Taking the witness stand for just over 40 minutes in Judge Ralph E. Winkler's courtroom on the third floor of the Hamilton County Courthouse, T.I. (born Clifford Harris) explained the chaotic scene on the night of the May 2006 incident.
He also stoically recalled the pain of breaking the news about Johnson's death to his friend's mother and 5-year-old daughter. He only occasionally looked out into the courtroom to lock eyes with 34-year-old Hosea Thomas, who is charged with murder, felonious assault and other charges in the shooting, which also injured three other members of T.I.'s entourage. T.I. told the jury that while he didn't see the shooters, he knew the shots were meant for him.
Thomas was led into the courtroom in handcuffs, wearing black low-top Chuck Taylors, a crisp white dress shirt, black paints and gold-framed glasses. He immediately began scribbling down notes on a large yellow legal pad and took a moment to look up as T.I. entered the room, wearing baggy, dark jeans, an untucked dark-blue dress shirt, black sneakers and a black suit jacket. The gallery appeared to be a mix of a few friends and family of the accused and young T.I. fans, who came to catch a glimpse of their hero.
With a steady voice, T.I. described to the prosecuting attorney how he met his assistant and best friend Johnson when the two Atlanta natives were toddlers and how their mothers were very close friends.
"We were born in the same year, so we grew up together," T.I. said, as the racially mixed jury looked on intently. "[He] was my oldest living friend. We knew each other since 2 years old, at least. ... He had a role in my life, personally as my best friend, a role in my organization ... as my assistant." At one point, he cracked a smile as he remembered how Johnson would often describe himself as weighing 230 pounds, when in reality he was likely 30 pounds heavier.
He then described how he came to be in Cincinnati on the night of May 2, 2006, while on a tour with Yung Joc. After a show at the local club Bogart's, T.I. said the rappers and their crews moved across town to the gritty neighborhood of Roselawn to appear at an afterparty at Club Ritz, where they were installed in a VIP section at the packed club.
Though there were reports that the incident may have been sparked by hurt feelings from some local rappers when T.I. showered the crowd with money during Joc's performance, T.I. denied that he tossed bills at the Ritz. "You see, you make it rain in strip clubs around beautiful women taking their clothes off, not in packed holes in the walls," he said. "You don't throw money in there. That's not part of the celebration."
At some point, T.I. described an altercation that broke out at the club when someone tried to get into the VIP section and began getting "irate" and "ornery" with venue security. The scuffle caught the attention of T.I.'s entourage, and as the heated discussion turned into a brawl involving 15-20 patrons, he said he tried to make sure his group was together as they made their way to the door.
Licking his lips and narrowing his eyes, T.I. then described getting into the backseat of a black van, as Johnson sat in front of him. He said he realized very quickly that something unusual was going on as the van pulled away and he saw headlights going into oncoming traffic from a vehicle that was attempting to get alongside the black van. "Before I knew it, shots rang out," he said, explaining that they came from the left side of the van and that he immediately took cover as an unnamed person in his van returned fire.
After the shooting, T.I. said his driver pulled over and then attempted to get on a highway, but realized the van's tires were flat. "At that point, we're calling everybody's names out to see if everybody is all right," he said. "Called Phil's name out, Phil didn't respond, so at that point everybody was trying to get out of the car, picking Phil up, trying to get Phil out and the car come back and open fire again."
Asked what Johnson looked like when he dragged him from the vehicle, T.I. said with a hard stare at no one in particular, "lifeless," describing the blood running down his friends face, a shirt wet with blood and an entry wound on Johnson's left temple.
While they were moving Johnson out of the first van and into a second, shots rang out again, shattering the back window of the second vehicle, T.I. said. Moments later, the police showed up and Johnson and the other injured were taken to a local hospital. While T.I. spoke, Thomas took careful notes, glancing up at the rapper as the prosecuting attorney showed T.I. crime-scene photos of his friend's deadly wounds. "Yeah, it's Phil, or that's his body," T.I. said, glancing quickly at a second photo with a close-up of the entry wound.
T.I. said he called his friend's mother first, then Johnson's cousin, and once back in Atlanta, he broke the news to Johnson's father and 5 -year-old daughter. "I told her her daddy's gone and he's in a better place and he won't be coming back. And I told her how much he loved her," T.I. said. As for Johnson's mother, "First, I apologized, because I felt that all those rounds were fired for me ... and then I told her what happened. ... There wasn't much else to say."
T.I. faced a brief cross-examination from Thomas' defense attorney, Charles Isaly, who focused at first on Club Ritz patrons' complaints that the rapper and his entourage had bought up all the liquor in the club for themselves that night, an allegation T.I. denied. When asked about where the unnamed "ladies" who were traveling with him that night were sitting in the van, the father of six flashed a brief smile and said "no comment."
At one point when asked about the aftermath of the first round of shooting, T.I. looked over at Thomas for several long seconds and then at the gallery. A smile crossed his face as he appeared to be making eye contact with a woman in the audience and seemed distracted from the questions coming from Isaly. Asked if he'd ever been in this kind of shootout before, T.I. calmly said he had, but before he became a performer.
Isaly once again brought up T.I.'s past conviction on cocaine-distribution charges and his more recent felony firearms conviction. When the attorney attempted to ask the rapper about some lyrics from his hit "Live Your Life," he mixed up words from two different songs from Paper Trail, eliciting a chuckle from Tip.
"I don't know about the 'however you want' part," T.I. said, as the gallery laughed. "Forgive me for being amused."
Isaly took a moment to confer with his client and then ended his examination by asking again about T.I.'s recent conviction, specifically about the rapper's charges regarding an attempt to buy silencers for machine guns.
Moments later, outside the quickly emptying courtroom, Thomas' cousin, Michael Carter, 30, claimed that the entire incident could have been avoided if he'd been at Club Ritz that night. Carter, the owner of Cincinnati's Aristocrat Records, said he was in prison in Atlanta on the night of the shooting, so another family member was hosting the afterparty for him.
According to Carter, T.I. was about to start working with Aristocrat after hearing a tape from one of their artists, K. Riley, though Tip said on the stand that he was only aware of the label after the shooting. "I think it's looking bad for Hosea," Carter said. "Nobody had no beef with T.I. I think it just got out of hand. Even if Hosea Thomas ... if they found out he did it, I think he's remorseful and wishes it never happened, if in fact he did it or not. This city loved T.I. If I was here, none of this would have happened. I would have had more control."
Thomas' older brother, Padron Thomas, who told police he was in the car with his brother on the night of the shooting, has agreed to testify against Hosea Thomas in exchange for prosecutors dropping murder charges against him.