Will juvenile lifers get a second chance?

See also: Johnathan Jordan letter clears co-defendant in murder -- but will anyone believe it?

He was sent to the Mount View Youth Services Center, then offered a bed in a foster home and an emancipation program that would allow him to work and take classes to complete his high-school education. He was doing well in the program, he says, right up until the day one of his foster brothers brought home someone he'd met on the bus: Johnathan Jordan, who'd stayed in the same home years earlier and now was out on his own.

Jordan wore baggy clothes, sports gear, the whole gangster wardrobe. Johnson had never met anyone like him before. Jordan was back a week later, looking for a ride.

"He asked the foster mom to take him to get his check," Johnson explains, "but her car was broke down. The foster brother who'd seen him on the bus couldn't go because he was on court curfew for a stolen car. I remember the mom saying, 'Jeff could go with you.'"

At trial, prosecutors argued that the two youths had set out that evening with robbery in mind, staked out the Jaguar for ninety minutes or more, then attacked its owner together. Johnson says it wasn't that way at all; he didn't really know Jordan, and going with him to get his check was just something to do. After smoking dope on the top level, they'd been back in the garage only a few minutes when Jordan started going through the Jaguar. Johnson says he was walking away, headed for the bus stop, when Leonardelli entered the garage and Jordan attacked him.

"I didn't know he had a knife," he says. "I turned around, and it looked like they started wrestling."

He drew closer. The man Jordan had attacked was now slumped against a pillar, he says, blood spreading across his shirt. A witness who entered the garage at that point saw a figure kneeling over Leonardelli, and a second youth, whose description fits Johnson, several feet away; the second youth came toward him, saying the man was hurt and urging him to call the police. The witness, fearing he was about to be attacked as well, retreated.

Johnson couldn't believe what he was seeing. "I had never been around violence," he says. "I never felt that scared before, scared out of my butt, and I hope I never do again. My heart was racing. Everything was still moving around me, but my mind was moving real slow."

He continues: "John came up to me and said, 'Come on, we got to get the fuck out of here.' He still had the knife in his hand. He kept saying, 'Don't fucking say nothing.'"

He shakes his head. "I got no excuse," he says. "I acted as a coward."

The two were seen leaving the garage in the Jaguar; based on one witness's description, Jordan was at the wheel. The car was later found abandoned in another parking lot. That night, Jordan and Johnson sat glued to the television in Johnson's foster home, watching a news story about a vicious carjacking on Parker Road. The foster mom had never known either of them to pay attention to the news before.

Johnson says he "didn't feel like I had anyone that I could tell" about what happened. But while Jordan was telling his young accomplice to keep his mouth shut, he was doing plenty of yapping of his own — and often it's the first version of events to reach law enforcement that sets the course of a criminal investigation.

Ronald Polk, Jordan's roommate, would later tell police that hours after the murder, Jordan had confided, "I think I messed up real bad." After learning his paycheck wouldn't cover his rent, he'd told "the white guy he was with" that he needed more money. They had both attacked Leonardelli, Jordan had said: "The man was fighting back, so the white boy started stabbing the man all over."

Jordan's mother learned of similar statements and called police. Picked up at a motel and brought in for questioning, Jordan started out telling Aurora police detective Dan Dailey that he'd just been "passing through" the garage with a white guy named "Tom" who used to work with him at Denny's. After a few minutes of cat-and-mouse questioning, Dailey informed Jordan that he'd already talked to Polk and knew about the gold bracelet he'd pawned.

"You're in the position right now that if you're ever going to be able to help yourself, it's right now," the detective told him. "You're in the cat seat."

Jordan began to buckle. "Tom" had done the stabbing, he insisted, not him. Tom had taken the man's Rolex and diamond ring. They had found a steak knife in the car, but Jordan hadn't used it. "Jeff handed it to me," he said, but he'd left it on top of a light fixture in the garage.

Dailey jumped on the mistake. "Jeff or Tom?" he asked.

"Huh?" Jordan responded.

"Jeff or Tom?" Dailey asked again.

"Jeff," Jordan admitted. He laughed. "I don't want to be no snitch, you know. I ended up slippin'..."

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John Leonardelli was my grandfather, not sure why but I had never heard any of this till now. I googled my grandfathers name and this came up. Does anyone know any current updates?


I've read many of the filed court pleadings and have to say that all of this is mind boggling.Where was the physical evidence in this case? So many gaps in what should have happened and what didn't happen, but yet he gets LWOP. His public defender really dropped the ball.  Jeff didn't understand what was going on and did not have another adult or advocate to help him.

I"m not saying I believe he is innocent of all charges, but I do believe that he has served his time. At one point he was in solitary confinement for 4 years - that is inhumane!  As someone before me commented, if an animal was treated that way the entire society would be picketing and up in arms.

As to Jeff's credit, I have to say that I commend him on using his time incarcerated to create a life for himself, educate himself, and to keep a positive attitude. Many facing his future would simply give up, whereas he has learned to read, learned another language, educated himself in many subjects, and one of the best - to speak with youth and to share his story to help others not to do the same as he has.

He has gained maturity and worked on rehabilitating himself, even without any thoughts of being released into society. It seems that during that time period, the courts were attempting to crack down on gang violence resulting in throwing away youths that didn't deserve that harsh of punishment.


I believe that the Department of Corrections must make every decision based on issues of safety. Managing  and controlling the population is paramount. 

Providing a certain quality of life, offering opportunities for education and rehabilitation are not top priorities. However, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People," and "7 Habits on the Inside" are examples of programs that have successfully shifted many offenders from criminogenic thinking towards understanding how to be a responsible member of society if/when released. 

We need more programs.The offenders, especially the younger ones, have worked diligently to catch up and learn, obtain degrees, read extensively and improve themselves. Many have accepted responsibility for their past poor choices and horrific acts, but still sense that the world has thrown them away and forgotten them. The public needs to pay attention, because most of the prison population WILL eventually be released. Investing in education rather than more punitive measures is an investment that helps both victims and perpetrators of crime-

by offering all humans hope and dignity.



Again, another amazing thought-inspiring story.

I cannot help but notice that, throughout the story, and in any comment from any person in the prison system, there is no reference to rehabilitation. I was taught, as were many other citizens, that the purpose of prison was rehabilitation.  I would imagine that most citizens use that reference as part of their decision making process when they are on a jury, or when they hear about crimes and make mental decisions about how the offender should be punished.

If rehabilitation is not valid anymore, and all that a criminal gets is prison time, solitary confinement, prison brutality and a life without hope, we should all be changing our understanding of the prison system and of our Justice System.

Without rehabilitation, prison is nothing but cruelty and pain. Without a chance for rehabilitation prison is the pure representation of cruel punishment.

Who can imagine spending time in solitary confinement for 2 or 3 years. We would not subject a vicious dog to such a punishment. Imagine the Animal Activists reaction to the statement: "Your Pit Bull is going to be put in a tiny cage with no windows for 3 years, and abused." It would be on every News Station in the Country. Yet we treat children like this and there is no outrage, or even public criticism.

Your article should make people think about the cruelty of the current system, the lack of hope, the lack of  humanity, and the lack of Justice. 

It is certainly time to revisit and modify the states Felony Murder Statute, and find a way to handle criminals and possible innocent children with more humanity.

At this point it looks like the only person who really cares is you.

Thanks Alan.

Keep up the good work.

Randy Brown


There NEEDS to be a hearing to determine if a juvenile

will be tried as an adult. Texas calls such hearing a

'Waiver of Jurisdiction', and quite often can last a week or more .

Mad, insane D.A.'s as Chambers has demonstrated to be

 THROUGHOUT her term, have charged juveniles as adults w/o concern. 

This leaves enough cases warranting a review, WAY more than necessary, to tie up the courts at ALL levels 

for many years to come . Johnson, IF he gets some kind of 'play', won't occur til he is into his 50's I'm sure.

UNLESS they all get Patrick Sullivan's judge ! He appears to 'Show a lot of Love' to those who come before him based on Sullivan's slap on the wrist ....

patricia.calhoun moderator editortopcommenter


I'd like to publish this in our print edition, ideally with your full name. if that's okay, let me know at patricia.calhoun@westword.com


@Randy144 Thanks, Randy and Juan Leg, for your comments. This is not a popular issue, and I wouldn't want to minimize the crimes these men committed as adolescents. But as Jeff Johnson's story shows, the situation is often more complicated than it appears, partly because of the juveniles' immaturity and naivete about the justice system. The decision to take away a life, whether by execution or a sentence of life in prison without parole, isn't something we should take lightly -- and I agree that the equation should include other factors than simply a public outcry for punishment.