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Rural County Ponders Savage Killing

May 26, 1998

INDEPENDENCE, Va. (AP) _ How Garnett Paul Johnson died is known. On a cool summer night 10 months ago, he was soaked with gasoline and burned alive. For good measure, his charred, wizened corpse was beheaded with a dull-edged ax.

Unresolved is the question of what provoked so savage an attack on a slight, easygoing black handyman with a weakness for strong drink and hard partying.

For those answers, this rural community awaits the trial, beginning Wednesday, of Louis Ceparano, one of the two muscular white men accused of killing Johnson after a night of binge drinking.

``This is the most terrifying thing anybody can do to someone,″ said Clarence Young, the vice president of the Grayson County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. ``Why was it done?″

Johnson was already drunk when he hopped in the car with his friends, Ceparano and Hazel Louise Anderson, at a convenience store July 24, according to news reports and pretrial court testimony. They bought beer and drove to Ceparano’s trailer. Emmett Cressell and his girlfriend, Christy Harden, joined them for a night of pasta, liquor and rock ‘n’ roll.

In his only public statement, Ceparano told The Roanoke Times that he took prescription sedatives Valium and Xanax that night along with beer, bourbon and moonshine. ``I was pretty out of it,″ he said. ``I was there, but I really wasn’t there.″

Miss Anderson told The Associated Press last August that shortly after 4 a.m., Ceparano announced, ``We’re going to take G.P. out there and put him on that white cross and burn him.″

Ceparano grabbed Johnson by the legs and Cressell grabbed him by the arms, and they staggered into the yard, Miss Harden testified at an October hearing. Johnson, who stood 5-foot-5 and weighed only 140 pounds, looked at Ceparano and begged, ``Why don’t you just shoot me?″ she said.

Ceparano and Cressell returned reeking of gasoline, she said.

In an August interview, Miss Harden said the sight of Johnson sitting upright and burning in the dark made her vomit. ``I seen him on fire. He was moaning like he was in pain,″ she said.

Cressell and Miss Harden left the trailer, hitched a 6-mile ride to the Grayson County sheriff’s department and told officers Ceparano had killed Johnson.

Sheriff Jerry Wilson arrived around 6 a.m. and arrested Ceparano, 43, while Johnson’s body was still smoldering. Johnson’s head lay in a freshly dug hole.

Ceparano, a burly, ponytailed New Yorker who moved to Elk Creek three years ago to open a restaurant, which failed in short order, could be sentenced to death if convicted.

Cressell, a powerfully built man who stands 6-feet-2, is free on bond and has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. He is charged with first-degree murder and could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted.

Neither defendant nor any of their relatives will discuss the case. Their attorneys and prosecutors are under court orders not to comment.

Beginning Wednesday, the county’s 16,500 people _ only 500 of whom are black _ hope to learn what turned the boozy bash among five friends into a real-life nightmare.

``The whole truth hasn’t been told,″ said Walter Kyle, president of the local NAACP chapter. ``If you’re saying, you’re my friend, and I trust you to the point where we party together all night, and then all of a sudden you do me like that? It doesn’t add up. Something had to set those fellows off to make them very angry.″

Shortly after the slaying, Wilson told the FBI he was investigating a possible hate crime. U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno swiftly ordered the Justice Department to investigate as well. She will wait until Virginia finishes its prosecutions before deciding whether to pursue federal charges.

Johnson’s relatives, NAACP officials and a federal investigator who visited the community said race relations are generally good in Grayson County. But black leaders say the evidence and interviews conducted since the slaying strengthen their belief that racism was involved.

Ms. Harden, Cressell’s girlfriend, testified in October that Ceparano talked about plans to ``burn a Negro″ hours before the killing.

State crime lab tests filed in court said blood found on Ceparano’s right hand, his clothing and his tools matched Johnson’s blood. Cressell’s clothes were never tested because he wasn’t arrested until three days after the slaying.

Ceparano’s attorneys said they will try to prove that Cressell instigated and carried out the slaying. They said Cressell made numerous racist comments before the slaying and has a violent history.

In a motion filed May 14, the attorneys claimed to have evidence that Cressell used racial epithets and threatened inmates when he was in jail awaiting trial.

NAACP officials dread the prospect of another delay.

``The longer it lingers, the worse it is for the community,″ Kyle said. ``The mood here: Just get on with it. People here need to have closure.″

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