In high school, Johnson became buddies with an older student who seemed to have a teenager's dream living arrangement: no curfew, no rules. His friend introduced him to marijuana, drinking parties, ditching class. The guy's dad didn't even know Jeff was crashing at his friend's house for months. The relationship created more friction with his parents and ultimately led to his placement in foster care.
At one point Johnson signed on with a shady operator who recruited cash-poor teens to hawk door-to-door magazine subscriptions. The police busted the operation a few days later, detaining Johnson and a carload of runaway kids; the girls in the crew, it was alleged, were peddling more than magazines to get by. Neither of his parents came to claim Johnson after he was processed. "I think they'd had enough," he says.
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."