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Suspect in Bronx headless torso case was abused at a group home as a child: court docs


The ex-con turned celebrity anti-violence activist suspected of keeping a headless, dismembered torso inside a Bronx apartment earlier this week was sexually abused as a pre-teen while he was forced to stay at a group home in Westchester County, the Daily News has learned.

After being sent to Hawthorne Cedar Knolls group home at age 11, Sheldon Johnson Jr. was repeatedly abused and molested by both employees and older residents, according to a lawsuit filed in 2021 under the Child Victims Act.

While a guest on Joe Rogan’s hit podcast, Johnson said was sent to the facility because he was a “young Black kid who’s out of control with behavioral issues.”

“If you look up Hawthorne Cedar Knolls to this day, it’s been closed for allegations of sex trafficking and child abuse,” Johnson said during the Joe Rogan interview on Feb. 1. “I went through a lot there. I was molested by a counselor and I finally escaped from there.

“It changed me as a person,” he said of his experience at Hawthorne. “I lost my innocence.”

On Friday, Johnson was sitting on Rikers Island, facing murder, manslaughter and weapon possession for allegedly killing 44-year-old Colin Small inside the victim’s apartment on Summit Ave. near W. 162nd St. in Highbridge.

Victim Colin Small is pictured in an undated photo. Sheldon Johnson Jr. has been charged with murder, manslaughter, and weapon possession for allegedly killing 44-year-old Colin Small in a Summit Ave. apartment building near W. 162nd St. in the Bronx.
Murder victim Colin Small is pictured in an undated photo.

Police said Johnson had hacked up Small’s body — putting his victim’s head, arms and legs in the freezer — before cops investigating a shooting earlier in the day came to his door. When cops gained entry, they found Small’s torso and feet in a blue bin.

Small’s head had a bullet hole in it, cops said.

Cops also recovered building surveillance video that showed Johnson repeatedly leaving Small’s apartment lugging out bags and wearing different disguises including a blond woman’s wig with a down puffer, a newsboy cap and blazer and a boonie hat and beige jacket.

“I’m innocent!” Johnson yelled to reporters as he was led from the 44th Precinct stationhouse Thursday afternoon to appear in Bronx Criminal Court, where he was ordered held without bail.

Sheldon Johnson Jr. is pictured in police custody leaving the NYPD 44th Precinct station house in the Bronx on Thursday, March 7, 2024. (Theodore Parisienne for New York Daily News)
Sheldon Johnson Jr. is pictured in police custody leaving the NYPD 44th Precinct station house in the Bronx on Thursday, March 7, 2024. (Theodore Parisienne for New York Daily News)

Detectives are investigating the possibility that Johnson and Smalls crossed paths in prison. The fight that led to the killing may have been over drugs, a police source with knowledge of the case said.

Johnson was released from prison last year after serving 25 years for a first degree robbery conviction in Manhattan in 1999, court documents show.

Yet in his online bio, Johnson claimed he was given a 50-year sentence that would have left him ineligible for parole until 2041. “Advocacy and support” resulted in his early release, he claimed.

Following his release, Johnson created his own advocacy group, called Formerly Incarcerated Citizens Against Recidivism (FICAR), and his work with Queens Defenders put him in the orbit of local politicians, including Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who can be seen shaking hands with Johnson in a picture posted to the ex-con’s Facebook page.

Following his release, Sheldon Johnson Jr. created his own advocacy group, Formerly Incarcerated Citizens Against Recidivism (FICAR), and his work with Queens Defenders put him in the orbit of local politicians, including Alvin Bragg, who can be seen shaking hands with Johnson Jr. in a picture on the ex-con's Facebook profile.
Following his release, Sheldon Johnson Jr. created his own advocacy group, Formerly Incarcerated Citizens Against Recidivism (FICAR), and his work with Queens Defenders put him in the orbit of local politicians, including Alvin Bragg, who can be seen shaking hands with Johnson Jr. in a picture on the ex-con’s Facebook profile.

During his interview “The Joe Rogan Experience,” lawyer Josh Dubin called Johnson “a miracle” and told the show’s host the ex-con had been unfairly sentenced for a robbery that left his victim with only “two stitches.”

“[He] was basically told by an African-American judge that you don’t matter, you don’t count and I’m going to throw your life away,” said Dubin, who appeared on Rogan’s podcast as a guest alongside Johnson.

Johnson had been living in NYCHA’s King Towers development in Harlem at the time of the incident. His arrest came as a shock to his father, who had a troubled past himself.

“I thought he was reformed,” the dad told the Daily News on Thursday.

Johnson Jr.’s family was the subject of an expansive 2016 BuzzFeed profile detailing a legacy of crime that began with Johnson’s father, Sheldon Johnson Sr., whose corrupt influence infected the lives of both his son and grandson.

Deaf and addicted to crack cocaine and heroin, Johnson Sr. was arrested for raping his 7-year-old daughter three times and forced his son to translate for him during drug deals, according to BuzzFeed.

“I know that my son was a good kid growing up,” the father told The News through a sign-language interpreter. “We never had a good relationship.”

In his lawsuit against Hawthorne Cedar Knolls, Johnson Jr. claimed that he was sent to the facility in 1986 and remained there until 1988.

“During the approximately two-year period of his placement at Hawthorne, he was sexually assaulted by two individuals, an employee at Hawthorne and an older male resident,” the complaint filed by attorney Jeff Herman read.

The facility worker sexually abused and assaulted Johnson “several times per month” the complaint reads. The sexual attacks by the older resident “occurred several times per week.”

A judge threw out the lawsuit in 2022, because Johnson couldn’t provide “precise dates and times” of the attacks, according to court documents. Johnson’s attorney is currently appealing the judge’s ruling.

A call to his attorney was not immediately returned Friday.

Hawthorne Cedar Knolls, facing multiple allegations of security issues and complaints that youths at the facility were committing crimes in the surrounding community, closed its doors in 2018.

Johnson Jr.’s son, also named Sheldon Johnson, made headlines in 2008 when he attacked a 24-year-old Columbia University graduate student, Mingui Yu, near the corner of Broadway and W. 122nd St. in Morningside Heights, punching his victim repeatedly in the face.

Yu stumbled into traffic in an attempt to flee his teenage attacker but was struck and killed by a passing SUV. The youngest Johnson was charged with manslaughter for Yu’s death and spent 18 months in a juvenile detention boot camp.

Dubin heaped praise on Johnson Jr. during their appearance on Rogan’s podcast, pointing to the ex-con’s educational accomplishments while in prison and his advocacy work postrelease as examples of why judges should think twice before handing down harsh prison sentences.

“He’s someone who’s taken responsibility for what he did,” he added, “and is a living example of what can happen if we think long and hard about if someone’s life is worth throwing away and putting behind bars.”

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