I have been writing in this space about the case of Jarrid Johnson since his arrest for murdering a homeless man whose body I discovered while walking the dog near the New To Las Vegas world headquarters before sunrise on 2018’s shortest day. I’m certainly not condoning murder, and this one was especially senseless and gory. But the more I learn, the more I realize Johnson was in some ways a victim of circumstances not unlike the man he killed, Ralph Franzello. Indeed, the Johnson case has revealed a number of tough truths about Las Vegas.
My latest lessons learned came yesterday, when I attended Johnson’s 13-minute sentencing at the Regional Justice Center in downtown Las Vegas. In an earlier plea-bargain deal, Johnson, now 28, had pleaded guilty but mentally ill–a uniquely Nevada formulation–to second degree murder with a deadly weapon. Appearing on a Zoom-like feed from the county jail projected onto several large screens, some of his hair in what looked like a ponytail, he apologized to the Franzello family. “I wasn’t in my right mind,” Johnson said in a soft Southern accent as his father and a sibling watched stoically sitting in the 14th-floor courtroom near me.
Johnson then learned his fate from District Judge Michelle Leavitt: 10 years to life on the murder charge, and an additional eight-to-20-year “enhancement” for using a deadly weapon–the knife he grabbed from the much-older Franzello, 63, and used to gut his body and drink his blood. I think that basically works out to a minimum 18-year sentence, minus the nearly three years Johnson has been jailed since his arrest. He’ll likely be in his 40s when he gets out. Johnson is supposed to get continued mental health treatment while incarcerated, but good luck on that long term in minimal government Nevada.
In previous posts, I described how Johnson had been arrested a week before the Franzello killing on a separate charge of battery upon a relative–two years ago, I speculated an uncle–with a sword. To me, assaulting a relative with a sword is a clear sign of mental illness warranting further treatment and monitoring and definitely not a quick release. But instead, Johnson was ordered free dby another judge, Karen P. Bennett-Haron, without appearing in court and without bail. Maybe 36 hours later, after meandering around east Las Vegas, he had his fatal encounter in the middle of the night with Franzello. The victim, who became homeless after moving to Las Vegas a quarter-century ago with some disability income, had been living on the streets of Las Vegas for awhile, just trying to get by. Early on the morning of December 21, 2018–the first day of winter–he was simply catching some shut-eye behind a supermarket whose employees knew him as a customer.
The day before the sentencing, Johnson’s lawyer, deputy public defender Anna Clark, publicly filed a sentencing memo with the court laying out her view of the facts and attaching a psychiatrist’s report and letters from friends and family. In open court yesterday, prosecutors said they had no problem with the package, which Clark, who unlike the prosecutors appeared in person, summarized for a few minutes to the judge. So I’m going to take the stated facts and conclusions in the presentation as more or less true.
Boy, did I learn a lot!
As it turns out, that sword case (which was dismissed as part of the plea-bargain in the murder case) did involve an uncle, one Johnson was living with since moving to Las Vegas earlier in 2018, a brother of his mother. But one condition of Johnson’s release was that he stay away from the uncle. Johnson had no place to go. Good thinking, Las Vegas courts! So he apparently wandered the streets of Las Vegas, ending up 5 1/2 miles from the jail on the east side near where I live for his tragic interaction with Franzello about six hours before I found the lifeless victim and called 911.
Also as it turns out, Johnson had a long documented history of mental illness. Growing up in the Miami area as the second oldest of seven children, he tried to commit suicide by hanging himself at age 12. His mother rescued him. Johnson was diagnosed with depression and took medication.
He gradually got his act together to some degree, although he suffered when his parents divorced his senior year of high school. Still, Johnson graduated and won a football scholarship to a small college in Kansas. But he was unhappy there–calling home and threatening suicide–and the clearly worried college revoked the scholarship after one year, sending Johnson back to Miami. He worked part-time at a grocery store.
Johnson’s mother remarried in 2018, and Johnson didn’t get along with his new stepfather. So he decided that year to move to Las Vegas “to get a fresh start.” But things didn’t work out. “Jarrid’s family members all report that Jarrid’s mental state went downhill,” the sentencing memo said. He briefly worked at a Las Vegas-area gas station but “was fired after an altercation with a customer.” Still, he never had had a brush with the law, even a parking ticket, in Florida, Kansas or Nevada.
That good-conduct streak ended on December 14, 2018–a week before Franzello’s murder–when Johnson and his uncle got involved in some kind of altercation with that sword. The circumstances are still unclear to me. The uncle was injured, but Johnson also stabbed himself, sending him to a hospital for five days. Quoting a psychiatrist who later examined Johnson after the murder, public defender Clarke wrote, “Jarrid suffered from an rapid onset of psychotic symptoms related to his mental illness shortly after he moved to Las Vegas.”
Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department homicide detectives cracked the Franzello case only after Johnson walked into the Clark County Detention Center on Christmas Eve three days after the murder and said he wanted to confess. (The press release that the law enforcement agency issued said Johnson confessed but didn’t mention he was on the streets due to a court order and thus in effect homeless.) According to grand jury testimony from Brian Kowalski, one of the detectives, Johnson said he was high on marijuana when, around 1 a.m. on winter’s first day, he encountered Franzello–more than double his age–dozing on a curb near my home and started looking through Franzello’s meager belongings in a shopping cart. As I wrote earlier this year:
“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.
The court record contains many hints of Johnson’s mental illnesses. From the report of forensic psychiatrist Melissa Piasecki attached to that sentencing report describing interviews in 2019:
Mr. Johnson made statements that were paranoid and bizarre. For example, he said that when he moved to Las Vegas last year, he felt calmer because “the mountains radiated powerful energy” to him.He made statements about frequencies that he and others transmitted and received, including bad frequencies. He described delusions of control in which he was “selected” for a program and subjected to a realm and a frequency that controlled his thoughts and emotions.
Piasecki’s conclusion: The murder “was the result of paranoid delusional thoughts and auditory hallucinations that he [Johnson] experienced due to a psychotic disorder.”
Given the brutality of the crime and its utter lack of reason, I’d say Johnson didn’t get a bad deal; with the enhancement, he easily could have got a 30-year minimum rather than 18 years. I suspect the mental illness evidence played a role.
But even after his ugly death, Franzello, who never married or had children, was dealt a hard hand. His possessions remained for days in a shopping cart at the murder site; I was told it was against policy for authorities to collect them pending release to next of kin. And despite the same-day efforts of a hazmat team, his blood remained visible for weeks on the Las Vegas street where he died until the unrelenting sun and very occasional rain finally erased all remaining evidence of his final moment of life in Las Vegas.
As I was leaving the courthouse, I received an angry phone call from Franzello’s sister, Joan Franzello, with whom I have been in touch. She lives in my native state of New Jersey, from where her brother moved to Las Vegas, and now has his ashes. Joan said she was on the video feed and had been told by prosecutors that she would be allowed to give a victim’s statement as the next-of-kin. But, she said, a clerk cut off her connection and she never got the chance. She learned about Johnson’s sentence from me.
A tough place, this Las Vegas.