CHARLOTTE, NC (Michael Gordon/The Charlotte Observer) - At a September 2014 party, a Charlotte gang leader pulled Briana Johnson aside and confided that he had received a "green light" for a killing, and that he might need Johnson to be the getaway driver.
"Are you ready for this Blood life?" David "Flame" Fudge then asked her, according to a tape of the conversation played in federal court this week.
At first, Johnson, then 18 and the daughter of a Cabarrus County sheriff's deputy, said she didn't know. She was a senior at Central Cabarrus High School, a member of the color guard. She made good grades and planned to start college the following year.
But she says she had never been in love before, and it was her new boyfriend, Malcolm Hartley, who would be committing the killings. So when Fudge tried a third time to gauge her willingness to be Hartley's driver, she relented. After all, she would just be waiting in the car.
"I could do that," she said.
Fudge, though, offered a warning: If she ever broke with the gang from that point on, her life would be in jeopardy.
"Keep it real with me because I'm a Big Fool," he boasted in the recording, using a slang term to refer to his position of authority in the UBN cell known as the Valentine Bloods. "I want you to know that there are consequences. I want to make sure you're down for the whole thing."
This week, Johnson, now 21, recounted the conversation as a government witness in the murder trial that arose from the crime Fudge mentioned three years ago – the October 2014 killings of Doug and Debbie London.
Fudge, who has already pleaded guilty to his role in the killings, was not in the courtroom. Instead, Johnson sat a few yards away from one of her closest friends in the gang, Avery "Foe" Hankins, whom Johnson considered "a brother." He's charged with two counts of racketeering murder. Hankins also has been identified in government documents as a key planner of the gang's assault on the Londons' home to keep Doug London from testifying against the Bloods who earlier tried to rob the couple's mattress store.
Two other defendants in the courtroom, Ahkeem McDonald and Nana Adoma, both of Charlotte, are accused of other gang-related charges, including the 2013 execution-style killing of Kwamne Clyburn, a homeless teenager shot seven times in a southwest Charlotte park. Nine other UBN members from Charlotte already have pleaded guilty to murder and/or racketeering charges related to the case.
The killings of the Londons, who had angered the gang by showing up at the court hearings of the men accused of trying to rob their store, shook the greater community and the criminal justice system. Hartley, now serving a life sentence without parole, pulled the trigger. Johnson was waiting in her car at the mouth of the neighborhood's cul de sac. She's pleaded guilty to two counts of racketeering murder and could spend the rest of her life behind bars, though prosecutors say they could recommend a lesser sentence in exchange for her cooperation.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the Harrisburg native played the role of key opening witness in a witness-killing trial. During almost two hours of testimony, she shared intimate details not only of one of Charlotte's most shocking murders but also the weeks of planning that preceded it.
"No witnesses, no case," Johnson said she heard repeatedly as the gang members hashed out details of their hit on the Londons' home.
She met Hartley in April 2014 on the online dating service Badoo. At first they shared emails, then texts and phone calls. Shortly after they met face to face for the first time, Hartley, known in the gang as "Bloody Silent," posed a question: Did she have any problem dating a gang-banger?
Early in their relationship, Hartley shared other details of his life – how as a 9-year-old he had killed an older boy, the first of several killings Hartley said he had been involved in, Johnson testified.
Nonetheless, Johnson stayed with him. In response to questions from defense lawyers and Assistant U.S. Attorney Beth Greene, she told the jury that she loved Hartley and liked the way she felt protected and respected by the other members of the gang.
In Blood parlance, Johnson became a "Ruby," or girlfriend. She said as "Breezy B," her new gang nickname, she was never allowed to sit in on important gang discussions, but she was expected to support her boyfriend in anything he needed to do.
In May 2014, a few weeks after the couple met, reputed gang members Fudge, Adoma and Jamell Cureton tried to rob the Mattress Warehouse on South Boulevard. Doug London shot Cureton. All three suspects were arrested.
Around the same time, Johnson said she began attending gang "pow-wows" in which discussions of retaliation against the Londons became commonplace. While acknowledging that she had never met Adoma, Johnson testified that Hankins and McDonald were on hand for many of the planning meetings.
In early October 2014, gang preparations intensified. Johnson said Hartley called and asked her to take him to the mattress store. Cureton, held in the Mecklenburg Jail, had called for a hit.
"I'm doing surveillance because I want to kill the Londons," Johnson said Hartley told her. When they got to the store it was already closed.
Two weeks later, on Oct. 23, Johnson testified that Hartley called her from the uptown restaurant where he worked. It was time. Cureton had another court date approaching, Hartley told her. "We need to get this done."
At his apartment, Hartley changed into an all-black outfit, Johnson said. She then drove him to the home of another UBN member where Hartley exchanged gang handshakes, then sat on the couch with fellow Bloods and smoked marijuana, Johnson testified.
Hankins disappeared into a back room. He returned, Johnson said, with some blue latex gloves and a handgun Hartley had nicknamed "Tessa."
Hartley put on the gloves and emptied the chamber. He then took a red bandana – Blood colors – and wiped the gun and each bullet clean of fingerprints, she said. Hankins also handed him a plastic Wal-Mart bag, which would slip over the gun and catch the spent cartridges after Hartley opened fire so no evidence would be left at the scene.
In the car, according to Johnson, Hartley pulled out an envelope that Cureton had mailed him from the Mecklenburg jail. It bore the Londons' address. Once they found the neighborhood, Hartley had Johnson park a short distance from the home. He told her to turn off her lights but keep the motor running, she said. He tied a red bandana around his face so only his eyes were showing, and walked off into the night.
Johnson estimated that five minutes before she heard gunshots – five at first, then a pause, followed by three more. Hartley came running toward her out of the darkness. "Go, go, go," he yelled.
On the drive back to Charlotte, Johnson said Hartley chain-smoked cigarettes and made one phone call to gang member Rahkeem McDonald. "I did it," she said Hartley told him.
'No witnesses, no case'
Later that night, Johnson said McDonald took the envelope bearing the Londons' address and burned it. He told Hartley that he would hide Tessa in his shed until he could bury it.
In bed that night, Hartley told Johnson what he saw inside the Londons' home – how the couple had been watching TV and had both walked into the entrance hall when he rang the bell. When Debbie London opened the door, Hartley said Doug London looked confused that Hartley was standing there.
Then Hartley shot Debbie London in the head. Doug London fired one shot – investigators say his handgun then jammed – before Hartley shot him and ran from the home. He returned after he heard Doug London sobbing over his wife's body, and shot him again.
He then said he thought the robbery charges against Cureton and Adoma would be dropped now that the only witness was dead.
Instead, the investigation picked up steam.
In January, FBI agents knocked on the door of Johnson's home. She gave them her cellphone. On it, agents found an audio tape from the September 2014 party and her conversation with Fudge about the upcoming murder. Johnson had pushed the record button to capture some gang members performing rap but forgot to turn it off. The phone also had photos of Hartley wearing blue latex gloves, posing with Tessa.