How do you say hello to a convicted murderer?
The thought darted through my head as I strode through the Martinez Courthouse jail facility’s winding corridors of concrete and steel.
In moments I would be face-to-face—albeit divided by two-inch thick Plexiglas—with Joe Blacknell III, the young man described by police and District Attorney’s Office officials as one of the most violent offenders in Richmond’s history.
I opened the steel door and there he was.
His fist was pressed against the glass. His face was expressionless, save for the beginnings of a smile.
It took barely a second to decide. My job isn’t to determine guilt or innocence, or to pass judgment. It’s to ask questions and report the answers honestly.
I pressed my fist against my side of the glass, mirroring Blacknell’s. That settled the question of how we would say “hello.” We sat down.
Over the next 30 minutes of that April morning, Blacknell, now aged 21, spoke in clipped sentences that echoed about the concrete walls. He answered questions about his childhood, his situation, the trial and the future. Sheriffs deputies circled outside the room, streaking by a window angled over Blacknell’s shoulder.
Blacknell, known since his birth as “Fatter”—his mom says it’s because of the round face he had as a baby—was convicted weeks before of more than 20 felonies, including the March 2009 murder of Marcus Russell. An emerging East Bay Area rapper, Russell was shot and killed by a shooter in a passing van as he drove east on I-580 near the Bayview Avenue exit. An eyewitness testified that Blacknell was the shooter.
In September of that same year, Blacknell, then 18, was arrested after a foot pursuit with Richmond police left him pinned atop a two-story house on Hoffman Boulevard in South Richmond. Blacknell was convicted of a series of shootings that left at least four people wounded earlier that day.
The jury deliberated for nine days before delivering the verdict on March 9. Blacknell is scheduled to be sentenced on May 17. He faces life in prison. He has been in custody for nearly 3 years.
I started the discussion with the question that gnawed at me since the early days of the trial. Deputy District Attorney Derek Butts couched the motive for Blacknell’s crimes in part on the death of Sean “Shawny Bo” Melson, a 16-year-old alleged Easter Hill Boys gang member who was shot and killed in North Richmond in 2006.
According to the D.A.’s theory, Melson’s death became a cause célèbre for Blacknell and his neighborhood buddies, who revered the boy and blamed central Richmond gang members for his slaying. The prosecution buttressed its case with Myspace.com writings by Blacknell and others that alluded to a quest to avenge Melson’s murder.
“What was Shawny Bo like?” I asked.
Blacknell leaned back on his stool, glancing upward before leveling his eyes back on me. “He cool, he cool,” Blacknell said.
I thought of Melson’s moniker, Shawny Bo, and how it was the largest name on a memorial wall of shooting victims that for years graced the wall of a store on Market Street. Melson was standing in front of that North Richmond store when a drive by shooter killed him with a single shot to the head. Late last year, the owner of the store had all the names painted over.
I broke that news to Blacknell. He frowned.
“What do you remember about the day Shawny Bo died?” I asked.
“I got there like 10 minutes later,” Blacknell said, looking down at his hands, which tapped at the table between us. “I remember the police was there, they like kicked at him but he wasn’t moving. They just put a jacket over his head, I don’t know whose jacket.”
“I remember my dad, my dad tried to get over to [Melson], but the police was right there to stop him. They was like ‘Nah,’” Blacknell said.
Blacknell paused for a few seconds, his eyes lingering on his restless hands.
“I don’t want to talk about [Melson] no more,” Blacknell said.
“What about your dad? What’s your relationship with him like?” I asked.
“We like this,” Blacknell said, holding up his right hand, index finger and middle finger intertwined.
I thought back to the one time I met Blacknell’s father, also named Joe Blacknell. He came to the last day of his son’s trial. When the guilty verdict was read, he shouted out in disbelief. Outside the court that day, Blacknell’s father wore a black knit cap and a look of pained disbelief. He told me he thought his son was “railroaded” by the court system.
I asked Blacknell to describe his earliest childhood memories.
“Ever since I can remember, people was dying,” Blacknell said. “My uncle got killed when I was like six or seven. I remember some of my dad’s friends, like I don’t even know they names, but something would go down and they would be dead. Death was always just a part of life.”
I recalled the story about Blacknell’s uncle. His mother, Celeste Sipp, told me the story one day when I took her to lunch during a court recess. Her brother, John Sipp, was shot and killed in a street dispute in Oakland in the late 1990s.
Blacknell went on through the years, leaving huge holes in the timeline punctuated by half-formed vignettes about violence, brushes with the law and regrets.
When he was 14 or 15, he said, he shot himself in the stomach while playing with a handgun near a Richmond gas station. He lifted his shirt to show me the massive incision scar running up the middle of his stomach. Doctors saved his life with emergency surgery.
“It didn’t even hurt,” he said, deadpan. “The pain was only during the recovery, you know, next-day pain.”
“But this, this hurt,” Blacknell said, this time pulling down his yellow jail trousers to show a cluster of huge, irregular shaped dark spots of puffed flesh on his upper right thigh.
“That was when the police let they dog eat on me,” he said, making a sound that may have been a laugh. He said the San Pablo police used a dog to catch him after he ran from a car while carrying a gun, one of three gun charges he racked up as a juvenile.
Blacknell said his earliest memories included seeing dead bodies and hearing gunshots in the night, probably in the early- to mid-1990s in the old Easter Hill neighborhood, where he lived.
He said he bounced around to more schools than he can remember, and probably didn’t finish even one year of high school. He said he built toughness through dozens of schoolyard fights, beginning at Crespi Middle School in El Sobrante, where his mom sent him when he was 12 or 13.
“Kids from the neighborhood wanted to test me all the time, and I had to fight for respect,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because of my name, because of my neighborhood, because I’m light skinned,” he said, breaking into a smile. Blacknell‘s face is generally impassive, like a kid not altogether interested in the conversation. His light complexion is owed to his Irish, red-haired grandmother who still lives in Oakland. She attended several of his court hearings.
I could feel time running low. I began to spit questions, rapid fire, sometimes cutting short his already short answers in an effort to move on.
The prosecution’s star witness was a young woman who rode in the car with Russell and said she saw Blacknell shoot them with a high-powered rifle. She was shot in the leg, then relocated to another state for her own protection by the D.A.’s office.
Blacknell brought her up without me asking about her.
“I’m not even mad at her,” he said. “She just caught up in something that she didn’t want, and she did what they told her, probably.”
I move on to the D.A., Derek Butts, the man whose prosecution has Blacknell facing a life sentence plus more than 150 years.
I asked him if he harbored any ill feelings toward Butts.
Blacknell shook his head side to side. He said he heard from friends and family about my article on Butts, in which the attorney called Blacknell one of the most violent offenders ever in Richmond, a statement of added gravity when one considers the droves of prolific shooters Richmond has seen over the years. In the same article, Butts mused about whether Blacknell was a “sociopath,” ultimately deciding that he couldn’t be sure.
“I heard about that, calling me a psycho or whatever,” Blacknell said. “But look, he is a good D.A., I can’t be mad at him, he’s just doing his job.”
I told Blacknell about another Butts quote, that Blacknell would probably be have been killed in the streets if he wasn’t arrested two years ago.
He paused longer than ever on that one. I felt myself leaning forward.
“He may be right,” Blacknell said. “It was crazy out there.”
Indeed it was. In Richmond, 2009 was one of the deadliest years of the decade, with more than 40 homicides. Police detectives testified that there was an ongoing war between Blacknell’s Easter Hill Boys neighborhood and rivals in central Richmond. At many of the shooting scenes that year, witnesses reported seeing red lasers preceding fusillades of automatic weapon fire. A subset of the Easter Hill Boys used the nickname “Beam Team,” which police say was a reference to their practice of mounting laser sightings onto the barrels of their AK-47 and Mac-10s.
A deputy tapped on the window behind Blacknell. Blacknell said one more thing. Around that time I remembered that Blacknell had fathered three children before his arrest.
“I am a much different person now than I was. I been in here three years,” Blacknell said, standing, holding out three fingers. “If I could be out tomorrow, I would see my kids and get away from this place, just go somewhere else and start over.”
Blacknell leaned toward the window. He isn’t the wiry teen who had a larger-than-life reputation on the streets, whose moniker, “Fatter,” was as pervasive on the streets as it was on social networking sites. He’s filled out into a well-built man now.
I thought of the picture that Butts let linger in front of the jury one afternoon, the picture of a gaunt child, hat backward and flashing a shiny grill, spindly arms holding an AK-47 toward the camera. Could it be that Blacknell isn’t the monster that he was portrayed to be? Could it be that he was and has become something else?
I don’t know the answer. I probably never will.
Blacknell’s fist was again pressed against the glass. I pressed mine there, too.
“Thank you for always being nice to my mom,” he said.
I nodded and walked out the door.