UPDATE: Police tip, suspect's alibi claims led to Michael Johnson's arrest in Steve Toms' death

Detective: Michael Johnson tried to fake alibi

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.com, chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.com,July 25, 2013 

Friday afternoon update

An informant’s tip and the suspect’s repeated efforts to dodge blame led police to charge Michael Jerome Johnson in the Nov. 15, 2011, slaying of Gold & Silver Trading Center manager Steve Toms, a detective testified this morning in Columbus Recorder’s Court.

After hearing the testimony from Cpl. Andrew Tyner, Judge Michael Cielinski ordered Johnson held without bond on charges of murder and armed robbery and sent the case to Superior Court.

Tyner said the tipster told police he had heard from Johnson’s cousin Daequavian Solomon that Solomon and Johnson, known as “Big Smooth,” had been robbing businesses. The informant said Johnson would case the targets and tell Solomon how to rob them, Tyner testified.

Solomon, now jailed in Russell County, would not cooperate with investigators, so they sought other sources to learn about Johnson, Tyner said. That prompted Johnson to come ask police why they were showing people his photo.

Johnson told detectives he had an alibi for the homicide, Tyner said, and when asked which homicide, Johnson told police, “Any day you come up with about a murder, I have an alibi.”

On Aug. 22, 2012, Johnson was jailed for that day’s armed robbery of the La Mexicana de Columbus, a restaurant and grocery store at 3305 Victory Drive. In jail, he asked to speak to Tyner.

Tyner said Johnson told him he had an alibi for the day of Toms’ slaying. Johnson claimed he was at his mother’s home in Oakland Park, where he was living at the time because of issues with his wife. He told Tyner he remembered that because he got paid that day and owed his mother $200, which he repaid.

Tracing calls made on Johnson’s cell phone, police saw that the day of Toms’ slaying, Johnson’s calls had gone through a cell tower at Peachtree Mall and one at Macon and Avalon Roads, placing Johnson in the area of the Gold & Silver Trading Center at Gentian Boulevard and Reese Road, Tyner said.

Confronted with this, Johnson changed his alibi, Tyner said: Johnson claimed he had visited a University Avenue music studio where he recorded rap music, then got a friend to drive him back to his mother’s house. But the music studio had computerized records showing each time someone recorded there, and the records showed no entry for Johnson that day, Tyner said.

Later Johnson spoke with Tyner again, telling the detective he wanted to “close my books” on cases, Tyner said. Johnson said that when he arrived at his mother’s house about 9 p.m. the day of Toms’ homicide, Solomon was outside waiting for him, and gave him this account of the robbery and homicide:

Johnson said Solomon went in to rob the business and no one was up front, He heard someone ask “Who’s there?” and then Toms peeked out from the back. Seeing a gunman, Toms ran, but Solomon caught him and brought him back to the front counter, where Toms opened the register and gave the robber cash, Johnson said.

Solomon noticed a ring on Toms’ hand and demanded it. Toms refused to surrender it, then reached for a gun under the counter. Solomon shot him several times, Johnson told Tyner.

Johnson said the night of their meeting outside his mother’s house, he and Solomon walked from Oakland Park to the Riverwalk, where they smoked marijuana. There Solomon told him the make and model of the gun he used, which supposedly he threw into the river. Divers never found a gun, but Johnson’s description of it would have fit evidence police found at the crime scene, Tyner said.

Johnson sketched a diagram of the interior of the Gold & Silver Trading Center, though he claimed never to have been inside it, Tyner said. After the interview, Johnson made six calls from the Muscogee County Jail, which records outgoing telephone calls, Tyner testified.

Investigators discovered Johnson was telling friends to pass on a message about the “teardrop,” jail slang for a homicide. The message: If questioned, a friend of Johnson’s must tell police he drove Johnson home from the music studio the day Toms was killed, Tyner said.

“Say no more; say no less,” Johnson told friends, Tyner testified.

Tyner concluded his account by saying Toms’ homicide had prompted speculation that included conspiracy theories the store manager personally was targeted. No evidence supports such rumors, he said: “It was simply a robbery that went in a way that was not planned.”

Under questioning from Johnson’s attorney, Robert Wadkins Jr., Tyner said police found no fingerprints placing Johnson at the crime scene and found no evidence tying him to the robbery or homicide when they searched his house in August 2012, when Johnson was arrested for the La Mexicana robbery.

Tyner told Wadkins the tipster had grown up with Solomon, and specifically mentioned the Toms’ homicide while talking about Solomon and “Big Smooth” conducting robberies.

Wadkins said after the hearing that Johnson's diagram of the jewelry shop was not detailed enough to rule out his having sketched it from descriptions his cousin gave him.

Johnson, 29, pleaded guilty to the La Mexicana robbery on May 30. Superior Judge William C. Rumer sentenced him to 20 years, 15 for the armed robbery and five for possession of a firearm while committing a felony.

Senior Assistant District Attorney Don Kelly said Johnson since has been charged also in the armed robbery of the Diamond Exchange, 4227 Victory Drive. For that robbery, which occurred at 3:10 p.m. May 5, he faces charges of armed robbery, being a convicted felon with a firearm and using a firearm to commit a crime, Kelly said.

Johnson also faces the latter two charges in the Toms’ case. Cielinski set a bond of $100,000 on each of the weapons charges.

Thursday's story

The man accused of killing Gold & Silver Trading Center manager Steve Toms more than 20 months ago was not hard to find when Columbus police got warrants for his arrest.

He was already in jail.

Thursday afternoon police charged Michael Jerome Johnson with killing Toms, 63, found gunned down inside the 3717 Gentian Blvd. jewelry store the morning of Nov. 16, 2011. (Click here to read our initial story from 2011.)

Toms and store owner Robert Upchurch Jr. were well known for TV ads in which they encouraged women to trade their broken gold and silver jewelry for “cold, hard cash.” They called their business the “little white house” because the white building stands alone at the corner of Gentian Blvd. and Reese Road, adjacent to but apart from the Gentian Corners shopping plaza.

Upchurch said Thursday that he never lost hope the slaying would be solved: “We always had confidence that the police would bring this to a satisfactory conclusion with an arrest. I never lost confidence in the Columbus police.”

Johnson, 29, now faces charges of murder, armed robbery, possession of a firearm by a felon and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime, authorities said.

Police Chief Ricky Boren said no details of what led to Johnson’s arrest would be made public until a hearing at 9 a.m. today in Columbus Recorder’s Court.

Johnson was jailed for the Aug. 22, 2012, armed robbery of the La Mexicana de Columbus, 3305 Victory Drive. He pleaded guilty in that case on May 30. Judge William C. Rumer sentenced him to 20 years, 15 for the armed robbery and five for possession of a firearm while committing a felony. (Click here to read our 2012 story about about Johnson.)

Investigators used surveillance footage from the south Columbus grocery store and restaurant robbery to arrest Johnson and two others. Police got a description of the getaway vehicle from the video after the men fled with about $8,000 in cash, investigators said.

No video captured what happened to Steve Toms: The Gentian Boulevard business had only “dummy cameras” intended to make visitors think the store was under surveillance, Upchurch said after the slaying. (Click here to read that 2011 story.)

The case attracted widespread attention, as Toms was well known in Columbus. On the homicide’s anniversary last year, police said that after 100 interviews and a reward fund that topped $25,000, they still were seeking fresh leads.

Boren would not say how investigators finally cracked the case, only that police got information in January that helped them. No investigative information will be released before today’s court hearing, he said. Toms’ death is not considered a cold case because investigators have continued to work leads and tips for 20 months, Boren said.

Columbus attorney Robert Wadkins Jr., who represented Johnson in the restaurant robbery, said he heard before Johnson’s sentencing that police considered his client a “person of interest” in the Toms’ murder. “I knew there had been some discussions about it,” said Wadkins, who said he was appointed to represent Johnson in that case and has not heard whether he will continue to represent the suspect in this one.

Johnson had two co-defendants in the La Mexicana robbery. One of them, Dimitrious Gordon, is to go to trial Monday. Another, Jamar Warner, is to be tried later, said Assistant District Attorney Wesley Lambertus, the prosecutor in the robbery case.

Warner’s attorney, Susan Henderson, said Thursday that Warner is expected to plead guilty in the La Mexicana robbery and testify for the state in Gordon’s trial.

Warner and Gordon were in Superior Court earlier this month when Rumer found Gordon’s attorney, Michael Eddings, in contempt of court for speaking to Warner without Henderson present.

On the anniversary of Toms’ slaying, police gave this account of the crime:

Upchurch found Toms’ body when he got to the jewelry store at 8:45 a.m. that Wednesday. Toms had been shot multiple times, the bullets all of the same caliber. On the floor beside Toms was a loaded handgun that apparently had not been fired.

Missing from the business were cash and jewelry, particularly gold chains. The door to the shop was unlocked, an empty cash drawer sat on the counter, and gold chains were missing from their display cases.

Detectives suspected the robbery occurred the Tuesday evening before, after Toms spoke to a relative by phone at 5:33 p.m. He usually moved jewelry from display cases to a safe before closing at 6 p.m., and some jewelry was still out the next day.

Upchurch said Thursday that he does not know Johnson. When he got the news police were making a case, “it took my breath away,” he said.

“It is unbelievable the number of people who have kept track of this case and shown interest,” Upchurch said. “I am glad it is finally over. Still, it won’t bring Steve back.”

Toms’ daughter, Robin Sanders of Phenix City, called Johnson’s arrest a step forward.

“But I don’t think I will have relief until he’s actually convicted,” she said. “I know that detectives have worked hard to get to this point. I just hope justice is served.”

Toms also owned Duffy’s, a nightlife hangout now known as Sammy’s Hideaway.

Sonya Sorich, Larry Gierer and Tiffany Stevens contributed to this report.

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