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HOUSTON TRIAL: Peaceful evening shattered by gunfire

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By The Staff

Editor's note: Look for updates to court proceedings here and in the Roane County News print edition.

By TERRI LIKENS

rceditor@bellsouth.net

May 11, 2006, wasn't the evening Ledford Johnson and his wife had envisioned.

He and Juanita, better known in the community as “Bug Ann,” went shopping at Wal-Mart in Rockwood. Coming back, they dropped off a few groceries with Juanita's nephew, Leon Houston, who was renovating an old family home he had inherited.

According to her husband’s testimony in the double murder trial of Leon's brother, Rocky, Juanita had another Houston on her mind.

After they left Leon’s house, the couple passed Rocky’s home, and a red car outside signaled that Rocky’s daughter, Rachel, was home. Juanita had a graduation present waiting for the Midway High School senior, and called her excitedly minutes after they got home.

“She told her to come on and get your gift,” Ledford Johnson testified.

But the proud moment the Johnsons had anticipated was shattered a couple of minutes later.

They heard shots — first a couple, then a pause, then another barrage of shots, Johnson testified.

“Pretty quick it was over with,” he testified. “I'd say it was like seconds.”

Leon and Rocky Houston are both charged with first-degree murder in the shootout that took place that evening at Leon's home. They are being tried separately for the deaths of Roane County Sheriff's Deputy Bill Jones and his ride-along friend, Mike Brown.

Johnson testified that Leon’s home had been peaceful when he dropped the groceries off, although he did see a police car.

“It was going real slow as it went by,” he said. “I wasn’t paying much attention until Leon said, ‘Go on’ because it was going so slow.”

“He just said, ‘Go on; go on.’”

Jones and Brown, a former police officer himself, were in that passing vehicle.  Minutes later, they died in it.

The Houstons claim they shot in self-defense, while authorities claim the Houstons orchestrated an ambush. The truth is the crux of the case and a big part of what the jury will have to decide.

Johnson said he and his wife had moved to the garage when the shots started.

“We were still in the garage when we hear someone moan” he said. “The next thing I know, someone was knocking on the door.”

The Houston brothers had sped over on an all-terrain vehicle.

“Rocky was bleeding real bad,” Johnson said. “He said, ‘I need to get to the hospital.’”

But the injured man – shot in the hip and the wrist – directed Johnson to steer clear of the nearest hospital, Roane Medical Center in Harriman.

“He said, ‘If you take me to Harriman, they’ll kill me,’” Johnson testified. “He was afraid for his life.”

“You could tell he was weak from the way he was limping,” Johnson said. “I thought he needed attention quick.”

Johnson and the two brothers got into Johnson’s car and headed to Methodist Medical Center in Oak Ridge. But just down the road from where the shooting had occurred, Rocky asked Johnson to stop at a nearby cemetery to let Leon out.

“Rocky told him get out there; it’d be safer,” Johnson said.

At the Oak Ridge hospital, Johnson, unaware of changes made during renovations, pulled up to the wrong entrance.

Rocky got out of the car but did not make it inside on his own.

“He collapsed in front of the door,” Johnson said. “There was a policeman there. I told what had happened.”

Jean West, another Houston relative, also testified Monday. She recounted the circumstances around Leon Houston’s surrender the following night.

West said it was after dark, and she was on the phone upstairs when her daughter came running up. The girl said a man was looking in their window.

West came down and saw that it was Leon.

“He wanted to turn himself in,” she said. “He was hoping to do the right thing, as he put it.”

West said she asked him through the door if he had a gun.

He said he did. She asked him to leave it on the porch, and he agreed.

“I knew I had nothing to worry about,” West said. “He came in to the kitchen.”

West said she tried to coax into the living room where he might be more comfortable, but Leon refused. He had been on the run in nearby woods for more than 24 hours. His shoes were soaked, and authorities later said he was covered in ticks.

“He didn’t want to because he was too dirty, and he didn’t want to be on our couch and on our carpet,” West said. “He was very apologetic, respectful, scared.”

Tennessee Highway Patrol Sgt. Michael Melhorn was the officer West family members called to handle Leon’s surrender. He also testified Monday.

A command center had been set up at Midway High School after the shooting and was being cleared the following evening about the time Melhorn got the call to meet a civilian there.

“I met an individual there by the name of Robert West,” Melhorn said.

West, Jean’s brother-in-law, told Melhorn he knew where Leon was and that he wanted to turn himself in. West led the sergeant to Jean West’s house in the Paint Rock community.

In the kitchen, Melhorn said, Leon was face down, spread eagle on the floor. His gun was outside on the deck.

The officer said Houston turned himself in without incident.

Other officers testifying in the case Monday included Randy Brown, the shift supervisor over Deputy Bill Jones at the time.

Brown was the first officer on the scene after the shooting.

“I became aware of it with a radio call from central dispatch that there had been shots fired and people down,” he said.

Brown sped from Kingston, desperately trying to get a radio response from the deputy.

“I continued calling for Bill Jones’ car number on the way down hoping I would hear something,” he said.

When he arrived at the scene, he saw no one except the Johnson’s daughter, who has since died of unrelated causes.

“I went up to the police car and checked on Bill Jones,” Brown said. “It appeared he’d been shot numerous times.”

Jon French, a sheriff’s detective at the time of the shooting, also describing the scene of the shooting.

Jones, he said, “was slumped back across the seat. He had several holes in him. His uniform was covered in blood.”

Brown, French said, was face down on the street.

“There was a lot of blood around his head.”

Rocky’s lawyer, Randy Rogers, questioned French.

“As part of your investigation, did you find out he had a weapon?” Rogers asked.

“Yes, sir,” French replied.

The last witness of the day was Robert Daniel Royse, a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation special agent and forensic scientist

During Leon Houston’s trial this summer, Royse spent several days on the stand, discussing the firearms, ballistics and injuries as a result of the shootout. That trial was declared a mistrial after the jury said it was hopelessly deadlocked.

A new trial has been scheduled for March.