Case against Crittenton a warped tale

The fall of Javaris Crittenton, as depicted by prosecutors, is a perverse parody of that most shopworn of sagas: The gifted young athlete rises above the pull of neighborhood gangs and finds salvation in the NBA.

As Fulton County prosecutors construct their murder case against Crittenton, they are turning that familiar tale on its head.

Growing up in Atlanta, Crittenton seemed exceptional from every angle: An honor student at Southwest Atlanta Christian who won a state title there with Dwight Howard. A member of the Beta Club and Future Business Leaders of America. The state's Mr. Basketball in 2005-06. A leader for Georgia Tech's basketball team as a mere freshman. The 19th overall pick in the NBA draft.

It wasn’t until after he had realized his dream and a signed a $2.5 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2007 that Crittenton became involved with a violent West Coast street gang, prosecutors assert.

Contained within the more than 5,000 pages of recently filed court records is the contention that it was a gangster’s appetite for revenge that led to Crittenton shooting a woman to death on Aug. 19, 2011.

Crittenton declined to comment. His lawyer, Brian Steel, said prosecutors are wrong; his client is innocent. "We look forward to the trial," Steel said.

Related: Photos of Crittenton's basketball career

At around 10 on that night in 2011, June Woods received a phone call from her sister. “Pee Pie’s been shot,” she said, using the family’s nickname for Woods’ 22-year-old daughter, Jullian Jones.

Ninety minutes later, Jones was pronounced dead at Grady Memorial Hospital. She left behind four children, now between the ages of 9 and 2.

"She didn't have to die like that. She was still too young," said Jones' aunt, April Woods-Howell.

“She should be here to raise those kids.”

Fulton prosecutors waited 20 months after the shooting to indict Crittenton and his cousin, Douglas Gamble, on charges that include murder and participation in criminal street gang activity. Last month, both men were arraigned and entered pleas of not guilty.

Fulton prosecutors say Crittenton killed Jones while trying to avenge an armed robbery that occurred as he and Gamble walked out of a Cleveland Avenue barbershop.

Crittenton told police he and Gamble were ambushed on April 21, 2011, by two young men who, at gunpoint, robbed Crittenton of a $30,000 black diamond watch, a $25,000 black diamond necklace, his iPhone and cash.

In the ensuing weeks, Crittenton became frustrated with the police’s lack of progress, court records say. “I’ll just handle the situation myself,” he told the lead detective, according to testimony at a preliminary hearing.

Witnesses have told police that on the night of Aug. 19, 2011, they saw a black Chevy Tahoe drive up Macon Drive in south Atlanta. Trontavious Stephens had just asked Jones, his neighbor, to walk with him to a nearby barbecue. Stephens was a member of the Raised on Cleveland street gang, said police, who have identified him as a person of interest in the armed robbery of Crittenton.

Gamble, who was behind the wheel of the SUV, drove past, made a U-turn then came up alongside Stephens and Jones. The 6-foot-5 Crittenton, sitting in the back seat, lowered his window, pulled out an assault rifle and fired at least four rounds, police said.

One bullet struck an unintended target, Jones, in her upper right thigh, ripping into her femoral artery, causing massive bleeding. Stephens was not hit. The SUV drove off.

Police soon learned Crittenton had rented a black Chevy Tahoe just hours before the shooting and returned it to the agency a few days later.

Shown a photo lineup, Stephens picked out Crittenton’s picture, saying he was the person who had fired on him and Jones. Police also found a fingerprint on the rented SUV’s left rear door that matched Crittenton’s left middle finger, court records say.

Another witness told police that Crittenton had previously been driving through Stephens’ neighborhood looking for the men who had robbed him. When Crittenton pulled up in his Porsche Panamera on one occasion, he had a scowl on his face and a .40-caliber handgun in his lap, the witness said, according to court records.

Crittenton denied all this when police searched his house days after the shooting. He said he rented the SUV for Gamble to use on his birthday and was nowhere near the scene of the crime.

“I cannot say what someone else did that night,” court records say Crittenton told police, looking over his shoulder in Gamble’s direction.

In trying to establish a motive and a mindset for the crime, Fulton County investigators have alleged that, after Crittenton went to L.A. to join the Lakers, he befriended members of the Mansfield Gangster Crips. And it was in keeping with gang code that he mete out retribution after being robbed.

The portrait of Crittenton being drawn by investigators differs starkly from the one still fresh in the memories of those who have known him from his childhood.

“A good kid, on top of his academics. Never had a problem with him. That’s how I remember him,” said Jennifer Prather, whose late husband Wallace Prather Jr. was one of Crittenton’s earliest mentors.

Testifying on Crittenton's behalf at a bond hearing, Paul Hewitt, his former coach at Georgia Tech, described him as an intelligent, naturally gifted athlete.

"I told him often, 'You're fortunate. You have the ability to be a great basketball player, but you are not a young man who needs basketball to be successful,'" Hewitt told the court.

At the hearing, the defense presented a petition with 1,000 signatures, urging the judge to release Crittenton and saying he was not a flight risk nor a threat to the public. It caught even prosecutors off guard. “I’ve done 500 murder cases in this courtroom, and I’ve never seen that done,” Assistant District Attorney Jack Barrs said.

Crittenton was released on $230,000 bond.

After playing only 22 games with the Lakers, Crittenton was traded to Memphis. He played out the 2007-08 season with the Grizzlies, then was traded again early the next season to Washington. A bizarre confrontation in Washington sank an already foundering career.

A 2009 Christmas Eve dispute with Wizards star Gilbert Arenas over a gambling debt escalated to the point of both men brandishing guns in the team’s locker room. In late January 2010, after Crittenton pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor gun charge, he was suspended for the remainder of the season. The Wizards released Crittenton prior to the start of the 2010 season. He never caught on with another NBA team, playing sparingly in China and in North Dakota in the NBA Developmental League.

“If he was a star, he could have still played (after the Arenas incident),” said Kermit Washington, a former player who befriended Crittenton while working for the NBA players union. “You can be an average player (and stay in the league) if you have a perfect attitude and everything else is going perfectly correct. But when you don’t, teams say we don’t need the adverse publicity.”

While the Arenas affair publicly called Crittenton’s character into question, Fulton prosecutors say he had begun forming dangerous alliances earlier.

They allege that shortly after being drafted by the Lakers in 2007, Crittenton was drawn into the notorious Mansfield Gangster Crips. The gang, known for drugs, guns and sex trafficking, sprung up in West Los Angeles in the early 1980s.

Crittenton has been tied to two alleged members of the Mansfield gang — Asfaw Abebe and Javier Romero Angulo — who are charged with a 2010 gang-related murder. In that case, like the one in Atlanta, it was a woman acquaintance of the intended target — along with her unborn child — who died in the gunfire.

Two days after that shooting, Angulo asked Crittenton to buy him a plane ticket from Los Angeles to Atlanta.

In statements to police and in court testimony, Crittenton said he and Abebe had been close friends for almost two years and that he met Angulo through Abebe. Crittenton, calling Angulo his “little homie,” told police he initially resisted fronting money for the ticket, but eventually relented.

Crittenton said the last time he saw Angulo was when he paid him back for his ticket. But Crittenton’s involvement didn’t stop there, investigators said.

After the two men were arrested for murder, Crittenton began putting money in their jail accounts as they awaited trial, Fulton District Attorney’s Office investigator Marshall English wrote in a September 2012 affidavit.

Crittenton told Los Angeles police he was unaware that Angulo was a member of the Mansfield gang. But English said Crittenton’s continued contact with Abebe and Angulo and his willingness to give them financial support as they awaited trial for a gang-related murder shows that Crittenton is a member or an associate of the Mansfield gang.

Crittenton’s connection with the Mansfield gang also explains why he tried to hunt down the men who robbed him, English wrote.

California gangs view Atlanta gangs as “wannabes,” English said. If a Mansfield gang member was the victim of a crime committed by Raised on Cleveland gang members, this would “constitute a high degree of disrespect which would … warrant retaliation.”

If Crittenton became an associate of the Mansfield gang, he’s an exception, said Jorja Leap, a UCLA professor who has researched gangs. Pro athletes are often trying to escape neighborhoods with gang activity, she said.

"Is it commonplace for professional athletes to seek out gangs for protection? That's not been my experience," she said. "If someone was seeking protection, however, I'd guess they would turn to an established gang, like Mansfield."

“Neither allegedly buying the (plane) ticket nor depositing money in a jail commissary account is proof that an individual is a gang member,” Leap said. “If it can be shown that this person had knowledge this individual was a gang member when he purchased the ticket, one could possibly make the case he was a gang associate.”

Such a conversation jars Crittenton’s friends.

To Washington — who had his own moment of infamy during a 1977 game when he punched Rudy Tomjanovich, shattering multiple bones in his face — Crittenton was the one he could always count on showing up for union-sponsored events at schools and hospitals. He even invited Crittenton to stay with him last summer in Los Angeles for three months so he could clear his head and work out.

To Michael Moynihan, Crittenton was “as focused and determined as anyone” while the two were adolescent teammates on the AAU Atlanta Celtics.

“And as soon as we were off that floor, he was as loving and caring as any kid on our team,” he said.

Passing time during the long wait for justice has been difficult for everyone involved in the case.

Since the shooting, June Woods has taken custody of her daughter’s oldest son. She shares custody of the other three children with their father. But when the trial does commence, “I’ll be there every day,” promised Jullian Jones’ mother.

On all the children’s birthdays, their cakes have been adorned with a likeness of their mother. To mark her birthday and the anniversary of her death, the family has gathered around a little memorial set up near the scene of the shooting and released balloons into the clouds.

Crittenton has been out on bond, but in limbo. A custody dispute over his infant son is on hold. He is still working out, his associates say, preparing, in case of his exoneration. In March, his attorney tried unsucessfuly to get the 25-year-old Crittenton’s bond modified so he could travel to Venezuela to try out for a pro team there, with a chance to make $20,000 a month.

While Crittenton has not commented publicly about the charges, he told police in no uncertain terms last year what he thought about them after being pulled over for speeding on his way from his Fayetteville home to the gym.

When Crittenton began arguing with the officer, others were called in for backup. After they arrived, Crittenton erupted when he heard one officer tell another he had killed a woman.

“I’m not no (expletive) killer, homie – you’re lying,” he told the officer. “… That’s not who I am. I’m a professional basketball player, sir.”