Get Out of Jail Free

In drug- or gang-related cases, one of the favorite weapons of prosecutors is confidential informants like Johnny Edwards. Trouble is, a lot of them will say anything to get themselves out of the hot seat--and continue committing crimes while they're turn

Neighbors called the police. Phillips and Kim Black both said Ferguson was at the house, but Phillips said he didn't see who shot him. Kim Black identified 20-year-old Holt as one of the group, but didn't see the shooting. No gun was ever recovered.

During Ferguson's subsequent trial, witnesses gave conflicting accounts of the shooting. Ferguson claimed that he and Alizia Black were in the basement when the shots were fired. He and Black both denied that Holt was there that night. Since the incident was a domestic dispute and not gang-related, no testimony was allowed about Ferguson's alleged role as the leader of the Bloods. The trial ended in a hung jury.

In August, the charges against Holt were dropped, partly because a police gang investigator told prosecutors that another alleged Bloods member looked a lot like Holt and partly because numerous people said they were with Holt in Chicago at the time of the shooting. Police and prosecutors had lost round one in their crusade to incapacitate the Rolling 30s Bloods.

Four months after the charges against Holt were dismissed, Johnny Edwards and a much younger cousin were charged with using a sawed-off shotgun to rob a woman of $480 while she sat in her car. The judge set Edwards's bail at $40,000. Twice Edwards tried and failed to get his bail reduced. Finally, he called the Minneapolis Police Department and said he had information about a big case.

Not only was he a member of the same gang as Ferguson and Holt; the three were cousins, according to his statement to police. He had driven Holt to meet Ferguson at Phillips's house on the night of the shooting and, although he said he stayed in his car, had seen much of what happened. He likewise claimed to have information implicating another of Reggie's brothers, Alonzo, in a 1994 killing. And he could finger four other men in unrelated crimes.

At the time, police were still trying to nail the Ferguson brothers and Holt. They had the family's Central neighborhood home under surveillance--at one point going so far as to set up shop in a church that overlooked the backyard. They weren't finding anything, however, a difficulty they attributed to the Fergusons' laying low in the wake of Reggie's trial.

Edwards's timing couldn't have been better. In exchange for his testimony, the Hennepin County Attorney's Office agreed to eliminate his bail and to take his cooperation into account when his felony robbery case went to court. Prosecutors started paying Edwards even before he had signed any agreements with them. Both they and the police wanted to move Edwards and his family to another state, but Edwards reportedly refused. He also turned down a deal that would have required him to plead guilty to simple robbery in exchange for a sentence that didn't include jail time. Beyond his deal with prosecutors, Edwards reportedly had other reasons to resent the Fergusons. He was said to be angry that after his leg was shot off in 1993, the Bloods--including Ferguson and Holt--didn't avenge the incident.

There were several things wrong with Edwards's story. During Ferguson's first trial, none of the several eyewitness versions of events on the night of the shooting included mention of a one-legged man. And Phillips and Kim Black both insisted that everyone who arrived at the house got out of their cars. What's more, Black's description of the cars that brought the gangsters to the scene conflicted with Edwards's claims.

Edwards's statements about the case had problems with internal consistency, too. In the first, made to police on the day he called looking for a deal, Edwards named six men he said were at the Phillips shooting. But when he took the stand in Ferguson's second trial--which resulted in a conviction--Edwards said another Ferguson brother, Alonzo, was there as well. Recently, Edwards apparently proved unreliable in one of the other cases in which he had volunteered information: Murder charges against a man named George Dixon were dropped, reportedly because the real killer was found.

But by that time, police and prosecutors could not very well back away from Edwards. After he'd made his deal to testify, Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson and Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman had held a press conference trumpeting arrests that would, they said, disable the Rolling 30s Bloods and ease tensions in the Central neighborhood. Police said their break in the four homicides and other crimes were citizens who volunteered information. "I think everyone out there would like to see these kind of people get caught and put in jail, but there are very few people willing to stick their necks out," one of the investigating officers remarked.

Edwards had become a VIP of sorts. Which might explain why last April, when his wife called police from a neighbor's house and complained that Edwards had held a knife to her face and threatened her, nothing was done.

Prosecutors plan to call Edwards in the Holt trial scheduled to start this Monday, January 27, in Hennepin County District Court. Holt's attorney, public defender Sandra Babcock, fears that Edwards will testify that he and Holt were fellow Bloods.

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