Henry Lee Johnson was a 15-year-old murdered in the parking lot of an all-white club in 1980. Despite a confession and eye-witness accounts, his family never received justice for his death.
If you haven’t already heard, police in a Minneapolis suburb shot and killed an unarmed 20-year-old Black man on Sunday. As I watched Unicorn Riot‘s live stream of the protest, I found myself thinking a lot about racial injustice in America. My mind kept thinking back to a young man I accidentally learned about recently. Henry Lee Johnson.
Idabel, Oklahoma, is about 12 miles north of the Oklahoma/Texas border, halfway between Paris and Texarkana. Henry Lee Johnson was a Black 15-year-old 9th grader and basketball player who lived in Idabel. On Sunday, January 20, 1980, Henry’s body was found, shot to death in the parking lot right outside of the Black Hat Club.
The Black Hat Club was a club frequented by white people just on Idabel’s Black community’s outskirts. The club had previously been involved in other racial incidents. It was reported that the area in Oklahoma had a sting of missing and unsolved murders of their Black residents.
The murder of Henry Lee Johnson was a match thrown onto the can of gas.
Henry Lee Johnson was shot one time in the back of the head. However, as quickly as rumors in a small-town spread, rumors about his murder quickly spread. Many of the Black residents in town were told Henry was beaten to death and lynched. The Black community gathered near the City Hall; reports varied from anywhere between 50 – 200 people came out to protest.
After months of Black people who had gone missing and unsolved murdered of Black bodies, the murder of 15-year-old Henry was too much for the community, and they erupted in anger. A riot broke out.
During the riot, the Black Hat Club and several other businesses were burnt down and looted. Ruben Farmer, 36, a white Idabel service station owner, was fatally wounded by two shots to the torso. The body of William Mack Jr., a 26-year-old Black man, was also shot to death.
An arrest happened almost immediately.
Walter Anthony ‘Tony’ DeShazo, 29, a white man from Horatio, Arkansas, was arrested on January 21st for first-degree murder. Despite his arrest, the Ku Klux Klan flocked to Idabel, and by January 24th, they were handing out Klan literature while dressed in Klan robes on the streets of Idabel. Arsons and racial tension lasted in the area for months.
What happened to Henry Lee Johnson? There were several stories, coming from multiple witnesses.
During the trial, a 13-year-old girl from Foreman, Arkansas, testified on behalf of Tony DeShazo. She was a companion of his and in his van in the club parking lot. Before we get into what she said in her testimony, we should point out how bizarre it was for a 13-year-old girl to be the “companion” of a 29-year-old man in another state at a club.
The girl testified that she got out of the van to use the restroom and heard a noise nearby. She went back to the van and told DeShazo, “there is someone out there.” She said DeShazo unzipped his gun out of the case and went around the building; she heard him shout “stop or something like that,” and then several gunshots. When the girl testified at DeShazo’s trial, she was pregnant and testified she never had sex with DeShazo.
Henry Lee Johnson’s little brother was also there, only 13-years-old at the time. He testified at the trial that he, his brother, and a group of other boys entered the parking lot through a hole in the fence. Then a man got out of a brown van and chased them, shouting “Freeze, or I’ll blow your brains out,” and shot several times. The boys kept running, soon realizing that Henry Lee Johnson was no longer with them. When Henry didn’t come home, the boys returned to the parking lot the next morning and found his body.
The security guard at the club testified that he saw a nude woman standing next to the van after the shots were heard.
The details of the case.
The trial began in the late summer of 1980. I wonder if the trial happened now, in 2021, would the outcome have been different?
The judge, not finding the murder to be premeditated, bumped the charges down to second-degree murder and set a $25,000 bond. DeShazo quickly was bailed out and remained out on bond while waiting on the trial.
Another odd detail of this case was DeShazo’s defense attorney sitting Oklahoma State Senator Gene Stripe. Why would a State Senator, while in office, defend DeShazo? Family tie? Throughout Senator Stripe’s career, he was plagued by scandal and corruption; ultimately, he resigned in 2003 after facing federal charges of perjury, obstruction of a Federal investigation, and conspiracy to violate the Federal Election Campaign Act.
Why was the 13-year-old girl considered a credible witness? That entire part of the story seemed fishy. Driving across state lines, at a club, with a man more than twice her age, and later pregnant. Then the security guard said he saw a nude woman; was it the 13-year-old he actually saw?
Tony DeShazo had no apparent ties to the club. This white man got out of his vehicle on someone else’s property, then chased and shot at a group of teenagers, ultimately killing Henry Lee Johnson. Neither castle doctrine nor stand your ground laws should have been applicable in this case.
Guilty beyond a reasonable doubt?
Senator Stripe’s defense was that there were two separate shootings that night, and DeShazo didn’t kill Henry Lee Johnson; instead, the teenager was murdered by a second man later that night. In 1980, they didn’t have the same type of ballistics tests that they do now. Matching the bullet that killed Henry to a gun would have proved the case.
Tony DeShazo confessed to murdering Henry Lee Johnson when he was initially arrested. He gave a statement and signed it. However, the judge in the case refused to allow the prosecutors to present it as evidence. The jury never knew he had confessed.
Tony DeShazo was acquitted of all charges in January 1981. No other person was ever arrested in connection with the murder. Henry Lee Johnson never got justice.
I came across Henry Lee Johnson’s story in an old newspaper.
I was researching for something else and happened upon it. Aside from these old articles, Henry Lee Johnson’s story seemed forgotten. This 15-year-old young man with his entire life in front of him snuffed out, and then the world went on without him.
It’s 41 years later. I was unsuccessful at tracking down Henry’s family. I would love to learn more about him or see his picture. Even if our memories have moved past his death, undoubtedly, the family still grieves the loss of their child.
When we say their names, George Floyd, Eric Garner, Treyvon Martin, and the countless others whose lives were cut short, please remember Henry Lee Johnson. His life mattered, too.
Update: I was able to find Henry’s picture in the 1979/1980 Idabel High School yearbook.
RIP Henry Lee Johnson
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