"Sideshow Death" Video Revealed--Police Chase Called The Real Cause
By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

It was an Oakland urban legend -- a mysterious, Rodney King-type videotape by an unnamed amateur photographer that was rumored to document the events leading up to the car crash that killed U'Kendra Johnson on an Oakland street last February.

For weeks, while Oakland police and public officials blamed her death on an out-of-control sideshow, local news agencies tried to determine whether such a videotape actually existed. Eventually, they gave up. Meanwhile, based partly on OPD assertions that sideshow activities killed Johnson, the state legislature passed the U'Kendra Johnson Memorial Act last summer, legislation that lets police confiscate the cars of alleged sideshow drivers for thirty days without a prior hearing, based solely on the word of a police officer that a crime has been committed.

This week, the mythical videotape and its photographer, Dallas Lopes, turned up unexpectedly in Alameda County Superior Court at the preliminary hearing of Eric Crawford, the Oakland man accused of driving the car that killed the 22-year-old woman. The tape told a story vastly different from what the police had claimed.

OPD Officer D'Afour Thurston, who helped arrest Crawford, testified to a wild scene on the night that Johnson died, with as many as two hundred people and fifty cars blocking the street on Foothill Boulevard a few blocks from Seminary, with traffic backed up for blocks, loud music, people dancing on the tops of cars, and Crawford spinning his car so violently in the intersection that smoke from his tires partially blocked the view and people had to jump out of the way to avoid getting hit.

But the Lopes videotape, played in court by Crawford's public defender, shows a quiet, virtually empty Foothill Boulevard, with Crawford doing a slow circle in the middle of an intersection, then racing away as a police cruiser takes off after him. The videotape also shows a high-speed chase in which a cruiser -- without warning lights or siren -- follows Crawford's vehicle from between a quarter-block and a half-block behind. The videotaped portion, which covers at least four residential blocks, shows the cars disappearing in the direction of the intersection where Crawford slammed into the car in which Johnson was a passenger. Lopes, a Laney College film student who has regularly taped sideshow activities for a documentary he is preparing, was a high-school classmate of Johnson.

In court testimony, Officer Thurston at first denied that the patrol car in the video was that of him and his partner, Ingo Mayer, but later admitted under cross-examination that "it could have been me in the car," though possibly at another time. Thurston also denied that he and his partner conducted a "chase" of Crawford that night. "We were only trying to catch up with the vehicle in order to initiate a traffic stop," he testified.

The videotape may not help Crawford, who was held over by Judge Jeffrey Horner to face charges of second- degree murder and vehicular manslaughter. However, it could be a potentially damaging piece of evidence in a claim against the city and the OPD by U'Kendra Johnson's family. That claim, filed last summer by Oakland attorney John Burris -- the go-to guy in many a police brutality lawsuit -- alleges that Johnson died "as a direct ... result of [the officers'] failure to drive at a speed safe for bystanders and wrongful failure to use their siren or red light while in pursuit of ... Crawford." The office of Oakland City Attorney John Russo is currently considering the claim.

Originally printed December 4, 2002
East Bay Express
7 Days Column