From the public housing projects of Southeast Washington, 19-year-old "Flip" Johnson had grown up a winner -- in anybody's book.
William Lee Johnson: valedictorian of his junior high school class. B-plus student at Ballous High School. National Honor Society member. Winner of the 1978 School Superintendent's Award for Outstanding Achievement. 1978 Golden Gloves Boxing Champion. Pre-med student on a full-scholarship at the University of Pittsburgh.
Last June Flip Johnson appeared to be on the verge of breaking free of ghetto life forever.
But today, a flier with his picture on it hangs on the walls of Ballou High. It lists Johnson's accomplishments, then reads, "Summer 1979, Charged With Conspiracy to Commit Murder."
"Something," the headline reads, Has to Be Wrong."
Johnson, the oldest of eight children, is charged with first degree murder and a separate count of conspiracy in the slaying of a man who allegedly shot and wounded Johnson's younger brother during a craps game.
Johnson, who maintains he is innocent, has become a cause celebre at Ballou, in his Southeast neighborhood and in other black communities throughout the city. Since he was arrested last June, citizens have been quietly raising money so he can hire a private attorney when his trial begins May 7.
Through a benefit dinner of chicken and corn-on-the-cob, a disco, a gospel music concert and a Christmas raffle, $8,500 has been raised.
"These are not wealthy people who made these contributions," said Ann Saunders, Johnson's godmother.
Rather, she said they are people who have seen this kind of thing before -- a kid with lots of potential suddenly, inexplicably, swooped up by some troubling incident.
"I've seen this too often with kids from the ghetto," said Robert Royster, assistant principal at Ballou. "It's like there's an imaginary arm pulling them back. . . . In Flip's case, the long arm of the ghetto reached all the way to the University of Pittsburgh."
Flip Johnson grew up on Wheeler Road in the Valley Green project -- a place that despite its name is really a Hell's Kitchen of a community. It is a section of town where even the soda machines on the street are locked behind bars at night -- an area where the screams of holdup victims are as common place as the sound of babies crying.
One day last week, Johnson stood outside his family's apartment, above the Serenity House alcohol rehabilitation center and a few blocks from St. Elizabeths Hospital, and surveyed the scenes he knows so well.
The street dudes were at their usual corner, bent over a pile of $5 and $10 bills, shooting craps. With each car that passed, one of the players jumped up from the game and lunged at the driver. "Got that whack, got them nickels," he shouted in singsong fashion, peddling PCP and marijuana.
Across the way, the children of the project played softball with a chopped-off broomstick and an old tennis ball. Over by the project's stench-spewing garbage dumpster, a 4-year-old picked up a beer can and started to play with it.
"I hate this neighborhood. I hate everything it stands for," Johnson said, twisting hs face with a bitter taste. He is a slight young man in a baseball cap, silk jacket and Addidas sneakers, with muscles that bulge underneath his shirt sleeves and lean, strong legs, taut like a pony's, from his boxing.
Shortly before Christmas 1978, Johnson's younger brother Carlos was standing around the schoolyard of Congress Heights Elementary School on Martin Luther King Avenue, when a craps game started up.
Carlos Johnson said he went over to watch it. A man in a ski mask approached the game and ordered everyone to turn around and line up against the school wall. As the intruder scooped up the money, Carlos Johnson turned around and was shot in the neck.
He lived, but his masked assailant escaped. But by the intricate grapevine of the inner city, word went out that 20-year-old Earl Saunders had robbed the craps game and shot Carlos Johnson.
On Dec. 29, as Carlos Johnson lay recuperating in his hospital bed, Flip Johnson, home on vacation, drove some friends from the neighborhood to a party at Saunders' apartment in Southeast. Then, according to Johnson and his mother, he went on to a family gathering at an aunt's home.
But before the night was over, Saunders, described by police as "a known narcotics dealer," was dead from a gunshot wound.
Six months later, police arrested Johnson, charging that he had plotted Saunders' death to get revenge for the shooting of his brother. Johnson's life was thrown into turmoil.
He dropped out of college -- his average had dropped from 3.0 to 2.4 after his arrest.
"I couldn't study," he said. "When I study, I have to have a quiet place. And everytime I was in a quiet place, I'd get to thinkin' and I'd feel a lot of stress. . . . Everytime I'd get to sleep, I'd get to dreamin' and tossin' and turning' and my roommate would wake me up and say, 'Hey, what's the matter with you, man?' But I didn't want to tell him what I was facin'."
Johnson returned home to the project. "At home, I was always sticking my chest out because I'm the oldest in the family. When I was away from home, I was alone."
Now, he spends most of his time watching television game shows in his family's four-bedroom, $113-a-month apartment. The family of nine lives on $800 a month from public assistance and food stamps.
From 4:30 to 7:30 each evening, Johnson trains at the Police Boys and Girls Club not far from his home, sparring, shadow boxing, punching a bag, jumping rope and doing sit-ups in the club's steamy gymnasium, as disco music plays in the background.
On the wall, there is a poster of Muhammad Ali and a cardboard sign that says, "Ain't No Stopping Us Now."
Johnson is training for an Amateur Athletic Union boxing tournament and hopes to qualify for the Olympic boxing trials this year. He has been training at the club since he was about 11 and is well known to the police officers who work there.
"The impression you get of a ghetto area like this is that nothing good can come out of it. It wasn't like that with Flip," said Officer John J. Harling. "This has to be a mistake as far as I'm concerned."
Johnson was implicated in the case by other young people who were at Saunder's home the night of the murder. Ballou's Royster, who took over custody of Johnson after the arrest, believes the young man was set up.
"It's a situation where, if you hang out long enough [in the neighborhood], sooner or later you're going to be in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people."
But said one former teacher at Ballou who knew Johnson, "You never really knew. You see these kids in class and they're so nice. But some of these kids lead double lives."
Flip Johnson's goal was to become a pediatrician. After taking care of his brothers and sisters, he thought he'd be comfortable working with children. And, if he became a doctor, he knew his family would surely be able to move out of the project -- and into the suburbs.
"It didn't surprise me at all," Johnson's mother Camille said of her son's plans of becoming a doctor. "He's always been warm-hearted and concerned. I always knew he'd win a scholarship . . . Ever since he was in Head Start he did well. You know, he walked and talked at seven months."
Camille Johnson's living room is decorated with pictures of her children, her son's boxing trophies and awards.
One letter of commendation, hanging over the family's set of World Book encyclopedias, is from City Council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark, praising Johnson for winning the 1978 Golden Gloves boxing championship.
"It goes without saying you will become a super role model for young men in the District of Columbia," the letter reads. "I know that with the help of persons such as yourself, Ward 8 is destined to become the greatest ward in the city."
Flip Johnson sat on a concrete slab outside his apartment. Around him, little children took turns climbing on a torn-up living room chair thrown out near the dumpster.
The project mothers presided over the scene from a set of concrete steps, painted, it seems, with the names of every kid who's ever lived there.
Johnson looked around and said, "You see, what hurts me about this whole thing is that you're dealing with one of the fortunate ones in the neighborhood. . . .
"It's just the thought that you're 20 years old, you've done the best you can, you've accomplished a lot of things most people just dream of doing. . . ."
"It doesn't matter how innocent you are. I know a lot of innocent people who've been locked up . . . I never dreamed that would happen to me."
Johnson said he has little faith in the judicial system. "Everytime I open my mouth, [what I say] can be used against me. If they ask me, 'Did you know these guys (at the party)' I'd have to say 'Yes.'"
But Johnson said he hardly knew Sauders, the murder victim. "He was just one of the guys running around here."
"All I know is I was picked up . . . later, as having formed this posse to assassinate him, like I was a guy who shows no mercy."
Sometimes Johnson thinks the other neighborhood kids testified against him because they were jealous. Other times, he says, he just doesn't know.
"If I had the answer," he says shaking his head, "I'd tell somebody. But that is the outstanding thing about this -- why? Things go on around here and nobody ever knows why. They happen. They just happen.