Misconduct allegations remain: Time does little to dim accuasations against officers

Published 9:43 am Saturday, November 26, 2016

Although public allegations of police abuse turned up no evidence of any legal convictions or finding of wrongdoing in any court of law, the sister of Johnny Lee Johnson, the alleged victim of the abuse, stands by allegations that police officer Kendall Bullen assaulted her brother.

Bullen is among several applicants to apply for the chief of police position, and in October, several critics said allegations of abuse should disqualify him. However, weeks of research have turned up no findings of guilt in any court and all eyewitnesses who could be located said that on the night of Sept. 1, 2001, Bullen did nothing wrong.

On the night in question, Johnson was wanted for forcible rape and kidnapping.

According to the report, written by John Stogner, Johnson was walking north on New Orleans Street. It was 10:30 p.m., and when Johnson saw the officers, he took off running. He knew the police had warrants on him.

Stogner and his partner, Bullen, gave chase, among others. The chase lasted a few blocks and Stogner said Bullen was fastest in the group. He got to Johnson first.

“(Johnson) stopped and turned around and got in a defensive pose,” Stogner said in a recent interview. “He was ready to fight.”

It would not have been the first time he allegedly tangled with an officer. A year earlier, Johnson reportedly sent Charles McDaniel to the hospital after he smashed a glass wine bottle over his head.

But Bullen opened his arms wide and, Stogner said, pinned Johnson’s arms together in a bear hug.

The moved knocked Johnson off balance and both men fell, as Johnson struck the back of his head on pavement. The fall injured Johnson and it would be the focus of years of allegations.

But even that didn’t stop Johnson. Stogner said it took four police officers to subdue Johnson and place him under arrest.

By 10:46 p.m., Johnson was in the emergency room, getting his wound treated. By 12:45 a.m., he was out of the hospital.

Johnson’s family said he was never the same after that.

Johnson died last year and his sister, Emma Gatlin, said she is his “voice from the grave.” Earlier this month, Gatlin offered a letter to The Daily News that alleged her brother was attacked “sometime in October 2001,” and that the incident resulted in brain damage to her brother, a diminished quality of life and, ultimately, to an early death last year.

Gatlin still disputes Stogner’s account of what happened. In her letter, Gatlin writes that she arrived at the hospital after the incident, to find her brother handcuffed to a bed and bleeding.

“I was outside smoking when Officer Bullen approached me and spoke with no regards for myself and my family, saying, ‘Hey girl,’ and I asked what happened and Mr. Kendall’s response was, ‘He fell,’” Gatlin writes. “At that time, I stated, ‘No, this was a result of police brutality and I hope you had nothing to do with his brutality.’ Officer Bullard (sic) then immediately dropped his head. How did my brother get a hole on top of his head from fall (sic)?”

Gatlin is not alone in her accusations.

Besides Johnson’s family, members of the Bogalusa police force have come forward with similar allegations over the Sept. 1, 2001, incident including, most prominently, former Assistant Police Chief Willis Yarbrough.

Yarbrough was in charge of the internal affairs division and he said he was one of the first officers to investigate the claims of police misconduct. Yarbrough remembers visiting Johnson in the parish jail on Saturday, a day after his arrest.

“I asked him who did this to him and he said Kendall Bullen and Jason Williams,” Yarbrough said.

Yarbrough added that besides Johnson, he also interviewed a witness.

“What the police officers didn’t know was there was a lady sitting on her back porch in the project and saw the whole thing going on,” Yarbrough said. “She was reluctant to give any information, but she eventually spoke. She said she saw them beating him and she gave me a written statement, which I put in my investigative report.”

This witness could not be located by deadline, and Stogner said there was no witness.

Finally, Yarbrough also said the other officer, Williams, admitted the police assaulted Johnson.

“I took the statement from Jason Williams and Jason Williams told me what went on,” said Yarbrough. “And I told Jason … he implicated himself. He told me what they did.”

Yarbrough said Williams quit the force soon after that because, Yarbrough said, he told Williams he would be fired for admitting the abuse.

Williams said unequivocally this was not the case. He said Stogner’s report is accurate and he strongly denied ever claiming there was misconduct.

“That is 110 percent untrue,” Williams said. “That is 120 percent untrue. I left the Bogalusa Police Department to work at Calpine — the power plant. When I was with the police department, I was making $11 an hour and Calpine was offering $18 dollars an hour.”

He also denied leaving the department shortly after the Johnson arrest.

According to Stogner’s police report at the time, the only witnesses were the responding officers and Johnson.

Johnson is dead, and there were six responding officers who were at the scene prior to the arrest. Those officers were Bullen, Williams, Stogner, Wendell O’Berry, Marty Baker and Timothy Stewart.

Officers say no beating occurred

Baker and Stewart could not be located by deadline, but the other four officers all said Johnson was not beaten.

Other officers arrived after Johnson was in handcuffs and they were contacted, but they did not see what caused Johnson’s injuries.

However, something happened, because the arrest led to some internal discipline.

The Daily News acquired some police memos from the time period that show Bullen was given 30 days unpaid leave for “unwillingness or failure to perform the duties of your position in a satisfactory manner.”

The memo to Bullen is dated Jan. 2, 2002 and it says a former FBI agent, Warren Jung, looked into the Johnson arrest and his report “concluded that you violated Municipal Civil Service rules and regulations in your arrest of subject Johnny Johnson.”

However, it does not offer any details or specifics of the violation.

Bullen said he got the suspension because he didn’t fill out paperwork in time. As the arresting officer, he said he should have filled out a report before his shift ended, and he failed to do that.

“My suspension was simply for not doing my paperwork one night,” he said. “I went home and I depended on someone else to do it. … I was definitely wrong for not doing it, but I just depended on someone else to do it and it didn’t get done and that’s the bottom line.”

Jung is still alive, but he said he can’t recall any details of his report.

“I’m not trying to stonewall you but I do not remember this thing at all,” he said, recently. “The name doesn’t even ring a bell to me. … I’m 75 now and the memory ain’t the greatest.”

The memo is signed by then-Mayor James M. McGehee. He said he also has no idea what the problem could have been.

“I thought I still had some of those personal files and I went through that stuff all morning long and I couldn’t find anything,” he said, in a recent interview.

McGehee said a violation of the civil service rules could mean almost anything, and it wouldn’t necessarily mean something serious. McGehee was clear on one point: Had Bullen been found to have beaten Johnson, he would not have been put on 30 days unpaid leave. He would have been fired.

“No, he wouldn’t have been there if that would have happened. I didn’t put up with stuff like that,” McGehee said.

The former mayor said he doesn’t ever recall having serious problems with Bullen.

“I was there 16 years and I never had any problems whatsoever with that particular officer,” McGehee said. “He was a highly trained officer and went to the FBI training academy.”

Yarbrough said, that as an internal affairs officer, he couldn’t discipline anyone. His job was to document and report his findings to Chief Jerry Agnew. Agnew signed off on the memo to Bullen, but he said he could not recall any details from the arrest or the lawsuit that came afterward.

“I’d have to think about that,” Agnew said. “It was quite a while back … there was a lawsuit and I think there was a settlement. But I know they released me.”

Yarbrough retired in 2002, but said he heard the eventual settlement in 2003 came to $50,000.

Municipal group: Settlement is no admission of guilt

Gatlin alleges, in her letter, that this settlement “in favor of my beloved brother, Johnny Lee Johnson. … is admission of guilt on the behavior of Mr. Kendall Bullen.”

However, Bullen had nothing to do with the settlement and the civil suit was ultimately dismissed in 2003.

The settlement came from Risk Management, an insurance group that Louisiana cities use.

Jerry Cronin, the general manager of Risk Management, said such settlements are not uncommon, but they never imply guilt.

“In a settlement, no one is admitting any liability whatsoever,” Cronin said. “Many times, a settlement is nothing more than an economic decision. It’s cheaper to write a check to the claim than it would be to take the case.”

Cronin had no memory of the settlement, though he said his records did indicate there was some sort of transaction between Risk Management and Johnson. Even so, Cronin felt certain the transaction would not have implicated the city or any officer.

“There would have been no admission of liability on the part of the city,” Cronin said.

Keith Detweiler, an attorney with Nielsen, Carter & Treas, the law firm that has long represented the city of Bogalusa, said without a doubt Johnson knew the payment was not an admission of liability.

“We are not obligated to keep records this long, but I did find a draft of the settlement agreement that Mr. Johnson would have had to sign in order for the case to be settled and to receive the settlement funds,” Detweiler said, in an email. “The agreement specifically states the agreement to settle is not an admission of liability or negligence as to anyone.

“Therefore there has never been a finding of liability as to Kendall Bullen for this incident involving Johnny Lee Johnson that I can find in our records, in the court record or that we are aware of.”

Johnson’s attorney, James Farmer, did not return a call for comment.

Gatlin also alleged in her letter that the charges of forcible rape and second degree kidnapping were later dismissed. These claims do not appear to be accurate.

Johnson was brought up before a grand jury and the grand jury did not indict Johnson on the charges. The only one who could have dismissed the charges, however, was the district attorney. Lewis Murray, an assistant district attorney at the time, said the charges were never dismissed. However, it is not clear why Johnson was not indicted.

Bogalusa Mayor Wendy Perrette has said in the past that she stands behind all of the candidates for the chief’s position, and she would never pick someone who had been found guilty of police misconduct in civil or criminal court.