In this circa 1942 photo of the force, "Star" Johnson is in the middle of three black officers in the fourth row. To his right is his partner, Joe Davis. On the left is Joe Island. In uniform in the second row, behind and to the right of the man in suit and fedora, is Detective "Frenchy" Navarre.
Earlier this year when a Phoenix Police detective was killed in a shootout, the Arizona Republic ran a sidebar listing all the officers killed in the line of duty. The information came from a list kept by the police department. The trouble is that the list is incomplete. It omits the in-the-line-of-duty murder of David Lee "Star" Johnson in 1944.
He was killed by another cop.
I've told an abbreviated version of this event in another column, how it was a searing experience for a small but ambitious city. I've even used elements of it in my fiction. In this column, I want to tell the entire story based on the best research available. This true tale involves corruption, racism, betrayal and revenge in young Phoenix. It also is a powerful reminder that PPD should officially honor Johnson as an officer lost in the line of duty.
Star Johnson was among the few black ("colored") officers in Phoenix, 1940 population 65,414. The city was segregated, with many stores and restaurants closed to blacks (and Hispanics), deed covenants "protecting" white neighborhoods and black-only schools. The color line and racial violence weren't as severe as in the deep South, but both existed and came under pressure with the growth during World War II.
Blacks had served in the PPD since 1919 (after a civil rights group forced the issue), but they were not allowed to work a white-populated beat. Black cops patrolled the black section of town, which included the areas south of the Southern Pacific Railroad and Red Light Row. By the 1940s, they were permitted to work the busy downtown business center.
The red-light district known as “Red Light Row” was bounded on the north by Van Buren Street, the south by Jackson Street, west by First Street and east by 16th Street. Names of the some 16 establishments included Irene’s, Mark’s Place, the Dunbar and the Cozy Room. Before charter government, overt corruption and vice was common. Phoenix had a reputation as a wide-open Wild West town, made more so by the war boom and thousands of soldiers and airmen training nearby. Yet Phoenix also wanted to be a modern city.
In 1944, Johnson was partnered with Joe Wayne Davis on a walking beat. Thirty-six years old, Johnson had been born in Waco, Texas, but had attended high school in Mesa. An Army veteran, Star was single and had been a Phoenix officer for two and a half years. Davis was from California, married with three children. At 27, he had been a Phoenix officer for two years and two months.
One person who remembed Star Johnson and Joe Davis well was Joe Island, who became a Phoenix Police officer in 1938 and retired as a detective in 1961. Island was also African-American and recalled the challenges of working in the department in his time. He was the officer who trained, or as he put it, “broke in,” Johnson on the ins-and-outs of walking a beat in downtown Phoenix.
Island remembered Star as an outgoing man with an easygoing personality, quick-witted with a pleasant tenor voice that gained him popularity downtown when he would croon a song as he walked the beat. Star was also handsome. With his personality and good looks, he was a ladies man — even though the nickname came from his football days at Mesa High School. Joe Davis, the more serious of the two, was also well-liked by the residents, shoppers and business owners.
The two black cops became popular fixtures downtown. They would start each shift by making the rounds and letting everyone know they were there. Radios for walking cops were far in the future — radios in police cars were only 12 years old. Instead, a light on the top of the pole attached to a callbox flashed, signaling officers to pick up the phone and receive their assignment. The pair would stop in some local establishments for a meal or a drink or just to shoot the breeze with the people they served.
Once they were satisfied that all was well, the team got down to business. Johnson and Davis were known by fellow officers as hard-working cops. Existing records indicate the two outpaced the rest of the department in arrests by more than three-to-one. For example, from April, 20th through May 2nd, 1944, they made a total of 27 arrests, from felonies to misdemeanors.
Prostitution, although illegal, was tolerated. Some hotels known to be bordellos were owned by prominent and wealthy Phoenicians. To compound the problem, the city also relied on fines and payoffs from bordellos to supplement the budget. With political pressure from the military to address prostitution — Phoenix had been placed off limits to troops for a time — it was a sticky situation. The unwritten policy was to let detectives "deal" with prostitution. Sometimes that involved cops beating up and robbing soldiers visiting the whore houses. Star Johnson and Joe Davis didn't play by these unwritten rules. They were making arrests at the hotels, playing it straight and attracting some unwanted attention. As Joe Island put it, they were "making waves in a dirty little business”
Leonce T. Navarre was known as “Frenchy.” He had been a City Marshal in Tempe for two years prior to joining the Phoenix Police in 1926. In 1944, his rank was City Detective and he was 52 years old. He lived in the downtown area with his wife and daughter. His son was serving in the Army in New Guinea.
Detectives were the elite of the department, expected to handle felony investigations and address vice issues. They kept "a lid" on prostitution — but not too tight, or on brothels owned by the Phoenix elite. Any officer that caught a call or otherwise needed to investigate incidents in the hotels known for prostitution was expected to go through the detectives.
Frenchy was a well-known character with a temper. He was also known as a crack shot and top pistol competitor in the state with few rivals (although, in his book Gunfights and Gunfighters, Gordon Hunsaker argues that Frenchy was not as expert as his reputation made him out to be). Often he carried two guns. His partner was Detective M.S. Freasier and they spent many hours patrolling downtown, following up on crime reports and making arrests (the entire city was only about 15 square miles).
But the detectives also operated in the gray area where Phoenix leaders wanted vice kept under control but not stopped. Here, Frenchy ran up against the by-the-book uniformed officers, Johnson and Davis, who were making arrests anywhere and everywhere, no favors, no payoffs — including at the "protected" hotels that catered to prostitution.
Frenchy and Star had been involved in disagreements earlier that year. Sgt. Vic Soule would later testify that there had been friction between the two dating back to February. He remembered that Star approached him in Police Headquarters at 17 S. Second Avenue and told him he wanted Frenchy to stop interfering in his police business.
Star’s concern was a burglary at the Cozy Room Hotel on February 13th. A man who had rented a room overnight reported money stolen out of his wallet. Soule offered to act as an arbitrator between the patrolman and detective, but Johnson said he could take care of it himself. The exact reason for this particular dispute was never made quite clear but it was an indication of the growing friction between the two.
May 2nd, 1944, was a working day for Detective Frenchy Navarre. It was also a working day for Patrolmen Joe Davis and Star Johnson. Frenchy came off his shift at 6 p.m. Joe and Star began their shift downtown at 4 p.m. Frenchy walked home and got his car as Joe and Star were walking Beat Two, which was bounded by Central and Seventh Street, Van Buren and Lincoln, and included the Deuce. At about 6:30 p.m., the two prepared to stop for a soda at the Fox Drug Store at 200 East Jefferson (in other accounts, it is the Owl Drug Store).
As the officers were about to enter the store, they saw a car driving east on Jefferson that ran a "boulevard stop sign" at Second Street. Star asked Joe if he saw the car run the stop sign. Joe said “Yes, I did.” Joe noticed it was Frenchy driving the car. He remembered telling his partner, “Johnson, that’s Navarre.” At first Star didn’t believe it was Frenchy and said, “no it ain’t.” Upon a closer look, Star said, “Oh yeah, it is.” Joe tried to encourage Star to come into the store and ignore the violation. Star said, “Just a minute, I want to speak to him first.” He told Joe he would be in the drug store in a second. Joe went in and ordered a coke.
Some people remembered seeing Star and Frenchy laughing. Some recalled that the conversation turned into an argument. Shortly after the initial contact, the words “son of a bitch” were uttered followed by the sounds of gunshots. Frenchy emptied his five-shot .38 caliber revolver into Star Johnson. Three shots hit Star in the midsection of his torso. One went through his rear pants leg, never touching his skin. Another went straight through his right rear pocket, ending up in his wallet.
As he was being shot, Star fled east. He ended up running into the El-Rancho Buffet and Pool Room at 219 East Jefferson, where he collapsed on the floor. The scene was chaos as police arrived and witnesses were sorted out. Davis was stunned. He walked up to Frenchy and asked why he shot Star. Frenchy told Davis, “He called me a son of a bitch. I don’t take 'son of a bitch' off no one, much less a damned nigger. I am a gentleman.”
Officers Joe Valenzuela and Andrew Laubmeyer were first to arrive at the cafe. "Frenchy shot me for nothing," Johnson told them. Soon the police ambulance arrived, staffed by officer Glenn Martin and his partner Don Donaldson. They found Star bleeding heavily on the floor. Loading him on a stretcher, they sped to St. Joseph’s Hospital on Fourth Street and Polk (right). Martin found the bullet still lodged in the wallet in Star’s right rear pocket. Still conscious, Johnson told Martin he didn’t know why Frenchy shot him and said Frenchy must have been drinking. Martin, who was white, and Star were friends and got along well on the job. Glenn stayed with Star while Donaldson went to notify Star’s family members he had been shot. Two hours after the shooting, Star was dead. One bullet that entered his chest had caused a massive lung hemorrhage, which was the main cause of death.
Police headquarters was full of activity. The County Attorney’s Office assigned prosecutors to take statements. There was no shortage of witnesses and it was a long night. The next day, a story appeared in the Republic. With war news dominating the front page, the shooting death of a "colored" Phoenix cop — in broad daylight, in the heart of the city — was secondary news. Police Chief Jim Duane was quoted as saying, “It was a regrettable incident. I, of course, have suspended him (Navarre).” At 10 p.m., the chief arrested and jailed Navarre for the killing.
Frenchy was officially charged with murder by the County Attorney on May 5th. This despite a Coroner's Inquest held the day before that ruled Frenchy had shot Star Johnson in self-defense. The accounts of witnesses differed and the tone was set as to whose side people would take.
Frenchy came up with $10,000 cash bond that was presented to the court clerk in a black suitcase. This was an enormous amount of money for the day — a City Detective was paid only $212 dollars a month. A criminal jury trial in Maricopa County Superior Court began on June 15th, 1944.
Joe Davis testified for the prosecution. He was sure that he and Star Johnson had seen Frenchy run the stop sign. They even laughed about the fact it was Frenchy. David said he went in the drug store and watched as his partner crossed the street with his ticket book in hand. It looked as if Star reached to pat Frenchy on the shoulder. Next, he saw Star backing away, making no effort to go for a gun, as Frenchy began firing. He saw Frenchy firing as Johnson ran with his back to him. Under cross-examination he was asked if anyone else had been in the car with Frenchy? Joe replied, “Not a soul.”
James Murray Bryant was a compelling witness for the prosecution. He made three things clear. He knew and liked both Frenchy and Star. He witnessed and remembered the incident. He intended to tell the truth. He first saw Johnson standing next to a car talking to a lone occupant in the driver’s seat. The occupant was Frenchy Navarre. There was a heated argument. Somebody called somebody "a son of a bitch." Frenchy jumped out of his car saying, “You can’t talk to me like that.” Johnson backed up as he reached downward. Frenchy shot him a “first” time. Johnson ran eastbound into the Buffet with Frenchy following, shooting him in the back. Frenchy stopped following him at the doorway of the Buffet.
Manuel Ortiz had been a city bus mechanic since 1929. On May 2nd, he was towing a bus in the area of Second Street and Jefferson, when he heard shots. He saw the uniformed officer running into the El-Rancho Buffet with Frenchy running after him firing at his back. He also heard Joe Davis asking Frenchy why he shot his partner. Frenchy said, “He called me a son of a bitch and I don’t take that from a nigger. I am a gentleman.”
T.W. Waters had been a migrant field worker in Phoenix for two months. He had gotten off work the day of the shooting and went downtown to meet his wife for a beer. He was in the Fox Drug Store pretending to look at sun glasses while listening to the argument between Navarre and Johnson. He remembered the “colored boy” saying, “You son of bitch. You are off your beat.” He then saw Frenchy draw his pistol and shoot Johnson. The other significant thing he remembered was Frenchy saying, “I’ve never taken 'son of bitch' off of anybody, let alone a god damned nigger.”
Lionel Blanco, the owner of the El-Rancho Buffet, heard the shots and saw Star Johnson, whom he knew, run inside. He tried to help Star, loosening his belt and giving him a drink of water. He testified that while at the police station, he heard Frenchy tell Chief Duane he shot Johnson because he was called "a white son of a bitch and he don’t take no shit from anybody like that."
E.W. Pacheco owned the drug store where Joe Davis had gone for a soda. He testified that Davis was sitting drinking the soda, looking out the window. Joe and Star had often stopped in the store while making their rounds. He said Joe seemed uneasy on this particular day. He also testified that Joe was in the seat closest to the street where he could see over a five-foot-high magazine rack. When the shots rang out, Joe said he thought they were blanks.
Pacheco went into the El-Rancho Café and helped pour a glass of water into Star Johnson’s mouth. He heard Star say Frenchy shot him because he was giving him a ticket. When Star was taken from the scene, Pacheco heard Frenchy tell officers at the scene, “I shot the nigger because he called me a son of a bitch.” Under cross examination, Pacheco was asked if it was also true that Frenchy said a gun was pulled on him. Pacheco never heard the statement.
Roland Brown was a half block away and never saw the shooting. He went to the scene as officers were arriving. He was present when one officer asked Frenchy, “Where is the shooting?” Frenchy replied, “It is in the buffet there.” The officer asked, “Who done it?” Frenchy replied, “I shot the god damned nigger, he is lying on the floor in there.”
A key witness for the defense was Lloyd Simmons, 25, a bakery worker. Simmons had driven Frenchy to police headquarters after the shooting. He described Fenchy as very calm throughout the whole affair. At the station, Simmons had given a statement saying he had driven his car east on Jefferson when he saw Frenchy on the corner of Second Street and Jefferson.
He pulled to the curb and hailed Frenchy over to his car. According to Simmons, Star Johnson walked up to the pair and accused Simmons of running the boulevard stop. He denied the accusation and Frenchy stepped in and exchanged words with Johnson. They argued and Frenchy told Johnson that if he was going to give Simmons a ticket, they could take it up with the chief in the morning.
Frenchy unbuttoned his coat and things went from bad to worse. Johnson told Frenchy not to go for his gun, because he also had a gun. Frenchy asked Johnson to leave and Simmons remembered Johnson saying, “No white son of a bitch is going to tell me to leave.” It looked to Simmons as if Johnson might have reached for his weapon. That’s when, “Frenchy just pulled out his gun and shot four times.” Simmons went on to state, “Frenchy didn’t say a word, he just pulled it out and let it go.” The prosecutor asked if there were any shots when Johnson had his back to Frenchy. Simmons said, “Yes, that one (came) when he started to run. I’ll have to say that.”
Later, on the way to headquarters, Frenchy said to Simmons, “I don’t take 'son of bitch' off no one, much less a damned nigger. I ain’t gonna allow a fellow to call me a name like that.” The prosecutor asked, “This is the only reason he gave on the shooting?” Simmons replied, “That is right.” Simmons then added, “I am really sorry it happened, but that fellow should not have done that. Boy, I really mean he insulted us.”
At Frenchy’s trial, Simmons’ story changed a bit. He now remembered just prior to the shooting that Johnson had a ticket book in one hand and was reaching for a probable knife or gun in his pocket. The prosecutor reminded him of his earlier statement, but he now was "sure" about Johnson reaching for a weapon.
There was also another issue in Simmons' testimony. He said he pulled up to the corner and went to the mailbox to mail a letter prior to being contacted by Johnson. This conflicted with the version that he pulled up to the corner and hailed Frenchy over and then was contacted by Johnson. At any rate, Simmons was adamant that he was the one Johnson accused of running the stop sign, not Frenchy.
Another defense witness, Jose Escarciga, had told officers at the scene of the shooting that he had witnessed nothing. At the trial, however, he testified that he was eight feet away and saw the whole incident. He said he heard Johnson call Frenchy a white son of a bitch. He said all shots fired at Johnson were fired at his front, even though the evidence suggested otherwise.
Clint Hawley had been a friend of Frenchy’s since 1934, when he had been a special officer for three months. He never talked to any officers at the scene, but reported to Frenchy’s lawyer after he discovered Frenchy would be tried for the murder. He said he didn’t hear any of the conversation, but saw the “colored” officer reach behind his back before being shot.
Marion Throwbridge would testify to Frenchy’s expertise in the use of a pistol. He was the Chief Range Officer for the Arizona State Pistol Association where Phoenix Police officers trained. The F.B.I. had a prescribed course of defensive police shooting that entailed an officer walking away from a silhouette target, turning when a whistle blew and firing shots at the kill zone. Frenchy was deadly. He could fire five shots from fifty yards in three seconds with amazing accuracy. Frenchy was the best shot of the sixty or so members of the Phoenix Police Department. He was one of the top four competitive shooters (perhaps the best) in the state.
More evidence came from J. B. Mackey, superintendent of the Phoenix Police Identification Bureau. Several days later he took photos of the scene. Joe Davis was a big man and Sgt. Vic Soule was about the same size. He had Soule sit on the stool where Joe Davis sat in the drug store. He testified that the photos were proof that Joe couldn’t see anything across the street. This was contested by the prosecution's interpretation of the photos, Davis’ testimony and Pacheco’s testimony that Joe had watched the incident.
Frenchy took the stand in his own defense.
He testified to his speed and efficiency with a handgun. He said he drove his car to Second Street and Jefferson after picking it up at his home at 122 N. Third Street after work. He drove it west to Adams, south on First Street and turning onto Jefferson. He stopped in front of the El-Rancho Buffet and backed into a parking spot. He was going to go into the buffet and pool hall to watch people play. He said Simmons pulled to the curb, hailed him over and began talking about paying too much alimony to his ex-wife. Frenchy said his foot was on the running board of Simmons’ car.
He said Johnson walked over from the north side of the street and looked at Simmons, saying, “Say there fellow, you ran a boulevard stop.” Simmons said, “Why, no, I didn’t.” They argued and Frenchy said he intervened as a “peacemaker.” He claimed that he said, “If the boy ran a stop, why don’t you give him a ticket. If not, why don’t you go about your business.” Frenchy told Johnson, “If you have any business with me, you can take it up with the Chief in the morning.”
Frenchy said he then unbuttoned his coat, as he often did, when Johnson said, “If you’re thinking about drawing a gun you better not because I can draw mine too.” He said Johnson reached for his gun and he shot him in defense of his own life.
He was cross-examined by Dave Beauchamp, the Assistant County Attorney. “Well now Mr. Navarre, your running a boulevard stop never came up in the conversation with Star Johnson?” Frenchy denied he was the one who was driving. He also denied shooting Johnson in the back, even after being confronted with the evidence and eyewitness accounts. He said he may have hit Johnson as he was spinning around. He said he was “standing to the right of my car.” Mr. Lynn Laney, Frenchy’s defense lawyer, immediately intervened and out of order said to Frenchy, “You mean Simmons’ car.” Frenchy corrected himself.
A backbeat to the trial was talk in the small city of Frenchy warning that he would kill anyone who testified against him, or gave testimony that firmly put him in the wrong. This has never been conclusively proved and Frenchy could be stealthy. But there are signs that Davis and others did receive threats.
On June 17th, the jury came back with a split decision and no chance of resolution. A new trial commenced on September 14th. Six days later, a unanimous verdict was reached. Frenchy was found not guilty of the murder of Officer Star Johnson.
Navarre had been on suspension throughout both of the trials. He was reinstated as a detective and his first day back to work was October 1st. At around 6 p.m. on October 4th, Frenchy was at the front desk of Police Headquarters. He was laughing and joking with several officers when he said he was going to get a drink of water. A pair of swinging doors separated the desk area from the water fountain. He walked to the swinging doors with his partner, Freasier, walking behind him.
Joe Davis was moving in the opposite direction, coming toward the two men.
As the two met in the doorway, two shots exploded. Davis fired his revolver, hitting Frenchy twice in the chest at close range. Freasier ran out of the building, as he later testified, to cover escape routes. Some stories have Frenchy also reaching for his guns and firing, but the shots went wild. What is clear: Frenchy ran past the desk officer, Joe Nemecek, and yelled he was dying as he fell to the floor clutching his chest. Frenchy was correct.
Davis pointed his gun at Nemecek and ordered him out of the building. Nemecek wisely complied. Davis took the elevator to the top jail floor, where he held the jailer hostage and propped the elevator door open. The only access to the jail was a stairwell that Joe had covered at gunpoint, making it a dangerous proposition for an assault.
Officers responded from all over the city. Officer Jerry Hill, who would go on to be elected Maricopa County Sheriff for several terms in the 1970’s, vividly remembers the incident. Davis, fearing he would be shot, would only surrender to the Chief. Duane met Davis halfway on the stairwell where Davis turned his gun over. Duane booked Davis into jail for the murder of Frenchy Navarre.
Unlike the press reporting of the Star Johnson murder, the Navarre killing more than made headlines in the Arizona Republic. Above the supposed lede headline of “Armor Blasts Rhine Path For Doughboys,” larger, boldface type proclaimed “NAVARRE KILLED BY JOE DAVIS.” It was as if World War II had been put on hold.
The first trial for Joe Davis began on December 13th, 1944. It resulted in a hung jury. The second trial, beginning February 6th, 1945, returned a verdict of guilty of manslaughter. Davis was sentenced to three to eight years time in the Arizona Department of Corrections.
Out of all the records of the four trials related to the two killings, only the first has surviving detailed transcripts. The records do indicate that Joe Davis claimed to have shot Frenchy in self defense, saying Frenchy was going for his gun.
Witnesses testified that Joe had made several damaging statements when Frenchy was on trial for killing his partner. Joe was saying that the courts better do the right thing or he would take care of Frenchy and his lying witnesses. He said he regretted not killing Frenchy on the day Star Johnson was shot.
He also was heard to say that if he didn’t make things right with Frenchy, his people would never forgive him. Much of Phoenix's black community believed the police department and city leaders had not protected it during the infamous 1942 Thanksgiving Day Riot, and now justice had not been served in the Johnson murder.
One witness would eventually testify that Joe was patting his gun as he said, “If Navarre went back on the force this will take care of him.” After Frenchy was reinstated as detective, Joe was witnessed several times unbuttoning his holster whenever Navarre was near him.
Still, many Phoenicians sympathized with Star Johnson and Joe Davis, especially the downtown merchants they protected. Ida Lutfy, one of three sisters that ran Millie's on Central for 60 years, recalled that the prevailing sentiment was that Joe shouldn't be punished too severely or at all. Not only were Davis and Johnson well-liked, Phoenix was still a Western place, where shooting a man in the back was a particularly villainous act.
Davis was paroled on May 16th, 1947. He passed away in the 1990s. The death of Johnson, the failure of the justice system and prison were shattering for Davis. While in prison, he faced beatings. When his wife visited, they would talk in code. If Davis asked, "Do the boys have shoes?" it meant he was being abused. She told church leaders and members of the NAACP. But the situation didn't get better until black soldiers from the 93rd Division at Fort Huachuca let it be known that if the beatings didn't stop, blood would run in the streets of Phoenix. The beatings stopped.
Davis' wife also recalled a chilling incident while he was in prison. A white woman knocked at her door. From the window, she could see that the woman held a gun and had placed a paper bag over it. When she didn't answer the door, a neighbor came out and said Mrs. Davis wasn't home. "I was just going to give my regards to Mrs. Davis," the woman said, "and tell her to stay strong." A preacher from across the street witnessed the incident and followed the would-be assailant. A few blocks away, she abandoned the car she drove to the Davis house and changed to another vehicle. In another incident, someone on a city bus pulled her hair and demanded to know if she was Joe Davis's wife. She said no and another passenger came to her aid.
The shootings were little discussed in a police force that was expanding rapidly in a changing, fast-growing city. Amid the official silence, many urban legends grew up about what really happened in 1944. A few details may always be in dispute. It was not until 1953 that a black officer was assigned to a white beat.
Even so, retired Officer Gordon Hunsaker pushed to have Star Johnson recognized as dying in the line of duty. The state did so in 2010. Retired Officer Glenn Martin, who took Star to St. Joe's that May day in 1944 and stayed beside his friend as he died, was given the honor of accepting the plaque, flag and certificate usually presented to family members of fallen officers. Apparently, none of Johnson's immediate family could be found. Martin, who vividly recalled the event decades later, always thought Star was "just doing his job."
The living memory of this event has nearly been erased, and with it the first-hand knowledge of the Phoenix that was, good and bad. May 2nd, 2014, marked the seventieth year anniversary of Star Johnson's death in the line of duty. The Phoenix Police Department has not yet recognized his sacrifice.
Tour more of the rich history of Phoenix in Rogue's Phoenix 101 archive.