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Double indemnity?

If you were a hard-boiled homicide detective searching for evidence of foul play in the home of a man suspected of killing his wife, would a stack of life-insurance papers on the man’s dining table be a big fat clue?

When LBPD Detective Todd Johnson searched my sister’s house on March 4, 2014, he overlooked many clues, including life-insurance papers on the dining table. These documents appear incidentally in police photos, as if Johnson didn’t notice them, and therefore didn’t request additional, detailed photos.

I asked Scott Alan Video if it was possible to zoom in on the documents shown in a specific photo, which you can see in full here. Scott did his best, using software such as Amped FIVE.

Scott wrote: “Once the perspective was corrected and the image enlarged, it is apparent that the document is a State Farm document. It is possible that it is a bill or a statement of the account status. …I was unable to clarify the text on the document any further. This is due in part to how small the document is in the overall, original image.”

The same photo shows the sunglasses with attached Bluetooth earphones that Cain a.k.a. Huck was wearing when he returned from walking the dog, a key point in his murder alibi. Also, the photo shows a credit card on a yellow tablet. Was this the card used to make an online purchase in Dana’s name on the morning of March 3, 2014, which police claimed as “proof” that Dana was alive and well somewhere in her house? I wish Johnson had noted the credit card number because not even Scott’s perspective correction can make it clear.

This stuff was in plain view. If the yellow tablet and credit card had been in focus when the photo was taken, we’d have additional clues to work with. But no. Because Johnson. To me, this is just another example of Johnson’s relentless inattention to detail regarding my sister’s case.

How does he manage to keep his job? A recent report by Jeremiah Dobruck and Kelly Puente in the Long Beach Post suggests intimidation may have something to do with it. After Judge Judith L. Meyer criticized Johnson and his partner in open court regarding a different botched investigation, police paid her a visit to convince her to recant. She obliged, writing a secret letter in praise of the detectives.

Judge Meyer issued the March 4, 2014, search warrant in my sister’s case. On Judge Meyer’s authority, Johnson was commanded to search my sister’s house for evidence of murder. Johnson bungled the search. Who will hold him accountable for his dereliction of duty? No one, it seems, not even the judge.

On the bright side, the article says Johnson has been removed from the homicide unit, confirming what I wrote last year about his demotion. Still, the Long Beach police need to keep him on the force, I guess, because he’s so good at “finding no evidence” of wrongdoing. He’s a perfect fit for Internal Affairs.


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LBPD admits it: NO policies for DME

Is it weird that the Long Beach Police publicly released a trove of digital media evidence and police reports regarding this case? LBPD released hours of CCTV recordings showing the interior of a private home. They released hours of video taken by cameras pointed at East Stearns Street, plainly showing neighbors coming and going. They released recordings of people on the sidewalk minding their own business, perhaps unaware that they were under surveillance by the dead woman’s husband.

No one was arrested in this case. Even so, the LBPD released shirtless photos of the guy who set up the video cameras. They released detailed, high-resolution images of the interior of the dead woman’s home. They released more than 50 pages of unredacted police reports naming neighbors and others — often revealing the driver’s license numbers and home addresses of private citizens. (Many of the police reports on this site are redacted; redactions were applied by me, not by the LBPD.)

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad that these documents were released. Now they can be analyzed by independent experts, and can be preserved in spite of the LBPD’s busy shredding machines. Still, it surprises me. What, exactly, is the LBPD’s policy on this type of thing?

I asked the LBPD directly. Here’s a pdf of our PRA correspondence. Sgt. Joshua Brearley told me that records maintained by the LBPD are subject to release in compliance with the California Public Records Act. So, presumably, the release of records in this case complies with California law. Sgt. Brearley also wrote that the LBPD doesn’t have any written policies or procedures regarding CCTV. Hard to believe, right? CCTV cameras are everywhere. How can the police NOT have a policy? (Sgt. Brearley did not reply to my attempt to clarify.)

Here’s an open letter I sent to Long Beach City Councilwoman Suzie Price earlier today.

Councilwoman Price:

On February 11, 2019, in response to my PRA request, Sergeant Joshua Brearley, Long Beach Police Department, Office of the Chief of Police, wrote: “The Long Beach Police Department does not have written policies specific to the retrieval or analysis of digital video evidence and CCTV.”

If true, this is deeply disturbing. In 2014, LBPD homicide detectives seized CCTV recordings from my sister’s home. Based in part on their misinterpretation of this evidence, detectives failed to properly investigate my sister’s murder. Detailed information about her case can be found at http://www.yogadeath.com.

According to attorney Jonathan Hak, an international expert on forensic video analysis and the law: “Relying on video evidence without expert interpretation risks the failure to reach the correct conclusions based on the evidence or worse, reaching the wrong conclusions.” On his blog, Mr. Hak writes about criminal cases in which CCTV evidence has played a role. Untrained detectives and unreliable “experts” who misinterpret digital media can very well botch an investigation. More at https://www.jonathanhak.com/.

Professional training in forensic video retrieval and analysis has been available to police departments for decades. Here, for example, is a document explaining basic best practices: https://leva.org/images/Best_Practices-DME_Acquisiton_V_3_0-01-2013.pdf

These guidelines are clear and practical. I wish that the LBPD had complied with them when my sister was killed in 2014. Five years later, the number of CCTV cameras in Long Beach has probably multiplied. The department’s ongoing lack of written policies and procedures suggests that there’s an unwritten policy of willful ignorance and incompetence. It’s indefensible.

In your role as chair of Long Beach City Council’s public safety committee, please instruct the LBPD to adopt written standards of practice regarding digital media evidence.

Thanks,
Lisa Jones


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Forensic image enhancement reveals blood-red stains

In Dana’s case, Long Beach homicide detectives overlooked dark stains on the concrete floor of the master bathroom. These stains were made by Dana’s blood pulsing from her fatal head wound as she tried to escape from the bathroom, and as her husband dragged her into the shower, I believe. Huck tried to wash her blood away, but the concrete floor absorbed it, making it impossible for him to scrub the floor clean in the limited time he had. He tried to conceal the blood with decorative stain, I believe. (More here.)

When I studied the police photos of the bathroom, I saw reddish stains covered with a brownish wash. Other investigators dismissed my perceptions as biased and wrong. I wondered: Is there a way to objectively confirm my subjective impression that the dark stains look bloody red? Is there a way to separate the two different stain colors — brownish and reddish — to make blood in the police photos more obvious? The answer is: Yes, kind of.

I learned this forensic imaging technique a couple of years ago in a class taught by George Reis, an established expert in digital media forensics. It’s a relatively simple Channel Mixer adjustment applied in Adobe Photoshop CC 2018. This tool allows me to split the RGB (red, green, blue) in the images into three separate channels. Next, I can “turn up the volume” on the red channel, while “turning down the volume” on green and blue. This technique does not add red to the picture; rather, it emphasizes the red that’s already there. (Adobe explains.)

In his class notes, George Reis explained: “The Channel Mixer allows us to control the amount of data each separate color channel contributes to the image. With this control, if we need to de-emphasize a purple object, or isolate an orange object, we can get very precise control, which wasnʼt possible by splitting channels…. This tool has tremendous power for color isolation.”

To demonstrate, I applied Channel Mixer adjustments to police photo img_126. You can download the photo in full resolution here and try this yourself in Photoshop. Make sure that the image mode is RGB, 16 bit. In the gallery below, you can see a variety of “mixes” and settings that reveal the bloody redness of the stains. I also tried adding a levels adjustment to further reveal the red. Give it a try. (You can download additional police photos here.)

The stains are certainly red, but are they blood? Maybe a blood-stain-pattern expert might be able to draw conclusions. As far as I know, there’s no way to definitively confirm that a photograph depicts actual blood. Owing to the blunders and forensic malpractice of the Long Beach Police Department, the bathroom was not tested chemically for the presence of blood. But the LBPD did take photos, and that’s worth something, if only to me.


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Case of the demoted detective?

A story making the rounds in Long Beach: Todd Johnson, the lead homicide detective on my sister’s case, has been removed from the LBPD homicide detail due to a recent instance of misconduct — something involving an attorney representing Johnson’s son. If true, this adds credence to what I’ve been saying for years: Todd Johnson is a corrupt cop (who helped my sister’s husband get away with murder.)

LBPD Det. Todd Johnson with Arkansas Razorbacks punter Blake Johnson
LBPD’s Todd Johnson with Arkansas Razorbacks punter Blake Johnson.

I spent two days last week playing e-mail ping-pong with a LBPD spokesperson, seeking comment on Johnson’s removal from the homicide detail. The LBPD refused to comment, but admitted that Johnson is no longer assigned to a homicide investigation that he was working on earlier this year. Johnson is still assigned to the Investigations Bureau, according to a department spokesperson. (Click on the name of the LBPD spokesperson to open a pdf of the email thread: Arantxa Chavarria and Nancy Pratt.)

2015 public intoxication arrest (source)

I asked whether Johnson is currently assigned to investigate domestic violence cases. This is part of the story I’ve heard, but the LBPD would neither confirm nor deny it.

I’m astonished that Johnson continues to be employed by the LBPD in any role, considering that a judge (in yet another case) called his behavior “appalling and unethical and inappropriate.” Suddenly, it appears that the LBPD and the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office have acknowledged that Johnson is too dirty to serve as a homicide detective in Long Beach. Even so, it’s disturbing that Johnson’s supervisors seem to think he’s fit to handle domestic violence cases.

Detective Johnson with punter Blake Johnson.
Detective Johnson with punter Blake Johnson.

My sister’s case involved extreme domestic violence — a woman murdered in her own home by her husband. Signs of tension and conflict can be seen in surveillance video taken inside their home. Johnson saw it and wrongly concluded that the video showed no issues.

One of my sister’s neighbors told the police she worried that my sister had been a victim of domestic violence. A police officer included this red flag in her report:

“She asked me if Dana was ok. She had seen the police cars and was worried there could have been domestic violence. She said [Dana’s husband] is, “Armed.” She clarified and said she knows [he] has guns in his house because he has told her he has them. He told her he has cameras on his home so if it is ever burglarized there will be evidence he acted in self defense. She kept asking me, “Is she ok?”

Neighbor Statements/Officer Icorn
Arkansas Razorbacks punter Blake Johnson gestures with his middle finger in a game vs. Missouri Tigers.

The statement appears on page five. Johnson read it, and ignored it.

I told the police that my sister’s husband was abusive (police report pdf), but Johnson dismissed my statements, too. Johnson’s erroneous conclusions, smug dismissiveness, and face-saving coverups helped my sister’s husband get away with murder.

To me, Johnson’s reassignment to domestic violence cases shows profound contempt for the people of Long Beach. It shows that the LBPD protects their rotten apples at the public’s expense.

UPDATE 1: LBPD confirmed Johnson’s demotion, as reported on April 18, 2019 by the Long Beach Post: “Johnson has been transferred out of the homicide unit, according to the department, which declined to provide further details.”

UPDATE 2: LBPD confirmed that as of October 3, 2019, Todd Johnson is no longer employed by the Long Beach police.


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What can we learn about this case from watching people fall?

The Long Beach Police knowingly ignored the many contradictions and inconsistencies in Huck’s murder alibi. For one thing, the detectives did not question Huck’s claim that Dana had fallen, hit her head, and died while doing yoga.

YouTube is loaded with videos of people falling and hitting their heads. A quick search locates dozens of videos of skateboarders taking terrible falls and hitting their heads hard on bare concrete. The videos are upsetting to watch, but they’re instructive. Compared to videos of people actually falling and reacting to a fall, Huck’s statement to the police (pdf) about Dana’s “fall” is obviously implausible.

Most detectives are habitually skeptical about the stories they hear in a homicide investigation, but the Long Beach Police Department swallowed Huck’s story whole. Why? It’s one of the lingering questions in Dana’s case.


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LBPD’s TigerTexty policing: when evidence vanishes, so does crime

You’ve heard of “broken windows” policing? It’s based on the theory that “visible signs of crime, anti-social behavior, and civil disorder create an urban environment that encourages further crime and disorder, including serious crimes.”

In Long Beach, the city operates on a different theory called TigerTexty policing. The idea is simple: the police delete evidence of wrongdoing, cover-up misconduct in their ranks, and scream cry at critics. And everything works out just fine.

Here’s an example: Long Beach Police officers allowed local bar owners to break into and hijack a bar belonging to a rival. According to the owner of the hijacked bar, a LBPD sergeant told him that “the burglary and theft of his inventory was a civil matter and refused to take a crime report.” LBPD Internal Affairs backed up the sergeant and dismissed the bar owner’s complaints as unfounded.

Stephen Downing — a frequent target of scream-crying defenders of the LBPD — explains it all in a two-part article in The Beachcomberpart one | part two.

TigerTexty policing gets its name from a messaging app that was used by 145 LBPD officers, including command staff, on department-issued phones starting in 2014. The app automatically, permanently deleted text messages after five days. This went on until September 2018 when Al-Jazeera broke the story. The L.A. Times followed up.

LBPD Chief Robert Luna helpfully explained that the text messages — exchanged by public officials while conducting official business — were just like “handwritten notes” that are routinely thrown away. It sounds as if prior to TigerText, LBPD internal communications involved passing notes to one another in the hallways.

Chief Luna suspended his department’s use of the app while investigations are underway. The L.A. District Attorney’s Office is said to be looking into it. In addition, the City of Long Beach and the LBPD are “independently” reviewing the matter.

As Downing pointed out in The Beachcomber, this is a perfect example of TigerTexty policing: call it an “independent investigation” but be sure that the people conducting it are beholden to the people being investigated…because misconduct completely disappears when public officials are allowed to police themselves.

According to Downing, LBPD commanders met to reassure one another that all evidence exchanged via TigerText had been safely, permanently deleted. See how well it works?

There are a lot of good and great police officers in the department, certainly. My problem, perhaps, is that the brilliance of the command staff is too dazzling for my mortal eyes to see. The LBPD is so special that it has its own TigerTexty way of investigating officer-involved shootings.

LBPost.com published the original investigative report entitled, ‘It can easily be perceived as a cover-up:’ Long Beach’s ‘odd’ way of handling police shootings. The gist: “Long Beach is the only city in Los Angeles County whose police department almost never interviews its officers after they’ve shot someone.”

Nah. Why would they? That would entail making a candid record. If there’s no record, there’s no evidence. If there’s no evidence, there’s no crime. Truly revolutionary.


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Anger and disgust: emotion recognition demo

The police investigation into Dana’s death relied heavily on the assumptions and subjective judgments of the detectives in the case. They looked at surveillance videos and saw nothing that raised red flags for them. They assumed that all was well and, therefore, that no murder had occurred. When I voiced my subjective judgments — pointing out that there was a conflict between Dana and Huck on the night before Dana was found fatally injured — investigators dismissed my observations as biased.

Emotion recognition software probably wasn’t as widely available then as it is today. One app called Face++ scans photos for faces, reads cues in facial expressions, and — based on data — analyzes the emotions expressed in the faces. Granted, algorithms are not immune to bias. But when applied to images of Dana and Huck, perhaps the software is less biased than the LBPD or me.

According to Face++, Dana was angry that night. Huck’s facial expression revealed strong indicators of disgust when he looked at Dana. As I told investigators, all was not well, and Face++ seems to back me up. Here’s a short video in which I use Face++ to analyze images from that night:


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