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Was football player's death a suicide?

To build the breathtaking speed he would need to run out of his southeastern Mississippi hometown and into the National Football League, high school football player Billey Joe Johnson used to race against his horse through the woods.

sports Updated: Feb 12, 2009 16:27 IST

To build the breathtaking speed he would need to run out of his southeastern Mississippi hometown and into the National Football League, high school football player Billey Joe Johnson used to race against his horse through the woods. He wanted to be a star and had talent. Colleges noticed: He had received some 200 letters from such universities as Auburn, Duke, Mississippi State and Florida State.

But, Johnson never got to see a college field, and never got his shot at a professional career. Last December, the black teen's future ended with a shotgun blast on a rural stretch of roadway after he was pulled over by a white law enforcement officer. One thing is clear: He died of a gunshot wound to the head. Whether it was a suicide, an accident or a slaying is something only he and those who were there know.

A grand jury is meeting in Mississippi this week to consider the case after the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, raised questions about how it was handled. Police contend that Johnson shot himself, but the teen's family says he had too much to live for to die.

"This young man was a star athlete who had a very promising future," said Curley Clark, head of a local chapter of the NAACP. "To suggest that with all of that he was looking forward to he would take his own life, I think that's a stretch." The mystery began the morning of Dec 8, when Johnson was getting ready before dawn to go deer hunting with a friend. Later that day, he was planning to attend an awards banquet to be honored as an all-area team player.

Police say before leaving for the hunting trip, Johnson drove to the home of his on-again, off-again girlfriend about 15 miles (24 kilometers) away. He tried to come in through the front door, then tapped on her bedroom window. Alarmed, the girl's mother, Esther L Parker, called police to report an attempted break-in, and two officers responded.

An emergency call about gunfire cackled through their radios a short time later. Deputy Joe Sullivan had stopped Johnson nearby for running a red light. As he went back to the cruiser to run a driver's license check, Sullivan reported, Johnson shot himself. By the time Sgt. James O'Neal and Officer Stuart Fairchild arrived at the scene, Johnson was lying on the ground outside of the driver's side door with a shotgun on top of him, the barrel pointing toward his head.

The account doesn't add up for Johnson's family. His mother, Annette, who wore a white T-shirt emblazoned with her 17-year-old son's picture as she spoke about him, has put together a makeshift shrine in the living room of their trailer.

There are pictures of Billey Joe in his uniform, trophies, a floral arrangement from his funeral and a framed form letter from former Auburn University coach Tommy Tuberville. The letter is a point of pride for her: He would have been the first in his family to go to college.

"I know my son didn't take his own life," his mother said. His father, Billey Joe Johnson Sr., said there was something perplexing about a small bullet hole in the driver's side window of the truck. He said the shot appeared to have come from outside the truck.

"I don't want to accuse nobody or nothing, but somebody else had to shoot him," the father said. "Seems like he was down on his knees, like the wound came from lower and went up. If it was a shotgun, it would have taken that whole window with it." There also are inconsistencies in authorities' account, according to Jerome Carter, the attorney representing Johnson's family. For example, photographs don't reflect the trauma associated with a close-range blast from a 12-gauge shotgun, he said, because the only trauma to his head was behind his left ear. A shotgun likely would have caused more damage.

The family also questions why they couldn't see Johnson's body for three days after he died, and why his cell phone and truck, which still had brain matter in it, was returned to to them instead of being kept as evidence.

"That's grossly inconsistent with a potential crime scene," Carter said.

Carter says he hasn't found anything that indicates wrongdoing on the part of law officers. But the NAACP wonders if the teen's relationship with the girl played a role in his death. She was white, and even decades after the end of segregation laws and the civil rights era, interracial relationships aren't always accepted in the South.

The civil rights group hasn't detailed what it believes happened, or released a list it says it has of people with knowledge of the morning's happenings. All it has said is that its findings are inconsistent with what authorities say happened.

"We're still living in Mississippi," Clark said. "And everyone may not be comfortable with the way young people accept each other for who they are."

Friends have suggested the shooting was somehow an accident, that Johnson might have panicked when an officer pulled him over because he had a gun in his pickup truck and accidentally fired it while trying to move it.

"There's really not any doubt it was self-inflicted," said Rory Nelson, an offensive lineman on the team who said he also believes Johnson didn't commit suicide.

The district attorney has declined to comment, citing the ongoing grand jury investigation. So has the family of Johnson's girlfriend, and her mother has not allowed attorneys to interview her about that night, Carter said. Police also have not commented in detail about the case because of the grand jury.

The shooting doesn't make sense in the halls of George County High School, either. Those who knew Johnson don't describe him as depressed. Friends talk about his athletic skills, but also how he served as a racial bridge at the school, which is 13 percent black. "Black kids sat at one table and whites sat at the others," said his friend and teammate Nelson. Johnson would sit with the white kids "to set an example" that it was OK to socialize with each other, he said.

His coach said he struggled in class and had a tutor, and sometimes, was moody. But "athletically, he was just phenomenal," said Al Jones, the team's head coach.

No matter how the shooting is explained _ or if it ever is _ what the school can't figure out is how to make sense of it. It also must find a way to replace an integral part of the football program. The last great athlete the red brick school produced was Eric Moulds in the 1990s, who retired from the NFL last year.

Everyone hoped Johnson would be the next.