill a man. She was killed. Georgia Denise Jones testified in the same case. She was killed. Two years earlier, Albert Sutton was due to testify in a murder trial. He was killed. But in developing evidence in the Loggins and Beroit murders, detectives latched onto a witness, Freddie Jelks, who was facing life in prison for a murder. During the Loggins-Beroit murder trial, Jelks said that Evil had ordered the killings. The jury voted to convict and sent Johnson to San Quentin’s death row. Now he’s in the Pitchess Detention Center in Saugus preparing to represent himself in yet another murder trial in January.

*

Big Evil receives a visitor from behind the thick glass window of a small metal cage that his 6-foot-2, 220-pound fat-free frame fills to capacity. These are the visitation arrangements the sheriffs reserve for their most explosive charges.

It is not the man’s menace that strikes you, though, or the bulging biceps, or his shaved head and piercing eyes. It’s Big Evil’s engaging smile.

“He was so nice,” says Sanchez, the homicide detective, recalling her first street encounter with the gangster. Sanchez, a 17-year veteran who had heard the fearsome tales about Johnson, was taken aback by his personality. “He had this big smile. He joked with us. And that laugh. That Big Evil laugh. It was . . . well, it was really evil. I’m happy we finally brought him down.”

Johnson smiles when he hears that Sanchez is glad he got convicted. His laugh rises in volume like a tsunami about to devastate a fishing village. “I think she’s mad at me because I wouldn’t give her any,” he says. “She was listening to me talk nasty to my wife [on a bugged county jail phone], and she was getting turned on.”

Sometimes , even when he’s laughing, it’s hard to tell if Johnson is joking. At the time of this interview, for instance, he was a trustee at the Men’s Central Jail. His job: food server. “No one complains about the service,” says Johnson. “That would be dumb.”

Ask him, though, what life is like now for a man who has deprived so many people of theirs, and the laughter stops. “I’m not really fond of life,” he says. “It seems like I’m already dead. I ain’t never been one that depends on hope.”

Ask him to tally how many deaths he has meted out, and his gaze becomes a glare. “That’s another story. That’s a whole long story,” he says. He pauses. Then he lowers his head and cocks it to one side, and suddenly he’s back 23 years and is talking about that boy who sat on a fire hydrant and watched his first killing. Listen to Evil now, and you can almost begin to see things from his severely contorted, Boy Scout-turned-killer’s perspective. You can almost see how, in the twisted realm of certain neighborhoods, where a parent’s tender hug is counterbalanced by some tough’s shove, a boy’s thinking could go so haywire.

In a way, Johnson was cursed with the rare qualities it takes to transcend the fear that can cripple such neighborhoods, that leaves many inhabitants half-dead with dread. He had that athletic body, wicked knockout punch and the drive to fight back ferociously. In the end, perhaps, the gang won out because to Johnson, love was no longer as vital as power.

And he loved that power.

Most boys at some point in their lives fantasize about being the baddest street fighter, about taking down bullies while girls ogle from ringside seats on the curb. Johnson’s parents and lawyers, the judge and the jury that convicted him, might not be so perplexed about his fate had they ever felt the addictive rush of walking into a party with a reputation that paralyzes the room, of having brutal men turn to you for protection, of hearing tales of your ruthlessness grow into legend.

From his perspective, love never stood a chance. And once Johnson was off on that alternative course, he threw himself into it with all his heart.

“I was the epitome of a gang member,” he says. “I was real. A lot of people be putting on a front that they bad. Acting tough. I wasn’t acting at all. I was just being me. I love to fight. Win, lose or draw. I’d rather put down a gun and fight. I fight to win. If you got to bite, bite. If you got to scratch, scratch . . . . People fail to realize, it was like a religion. It’s not for the fun of it. Some people worshiped Allah or Jesus. I worshiped Bloods.

“It’s like people going to Vietnam and getting programmed to kill. They can’t stop killing, and when they come back, they need help mentally. We couldn’t stop killing our enemies here either. I was one of them sick individuals. They locked us away, but we needed help mentally.”

Det. Mathew reflects on Johnson’s swift transition from boy to out-of-control killer. “He used to come up and ask me for baseball cards. Two months later, we’re looking for him on a murder. Did I have any baseball cards for him? Hell, no. I got handcuffs for him, that’s all.”

With Big Evil sentenced to death, and other key 89 Family members locked away, murders have plummeted in the area. Still, the legacy of the neighborhood that Evil helped create--that helped create Evil--lives on.

Johnson seems unconcerned that he is headed for death row. “I’m not worried at all about going to San Quentin,” he says. “I been in worse places.”

Such as?

“In an alley, with a .45 pointed at me. Too many times. But I’m a survivor. I just turned 30. I never thought I’d make it to 20. After I got the death penalty, I celebrated in jail with some homemade brew. I know I’m gonna be around at least 10 more years with all the appeals. Getting the death penalty saved my life.”


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