Twenty-three years after the death of a young Black man found handcuffed and submerged in the Ocmulgee River in Macon, Georgia, advocates of the deceased, Steven Lamond Johnson, 24, at the time, continue to voice allegations that Bibb County law enforcement officials falsified accounts of his October 10, 2000, escape from probation officers on the last day of his obligatory “Intensive Probation Supervision.”
Defined as a zero-tolerance policy where the violation of rules, from the use of mouthwash containing alcohol to being late to scheduled appointments, or from any infraction dictated by the Macon Probation Office, in the early 2000s, failure to comply with its highly subjective restrictions often led to punitive consequences, up to and including additional jail time for offenders.
Steven Lamond Johnson was one appointment away from completing his mandatory six months in the program before reportedly running away while handcuffed.
In a written official statement, probation officer Roger W. Stembridge Jr. (now deceased) said that Steven Lamond Johnson allegedly tested positive for marijuana and was to be returned to jail. Adding that he restrained Mr. Johnson in “double locked handcuffs” before taking him, Stembridge wrote that Mr. Johnson
“was very forceful when he snatched away” from the grip of a second officer as he unlocked the transport vehicle. He further reported that Mr. Johnson “broke free and escaped” into the downtown area shortly after 5:00 p.m., on the day of the arrest.
Insisting a heinous “in-custody death” has been covered up for nearly two-and-a-half decades, advocates and family members continue to question what they called blaring inconsistencies between what witnesses said was his escape and subsequent capture on October 10, and the discovery of his handcuffed body in the river on October 16, 2000.
A mother’s fight for justice
During a telephone interview with The Final Call, Steven Johnson’s mother, Renee McGhee, said for more than 23 years she has been fighting for accountability and justice, noting that she found it odd that her son’s probation officer arrived at her home around 6:15 p.m., to search the premises shortly after the reported escape.
She also said that she heard his partner, a Black officer, tell him that Steven was spotted near the “Icehouse,” an office building across the river from where his body was discovered days later.
“The strangest thing about it was the Black officer left immediately when that call came in, but Stembridge was still standing there telling me: ‘Well you need to tell him to turn himself in,’” Ms. McGhee recalled of her conversation with the officer.
“But the guy that just left said he was spotted by the Icehouse, so why are you telling me to tell him that when he comes in to turn himself in?”
Describing her uneasiness over events as they unfolded that evening, and for the next six days, Ms. McGhee said she and others took it upon themselves to search for Steven’s whereabouts, calling the police for regular updates, and continuing to canvas the areas near the Icehouse building. She said they all expressed frustration over what they believed to be a lack of interest in finding her son.
Sadly, Steven Lamond Johnson’s young adult son, Rashaad Johnson, was killed by police this year in January, another source of deep pain and grief for Ms. McGhee.
‘Deceivers and the deceived?’
“There was nobody looking for him, not that I saw,” Ms. McGhee stated flatly. “They didn’t put it on the news saying they’re looking for him. It should have been a major media news report that they were looking for him. But a security guard that worked at the Macon Telegraph said my son ran right past him,” she added, pointing out that it was much earlier in the day than the officers originally told her or as cited in their reports.
“The guard said ‘ma’am, I was coming into work, and this happened at 2:30 because I was crossing the street (and) I know this for a fact because I come to work at 3:00, but I always come in 30 minutes early,’” Ms. McGhee said of their conversation.
“‘Your son ran right by me; he scared me and was handcuffed behind his back.’ He said that didn’t happen at no five or six, he said this happened before 2:30 because he always came in early,” she said. “His name was Stacy or Tracy Brown—the security officer that worked at the Macon Telegraph.”
Other witnesses such as Joseph Calloway, a former officer with 12 years on the Macon Police force, and six years as a deputy in the Bibb County Sheriff’s Department, told The Final Call he was fired twice after submitting written statements contradicting the official narrative surrounding Mr. Johnson’s death. He insists a cover-up continues to shroud the Johnson case 23 years later.
“If you were Black and with the good old boys’ system and like them, then you would fit in, but I didn’t fit in,” Mr. Calloway explained. “I’m originally from Macon and Bibb County and have been here all of my life. Every time they called me and asked me to give a statement, I’d give a statement I heard on the radio or what I know, (and) they’d find some way to fire me,” Mr. Calloway said. “But I guess it wasn’t what they wanted to hear—the truth.”
According to his signed witness statement, then-Deputy Calloway said the October 10, 2000, incident, forced him into an ethical dilemma, but said staying true to his upbringing and sense of morality weighed heavier than remaining silent to blatant injustices in the name of criminal justice.
“On 10/10/2000, around or about 14:30 hours a BOLO (be on the lookout) was issued regarding a fleeing probationer. The BOLO announced that the suspect was last seen running from the Walnut Street and Riverside Drive area. Minutes later, around 14:35 Officer Bartlett announced over the radio that the suspect had been apprehended and all radio traffic stopped for a while.
About 15:15 hours, the radio room operator announced that all officers that were not involved in the incident, (were) to leave the scene and make way for the coroner. Around 15:45 my Field Training Officer (F.T.O.) Steve Draper, received a phone call from an unidentified caller and then he turned and stated to me that ‘Steven Johnson, you know that guy they were chasing earlier, he’s dead, he is fish bait,’” Mr. Calloway’s witness statement said.
“Around or about 20:04, officer Brian Tweety was assigned to the Weed and Seed program. During this time, Tweety stated to me ‘remember that Johnson guy who was found dead in the river?’ I replied ‘yes.’ He then states to me that ‘Stembridge shot the Johnson boy.’ Tweety also stated that all the Crime Suppression Units (CSU) were there along with some Drug Unit officers.
“Around or about February 20, 2008, I received a call from the agent Gregory McClinton of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) located at 201 Second Street, suite 700. I was scheduled to give a statement to Agent McClinton regarding Steven Johnson’s apprehension and death. After I met with Agent McClinton, I was later confronted by Major Brady Fields, who advised me that he and McClinton were good friends. Major Fields stated to me that I was releasing confidential information … .”
In a notarized affidavit stamped July 27, 2006, in California, a private investigator, Paul Wesley Parker III, said an eyewitness to the apprehension, identified as David Smith, told him directly that “he was down by the river approximately 20 – 30 yards from the location where Steven L. Johnson was beaten by probation officer Stembridge, while other law enforcement officers held Steven L. Johnson on the ground.”
The witness told Mr. Parker that officers continued beating Steven Lamond Johnson until he went silent and stopped moving. The witness also said he observed one of the officers uncuffing his hands from behind the body and re-cuffing them in the front before pulling a white tee shirt up and around his wrists.
“David Smith told me the next thing that happened was Stembridge picked Steven L. Johnson up by (the) white T-Shirt, while the other officer picked Steven L. Johnson up by his feet,” Parker’s affidavit stated. “They both started to swing Steven L. Johnson back and forth. Then they threw Steven L. Johnson in the river. David Smith told me that he noticed blood on the ground and he recovered two teeth that were covered with blood,” the affidavit said.
Although the coroner’s death investigation report said the cause of death was an accidental drowning, an “Amended Petition For Change in the Cause of Death of Steven Lamond Johnson,” filed in State Court of Bibb County, State of Georgia, on April 7, 2022, found negligence in ruling the cause of death, by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation medical examiner Melissa A. Sims, as asphyxia by drowning.
According to the civil action, an independent medical evaluation performed by Henry S. Johnson, M.D., proffered the “cause of death as a homicide, likely secondary to blunt force of injuries to the face and head as opposed to an accidental drowning stated by the Medical Examination of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.” A third autopsy, conducted by David Posey, M.D., failed to determine a cause of death although it opened the door for amending the cause.
‘The Time and What Must be Done’
The Eternal Leader of the Nation of Islam, the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad, wrote of how the science of tricks and lies created a society of wickedness to disgrace and fool the Aboriginal people of the Earth.
Specific to the dying ideologies of White supremacy and Black inferiority, Messenger Muhammad, in “Message to the Blackman in America,” published in 1965, described how separation from evil is a mercy from Allah (God) and that it’s the best and only solution to the question of freedom, justice and equality.
“Almighty Allah (God) and the Nation of Islam elsewhere (Asia, Africa and the Islands) are grieved and hurt to the heart to see you walking into the trap your enemies (the devils) have and still are setting for you,” the Honorable Elijah Muhammad plainly stated on page 100.
“I am your sincere brother with the truth from your God and mine, which means your very life and the future of your children and nations of Black men and women. The truth being that you should know your enemies and their tricks being played on the world of our kind,” He wrote. “Will you listen or read the truth?”
Fadil Muhammad, the student protocol director of the Nation of Islam’s Muhammad Mosque No. 93 in Macon, under the leadership of the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan and his local Student Minister, Darryl Muhammad, said the Teachings are more relevant today than ever as America teeters on the brink of divine judgment.
He told The Final Call he became acquainted with the death of Steven Lamond Johnson while hosting the local public access television show, “Harambee Voices of Truth.”
“There was a brother that came to me and was speaking about a man that had been murdered by the police and said that at one point, I think he knew some illicit activity that law enforcement were involved in and it really seemed like they had a vengeance against this brother,” Fadil Muhammad said. “On the show, we showed his body, we interviewed his mother, and we interviewed another gentleman that knew him. I took footage of the protests at City Hall and interviewed them at their homes and in the community.”
Regarding the condition of Macon, Georgia, today, Fadil Muhammad said it is imperative that Black people embrace the spirit of unity to correct the collective condition of our people, and that to make our communities into safe and decent places to live, a change in thinking must take place immediately.
“In general, the level of brutality that we are aware of appears to be moderate,” he said of the relationship between local law enforcement and the Black community. “However, there have been several incidents where people have been (brutally killed) that have just been brushed over.”