Police arrest Baton Rouge man in ’95 double homicide

Tyquiwa Spruel rarely questioned the scars, content to leave her brush with death in the obscurity of the past.

She was not even a year old when gunmen fatally shot her aunt, Patricia Jackson, and Jackson’s boyfriend, Lester Yarbrough, in January 1995 in an apparent armed robbery.

Spruel survived the gunfire that riddled her aunt’s Baton Rouge apartment, prompting family members to dub her “the miracle baby,” but grew up knowing little about the story behind the bullet that pierced her right torso.

“I never really wanted to get into details about what happened to me because it’s in the past,” said Spruel, 19, adding she once believed her assailants were dead. “But now, today, it’s like I really have to face it.”

Spruel and her family are confronting their wounds anew with the arrest Monday of James Iles Johnson, 39. Baton Rouge police reopened the case recently and, based on new witness statements and corroborating evidence, booked Johnson with first-degree murder.

“This is a great day for justice, and it’s a great day for our cold case efforts going forward,” Detective John C. Dauthier, who heads the department’s cold case investigations, said outside the East Baton Rouge Parish Violent Crime Unit.

Ballistic evidence revealed two firearms were used in the double homicide, according to an arrest warrant dated Nov. 23. Investigators determined a second person was likely involved in the crime, Dauthier said, but that person has not yet been identified.

Johnson, 9058 GSRI Ave. No. 2, was being held without bail in East Baton Rouge Parish Prison.

“It’s very emotional,” Spruel said. “This is reality. This really happened to me.”

Jackson, 22, and Yarbrough, 23, were found shot to death Jan. 4, 1995, inside apartment 62 of the Oak Royale Apartments, 5750 Florida Blvd.

Jackson was pregnant at the time and also had been taking care of her 11-month-old niece when Johnson and at least one other person allegedly burst into the apartment and opened fire.

Jackson and Yarbrough were both shot multiple times, but the bullet that struck Spruel missed her vital organs and did not cause serious damage to her tiny body.

“God was with my daughter the whole while,” said Spruel’s father, Lamont Jackson. “He shielded her.”

The shooting was discovered after a woman living in the downstairs apartment noticed several bullet holes in her ceiling. The woman said at the time that she heard at least four gunshots in the middle of the night but thought they came from outside her building.

When she got up the next morning, however, several pictures on her apartment walls had been shattered, and at least three bullets had pierced her ceiling. The victims had been dead several hours before they were discovered, and there was an unknown amount of cash strewn about the floor of the apartment, according to newspaper accounts.

“Apparently something went wrong,” Dauthier said Monday, “or it was a murder that went right.”

According to police, a witness recalled seeing Johnson enter his mother’s home the day of the killings, “crying, cursing and making statements referencing the murders and also that he had shot a baby.”

That information was reported at the time of the fatal shootings, Dauthier said, though he added there “wasn’t enough corroborating evidence to move forward.

“We were able to find that in our current efforts and secure an arrest warrant,” he said of the corroborating evidence.

The witness, who passed a polygraph test in 1995, recently picked Johnson out of a photo lineup “with 100 percent certainty,” Johnson’s arrest warrant says.

Authorities said Johnson’s mother, in an effort to construe an alibi for her son, filed a false accident report the day of the shootings, saying she had struck a light pole while attempting to avoid a cat in the roadway.

Officers responded to the scene of the alleged crash and found no evidence of the light pole being struck.

Johnson’s mother cannot be booked with accessory after the fact, Dauthier said, due to the statute of limitations.

A woman who identified herself as Johnson’s mother — but refused to give her name — declined to comment on her son’s arrest late Monday, but called allegations she helped cover up the crime “a lie.”

“How can you cover up something you didn’t know about?” she said outside the doorway of her apartment on GSRI.

Carnell Blake, an upstairs neighbor of Johnson’s mother, said he was surprised to learn of Johnson’s arrest.

“Not really,” Blake said when asked whether he thought Johnson capable of murder. “It never really crossed my mind.”

Johnson, for his part, denied involvement in the killings as detectives escorted him to a police unit outside the East Baton Rouge Parish Violent Crime Unit, telling reporters he didn’t know why he was being arrested.

“DNA gonna tell it out,” Johnson said.

Family members of the victims welcomed the arrest after years of inactivity, but the development also stirred painful memories.

Yarbrough’s sister, Debra Burton, said Johnson’s arrest after so many years brought a measure of closure to her family.

“We’re at peace now,” she said, adding it was difficult to keep the faith that justice would be served. “We knew that God was going to bring it to an end because his son had to grow up without his father, we had to grow up without a brother and my mom had to grow up without a child.”

Patricia Jackson’s mother, Annie Jackson, said revisiting her loss feels “like it’s just happening and they’re just shooting her.”

She said she became somewhat reclusive after her daughter’s shooting death and has been looking over her shoulder ever since.

“It’s been a living hell,” Annie Jackson said during an interview in her home on General Beauregard Avenue, which sits less than a mile from the suspect’s residence on GSRI.

“When I’m outside, I’m paranoid because I just had a feeling they were walking around here in Baton Rouge,” she said. “I just had that feeling for 19 years. I feel a relief, but I’m very angry that I’ve lived half of my life like that in that condition.”

Yarbrough’s son, Christopher Robinson, said he vaguely recalls learning his father had been killed when he was just six years old.

“It brought all those memories back,” Robinson said. “I thought so many years had passed that they had forgotten about it. I’m so grateful and thankful to know that somebody that doesn’t know my father, they helped to catch this person. I do hold the utmost respect and thank whoever was involved with catching him.”