- Associated Press - Saturday, May 20, 2017

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - When he looked at the bloody crime scene, James Herzog knew this case wasn’t like so many others he’d worked. But he didn’t know it was the beginning of a living nightmare.

Or that it would become one that a growing number of law enforcement officers could relate to.

Roland Smith, 48, and his parents Arvin, 80, and Maxine Smith, 74, were found dead in their rural home on T.W. Bass Road in Jefferson Davis County after neighbors reported hearing gunshots and seeing intruders with flashlights at the home around 12:45 a.m.

Herzog, an investigator with the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation at the time of the March 2012 homicides, was called in to investigate.

“It was a horrific, horrific scene. It was overkill,” Herzog said. “It wasn’t just killing someone, it was going beyond that.”

Roland Smith had been in some drug trouble, officials said, so the shootings were believed to be connected to that. A witness would later testify it was believed Smith was “a snitch.”

“I think it was just to wipe them out, and possibly within their organization showing how vicious and evil that (the killers) are,” Herzog said. “Possibly if the information was out that there’s an individual that in their minds is going to snitch to the police, killing them like this sends a message to others who are out there that this is what happens.”

In the course of the investigation, touch DNA samples were taken at the scene, but more importantly, Roland Smith’s phone records were pulled. The last person he spoke to was a drug dealer - a member of the Vice Lords street gang named Roger Randale Jones, also known as “Hitman.”

“There’s a reason Hitman had his name. He was the guy they could call to do the deed,” Herzog said.

‘I thought he was all talk’

The night of the triple homicide, deputies reported seeing a black pickup driving very slowly away from the scene. They traced it to Joseph McDonald, a local man who often purchased crystal methamphetamine from the group Jones was affiliated with. Investigators contacted McDonald, who confirmed Hitman and some others had used his truck that night to settle a drug debt.

Hitman was on probation after spending time in prison for possession of stolen property in Lawrence County, so when he lied to police when questioned about Roland Smith and the phone call, he was arrested on charges of hindering prosecution. Samples were taken of his DNA.

“A couple of weeks go by, and I get a call and I’m told the evidence we have matches Hitman’s DNA. Now we have the phone number and witness statements and the DNA, so we have enough to charge him with capital murder,” Herzog said.

In early April 2012, five and a half weeks into the investigation, Hitman was charged in the homicides.

During questioning, Herzog said Hitman told him, “‘When you’re home asleep with your significant other, remember that’s going to be from me.’ I asked him what he meant by that, and he started laughing and said, ‘You’ll see.’”

Since Hitman was a felon who couldn’t bond out on capital murder charges, he didn’t seem to be a looming danger.

“I took it with a grain of salt. I thought he was all talk,” Herzog said. “But he wasn’t.”

The game changed when Herzog’s family members began receiving threats from social media accounts they didn’t know and a drug informant in nearby Marion County came forward with some disturbing information.

“The informant specifically told him they had plans to murder me. At the time, all they knew was my name was James, I was from the Coast, and I drove a black truck, and I was some kind of investigator or agent,” he said. “They were going to get me to Jefferson Davis County and try to get me on a dead-end street and take me out. That was the plan.

“I started becoming a believer.”

‘They were looking for my house’

That didn’t mean backing off the investigation. Along with Hitman, authorities were looking at, among others, Kentorre “Toto” Hall and Martel “Marty Mar” Barnes in the homicides. Hall and Barnes were tight-lipped, but Joseph McDonald was still talking, and he had good information. But he was maintaining communication with the group.

“We kept telling him, ‘You don’t need to go by there, you need to stop going to his location,’ and he said, ‘They’re not going to hurt me, they know me,’” Herzog said. “Suddenly he disappears, and we can’t find him anywhere.”

A few days later, some Jefferson Davis County employees doing ditch work found McDonald’s body. He had been shot in the head and dumped not far from the Cedar Grove community where Jones, Hall and Barnes were all known to operate their drug trade. McDonald’s black truck used in the triple homicide was found not far from the location of the Smith killings.

Another heart-stopping moment came when Herzog headed home from doing some paperwork at the district attorney’s office and spotted an out-of-county vehicle in his neighborhood. Looking closer, he recognized one of the occupants as one of Hall’s associates.

“They were looking for my house,” he said.

They had allegedly used the same means to find Roland Smith. Authorities received information that Jones, Hall, Barnes and others had searched for Roland Smith after he went to live with his parents. Ahead of the alleged hit, they had driven the area all night at least once to ascertain where he lived.

During the course of the investigation, agents made an arrest in a Marion County burglary case where weapons fitting the calibers used in the Smith homicides were taken. The guns didn’t match the ballistics, but the suspect was a Vice Lord.

A few days later, an off-duty trooper who drove a black truck and resembled Herzog was driving in the Oak Grove community when a car pulled up next to him. The driver made gang signs through the window. The trooper, who had no idea what was going on, pulled into a parking lot, and the car blocked him in.

The driver told the trooper he knew who he was and was going to shoot up his truck and kill his family, Herzog said. The trooper called the sheriff’s department, and the driver fled. When he was stopped and arrested, it turned out he was the brother of the man charged in the Marion County burglary.

Herzog and others working on the case contacted their superiors who called then-Department of Public Safety Commissioner Albert Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz and then-Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics Director Marshall Fisher arranged an emergency meeting involving the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Administration, Mississippi Highway Patrol, MBN and MBI.

The fight, which might have been delayed had Herzog and others not been targeted, was now federal.

‘We work for God’

Law enforcement flooded the area.

“We had a huge saturation detail in Jefferson Davis County and we had targets we wanted to talk to, and within that group we started arresting people on drug charges, gun charges, etcetera. At that point people started talking, and we started getting more and more information,” Herzog said. “It was so bad for them at the time period, a lot of the groups dismantled and went to various other places.”

The drug business was so bad that Barnes went back to robbing convenience stores and was arrested by Hattiesburg police when his DNA matched evidence collected at an armed robbery scene.

For Herzog, it had been a living hell. He had to relocate his family to another part of the state. He had trouble sleeping and eating. But watching federal, state and local forces mobilize when he and his family were threatened gave him a new understanding of the brotherhood, he said. It also reminded him why he kept on when a lot of people would have allowed the threats to make them quit.

“We work for God. We work for the victims. We work for the victims’ families,” he said. “And when you threaten a law enforcement officer, you get all of us.”

In October 2014, Jones, Hall and Barnes were convicted in federal court of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine, marijuana and cocaine; maintaining a residence to manufacture, store or distribute controlled substances; conspiracy to possess and use firearms in furtherance of drug trafficking; and possession of firearms in furtherance of drug trafficking related to their connection with the Cedar Grove drug trafficking organization. Hall had been calling the shots, and Jones and Barnes took the marching orders. Dozens of witnesses testified in the case, including Herzog.

“The three main targets in my deal are there in the courtroom,” he said. “It was poetic justice because I was able to testify and look at them in the face and in their eyes, just to let them know that we didn’t back down.”

U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett sentenced each man the following November to life in prison plus five years for their roles in the drug trafficking organization.

No one has gone to trial in the deaths of the Smiths or Joseph McDonald, though witnesses testified to DNA and ballistic links to the cases in federal court.

A credible threat

Herzog said in his years investigating gang and drug-related homicides, he had never seen a situation like the one he went through.

“I knew what they were capable of, because typically I did primarily murder investigations, and normally it was gang-versus-gang turf battles or some kind of argument with them,” he said. “But as far as reaching out to law enforcement, it was the first time I’d ever seen that.”

In the time since then, Mississippi law enforcement has been the subject of broad, yet credible threats by gangs. In 2015 after the shooting deaths of Hattiesburg police officers Benjamin Deen and Liquori Tate, there were threats issued around the state. Deen and Tate were allegedly shot by Marvin Banks, a member of the 4-Corner Hustlers street gang, a subset of the Vice Lords. Banks died in jail months afterward.

At the time of the threats, a law enforcement bulletin obtained by The Clarion-Ledger contained chilling language.

“The 74 Hoover Crips and Gangster Disciples have a hit on law enforcement… The GD’s have been told to ‘Smash on Site’ or ‘Shoot on Site,’” it reads. “We all need to take these threats seriously and keep your heads on swivel.”

“You just don’t know. You never know what you’re going to face. Every day is different, and one call can change everything,” Herzog said.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide