Policy issues remain as Las Vegas killer of victim I found to plead guilty but mentally ill

Las Vegas killer

Jarrid Johnson (courtesy Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Dept.)

While walking the dog near dawn on the shortest day of 2018–December 21–I found the murdered, mutilated body of a homeless man less than a football field away from the New To Las Vegas world headquarters. His name was Ralph Franzello, 63.

The person who killed him with multiple stabbings of a knife–Franzello’s knife–turned out to be Jarrid Johnson, a local man who at the time was 25. Perhaps burdened by a guilty conscience, he walked into the Clark County Detention Center a few days later on Christmas Eve and confessed to Las Vegas Metropolitan Police homicide detectives.

According to court records, after lengthy plea bargain talks apparently delayed by the pandemic, Johnson yesterday filed papers agreeing to plead guilty but mentally ill in Clark County District Court to second degree murder. Nevada law allows a guilty but mentally ill plea–most states don’t–but all it seems to mean here is that he is supposed to receive some mental health treatment while incarcerated.

As tragic as this whole situation is, there also is a big underlying governmental accountability issue here, which I wrote about a few weeks after the murder. Johnson had been in jail on a charge of battery upon a relative–apparently an uncle–with a sword. To me, attacking a loved one with a sword suggests mental illness big time. Yet the judge–Karen P. Bennett-Haron of Las Vegas Township Justice Court–had released him from custody on his own recognizance on the motion of his public defender with the approval of the Clark County prosecutor’s office without even requiring that Johnson appear in court so he could be sized up in person.

Not 36 hours later, Franzello was killed in the middle of the night on a desolate street behind a supermarket he shopped at under a streetlight that wasn’t working. Had Johnson been in jail–or even in an outpatient facility–getting the treatment he so clearly needed, Franzello, who according to a sibling moved to Las Vegas from my native state of New Jersey more than 20 years ago and eventually became homeless, might still be alive today.

But of course, Nevada is a minimal government, minimal tax state. Such services are in short supply. The police press release trumpeting Johnson’s arrest did not mention the inconvenient fact that authorities had just released him despite his needy state.

As part of the written plea agreement filed online, prosecutors would drop a second court of mayhem involving Franzello’s death as well as the battery case involving Johnson’s relative. According to the agreement and state law, Johnson faces a sentence of 25 years to life with the possibility of parole after 10 years. Exact terms of punishment will be determined by a judge at Johnson’s sentencing presumably within the next few months. I suppose Johnson would get credit for the 18 months he’s been jailed pending resolution of the cases.

The plea agreement–in reality, a plea bargain agreement–was signed by Johnson’s public defender–“signature affixed .. at the direction of Jarrid Johnson,” a handwritten notation says–and by a prosecutor in the Clark County District Attorney’s office. It was electronically filed yesterday at 4:23 p.m. after the clerk’s office had closed for the day.

I hadn’t written too much about the sad and gory details of what went down behind that supermarket. I will now, as delicately as I can, drawing largely on the grand jury testimony–once secret but now publicly filed and accessible on the Internet–of Jennifer Corneal, a pathologist who conducted the autopsy of Franzello for the Clark County Medical Examiner’s Office, and Brian Kowalksi, one of the homicide detectives who took Johnson’s confession.

Johnson had been wandering around the east side of town on foot when he “stripped off his clothes,” the detective quoted him as saying. Eventually, around 1 a.m. on December 21, 2018, he came upon Franzello, sleeping on a curb near my home and “started rummaging” through Franzello’s meager belongings in a shopping cart. “When Mr. Franzello woke up there was a short verbal argument,” Kowalski testified. “Mr. Johnson kind of started to run away at which point he decided to come back and then he started attacking Mr. Franzello.”

Franzello pulled out a knife, but Johnson got control of it and attacked Franzello with a vengeance. Cutting through heavy clothing, Johnson slit the abdomen of Franzello’s body, stabbed him repeatedly in many places. Johnson bit off Franzello’s nose, which may have been swallowed, and one of his ears. The autopsy revealed that several internal organs were removed. Corneal, the medical examiner, used the word “eviscerated” in describing the attack. The detective testified that Johnson told him he drank some blood.

Johnson then apparently took Franzello’s blanket and slept about a block away in a dumpster behind a church. He might even have still been there when I found Franzello’s body.

According to Kowalski, Johnson said he walked toward a mountain–apparently Sunrise Mountain, which looms about six miles away on the eastern edge of Las Vegas and at times depending on the sunlight looks ethereal–when “he basically was told by God that he should say what he did.” At some point Johnson walked the eight miles to the Greyhound bus station, then located in downtown Las Vegas, washed his hands and then went three blocks to the county jail to begin his spiritual confession. By the time Johnson showed up there, he somehow had acquired clothing and shoes.

I invite comments below about the facts or issues raised in this account, as well as my perceptions.

Given the Hannibal Lecter nature of his alleged acts–on a person 38 years older, no less–Johnson had every incentive to avoid facing a jury. “Accepting this plea bargain is in my best interest, and that a trial would be contrary to my best interest,” his plea agreement states. Way back in January 2019, I suggested this case would end in a negotiated way.

Now, in my view Johnson deserves whatever punishment he gets. But besides the paucity of mental health services, the crime unearthed some other sad truths about present-day life in Las Vegas.

That shopping cart with Franzello’s few possessions remained at the murder site for days after authorities finished working the crime scene. I was advised it is official policy for authorities not to take the possessions of a deceased homeless person found in a public place for later retrieval by next of kin. In my view this lacks humanity and is wrong.

And the hazmat team that cleaned the crime scene after the cops left on the first day of winter in 2018 did only a so-so job. Franzello’s blood remained visible on the street for weeks as I passed by twice every morning with the dog. Eventually, the stains faded away, leaving behind only the memory of an awful act aggravated by a flawed governmental structure.

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