The day Terence Crutcher died, his widow was stuck in jail.
Frenchel Johnson, Crutcher’s common-law wife of 16 years and the mother of his three children, was incarcerated on an assault charge Sept. 16. That evening, Officer Betty Shelby fatally shot Crutcher as he stood outside his vehicle with his hands up—a shocking incident captured on police helicopter footage, instantly grabbing the nation’s attention.
Johnson found out about his death on a lockup television.
The nightly news reported a 40-year-old shooting victim off 36th Street near Lewis Avenue: the route Crutcher took home.
“I got up from looking at the TV. He didn’t answer the phone. I just couldn’t believe it,” Johnson told The Daily Beast in a phone interview Tuesday. “It was the worst feeling anybody could go through. I felt helpless.”
She watched her in-laws speak about her husband on national TV without saying he had a wife at all. “They never mentioned me one time,” Johnson said through tears. “They acted like I wasn’t in my kids’ life.”
According to the widow, Crutcher’s father assured her he’d get her out of jail but never came through. A friend of hers even tried selling her car for bail money just so Johnson could be with her children after Crutcher’s death.
“I was believing him [but] it was all a lie,” she said. “They were leaving me in there so they could take care of all this business.”
Indeed, Crutcher’s kin and their lawyers kept Johnson a secret from the outside world, audio recordings obtained by The Daily Beast reveal.
“We didn’t want nobody to know she was in jail and all of that,” the Rev. Joey Crutcher, Terence’s father, said, calling her incarceration “an embarrassing situation for the kids.”
While Crutcher’s sister delivered soundbytes for TV cameras, praising the 40-year-old as a father, she never mentioned he had a wife.
Now court papers reveal a rift between Crutcher’s parents and Johnson. The in-laws are seeking control of Crutcher’s estate and the right to file a wrongful death lawsuit against Tulsa authorities.
“Not only did she lose her husband, but now her family has essentially turned against her and rejected her as the daughter-in-law, all because of the way probate [court] works in Oklahoma,” Johnson’s attorney, Daniel Smolen, told The Daily Beast.
Johnson was appointed the administrator of Crutcher’s estate Friday. The same day, Crutcher’s father allegedly requested a meeting with Smolen and Johnson, and explained why the Crutchers failed to bail Johnson out.
“We were trying to keep her dignity intact,” Crutcher’s dad said in a recorded conversation released by Smolen.
The Crutchers decided to leave Johnson in jail after speaking with their attorneys on the matter, Joey Crutcher says in an audio clip. (Johnson, who was arrested in mid-August, is facing charges including assault with a dangerous weapon, records show.)
Later, Joey Crutcher tells Smolen that people asked about Johnson after seeing her picture but says he declined to discuss her.
“I was trying to protect her because I didn’t want them kids to be embarrassed by their mother being locked up, and I didn’t want Frenchel to be embarrassed,” Crutcher says in the recording.
Crutcher then says his attorneys—Florida-based Benjamin Crump, who rose to fame after representing Trayvon Martin’s parents, and Damario Solomon-Simmons of Tulsa—knew about Johnson’s incarceration.
They may not have known, however, that Oklahoma is one of few states with common-law marriage. That means Johnson has a claim to Terence Crutcher’s estate—which could be worth a substantial amount of money, if planned lawsuits against the city of Tulsa for Crutcher’s wrongful death are ultimately successful.
Smolen said he received an anonymous call last week from someone claiming to be a relative of Johnson. The caller claimed Terence Crutcher had a wife and that Crutcher’s family wouldn’t bail her out of jail.
“I thought it was odd that the wife had not been mentioned by Mr. Crutcher’s family,” Smolen told The Daily Beast. “They would say he’s a father, he’s an uncle, he’s a dad, but they never said he was a husband.”
Smolen soon visited Johnson, who obtained a loan to secure her bond from Tulsa County jail. She was released Thursday, court records show.
Joey Crutcher arranged a meeting with Johnson, two of her friends, and Smolen the next day, Smolen said.
In a recording of their visit, Crutcher says he tried to put Johnson on Terence’s death certificate. He claims he talked with his attorneys about “making sure that the kids and Frenchel get an estate set up.”
The reverend also suggests the charges against Johnson are bogus, saying “she shouldn’t have been in there [jail] one day.”
“We couldn’t afford an attorney. Me and my son was trying to… really get good representation,” Joey Crutcher adds. “That’s what we want more than anything.”
Crutcher says his grandchildren are “a basket case” and crying for Johnson after their father’s death. “We’ll get her out, we’ll get her out,” Joey Crutcher claims to have promised the kids.
Crutcher says he and his wife are “old and we don’t want to be raising nobody’s kids,” according to the recording.
“They need their mother,” he concludes in the recording.
And yet on Monday, Joey Crutcher and his wife, Leanna, began waging a legal battle against Johnson. The Crutchers filed a motion demanding a judge vacate Johnson’s appointment as the estate’s administrator. A judge is scheduled to hear their arguments on Friday, Sept. 30.
Meanwhile, the Crutchers’ attorneys revised their GoFundMe page—which raised $165,928—to say checks helping Terence Crutcher’s children should be addressed to his sister, Tiffany. The site previously said donations must be made out to “The Estate of Terence Crutcher.”
(Crump and his fellow attorneys did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails left by The Daily Beast.)
According to the Crutchers’ filing, Johnson “failed to disclose… that she is a convicted felon.” Terence Crutcher’s parents have legal custody of her three children, the filing states.
The document also says Johnson is “disqualified, ineligible, and incompetent, and lacks standing” to be the special administrator of Crutcher’s estate.
“Terence Crutcher was not married to Ms. Frenchel Johnson, and Ms. Johnson is not his widow. There was neither a ceremonial nor a common law marriage, and no marriage license,” the filing continues.
It’s a strange claim, considering Joey Crutcher calls Johnson his “daughter-in-law” in one of the audio recordings reviewed by The Daily Beast.
In the court papers, the Crutchers claim they’ve had physical custody of the couple’s children—ages 4, 11, and 15—for most of their lives. They also claim to have custody of Johnson’s 17-year-old son, who was raised by Terence Crutcher.
Joey Crutcher was appointed temporary emergency guardian on Sept. 19 “with the consent of Ms. Johnson,” court papers state.
According the filing, the family believes a wrongful death suit on behalf of Terence Crutcher’s estate “will be undermined and unduly complicated” if filed by Johnson.
“Rev. and Mrs. Crutcher care about Ms. Johnson and encourage her to spend time freely with her children and the Crutcher family,” the filing concludes, before claiming the mother “is disqualified” from serving as estate administrator.
In a Sept. 19 petition for guardianship, Joey Crutcher states that his grandchildren have lived with him off and on for three years because of an “unstable environment at home.”
“Frenchel drinks heavly [sic] and the children should not be exsposed [sic] to the fighting and fussing that comes with that life,” Crutcher said in the petition. A guardianship hearing is scheduled for Oct. 10.
Smolen and Johnson denied that allegation, saying Johnson was the primary caretaker for her kids until her arrest in August.
Johnson began drinking after her mother was murdered and the killer was never found, Smolen told The Daily Beast.
“She was very depressed and self-medicating with alcohol,” Smolen said. “She was recently able to complete the drug court DUI program… [completing] years of sobriety and alcohol monitoring.”
In August 2007, Johnson was convicted of driving under the influence, a second offense, and sentenced to three years behind bars, court papers show.
Her next brush with the law came last month, when Tulsa cops arrested and charged her with assault with a dangerous weapon after she threatened to stab her neighbor Toshiba Sabe Brown with a kitchen knife, prosecutors say.
Johnson’s criminal defense attorney, Thomas Mortensen, told The Daily Beast that Johnson was charged with stabbing someone, but the police affidavit makes no mention of a stabbing or injury taking place.
“She’s charged with stabbing somebody with a knife, and that didn’t happen,” Mortensen said of the charge.
For her part, Brown told The Daily Beast that Johnson didn’t stab her but “attempted to do so.” She said Johnson was a neighbor to her sister and the two often fought. “It was just [a] typical neighbor feud, but that incident that led to Frenchel’s arrest was the first time it escalated that far,” Brown said in an email.
“My sister, Frenchel, and Terence has been feuding for years but it has never turned violent,” Brown said.
According to an affidavit, officers responding to a verbal argument between Johnson and Brown ordered Johnson to drop a kitchen knife. They shot Johnson with a Taser when she allegedly disobeyed cops’ commands, the affidavit states.
Court records show Brown filed for a protective order against Terence Crutcher on Aug. 15. It was denied the same day “for insufficient evidence.”
As Johnson fights her criminal charges, she’s also preparing to battle her in-laws in court. It’s unexpected for the woman who spent Sundays barbecuing and going to church with the Crutchers.
Johnson said she met Crutcher when she was 22 and that they had been best friends ever since.
“I always loved Terence,” Johnson added. “I just couldn’t understand why they [the Crutcher family] want to turn their backs on me.”