Johnson had already confessed: He and Cleophus King -- his former lover
and accomplice -- fatally stabbed and strangled Assistant St. Louis County
Counselor Luke Meiners in the Forest Park - DeBaliviere neighborhood
back in 2008. They dumped Meiners' body across the river, stole
his Jeep and ran up his credit cards.
By Wednesday, Johnson had
struck a deal with prosecutors: He would escape the death penalty and
spend his life in prison without possibility for parole, provided he
testified in the capital case against his co-defendant King, age 45.
King wasn't present; his case is still pending. But Johnson's fate was
During the hearing, Judge Steven Ohmer invited the
accused to make a statement. Johnson, looking frail in orange prison
garb, declined. About a dozen of his family members sat in the benches
behind him, distraught but quiet.
Members of the victim's family
were present too, including Luke Meiners' sister, who'd come all the way
from Atlanta, Georgia. Some wiped their eyes and held each others'
hands. Yet none chose to give an impact statement.
Assistant Circuit Attorney Rachel Smith did rise to address the court.
With her boss, Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, looking on, Smith felt
the need to put certain things on the record.
She described the
"torturous" and "extremely painful" way the murder was carried out. She
called Luke Meiners a "vibrant human being" who was killed for nothing
more than a mid-level robbery.
What she didn't say aloud, but
wrote in a pleading filed with the court that same day, was how this
case had affected her personally: Cleophus King was caught in jail
writing notes to Johnson, plotting to have her knocked off. And Ronald
Johnson hadn't even bothered to notify her.
St. Louis County Counselor Pat Redington recalls her former employee, Luke Meiners, with fondness.
was an extremely kind and gentle person," she says. Once, a female
colleague grew ill and missed work. Meiners didn't want her to lose any
income, Redington says, so he offered to donate his own vacation time.
Redington also describes Meiners as a "tenacious" lawyer.
lawyers get very competitive and just want to win," she observes. "But
Luke always looked for the right answer. He was interested in justice.
He was the kind of lawyer you want in your office."
Then, in early March 2008, Meiners suddenly disappeared.
brother Matthew reported him missing in University City -- that's where
the lawyer had an apartment. According to a search warrant application,
U. City police soon learned that Meiners was last seen on Friday, March
7 in the company of "a black male who appeared to be a homosexual."
On Sunday, March 9, 2008, a Metro bus driver overheard something during his route and felt the need to tell the cops.
driver had listened while a passenger -- described as a young black
male with "feminine characteristics" -- talked into his cell phone about
murdering a white male and dumping the body on the East Side.
passenger, it turns out, was 20-year-old Ronald Johnson. Police used
cell phone records to catch up with him. Once they did, Johnson in turn
led them to his own boyfriend, Cleophus King.
After four years
of hearings, interviews and court filings, a picture has emerged of what
actually happened to Luke Meiners on the night of Friday, March 7.
and Johnson were friends. (Nothing in the court records suggests they
were intimate). On the night in question, the young man asked the county
lawyer for a ride to King's house at 5726 Waterman Boulevard
, on the premise that Johnson needed to do laundry there. But it was a trap: Johnson and King were planning to rob him.
all three had converged inside King's house, Johnson and King attacked
Meiners. They beat him, stabbed him multiple times, and strangled him
with an electric cord.
But Meiners did not go quietly.
a full fourteen minutes, he tried to stave off his assailants. We know
it was fourteen minutes, because a neighbor's surveillance camera
captured the audio.
According to the pleading filed by city prosecutor Rachel Smith:
of the clearest sounds coming from the recording are the victim's
multiple please for someone to help him and for someone to call 911....
Luke Meiners begged for his life repeatedly. Luke suffered a terrifying
several minutes as he fought for his life. Luke Meiners had a long time
to know he was going to die.
Once Meiners finally died, they wrapped him up with sheets and duct tape and heaved him
into his own Jeep. They then drove the body over to Venice, Illinois,
and left it in a vacant lot near an old rail line.
accomplices backtracked and drove to Luke Meiners' apartment in
University City, where they stole his laptop and other devices. They
used Meiners' credit cards to buy gas, food and cell phones.
Between those transaction records and the suspects' willingness to blame each other, the cops knew they'd nabbed the right men.
On April 4, a grand jury indicted both for first-degree murder, first-degree robbery and two counts of armed criminal action.
But soon, jailhouse intrigue was threatening to upend the prosecution's strategy.
Johnson pleaded guilty in August 2010 and agreed to testify against his former lover, King.
despite Judge Ohmer's orders to keep them apart while incarcerated,
they both ended up in the city jail. They exchanged notes -- called
"kites" in jail lingo -- through a variety of methods, including the
mail and laundry system. Some of these were in code.
correspondence, they agreed that Johnson would renege on his cooperation
and that they would both try to beat the case. King threatened that he
would "get at" Johnson if he got cold feet. According to Johnson and
another jailhouse informant, King further discussed ways to have
prosecutor Rachel Smith murdered.
King even expressed a desire to
have Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce assassinated, according to
Johnson's testimony in a March 2012 hearing.
Johnson failed to tell the prosecutors about any of this, even though he was supposed to be collaborating with them.
Prosecutor Rachel Smith felt this dark conspiracy violated Johnson's plea agreement. She tried to have it nullified.
in a ruling last June, Judge Ohmer found that Johnson only behaved this
way out of fear of his former boyfriend. At present, Ohmer concluded,
Johnson is not scared of reprisal and will testify. That decision
cleared the way for the sentencing on Wednesday night.
commend you in the sense of you taking responsibility for the tragic
events that occurred," Judge Ohmer told Johnson, whose right hand shook
as he clutched a tissue.
The judge continued: "You can't turn
back the clock, and it never justifies what happened. But your family
has been very supportive, they've been counseling you. And even if you
leave prison -- I don't think you will -- it's still a huge first step
to take responsibility, and that's what you've done."
At that, Johnson broke down sobbing, covering his face with his hand. Several members of his family also wept.
After court adjourned, Daily RFT
spoke to Mark Meiners, the victim's brother and a St. Louis resident.
"We're glad to have it finally be over," Meiners said. "It's an appropriate sentence."
in a sense, it's not entirely over: Cleophus King is scheduled for
trial in August 2013. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. They're
counting on the cooperation of Ronald Johnson.
Outside near the
elevators, we caught up with Ron Freeman. He said he was Johnson's
stepfather, and had known the young man most of his life.
"He got mixed up with the wrong people," Freeman said of his stepson. "That happens in life."
The same could be said, perhaps, of the late Luke Meiners.
The sentencing of 24-year-old Ronald Johnson on Wednesday afternoon was a foregone conclusion, but that didn't prevent tears among those gathered -- on either side of a St. Louis courtroom.