By CRAIG MURPHY
Of the Keizertimes
The 10-year anniversary of someone’s death is often a somber time.
But in the case of Phillip Johnson, there could be some joy mixed in.
Johnson was 33 when he was killed in the parking lot of Cascadian Village Apartments on the night of July 1, 2004.
Last year, Victor David Smith was arraigned for Johnson’s murder. Smith’s trial started on Tuesday and is expected to last through the week.
During opening statements, the two sides painted opposing pictures of Smith’s involvement and circumstances surrounding the murder.
Deputy District Attorney David Wilson started by reading from a letter Smith wrote to Imani Williams, Johnson’s former girlfriend who was living with Smith at the time.
“I’ll leave a person dead over you,” Smith wrote in part. “That may be a problem, because I do have an anger problem and low tolerance towards people.”
According to Wilson, Smith acted out the letter.
“Those qualities (in the letter) all collided on July 1, 2004,” Wilson said. “The defendant loved Imani Williams. The defendant loved Imani so much, he wrote her letters over the years. He wrote a rap about how they met. The defendant loved her so much, he got her name tattooed on his neck.
“The problem was Imani Williams wasn’t as devoted to him because of Phillip Johnson,” he added. “She was in an intimate relationship with Phillip Johnson. The defendant knew about this relationship between the two of them and tried to get them to quit. He asked Imani to stop seeing Phillip. He confronted Phillip and asked him to stop, but he wouldn’t stop. There was only one way for the relationship to stop and that was for the defendant to put an end to it.”
Wilson said the relationship continued until the day of the murder. On that day, Wilson said Williams learned she was being evicted from her home, angering Smith.
“He decided then and there he was going to take care of his problem,” Wilson said. “He had to take steps. He called Steven Chrisco, a friend, to bring a gun so he could take care of his problem.”
Around 11 p.m. that night, Wilson said Johnson’s friend Daron Wade was leaving after visiting Johnson’s apartment at Cascadian Village. Wade got into his car as Johnson took trash to the dumpster.
“He gets about halfway when the defendant pops out and begins shooting at Phillip,” Wilson said. “Phillip drops the trash and runs back toward the house. He shot Phillip Johnson four times. In the neck, in the back and in the arm. Finally, the last shot, when Phillip was on his knees or bent over, entered his pelvis and lodged in his shoulder. Phillip Johnson collapsed on the ground and that’s where he died.”
Wilson said Wade witnessed the shooting, but couldn’t see who did it since the assailant’s face was covered and it was dark. Knowing he had outstanding warrants, Wade ran to Johnson’s apartment and told his girlfriend Tricia Patel, who called 9-1-1. Wade left before police arrived.
Wilson’s version of the story included Chrisco and his girlfriend Sara Fandrei giving Smith a ride to the apartments. Both witnesses testified that on Tuesday, then heard Smith jump a fence, followed a short time later by multiple gunshots. Shortly after, Smith hopped back over the fence and got back into the car.
Smith’s attorney, Olcott Thompson, started by emphasizing how long ago 10 years was.
“There is no question that 10 years ago someone shot and killed Phillip Johnson,” Thompson said. “Absolutely none. He shouldn’t have been shot or killed. He was, unfortunately. The question is whether Mr. Smith did it. The state thinks he’s so crazy in love (with Williams) that he’s going to shoot Mr. Johnson. He may have indeed been upset.
“But the problem between the two men was resolved,” he added. “Mr. Johnson’s and Ms. Williams’ relationship had ended.”
Thompson insinuated Johnson may have been caught up in a drug deal gone bad and mentioned some people from Arizona “just happened to be around” at the time. He also argued Fandrei and Chrisco “concocted a story” about that night.
“The story is not about Mr. Smith,” Thompson said. “We don’t know who it’s about. I will ask you to find Mr. Smith not guilty, because the state won’t have proven their case.”
The prosecution’s first two witnesses were Fandrei – who has since married and moved out of state – and Chrisco, a longtime felon currently serving 10 years behind bars for unrelated charges.
Fandrei testified she dated and lived with Chrisco for a few months in 2004, but moved her 3-year-old daughter out for safety concerns. She had seen Chrisco with a gun and knew he was doing drugs.
Fandrei said Chrisco asked her to drive him to the house Williams and Smith lived in and to comfort Williams while he talked with Smith.
Fandrei remembered Chrisco going in and out of the bathroom.
“I remember smelling rubbing alcohol,” she said. “It was a very, very strong odor. I don’t know what he was doing with it, but I remember him being in the bathroom quite a bit.”
Chrisco later testified Smith knew he had a .357 revolver and had asked – in not so many words – for Chrisco to bring it over that day.
“He said he wanted to buy it from me,” Chrisco said of the conversation at the house. “I told him I would give it to him for what I bought it for, $200. He said he would get the money to me when he can.”
When asked by deputy DA Paige Clarkson what that meant, Chrisco replied, “It meant I was probably not getting any money for it. I made arrangements to give it to him that night.”
Chrisco said he wanted his prints off the gun before giving it to Smith, thus the use of rubbing alcohol.
“Did you think (Smith) would rob someone to get the money?” Clarkson asked.
“That’s what I thought, yeah,” Chrisco replied.
According to Fandrei, Chrisco then asked to borrow the car since Smith wanted a ride. Not wanting to be left alone with Williams, Fandrei volunteered to drive, though not knowing where they were going.
Both Fandrei and Chrisco testified Smith gave directions to the apartments where Johnson lived. Once parked outside a fence, the couple stayed in the car while Smith got out.
“He’s sitting there, then got out,” Chrisco said of Smith, noting he’d handed the gun to Smith before the car ride. “He said to hang on for a minute. I saw him jump over the fence….Then I heard some shots and I’m wondering what the hell is going on.”
Next to him, Fandrei was getting scared.
“The whole thing seemed uncomfortable and weird,” Fandrei said. “There were a few moments, then I heard numerous gunshots in succession, really fast. Then Mr. Chrisco started talking. He threatened my life, my family. He told me not to move the car until Victor got back in the car. I wanted to leave. I thought somebody got killed.”
After dropping off Smith at his residence, Chrisco said he and Fandrei returned home. He got rid of the gun and came up with a story to tell police.
Both testified they told police several times over the years they were at home all night, doing so out of fear. For Fandrei, she started telling Keizer Police Department detectives a different story in April 2009, after she was engaged and ready to move out of state.
“I was in a safe environment and relationship,” Fandrei said of the change in stories. “We had a plan to move 3,000 miles away. So I felt comfortable there wasn’t any way I could be found and we would be safe.”
Chrisco knew he would be putting himself in harm’s way in prison by telling the truth, but finally decided to come clean last year.
“I felt it was a matter of time,” he said. “So I said my part. It was a matter of time before it all came out anyway. People saying I had done it. I didn’t do it.”