The day his old life ended, Jeff Johnson was jonesing for a cigarette. He was tall and gangly, a bit of a rebel and a goof. He liked to shoot pool and flirt with the girls at Scores, a teen dive in Aurora, and a coffin nail dangling from his lip helped complete his bad-boy image.
But that particular day — March 29, 1994 — Johnson ran out of smokes. His companion of the moment, Johnathan Jordan, had some weed but no cigarettes. Looking back on it, that could have been a sign, an opening, an excuse for Johnson to split and get far, far away from the other JJ. Sorry, man, I can't hang with you, I got to go find some nicotine...
A chance he didn't take.
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Aside from sharing the same initials, Johnson and Jordan had little in common. Johnson was seventeen years old, a white kid from the suburbs with the thinnest of juvenile records. Jordan was nearly twenty, black, with reputed gang connections and an outstanding warrant for selling crack to a police informant. They had barely met before that day, when Jordan stopped by his old foster home off Colfax, a place where Johnson now lived, looking for some company. Jordan was on his way to pick up his paycheck, and Johnson, who had nothing better to do, agreed to go along.
The two grabbed a bus to Jordan's workplace, a telemarketing firm on Parker Road. But the check, Jordan soon discovered, was for eighty-five bucks — not nearly enough, he complained. Instead of heading back to the bus stop, he steered Johnson into a parking garage.
"He told me he was short on his rent and his roommate was going to kick him out," Johnson recalls. "So he wanted to go through the cars and steal stuff."
Johnson knew he didn't need that kind of trouble. The social-services people had told him to keep his nose clean — no police contact or he'd be shipped off to a Job Corps program in Utah. While Jordan prowled the garage, Johnson walked to a nearby Cub Foods to buy cigarettes. They wouldn't sell him a pack because he wasn't eighteen. So he went back to the garage, back to Jordan and the trouble ahead, for reasons that he still can't fully explain decades later.
"I wanted to go back to Scores to play pool," he says. "He said he was gonna have someone pick us up and he was gonna give me ten bucks, or something like that, to hang out with him for a little bit."
The two went up to the top level of the garage and smoked a joint. When they came back down, Jordan started rummaging through a white 1993 Jaguar someone had left unlocked. The rig had tinted windows, a car phone, an ivory leather interior; the owner had to be loaded, Jordan figured. He might be someone worth waiting around for.
There are different versions of what happened next, but the outcome is beyond dispute. Around eight o'clock that evening, John Leonardelli, a 55-year-old insurance broker, was found badly injured in the garage. He told the people who came to his aid that he'd been attacked by two youths — one black, one white — who had robbed him and taken his Jaguar. He died at University Hospital that night of multiple stab wounds to his lungs, heart and throat.
Leonardelli's Rolex watch, diamond ring and gold bracelet were missing; his wallet, containing more than $1,200 in cash, had been left behind. Jordan pawned the bracelet the next day for $50. Police arrested him at an Aurora motel and picked up Johnson a few hours later.
Too young to buy cigarettes, Johnson was still considered old enough to be tried as an adult in the case. He was convicted of first-degree murder and received a mandatory sentence of life without parole. Jordan pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, armed robbery and car theft and received a 100-year prison sentence.
Johnson is one of 51 inmates in the Colorado Department of Corrections who are serving sentences of life without parole (LWOP) for offenses committed when they were juveniles. He was among the first wave of juvie lifers to hit the system after outrage over escalating gang-related shootings in the early 1990s — notably, Denver's so-called Summer of Violence in 1993 — prompted state lawmakers to pass legislation making it easier for prosecutors to charge juveniles as adults. They're a tribe within a tribe in the DOC, aging cons whose adolescent crimes have been deemed so unredeemable that they are condemned to die behind bars, with no hope of release.