What happened when an open-carry advocate was charged with first degree intentional homicide?
Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office
12:22 A.M., MAY 9, 2010. A phone call made from Milwaukee’s South Side is patched through to a 911 operator.
“What is your emergency? What’s going on?” asks the police dispatcher.
“I just had two individuals try to assault me when I was going outside to move my car,” answers the caller, a man.
“Can you describe them?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “I think one of them fell down.”
“They had a gun or what?”
“I don’t know what they had, but they must have thought that I was not armed.”
“And were you armed?”
“I was armed.”
“What is your name?”
“And what is your last name?
“Can you describe them?”
“I don’t know what the driver was wearing. … But the other one was wearing white, a white shirt.”
“You said they were driving a vehicle? What kind of vehicle?”
“I didn’t get a good look at it, sorry. Maybe it was reddish. I shot out the window.”
“You shot out the window?”
“Which way were they heading?”
“I don’t know. After I shot, I ran. I don’t know, they might still be there. I might have hit ’em both.”
Police arrived on the scene minutes later. Jesus Gonzalez, 23, was sitting with his cell phone in hand on the front steps of 806 S. Shea Ave., a duplex where he and his mother lived. His black CZ 9 mm semi-automatic pistol sat unloaded on top of a box on the porch.
On the sidewalk a half-block away lay Jered Corn, 21, shot in the neck by Gonzalez and paralyzed from his waist down. Around the corner, in front of a video store at 34th Street and National Avenue, Corn’s 29-year-old uncle, Danny John, lay mortally wounded, fighting for breath, his body pierced by four bullets.
Gonzalez was handcuffed and taken to the Milwaukee County Jail. From inside his house, police seized three additional handguns, three rifles, a shotgun and 1,300 rounds of ammunition.
Gonzalez had gained a statewide reputation as a gun-rights activist, claiming to be the first person in Milwaukee to legally carry a loaded handgun openly in public. He was outspoken and unwavering, doggedly defensive of his right to carry a firearm and impatient with authorities who tried to stop him. Frequently, he aired his point of view on a gun-rights website under the tag “Parabellum,” a reference to a 9 mm cartridge and a Latin phrase meaning, “If you seek peace, prepare for war.”
Yet Gonzalez was not a violent or hateful man. He never had been convicted of a crime, not even a misdemeanor.
The day after the shooting, Gonzalez was charged with first-degree intentional homicide and attempted first-degree intentional homicide.
Photo by Adam Ryan Morris
ONE OF SIX KIDS, Jesus Gonzalez grew up a sickly child who was easily bullied. In middle school, his family says, a group of four or five students held him down and pummeled him.
In June 2006, at age 19, he was victimized again. Gonzalez was headed home from taking classes at ITT Technical Institute when his car broke down on Forest Home Avenue, and he was assaulted. One robber wielded a baseball bat spiked with nails. Another held a screwdriver to his throat, demanding his cell phone and backpack.
“The next morning, I went to his room to check on him,” Azucena Gonzalez, his sister, said in a letter written to the court on behalf of Jesus. “He had bruises along his side and back and a closer look revealed a cut surrounded by dried blood from the screw driver being jabbed so hard into his neck. When he woke up, his eyes were empty in shock and he cried from the fear he’d felt at being so helpless. My fear is that he had a wound which never quite healed.”
But he developed a way to cope.
“Unfortunately, my brother found comfort and security in guns,” his sister continued. “My family and I were against it from the beginning. When Jesus was able to prove he knew the laws very well and always took caution in following them and safety precautions, our brother’s enthusiasm for firearms stopped being an issue. We accepted them because we began to see it wasn’t a phase.”
The robbery set off a compulsion within Gonzalez to make sure he was prepared to defend himself at all times. He bought a handgun and learned how to use it from his older brother, Nicolas Gonzalez, a Marine veteran who served in Iraq and trained other Marines in urban combat.
“I taught him how not to be afraid of weapons and how to respect them,” says Nicolas, 30. “I taught him more than any safety course he could have gone through. He knew the only way you use a weapon is to defend yourself.”
The more Gonzalez learned about firearms, the more he studied Wisconsin law. He became a self-taught expert, authoring a pamphlet on the state’s firearms statutes and distributing it to fellow gun owners. Before long, he began carrying a loaded handgun in a holster on his hip, confident in his right to openly carry in public.
Although “open carry” was legal at the time, the issue was confusing to law enforcement officers and the public in general. Could a person carry a firearm anywhere? In grocery stores, restaurants, bars, churches? Did other laws pre-empt Wisconsin’s open carry law – for instance, disorderly conduct?
At the time, open carry was not permitted everywhere. Firearms, for example, couldn’t be carried in Wisconsin state parks unless unloaded and encased, or during hunting season with a valid license. In vehicles, firearms had to be encased and unloaded, and guns were prohibited in taverns or within 1,000 feet of a school.
An advisory opinion in April 2009 by Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen further attempted to clarify the law. Directed to prosecutors and law enforcement officers, the opinion said merely carrying a firearm openly would not lead to a charge of disorderly conduct.
Before the attorney general’s 2009 ruling, holstered firearms were seldom displayed publicly. Gonzalez was at the forefront to push his cause into the spotlight. In the early morning hours of May 14, 2008, he posted on opencarry.org: “I’ve noticed that there seems to be no one in Milwaukee willing to get the OC started, but I was never one to wait for others. So I am going to start open carrying around the city of Milwaukee. … I am not afraid of a court battle. I am not afraid of police or their false charges.”
Later that same day, Gonzalez walked the talk. While shopping for landscape bricks with his brother Adan, he entered the garden section of Menards in West Milwaukee with a Taurus 9 mm semi-automatic handgun holstered to his thigh.
Dressed in a black leather jacket, his long dark hair in a ponytail, the 6-foot-3, 280-pound Gonzalez and his silver pistol instantly drew attention.
“Why do you have a gun?” asked a Menards assistant manager as customers with children nervously hurried by.
“For protection,” Gonzalez said. “I live in a bad neighborhood.”
“Do you have a permit to carry it?”
“It’s legal for me to carry it in Wisconsin if it isn’t concealed.”
The assistant manager wasn’t convinced. “Sir, please leave the store and put the gun in your car.”
Gonzalez disregarded the request and continued to shop.
Police were called, and two West Milwaukee officers met Gonzalez in the parking lot as he and his brother loaded bricks into a pickup.
Police asked about the gun, and again, Gonzalez argued that he could legally carry the weapon in public.
“Where is the gun now?” asked an officer.
“I don’t have to answer that.”
Police found the 9 mm – unloaded and encased, with 33 rounds of ammunition – in the cab of the truck and took it into custody.
Gonzalez was handcuffed and arrested for disorderly conduct. Charges against him were eventually dropped, but his gun and ammunition remained with West Milwaukee police for 10 months before they were returned.
Nearly a year later, on April 10, 2009, a similar scene played out in a Wal-Mart in Chilton, Wis., a small town east of Lake Winnebago where Gonzalez has relatives. Gonzalez and his cousin went to the store to buy ammunition. They had planned to go shooting, Gonzalez later told an attorney representing the city of Chilton. His cousin went to the produce section to buy a head of lettuce for target practice while Gonzalez headed to the sporting goods counter.
Again, Gonzalez wore a 9 mm semi-automatic in a holster.
A police officer arrived, located Gonzalez and drew his service revolver. Gonzalez raised his hands in the air. As his cousin approached, the officer trained his revolver on him, too.
“Don’t move,” said the officer. Gonzalez could see the officer was rattled.
“Would you index your weapon?” Gonzalez asked him, and the officer removed his finger from the trigger.
A second officer arrived, and searched Gonzalez and his cousin. Police confiscated Gonzalez’s handgun, handcuffed him and took him to the Chilton police department. Gonzalez eventually was released without being charged and given a receipt for his handgun, which remained with police.
The two incidents upset Gonzalez, who believed his civil rights had been violated. Weeks after his arrest at the Chilton Wal-Mart, he filed a lawsuit in federal court against the cities of West Milwaukee and Chilton, claiming he was arrested unlawfully for disorderly conduct. He hired a notable gun-rights attorney from Georgia to represent him. And the suit drew support from advocates in Wisconsin and beyond.
In a sworn deposition taken for the lawsuit, Gonzalez acknowledged that he had never attended training or certification classes on the use of firearms. And he acknowledged that he had decided to lead the charge for open carry.
“I don’t think [police] should have the power to arrest someone simply for exercising their rights,” Gonzalez said in the deposition. “There has to be something to stop that.”
U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman dismissed the lawsuit May 11, 2010 – two days after Gonzalez was arrested for shooting Danny John and Jered Corn.
“When police respond to a ‘man with a gun’ call, they have no idea what the armed individual’s intentions are,” warned Judge Adelman in his decision. “The volatility inherent in such a situation could easily lead to someone being seriously injured or killed.”
Photo by Adam Ryan Morris
DANNY JOHN WAS Jered Corn’s uncle. Only eight years separated the two.
Corn was born on the Stockbridge-Munsee Indian Reservation north of Shawano, Wis. He lived in Milwaukee off and on with his mother and younger brother, Lucas, and leaned on John when things got shaky. When Corn got in trouble for underage drinking and possession of marijuana, John stepped in to help. When Corn suddenly lit out for Kansas, John tracked him down, brought him back to Milwaukee and got him a job as a roofer where he worked.
“He was like uncle, brother, best friend and mentor, all rolled into one,” says Corn, who sits in a wheelchair as he speaks.
In a restaurant with his mother and younger brother, Corn has agreed to talk about the night he and his uncle encountered Jesus Gonzalez. On his neck is a small scar in the shape of a star where a 9 mm bullet punctured his body and lodged itself in his spinal canal – where it remains – rendering him numb and limp from his waist down. On his hand, a tattoo in blue ink: “Savage Life.”
“I’m getting adjusted to the new lifestyle,” he says.
Two years after the shooting, Corn lives with his mother, brother and two young sisters in Cudahy. His life has changed dramatically. He’s had to relearn how to dress himself and how to exercise his upper body. He is out of work and can no longer drive a car.
Corn describes his uncle as a big man with a big heart. At 6-foot-1 and 270 pounds, Danny John had long dark hair, usually pulled into a ponytail, and tattoos on his forearm of a bear paw and dream catcher. He was a member of the Oneida and Stockbridge tribes, Corn says, spiritual in the native ways, partaking in sweat lodge ceremonies and playing drums in pow-wow celebrations as the lead singer in the Eagle Singers Drum Group. John split his time between the reservation, Green Bay and Milwaukee, often with Corn in tow.
John could be fiercely protective of his nephew. He was arrested in May 2006 for battery after he grabbed his own mother by the throat, admonishing her for giving marijuana to Corn. On the same day, John punched his stepfather in the face, warning him: “Don’t hit my mom.” He was given a stayed 30-day jail sentence and placed on probation for 12 months under the condition that he complete programs for battering intervention, and alcohol and drug abuse.
“He looked after me like I was one of his kids, though he didn’t have any kids,” Corn says. “He was the kind of guy who you went to a bar with, and he just laughed all night. He pulled people toward him.”
Corn and his uncle had been out drinking on that fateful night in 2010, hopping from bar to bar near Corn’s home on the near South Side. Just before midnight, they walked into Mamie’s tavern on National Avenue and pulled up a couple of stools at the end of the bar. Each man ordered a bottle of beer.
Although it’s located on a busy street in the heart of the South Side, Mamie’s is a true neighborhood tavern, patronized by a steady flow of regulars. A sign outside advertises $2 call drinks and domestic bottled beer from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Inside, on a recent Wednesday, a woman sets a back table for Taco Night while the jukebox moans with country-western heartbreakers.
Michelle is a bartender at Mamie’s. A friendly woman with a gift for gab and a talent for mixing Cosmos, she was working the 7-to-close shift two years ago on the night of the shooting.
Danny John was decked out in a purple shirt and skinny tie, his hair combed straight back, she recalls. “He was a sharp dresser and had a great sense of humor,” Michelle says. She had seen Danny in the bar before, but not Jered Corn. Before she could ask, he handed Michelle his ID to show he was 21.
“The younger boy, he’s having a normal conversation, and every other word was the F-word,” says Michelle, who asked that her last name not be disclosed. “And I ask him, ‘Is that the only word you know?’ He gives me a grin and goes, ‘Shit, shit, shit, shit.’”
The two men were loud and boisterous but kept to themselves. At one point, John playfully ground his knuckles into Corn’s head. Testifying as a witness in the murder trial, Michelle disputed the defense attorney’s characterization of Corn and John as troublemakers.
John and Corn left Mamie’s after a half-hour, exiting through the side door to the parking lot. John carried his half-empty beer bottle with him. “I cleared my throat – like ahem,” Michelle says, “and he poured out the bottle and put it in the recycling bin outside.”
As they left Mamie’s, Corn and John decided to go to a friend’s house down the block on South Shea Avenue, but Danny’s car was parked in Mamie’s lot. “I’ll take my car, so I don’t get a ticket after they close,” he said to Corn. Corn said he would walk.
Meanwhile, in a duplex two doors down, a birthday party for one of Gonzalez’s nephews was winding down. Gonzalez left his house, telling a brother he was going to move his car from the street into his driveway.
But something else happened on South Shea Avenue. Instead of going to his car, Gonzalez walked in the opposite direction toward Mamie’s. Somewhere on the pavement outside the bar, the paths of these three young men collided in a way that shattered their lives.
If there was a confrontation, the details are sketchy and at times contradictory. No eyewitnesses of the shooting have appeared with evidence that helps explain what occurred. Consequently, the best direct source of information comes from Jered Corn, who survived the shooting, and from Jesus Gonzalez’s 911 call. But Gonzalez has since refused to talk about the event – to reporters, to police, to a courtroom jury and, evidently, to his own family. So the events of that night are revealed in pieces, with some missing and others that don’t quite fit together, resulting in a puzzle that’s incomplete and riddled with gaps.
Corn thinks back to that night with a measure of dread. His recollections, though, are specific, dramatic:
Corn left Mamie’s and walked across the parking lot with Danny John. When he got to the sidewalk, he says a man appeared 10 feet in front of him, his arm extended, a gun in his hand. “He came out of nowhere,” Corn says. That man was Jesus Gonzalez.
“Back the fuck up! Back the fuck up!” Gonzalez told Corn.
Corn’s instinct was to run, he says. But fearing he’d be shot in the back, he slowly moved away, as he was ordered.
Things suddenly went black. He remembers lying on the sidewalk, blood spilling from his neck. His hands could feel his legs, but his legs couldn’t feel his hands.
Corn says he remembers seeing Danny John’s black Honda Civic lurch out of the parking lot and on to National Avenue. Next, he remembers a red pickup truck and a woman, a stranger, a good Samaritan, holding a cloth on his neck to control the bleeding.
“Please don’t let me die,” he told her.
“Hold on,” she said. “The ambulance is on the way. Hold on.”
According to police reports, Danny John was found lying on the sidewalk a block-and-a-half from Mamie’s. He was having a hard time breathing. His car was parked at the curb, engine running, wipers slapping the glass. Both windows on the passenger side were broken out. On the street outside the open door lay a black cell phone.
A blood trail 20 feet long – the result of John’s multiple gunshot wounds – stained the pavement, from the street on the car’s driver side to the sidewalk. John was admitted to Froedtert Hospital at 1:01 a.m. He was pronounced dead 10 minutes later.
On that rainy spring night, Jesus Gonzalez fired seven bullets from his semi-automatic pistol. Two bullets glanced off the roof of John’s car. One pierced Corn’s neck, and four entered John’s body, penetrating his right arm, his left thigh, his chest and his abdomen.
Gonzalez never did move his car. After leaving the family party and walking outside, he turned left on South Shea Avenue instead of taking a right toward his Thunderbird, and walked 113 feet to the parking lot of Mamie’s tavern.
His brother Adan was with him when Jesus placed the call to 911. He heard him tell the operator: “I was just assaulted by two men.”
Photo of Mamie’s tavern by Adam Ryan Morris
ELEVEN DAYS AFTER the shooting, Gonzalez was released on a $100,000 cash bond put up by an older sister. He pleaded not guilty and faced life in prison if convicted.
Gonzalez was allowed to travel to southern California three times to visit his father and to attend a wedding. Initially, he also was allowed to keep a weapon while on bail, but the court later added a condition prohibiting his possession of firearms.
The case went to trial before a jury in late October 2011. In the courtroom of Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Richard Sankovitz, the wooden benches of the gallery filled with members of John’s and Corn’s families, and members of the Gonzalez family. They sat on opposite sides of the courtroom aisle, casting glances at each other but keeping their thoughts to themselves.
Gonzalez made no statements to police investigators or reporters after his arrest. His defense attorney, Nelida Cortes, also remained tight-lipped. Cortes and Gonzalez’s family declined to speak to Milwaukee Magazine for this story, with the exception of his brother, Nicolas. The prosecutor in the case, Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney Grant Huebner, also declined to comment.
During the trial, in her closing argument, Gonzalez’s attorney set the stage for self-defense, claiming Gonzalez was forced to fire his handgun when Danny John tried to run him over with his car.
“We have an intoxicated individual … sitting behind the wheel of an operable vehicle,” Cortes told the jury. A toxicology report put John’s blood alcohol level at 0.19, more than twice the legal limit. “There is a weapon here, ladies and gentlemen,” Cortes
continued. “It’s not necessarily the conventional one, but there is a weapon here.”
The prosecutor rebutted the claim of self-defense, reminding jurors in his closing that Gonzalez did not tell police or the 911 operator that someone had tried to run him down with a car. To the contrary, he said, evidence showed John’s car was moving sideways to Gonzalez when he shot at John in the driver’s seat. Bullets fired from the side ricocheted off the roof, according to police records.
There was no sign of an altercation or threat to Gonzalez, Huebner added. A neighbor of Mamie’s testified she often hears people yelling when they leave the bar. But not on the night Corn and John were shot. “That night, she heard gunshots and nothing before that,” Huebner said.
“No one testifies that [Jered Corn] has a weapon on him,” Huebner said. “He doesn’t threaten anybody. There’s no fight. … He swore at the bartender. … When she tells him to leave, he complies. Where in any of that do you see anything other than a person who, yes, was drinking and, yes, was profane? Tell me how that justifies being shot. Tell me how that would make anyone think that they are in fear for their life.”
Nicolas Gonzalez says his brother was “adamant” that he would be exonerated. “He was there, and he knew what happened to him.”
Yet Jesus did not speak, did not explain what happened in the early morning of May 9, 2010. The onetime outspoken gun-rights activist, who challenged police to arrest him in order to defend his principles and exercise his civil rights, declined to take the witness stand and make his case.
To ensure jurors understood the legality of self-defense, Judge Sankovitz gave them a list of three conditions, including this one: A person “may not intentionally use deadly force unless [he] reasonably believes such force necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm.”
Without any conclusive evidence that Gonzalez faced “imminent death or great bodily harm,” the jury rejected the self-defense claim and found Gonzalez guilty of first-degree reckless homicide and first-degree reckless injury, lesser crimes than the original charges. Sentencing was set for Nov. 18, 2011.
AS THEY WAITED for judgment day, members of Gonzalez’s family wrote impassioned letters to Judge Sankovitz, pleading for leniency. Their words paint Gonzalez not as an impulsive killer, but as a rational and tender family man known to his friends and family as “Jesse.” He’s a favorite among his nieces and nephews, says his family, protective, patient and playful. One sister described him as “a home body,” a “computer geek” who would spend much of his time playing video games or fixing
laptops for his family.
In one letter, Gloria Gonzalez, a single mother, tells how her brother Jesse helped take care of her young son. “My son was diagnosed with morphea [a rare skin disease] and his treatment requires an injection once a week,” she wrote. “My son would ask for his ‘Uncle Chuchu’ to come hold him. No matter how early I would call, Jesse would come to my home and help me out. Now my boy tells me that only Uncle Chuchu knows how to hold him so it doesn’t hurt.”
Perhaps most troubled by Jesus’ arrest and conviction is the oldest Gonzalez sibling, Nicolas, the Iraq war vet who taught Jesus how to use a firearm. On a day in late winter, Nicolas stood in his slippers on the enclosed porch of his Cudahy home, smoking a cigarette and talking about Jesus.
“My brother is a teddy bear,” Nicolas says. “He’s a loving kid.” When he shipped out to Iraq, Jesus helped Nicolas’ wife take care of their daughters. “He didn’t go out to the bars. He didn’t drink. He didn’t smoke. … He’s not like people make him out to be. I know in my heart my brother wouldn’t have pulled a gun out unless his life was in danger.”
Likewise, John Monroe, the Georgia attorney who represented Jesus in his civil suit, describes him as mild-mannered and soft-spoken. “The crime of which Jesus was convicted was not consistent with his personality,” Monroe says.
The case has left a bitter taste of distrust and fear among both families. After Gonzalez was arrested, Nicolas moved his mother out of the apartment at 806 S. Shea Ave. The victims’ families lived in the area, and he was worried they might seek vengeance.
Jered Corn and his family had similar fears. When he was hospitalized after the shooting, his mother checked him in as a “John Doe,” afraid that Gonzalez’s family or friends would harm him as the case was investigated. “Then, when I got out of the hospital, I didn’t want to go outside of the house because I thought his family was going to come after me,” Corn says. “I still think people are out to get me – his cousins, his brothers … just to say they got me.”
Corn is still haunted by the event. “I think about it every day. Why did it happen? I wanted to ask him in court, but he wasn’t talking. Now I’ll never know.”
Jesus Gonzalez was concurrently sentenced for both shootings to a total of 20 years in prison and five years of extended supervision after his release.
“It was self-defense,” says Nicolas, shaking his head in disbelief. “Tell me how somebody gets 20 years in prison. It wasn’t just.”
After the shooting, Jesus went home, unloaded his firearm, called police and waited. “He surrendered his gun and gave them his name when they arrived,” Nicolas says. “Does that sound like a murderer?”
Nicolas concedes that his family hasn’t heard every detail of that night from Jesus. “He shielded it from us,” concerned for the health of their mother, who suffers from diabetes and asthma.
But Nicolas has his own explanation. It’s clear-cut and precise, related almost in military terms: “My brother went out, got approached and had a reaction to their actions,” he says. “All else is conjecture. They don’t know what happened. They still don’t.”
Were there angry words or insults? An argument over a car? Were threats made? Did Gonzalez act out of a fear for his safety, or overreact, fueled by his hard-held dictate to protect himself at all costs? What was it that made Jesus Gonzalez fire?
The case remains a mystery, shrouded by conflicting accounts and contradictions. And silence. Whatever happened after midnight on that chill May night was settled by the force of seven gunshots.
As a convicted felon, Gonzalez is prohibited from ever again possessing a gun, undoubtedly a stinging punishment for a man who devoted a good part of his adult life to the right to bear arms.
The irony doesn’t stop there. In a strange footnote to Gonzalez’s case, a “petition for return of property” was filed shortly after his sentencing by his mother. Held by the Milwaukee Police Department under Inventory Number 512083 is something that once belonged to her son Jesus, something that was once vitally important to him – a black CZ 9 mm caliber semi-automatic pistol, now a weapon that’s been used to kill and maim.
The reason for the request? A mystery. Accordingly, the Gonzalez family will not say.