Frenchel Johnson had a bad feeling when she saw the breaking news alert on TV about a 40-year-old man shot to death by a police officer on 36th Street North.
Sitting in a plastic chair in the day room of pod F18, Johnson saw the news flash on the jail television overhead.
“I was thinking, ‘That’s the way he comes home from school.’ I didn’t even finish watching the news. I went straight to the phone.”
Johnson’s husband, Terence Crutcher, didn’t answer her call from a telephone at the Tulsa jail that night. After a restless night, Johnson was able to reach her 15-year-old daughter the next morning.
“She said, ‘Mama, listen, I got something to tell you.’”
The man she fell in love with more than 16 years ago was gone. He’d been shot by a police officer and died at the scene. Even harder for Johnson to understand was the way in which he died: with his hands in the air.
Johnson, 38, was jailed at the time after allegedly threatening a neighbor with a knife during a barbecue a month earlier. She could do little to comfort the couple’s four children.
“It was the worst feeling,” she told The Frontier in a recent interview. “I couldn’t do nothing for my kids.”
Crutcher’s shooting prompted local demonstrations, nationwide news coverage and even comments from both presidential candidates.
For days after the shooting, however, none of the family members mentioned publicly that Terence Crutcher had a wife. The couple lived together for nearly 16 years and had three children together, ages 4, 12 and 15. Crutcher also raised Johnson’s son, now 17, as his own.
Crutcher’s parents, the Rev. Joey and Leanne Crutcher, are challenging Johnson’s right under state law to serve as special administrator of her husband’s estate. Three days after their son died, while Johnson remained in jail, the Crutchers sought and obtained emergency guardianship over the couple’s children.
Hearings are set for later this month to determine whether the guardianship should remain in place and whether Johnson qualifies as Terence Crutcher’s common-law wife. Oklahoma generally defines common-law marriage as one in which the couple lives together and presents themselves as married to the public.
Records indicate Johnson and Terence Crutcher lived at the same address, raised four children and were known to family and neighbors as married. Johnson produced copies of birthday cards she’d written to Terrence signed “your wife,” mail sent to him at their address on North Hartford and a checkbook bearing his name and their address.
Police and court records refer to Johnson as Crutcher’s wife and to Joey Crutcher as her father-in-law.
Though Terence Crutcher had no significant assets, the special administrator of his estate can file a civil lawsuit on behalf of his spouse and children. The officer who shot Crutcher, Betty Shelby, has been charged with first-degree manslaughter and entered a not guilty plea.
Johnson said Joey and Leanne Crutcher are family to her. She’s bewildered that the Crutchers are trying to take custody of her children, especially while she and the children are grieving their loss.
“This is just traumatizing my kids,” she said, wiping tears away. “I just want the best for my kids.”
Attorneys Benjamin Crump and Damario Solomon-Simmons have not responded to requests by The Frontier for an interview for this story. However in legal filings on behalf of Joey and Leanne Crutcher, they have argued Johnson is “disqualified, ineligible and lacks standing” to serve as administrator of the estate.
Charge filed “erroneously”
Besides challenging Johnson’s marital status, Crump and Solomon-Simmons have argued she is unfit to serve as administrator because she has a pending criminal charge and a past criminal record.
Crump has a law practice in Tallahassee, Fla., and has served as legal counsel in several high-profile police shooting cases, including the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice.
Solomon-Simmons is associated with Tulsa’s Riggs Abney law firm. His website states he is “a nationally sought-after speaker and social commentator on civil rights … and public policy issues.”
Though one of their central claims is that Johnson is accused of a violent crime, records in the case raise questions about whether she was protecting herself on her own property. Oklahoma’s “stand your ground” law allows people to use “defensive force” in certain situations without facing prosecution.
Johnson was arrested Aug. 13 after she became involved in a dispute with a neighbor’s sister-in-law, Toshiba Brown. Prosecutors alleged she stabbed Brown and she was charged with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, a felony.
However, Johnson remained in her own yard during the incident and did not stab Brown, records show. Brown was standing about 40 feet away from Johnson in the street with a fence and at least one police officer between them.
Before a preliminary hearing in the case last month, prosecutors amended the charge against Johnson to assault with a dangerous weapon. (An assault is essentially threatening to harm someone without a lawful reason while battery involves actual force or violence.)
Records show the victim did not testify during the preliminary hearing. Tulsa Police Officer Chris Turner, who spent about 30 minutes at the scene outside the couple’s house, was the lone witness.
Turner said “it was already a calm situation” between the neighbors when he arrived and both women were on their own properties.
However as Turner and other officers were leaving the scene, the victim — Brown — left her yard and ran into the street in front of Johnson’s house.
“I saw Ms. Brown run from one of the yards out to the street .. yelling,” Turner testified.
Johnson, who had gone back into her house, came onto her porch with what Turner described as a large kitchen knife. (Johnson said she had the knife in her hand because she had been chopping ribs for her husband’s birthday celebration.)
Turner testified that Brown was about 40 feet away, standing in the street while Johnson stood on the porch. Johnson yelled at Brown, saying: “I’m going to dice you up. I got something for you,” Turner testified.
Johnson didn’t make any motion toward Brown but that alleged statement formed the basis of the felony charge against her.
The officer told Johnson’s attorney that he was between the two women and Johnson did not leave her yard.
“There’s no way … that Ms. Johnson can get to Ms. Brown without going through you, correct?” asked Johnson’s attorney, public defender Travis Smith.
“True,” the officer answered.
Johnson said officers ordered her to “freeze” so she immediately put her hands up, with the knife still in her hand. Several officers deployed their Tasers on her at that time, she said.
She was charged with obstructing an officer because she allegedly refused orders to drop the knife and misdemeanor assault and battery because she allegedly spit on Brown.
Tulsa police said no video exists of the incident and declined requests to provide audio without a court order.
District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler said the initial charge alleging that Johnson stabbed the victim was filed “erroneously.”
“We did, in fact, amend the felony to charge her with assault with a dangerous weapon, which is still a felony,” he said.
Four days before Johnson’s arrest, the women had an argument during which Brown struck Johnson, records show. Johnson said she was punched so hard that she fell to the ground. (Brown acknowledged hitting Johnson but said Johnson hit her first.)
Johnson’s mugshot shows she had a black eye and broken blood vessels in her eye four days after that incident. Johnson did not report the altercation to the police.
Sabah Khalaf, an attorney handling Johnson’s criminal case, said Kunzweiler should “take a closer look at this case.”
“The preliminary hearing transcript reveals the alleged victim was the aggressor and continued to be the aggressor throughout this incident,” he said. “There was a reason why Frenchel was fearful of this lady.”
To bring a charge of assault, prosecutors must show that the victim had an “imminent fear” of being battered, Khalaf said.
“So in order for there to be any kind of battery, she (Johnson) would have to come off the porch, run another 40 or 50 feet, open the fence and get past the police officers who were there,” he said.
Brown requested a protective order against Johnson as a result of the Aug. 13 incident. The order was dismissed several weeks later when she failed to show up at a hearing, records show. In her application for a protective order, Brown calls Johnson Crutcher’s wife.
Multiple attempts by The Frontier to reach Brown were unsuccessful. She told The Daily Beast website recently that Johnson and her sister often quarreled.
“It was just [a] typical neighbor feud, but that incident that led to Frenchel’s arrest was the first time it escalated that far,” Brown told the website.
“My sister, Frenchel, and Terence has been feuding for years but it has never turned violent,” Brown said.
Donations sent to attorney’s office
While Johnson remained in jail, Crutcher’s parents and sister, Tiffany, flew to New York with Crump and Solomon-Simmons for an interview with CNN and other media outlets.
In a recorded conversation, Joey Crutcher explained why the family left Johnson in jail after Terence Crutcher’s death.
“Didn’t nobody know the kids have a mother, but, you know, we were trying to keep her dignity intact. … We didn’t want nobody to know that she was in jail,” he said.
Joey Crutcher’s comments were recorded during a meeting in the office of Johnson’s attorney, Dan Smolen. A friend of Johnson’s who attended the meeting at the law firm — Smolen, Smolen & Roytman — recorded the conversation and provided a copy to The Frontier.
During the meeting, Joey Crutcher called Johnson his daughter-in-law and said the two were married. He also said he and his wife “don’t want to be raising nobody’s kids,” even though the Crutchers had just sought emergency guardianship of the three children.
He described the children as a “basket case” without their mother.
But helping Johnson get out of jail to comfort her children didn’t seem to be a priority for attorneys advising the Crutchers.
Meanwhile, donations were flowing in to help Terence Crutcher’s family. In the week after Terence Crutcher’s death, more than $165,000 in donations poured into an online account on the website GoFundMe.com to help Terence Crutcher’s family.
The online fundraising site is a popular way that many people raise funds for a wide variety of causes. However, the website’s fund-raising accounts have little formal oversight and no requirements involving transparency.
In the case of Terence Crutcher’s memorial fund, donors are told to send money to the address of Crump’s Florida law firm, Parks & Crump.
The firm set up the account and has established similar accounts following the deaths of Martin, Brown and Rice. The pages claim donations won’t be used for legal fees.
The page for Terence Crutcher states: “100% of all funds collected on this website will be withdrawn to a bank account established by our clients, the parents and sibling of Terence Crutcher, for the benefit of his kids.”
Initially, donors were directed to send the funds to “the estate of Terence Crutcher.” That changed after Johnson filed notice that she had been appointed special administrator of her husband’s estate.
The donation site now says that “all fund(s) donated here will be transferred directly to Tiffany Crutcher for her family’s benefit.“
Tiffany Crutcher, a physical therapist and Terence Crutcher’s twin, lives in Alabama.
The Frontier requested an interview with Solomon-Simmons and Crump about issues including financial oversight of the GoFundMe account and funds raised during a rally featuring the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Solomon-Simmons responded with an email stating: “It is our understanding that the funds raised through GoFundMe were done in full accordance with the law. It is our understanding that none of the funds raised have been spent.”
A packed rally featuring Sharpton on Sept. 27 also raised funds for the family. Following an evening of music and speeches at the Jazz Hall of Fame, people at the rally passed buckets to gather donations, which organizers said would go to the Crutcher family.
Sharpton read off the names of several people who donated that night, including several who wrote checks for $1,000. It’s unclear how much was raised or where it was deposited. The GoFundMe account does not list any $1,000 donations on or near that date.
Sharpton’s organization, National Action Network, has not responded to an email from The Frontier.
Johnson said when she was released from jail, she was not informed about the donations people had made to help the family. The GoFundMe page uses a family photo that includes Johnson but the page fails to mention her.
She said she is struggling to make ends meet and lacks transportation, making it difficult to work.
‘I just want justice’
Though Terence Crutcher’s name may be a hashtag to much of the nation, to Johnson, he was the man who wouldn’t stay out of the kitchen when she made macaroni.
The man who was rightfully proud of his barbecue ribs and gourmet omelets.
The man who read the Bible each morning and loved to sing in church. The Bible was open to the book of Matthew when Crutcher left his house for the last time Sept. 16.
He often drove to his parents’ house on trash day, just to pull the trash cans to and from the house, she said.
Both Johnson and Crutcher struggled with addiction and had criminal records that resulted in prison time. Johnson had recently completed drug court because of a DUI. She maintains they were both on a good path recently, trying to improve life for their children and themselves.
However, police said they found a vial of what they believe to be PCP in his car. (Toxicology tests are pending.)
“We had our ups and downs. I’m not going to say every day was perfect,” she said.
“I just liked his spirit because he had something that I didn’t have. He always told me that it was going to be all right.”
More than anything, Terence loved to sing with his father. The two sang together during services at New Heights Christian Church and at funeral services.
With her husband gone and children in legal limbo, Johnson is focused on putting her life back in order. She also wants to make sure the truth comes out about what happened to him.
“I just want justice for him, that’s all. Because he had his hands up. It wasn’t like he was trying to harm somebody. … He had a family that depended on him.”