Snitch Glitch

For someone who once bragged to arresting officers that he was a "star witness" for local prosecutors, probably no turn of events could have been more humiliating: Longtime gang informant Johnny Edwards is currently awaiting trial for the possession and sale of crack. And if the charges stick, he will have been brought down by several other snitches.

Edwards was arrested October 27, following a Minneapolis police raid on a South Side duplex. Officers had had the residence under surveillance for several days, according to their reports. After informants twice bought crack at the apartment, police raided the place.

Inside, they found four men clustered around a table. The incident report identifies them as Edwards (who in the past has used the alias Johnny Turnipseed), his cousin Jowanza Darrell Edwards; his uncle Darryl Brian Turnipseed; and a fourth man named Warren Stanley Williams. "Officers could plainly see that the parties were in the middle of packaging crack cocaine," according to the police report. "There was a scale along with plastic baggies and large pieces of suspected crack cocaine. It appeared that the parties were cutting the larger pieces with an X-acto knife into smaller $20 rocks and packaging this. Also on the table was several plastic bags containing a large amount of individually wrapped rocks of suspected crack cocaine packaged for distribution for street sale."

"[Darryl] Turnipseed was found to have several large rocks of suspected crack cocaine directly under his chair," the report continued. "Also found was a baggie containing several large pieces of suspected crack cocaine on a chair in which Johnny Edwards was seated." Of the four men, only Turnipseed agreed to talk to police.

"Turnipseed stated that he had met both Jowanza Edwards and Johnny Edwards at another location and they decided to go to the above address and smoke some 'weed,'" Officer Michael Kaneko reported. "Asked about the crack cocaine, Turnipseed stated that he never saw any crack cocaine and didn't know what I was talking about. We confronted him about the crack being in plain view on the table they were sitting next to. He said that it wasn't his and knew nothing about it nor did he see it....I asked about the crack cocaine which was found under the chair he was seated in. Turnipseed answered that he knew nothing about it."

In all, according to the criminal complaint against the four men, 63 grams of crack were confiscated along with a 9mm Smith and Wesson. Under state law, the intended sale of 10 or more grams of crack cocaine is a first-degree offense punishable by at least six years in prison. A $20 rock, the kind the four men in the current case were allegedly cutting, typically weighs a quarter of a gram, giving the drugs seized in the raid a street value of at least $5,000.

Each of the men was charged with first-degree sale of cocaine. Attorneys representing Turnipseed, Williams, and Johnny Edwards either declined to comment for this story or failed to return City Pages' phone calls. Jowanza Edwards could not be located and does not yet have an attorney on record.

The bust resulted in the second felony charge filed against Edwards in as many months. On September 25, again following a series of controlled buys, police raided another South Side apartment, where they found Edwards "laying on the bathroom floor on top of what he later stated was his clothing," according to a report filed by Officer Matthew Clark. "I picked up [Edwards] and assisted him in getting on his underwear. [He] later stated that the shorts he was laying on were his and that he wanted to put them on. When picking up the shorts to put them on [Edwards] I observed a clear cellophane baggie that contained suspected crack cocaine on the bathroom floor. When [Edwards] was asked about the suspected crack, he stated that it wasn't his.

"During an additional search of the apartment I found used clear sandwich baggies in the living room," Clark's report adds. "These are commonly used to package crack cocaine." Following that arrest, Edwards was charged with fifth-degree possession of 2.8 grams of crack and released. The charges have now become part of the case stemming from the later raid.

It's hardly the first time police have suspected Edwards of a serious crime. Hennepin County court records show 58 separate sets of charges against him, many of them alleged petty and traffic offenses. In addition, records show that police have suspected him of involvement in a number of other incidents. But if the current charges stick, it will be the first time that felony charges against the controversial informant have been scheduled to go to trial.

Edwards's career as a snitch began in 1996, when he--then 23--and a 13-year-old were arrested on suspicion of holding a shotgun to the head of a motorist and robbing her. Once in jail, he told police and investigators from the Hennepin County attorney's office that he had information about several high-profile cases the state hadn't been able to crack. Then-County Attorney Mike Freeman and Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson held a joint press conference extolling the virtues of a man they described as an anonymous citizen who had bravely come forward to testify against Reggie Ferguson and five other alleged leaders of the Rolling 30s Bloods gang. "I think everyone out there would like to see these kind of people get caught and put in jail," one of the investigating officers was quoted as saying. "But there are very few people willing to stick their necks out."  

In the first three of those cases, prosecutors were able to secure court orders sealing their star witness's identity until nearly the moment he took the stand. As a result, defense attorneys couldn't investigate Edwards's background or any incentives he may have gotten to testify. Local prosecutors and police spent nearly $11,000 to support Edwards during the trials, at one point putting him up for several weeks in a downtown hotel at a cost of $79 a night because they feared for his safety. County investigators also wrote Darryl Turnipseed, Edwards's uncle and co-defendant in the current case, a check for $341 for repairs to Edwards's car.

After three of the men Edwards had fingered were convicted, however, the tide turned against the county attorney's office. Charges were dropped against a fourth defendant after prosecutors learned that Edwards had informed on the wrong person. A fifth man was acquitted by a jury whose members told the defense attorney that they "wouldn't have believed Johnny Edwards if he'd stood in front of us claiming he only had one leg." (Edwards lost a leg as the result of a 1994 drive-by shooting.) In the sixth case, police also learned that Edwards had named the wrong shooter. The man Edwards initially fingered pleaded guilty to a lesser charge.

Meanwhile Edwards's own legal troubles kept evaporating. While the so-called Bloods cases were under way, police reports show, officers discovered him and several other men aiming an unregistered gun on a South Side intersection. During his arrest in that incident, Edwards boasted that police couldn't touch him because he was the "star witness" in some big cases downtown. That case was referred to the Ramsey County attorney's office because Edwards's role as an informant presented Hennepin County prosecutors with a conflict of interest. Prosecutors there declined to press charges, citing a lack of evidence. The Minneapolis police officer who arrested the men had another explanation: "We didn't want to charge him," he told City Pages at the time, "because it would have made him look like a bad witness."

Also during this period, a marijuana possession charge stemming from a 1995 raid on Edwards's apartment was dismissed, and there were no charges in a series of domestic violence complaints filed by both his wife and his girlfriend. Finally, the robbery case that launched his career as an informant was dropped in 1997 when the alleged victims could no longer be found.

But Edwards's biggest stroke of luck had yet to occur. In August 1997 three North Minneapolis men told police that Edwards and an unknown accomplice had robbed them at gunpoint. After Edwards was arrested hours later following a high-speed chase, he again offered to help police nail a bigger fish. He identified his accomplice as one Dameion Robinson--who, he told police, had used the same pink-pearl-handled .25 in both the robbery and in a South Side murder the night before.

But when Robinson's murder case came to trial last summer, prosecutors, perhaps remembering the previous occasions on which Edwards's testimony had appeared to hurt their cases, never called their key witness. Despite contradictions in the remaining evidence, Robinson was convicted. The robbery case against Edwards was forwarded to Ramsey County, whose attorneys again declined to prosecute, citing the witnesses' contradictory statements. It was, in the words of Joe Margulies, a defense attorney who's gone up against Edwards, as if he had a "walk-on-water pass."

Now, however, it looks as if Edwards's pass may have expired. His case and those of the other three men arrested in the October 27 raid have been forwarded to Washington County Assistant Attorney Richard Hodsdon, who is prosecuting them in Hennepin County's drug court. On November 10 the court eliminated Edwards's bail and released him on the condition that he participate in 21 days of inpatient chemical-dependency treatment at Fairview-University Medical Center. Co-defendant Warren Williams's bail was reduced in exchange for his participation in a separate treatment program. Jowanza Edwards was mistakenly released by jail administrators who hadn't heard that prosecutors planned to charge him; a warrant for his arrest is pending. Darryl Turnipseed is still in jail.  

Hodsdon says the cases won't end there. "[Edwards] can become the poster child for treatment and it will not do anything to dissuade our continued prosecution," he says. "Drug use or non-use is not germane to a large-scale drug distribution case." If convicted, each of the men faces a minimum sentence of more than six years in prison. But it's possible that even at that stage, Edwards will walk away with a comparatively good deal: His three co-defendants all have prior felony convictions which could drive up their terms, in some cases to as long as 40 years. Edwards's felony record is clean--possibly because Hodsdon is the first prosecutor to actually pursue felony charges against him.

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