Crime

Getaway driver in Lake Wylie murders asks judge to let her voice be heard

Briana Johnson, shown outside a 2015 court hearing, was sentenced to 13 years in prison Thursday in connection with the 2014 killings of Doug and Debbie London. Johnson was the get-away driver the night her gang boyfriend, Malcolm Hartley, shot and killed the Londons inside their Lake Wylie, S.C., home. She later provided key evidence to the FBI that helped lead to the arrest of 12 United Blood Nation members.
Briana Johnson, shown outside a 2015 court hearing, was sentenced to 13 years in prison Thursday in connection with the 2014 killings of Doug and Debbie London. Johnson was the get-away driver the night her gang boyfriend, Malcolm Hartley, shot and killed the Londons inside their Lake Wylie, S.C., home. She later provided key evidence to the FBI that helped lead to the arrest of 12 United Blood Nation members.

Three hours behind the wheel on the night of two of Charlotte's most notorious murders will keep Briana Johnson behind bars for 10 more years.

On Thursday, the 22-year-old Concord woman — the getaway driver in the May 2014 gang slayings of Doug and Debbie London — received a 156-month sentence from U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn.

Johnson will get credit for the three years she's spent in jail since her arrest. That means the daughter of a one-time law enforcement officer and a former member of the Central Cabarrus High School color guard will spend about a decade in federal prison before she is freed.

Prosecutors say the Londons were targeted by a Charlotte gang cell of United Blood Nation after three members attempted to rob the couple's Pineville mattress store in May 2014. The Londons were murdered in October to keep them from testifying at the upcoming trial, court documents say.

Three months later, FBI agents knocked on Johnson's door. According to her lawyers, the gang girlfriend or "ruby" known as "Breezy B" immediately admitted her role in the killings and shared everything she knew about the plot.

Over the next 11 hours, her lawyers said, she helped lead investigators to the murder weapon buried outside a gang member's home and then returned to the scene of the killing. There, she showed agents how she parked and waited at the mouth of the Londons' cul-de-sac while her boyfriend — convicted gang hit man Malcolm Hartley — shot the Londons after he rang their bell and they opened their front door.

The londons.JPG
Doug and Debbie London of Lake Wylie, S.C., were murdered in their home in 2014 to keep them from testifying about members of United Blood Nation who tried to rob the couple's mattress store. Observer file

"She literally told the FBI, 'I'm all in. I'll tell you everything,'" defense attorney Claire Rauscher told Cogburn at Johnson's sentencing hearing. "She led them to all the evidence that led to all the arrest and convictions in this case."

For almost two hours Thursday, lawyers on both sides of the courtroom argued over what Johnson's cooperation was worth. The legal back-and-forth took an unexpected turn when Cogburn accused Assistant U.S. Attorney Don Gast of attempting to lecture the judge over the appropriate length of Johnson's sentence. At one point, an angry Cogburn dared Gast to appeal whatever sentencing decision he made.

Meanwhile, the defense team of Rauscher and Missy Owen said Johnson was instrumental in helping the FBI bring charges against 11 other UBN members or affiliates. Nine have now been sentenced to prison terms ranging from 13 years to life. Three other UBN members convicted last year of charges ranging from racketeering conspiracy to murder still await sentencing.

Taking turns in front of the judge, Owen and Rauscher asked Cogburn to consider what Johnson had been before her nine months of gang involvement — a good student who planned to attend college and become a nurse — and what she could still become.

They also pointed out that Centrilla Leach, another gang girlfriend who helped plan the killings and who was supposed to drive Hartley to the Londons' home, had received a 13-year sentence from Cogburn in January.

They said Johnson deserved no more than 10 years.

Johnson's mother, former Cabarrus County deputy Nicole Johnson, asked Cogburn to look beyond the federal sentencing guidelines when deciding what to do.

"My daughter is not a number," she said.

Briana Johnson also took up her own cause. Wearing a Gaston County inmate jumpsuit, Johnson read from a sheet of paper. She thanked Cogburn, the FBI and her prosecutors. She apologized to her family for disappointing them. She said she wished she had picked her friends better, then apologized to the family of her victims while expressing the hope that they can one day forgive her.

She asked Cogburn for mercy, then said she believed the experience would one day allow her to help other young people. Once, Johnson said, she had been "young and scared."

Now, she told the judge, "I have a voice, and it needs to be heard."

Gast, who has prosecuted the London cases from the beginning, said Johnson's help had been vital. But he also said she was directly involved in two murders that carried mandatory life sentences.

She'd been aware that the gang had been planning the hit for weeks, Gast said. On the night of the killings, Johnson had watched Hartley retrieve the handgun he called "Tessa," then clean fingerprints from the weapon and bullets with a red bandana, Gast told the judge.

After the Londons had been killed, Johnson had driven Hartley back to the Charlotte home of another gang member "to celebrate a job well done," Gast said.

Given the seriousness of Johnson's crimes, the government's recommended 20-year sentence represented a significant reduction from the legal guidelines, Gast said. Anything shorter from Cogburn, he said, had to be based solely on Johnson's cooperation, not on any consideration given to her character in her earlier life.

Cogburn bristled, saying he understood the law, the details of the case, and how both applied to Johnson's crimes and cooperation. And he said the high "mandatory minimum" sentences included in the federal statutes gave prosecutors "too much power" over the lengths of sentences, normally the decision of a judge.

Gast apologized and said he had not intended to lecture Cogburn about the law.

Cogburn went on. As key witnesses in a witness-killing conspiracy, both Johnson and Leach had provided substantial help at great risk to their lives, the judge said.

UBN, according to the defense lawyers, considers "snitching" a capital offense. Now Johnson will serve years in a federal prison system where gangs are prevalent and the identities of cooperating witnesses can quickly be known.

"Without a promise of anything, she has placed a bull's eye on her own back," Owen said outside the courtroom.

On the night of the murders, Daniel London heard the the gunshots that killed his parents from a downstairs bedroom in their home. He was not in the courtroom Thursday for Johnson's hearing. But told of her public apology to his family, London said he had a spiritual responsibility to accept it.

"I do forgive Miss Johnson," he said in an email. "I realize that she had a lot to do with the prosecution of the others involved and hope that she never puts herself in a situation to hurt someone like she did my parents."

He continued. "I sincerely hope she means what she says, and that she will spend the rest of her days helping people instead of causing damage."

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095; @MikeGordonOBS
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