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D.C. Man charged in murder of gay principal killed

Police say Joel Johnson — charged in 2010 murder of middle school principal — shot in Southeast D.C. while committing armed burglary



Brian Betts, Joel Johnson, Shaw Middle School, gay news, Washington Blade

Joel Johnson was one of four charged in the 2010 shooting death of popular Shaw Middle School principal Brian Betts. (Blade file photo)

One of four young men charged in the April 2010 murder of gay D.C. middle school principal Brian Betts was shot to death on Sept. 19 by a man he attempted to rob at gunpoint in the victim’s Southeast Washington apartment, according to D.C. police.

Joel Johnson, 21, died in the apartment from a single gunshot wound to the head 15 months after he was released from prison upon his completion of an 18-month sentence in connection with Betts’ murder.

Montgomery County prosecutors allowed Johnson to plead guilty in 2011 to accessory after the fact, rather than murder, because he wasn’t the one who shot Betts and he cooperated with police and prosecutors.

D.C. police said Johnson and Jaren Holley, 21, each in possession of a handgun, approached a male victim as he was about to enter his apartment on the 4200 block of 1st Street, S.E., about 8:30 p.m. on Sept. 19.

In a statement, police said Johnson and Holley forced their way into the victim’s third floor apartment where the victim and a woman, who was also present in the apartment, lived. The police statement says investigators believe Johnson and Holley were planning to rob the victim.

Once inside, a struggle broke out between Johnson and the man he and Holley attempted to rob, the police statement says.

“During the course of the struggle, the decedent was fatally shot. The other suspect fled the scene,” the statement says.

Members of the D.C. Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services responded to the scene and determined that Johnson showed no signs of life, according to the statement. It says Johnson was pronounced dead a short time later by a member of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Police said they apprehended Holley on Sept. 24 and charged him with first-degree burglary while armed.

D.C. police homicide detectives, who were assigned to investigate the case, had not filed any charges against the man who shot Johnson in the apartment. One police source said the investigation would likely determine that the man acted in self-defense.

On the day of the incident, D.C. police identified the dead man as Joel Johnson but didn’t immediately disclose that he was the same Joel Johnson implicated in the Betts murder case. That confirmation came from a spokesperson for the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s office.

The spokesperson, Ramon Korionoff, told the Blade on Friday that Johnson’s cooperation with police and prosecutors helped authorities obtain a guilty plea of felony first-degree murder from Alante Saunders, the then 19-year-old youth that prosecutors say shot Betts to death inside the bedroom of the popular principal’s Silver Spring, Md., house on April 15, 2010. A judge later sentenced Saunders to 40 years in prison in connection with the Betts murder.

In the weeks following Betts’ murder, Montgomery County police and prosecutors disclosed that Saunders met Betts through a sex chat line that catered to gay men. Police said Saunders contacted Betts through the chat line and expressed an interest in getting together with Betts.

Betts, 42, apparently invited Saunders to his house, police said. As part of a plan to rob Betts, Saunders, Johnson and two others – Deontra Gray and Shariff Lancaster, both 19 — drove to Betts’ house. Prosecutors said Johnson was in the house when Saunders fatally shot Betts in what police described as a “robbery that went bad.”

Police apprehended all four men by tracing their whereabouts when they began making purchases with a credit card they stole from Betts’s houses.

Korionoff said Johnson was sentenced to five years in prison but a judge suspended all but 18 months of the sentence at the recommendation of prosecutors, who persuaded Johnson to plead guilty to the lesser charge as part of a plea bargain arrangement.

Betts had served as principal of D.C.’s Shaw Middle School at the time of his death. D.C. public school officials, who expressed shock and sadness upon learning of his death, described him as a highly acclaimed educator and innovative principal credited with boosting the academic achievement of his school’s students.

On the day Saunders was sentenced to the 40-year prison term an attorney representing Betts’ parents announced that the parents were calling on the U.S. Justice Department to investigate whether Betts’ murder should be classified as an anti-gay hate crime.

In a news conference at the courthouse where Saunders was sentenced, attorney Gloria Allred, who is well known for taking on high-profile celebrity cases, said Betts’ family retained her to explore whether Betts’ murder should be prosecuted under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

“Brian was a gay man and we believe an investigation should be opened under that law to determine whether a hate crime has or has not been committed by defendant Saunders and if it has whether it is appropriate to proceed with a federal prosecution under that law,” Allred said.

Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy told reporters at the courthouse that day that his office investigated the possibility that Betts’ murder was a hate crime and could not find evidence to substantiate a hate related motive in the case.

“If we had seen evidence of a hate crime, we would have charged it,” he said.

The Justice Department declined to become involved in the case.

Last week, the Betts family released a statement on Johnson’s death.

“We are deeply saddened that after Joel Johnson was given a second chance to become a productive member of society that he chose to continue to follow a path of crime and self-destruction which ultimately resulted in his death,” the statement says. “The loss of our family member, Brian K. Betts, a beloved educator and inspirational member of the community, has left a void for those who had the privilege to know him that will remain forever. Our sympathy is with the Johnson family at this time.”

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  1. Jayson

    September 24, 2012 at 12:28 pm

    Why not let all the criminals out so they can continue to prey upon innocent citizens. Not that Mr. Betts was entirely innocent. If you lay with dogs you’re going to get fleas. Sad, but true. Don’t invite people of questionable background to your home.

  2. Scalia Schlamia

    September 24, 2012 at 4:17 pm

    Our judicial system is a weak link in the chain of democracy. The Johnson punk should’ve never seen the light of day. He should be in prison today, takin’ it up da butt from his prison daddy. At least he’d still be ‘alive’.

    • Robin

      September 26, 2012 at 8:54 am

      You dont know the circumstances or the nature of the situation “”scumbag”” before you start talkning about my cousin Joel stop and think about yourself first everybody makes mistakes my cousin was a bright intellegent young man smart and innovative with a personality of gold he just tend tdo hang around the dwrong crowd unfortunateldy we have lost the lives of two men and for that Joel has paid his det to society and for that our family must suffer just like the Mr. Betts family. So you ignorant person be careful what you say about the dead he was still somebody’s son,brother,cousin,grandson and friend. Known you take it up the ass- asshole

  3. Kevin K

    September 24, 2012 at 4:42 pm

    Finally, some good news. One thing that should be noted is Brian Betts was attacked by four males while this home invasion was two against one. Heterosexuals don’t want the possibility that a gay man beats them so they make sure that the odds are incredibly stacked against them.

  4. Jay

    September 24, 2012 at 6:42 pm

    What a doofus, literally blaming the victim.

  5. Cole

    September 24, 2012 at 8:19 pm

    I’ve never invited anyone over to my home I met on a chat site, and I am still alive. I’m not sure you can call the initial comment “blaming the victim”, it’s just giving a warning. Let’s speak the truth, personal responsibility and accountability must return, or we are all doomed.

  6. JB

    September 24, 2012 at 9:11 pm

    Karma’s a bitch, ain’t it Joel?

  7. CC

    September 25, 2012 at 9:21 am

    I think the doofus is the one who trolls the internet for young men of “questionable character” and arranges a liaison with them in his home. Engaging in high risk behavior does have its consequences.

  8. Darren in atl

    September 25, 2012 at 11:13 am

    “Doofus” trolling isn’t illegal. Robbing and killing is illegal. Being a doofus shouldn’t get you killed; being a killer has its own poetic justice in this case! Well done, Johnson. Well done! And “buh-bye”.

    • Jayson

      September 28, 2012 at 9:26 am

      Whereas trolling might not be illegal, it does have consequences, as shown by the crux of this story…..Hello!!!

  9. Carol Kain

    September 26, 2012 at 11:27 pm

    I live in Adams Morgan, a single Lesbian own my own home. I recently have been stalked, a neighbor in my building has been very “difficult”. It appears that I have drawn unwanted attention. However, I feel unsafe and now have to rent and move elsewhere. I do not know the cause.

  10. Stephanie Donald

    September 27, 2012 at 11:02 am

    Holy mackerel! Does your editor smoke crack? “D.C. Man charged in murder of gay principal killed” is the worst headline I’ve seen in 42 years of journalism! Why not just D.C. Many Charged in Murder of Gay Principal”? Then further down: “During the course of the struggle, the DECENDENT was fatally shot. The other suspect fled the scene,” the statement says. I have had the utmost respect for the Blade since it’s resurection but the qualty of the stories lately has plummeted like bucket of cement going down the well. This industry-wide lack of respect for the English language and content for stories makes me wonder if we’ve all gone just plain stupid.

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Comings & Goings

Nathanson takes role at Outright Action



Rikki Nathanson

The Comings & Goings column is about sharing the professional successes of our community. We want to recognize those landing new jobs, new clients for their business, joining boards of organizations and other achievements. Please share your successes with us at: [email protected] 

The Comings & Goings column also invites LGBTQ+ college students to share their successes with us. If you have been elected to a student government position, gotten an exciting internship, or are graduating and beginning your career with a great job, let us know so we can share your success. 

Congratulations to Rikki Nathanson on her new position as Senior Advisor – Global Trans Program with OutRight Action International in New York. Nathanson will be based in D.C.  

 “I am absolutely thrilled to be taking on this new role as Senior Advisor in OutRight’s Global Trans Program,” said Nathanson. “I have finally found the perfect fit for me: as a trans woman who has been fighting for equality not only for myself, but for others globally, this position is not only a job, it’s intrinsically part of who I am. So, what better way to live, nurture and grow myself.” 

Nathanson will be working closely with all program staff to ensure a cohesive and intentional approach to gender issues throughout OutRight’s programs, including its approach to gender ideology movements. She will lead new initiatives on gender advocacy and policy change, focused but not limited to legal gender recognition and anti-discrimination legislation and policies.

Prior to this Nathanson was director of housing programs at Casa Ruby in D.C. She has also held a number of other positions including: founder/executive director of Trans Research, Education, Advocacy & Training (TREAT), Zimbabwe; chairperson Southern Africa Trans Forum, SATF, Cape Town, South Africa; executive director, Ricochet Modeling Agency, Zimbabwe; and company secretary for Dunlop Zimbabwe Limited, Zimbabwe. 

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SMYAL Director Shakir to step down Dec. 31

Board to launch Executive Search beginning in January



SMYAL Executive Director Sultan Shakir addresses the crowd at the 2021 Fall Brunch. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Sultan Shakir, who has served as executive director of D.C.’s LGBTQ youth advocacy organization SMYAL since August 2014, announced on Friday that he will be stepping down from his position effective Dec. 31.

In a Dec. 3 announcement, SMYAL said details of Shakir’s future career plans would be announced in the coming weeks.

“While we are sad to see Sultan leave, we wish him nothing but the same success in his new endeavor as he had at SMYAL,” said Rob Cogorno, SMYAL’s board chair. “His leadership and vision enabled SMYAL to expand greatly needed services to LGBTQ youth in the DC metro area throughout his tenure,” Cogorno said.

“I am immensely proud of the work we have been able to accomplish together in my time at SMYAL,” Shakir said in a statement released by SMYAL. “SMYAL has been an integral and vital resource in the DMV community for over 37 years, and while we have come a long way in combating homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexual health stigma, homelessness, violence against the LGBTQ community, and oppression, we have a long way to go,” he said.

“This work has never been about one person,” said Shakir. “SMYAL was founded by our community and we’re still around because of our community,” he said. “I leave knowing that the commitment and passion of the SMYAL Board, staff, volunteers, and youth leaders have created a solid foundation from which our work will continue to grow until LGBTQ youth no longer need us.”

The SMYAL statement says that under Shakir’s tenure, SMYAL, which stands for Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders, expanded its programs and services for LGBTQ youth. Among other things, in 2017 SMYAL opened its first of several housing facilities for homeless LGBTQ youth that include culturally competent case management, education and employment assistance.

“The Youth Housing Program now comprises five programmatic models that serve a combined 61 youth residents,” the statement says.

It points out that also under Shakir’s leadership, SMYAL expanded the age range of the youth its programs serve under a new Little SMYALs program, which welcomes LGBTQ youth ages 6-12. And earlier in 2021 under Shakir’s guidance, SMYAL began a new Clinical Services Department “which provides affirming and accessible mental health counseling,” the statement says.

“The SMYAL Board of Directors will officially launch an Executive Search beginning in January 2022 and expects to have named a new Executive Director by summer 2022,” the statement says. It says the board will soon name an interim executive director to work with SMYAL’s Deputy Executive Director, Jorge Membreno, and the organization’s leadership team to oversee the day-to-day activities until a new executive director is named.

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Rainbow History Project to honor LGBTQ ‘Pioneers’

Virtual celebration to take place on Dec. 9



David Mariner, gay news, Washington Blade
David Mariner (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

D.C.’s Rainbow History Project says it will honor and recognize 12 individuals and one organization by designating them as Community Pioneers “for their diverse contributions to the Washington-area LGBTQ community” at a Dec. 9 virtual celebration.

“Rainbow History Project is an all-volunteer organization dedicated to collecting, preserving and sharing the LGBT history of metropolitan Washington, D.C.,” the group says in a statement announcing the event. “The Pioneers awards recognize diverse community leaders for their roles as organizational founders, innovators, advocates and volunteers,” the statement says.

“The Pioneers celebration will be held virtually and is designed with special features that reproduce the feeling of attending in-person, such as live streaming and video chatting with other attendees and Pioneers before and after the core awards programing,” according to the statement.

“Celebrating our Community Pioneers has been a cherished tradition since Rainbow History Project’s founding 21 years ago,” said Rob Berger, the organization’s chairperson. “It’s always an inspiring event, and we are happy that our virtual platform will still allow participants to meet and talk with the Pioneers,” Berger said in the statement.

The virtual event is free and open to the public, the statement says. Organizers released this link for those interested in attending, saying a short registration process may require registering in advance. 

Remo Conference

Following is the list of Community Pioneers scheduled to be honored at the Dec. 9 event as released by Rainbow History Project along with the project’s description of their backgrounds.

Arlington Gay and Lesbian Alliance, a local group that since its founding has addressed equal rights issues for LGBTQ Virginians from a state and local perspective.

– Eboné F. Bell, founder and editor-in-chief of Tagg Magazine and Tagg Communication LLC.

Bart Forbes, founding member of “Gay Fairfax,” a pioneering television newsmagazine program in Northern Virginia.

– Ellen Kahan, youth and family advocate, president of Rainbow Families, former director of the Lesbian Services Program at Whitman-Walker Health, and currently senior director of programs and partnerships at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation.

– Theodore Kirkland (deceased), a co-founder of D.C. Black Pride in 1991, member of the Gay Liberation Front and Skyline Faggots, active community health volunteer and advocate.

– Paul Marengo, community leader through LGBTQ organizations including Reel Affirmations, Cherry Fund, and Pride celebrations for youth, Latino, Black and Transgender communities.

– David Mariner, executive director of CAMP Rehoboth, and former executive director of the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community.

– Mark Meinke founder longtime chair, Rainbow History Project, and co-founder of Rainbow Heritage Network, a national organization for the recognition and preservation of sites, history and heritage associated with sexual and gender minorities.

– Michael “Micci” Sainte Andress, artist, health educator and advocate and an early leader in bringing African Americans into HIV/AIDS clinical trials.

– Boden Sandstrom, founder and owner of Woman Sound (later City Sound), the first all-woman sound company, which makes LGBTQ rights rallies and the women’s music scene possible.

Casse Culver (deceased), nationally acclaimed D.C. lesbian feminist singer-songwriter, and partner of Boden Sandstrom, whose followers said her love songs and feminist lyrics moved audiences from foot stomping to silent reflection.  

Alan Sharpe, playwright, director and co-founder of the African American Collective Theater in Washington, D.C., in 1976, which now focuses on LGBTQ life and culture in the Black community.

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