CLARKSVILLE, TENN. — A Montgomery County jury deliberated into the late afternoon hours before unanimously finding two men guilty of murdering a Fort Campbell soldier.
Giovanne Johnson, 19, and Rakeem Jones, 18, are both charged with first-degree premeditated murder, felony murder and aggravated robbery in connection with the shooting death of Taylor Hotzoglou, 22, who was killed on April 28, 2012, after giving Johnson and Jones a ride. Hotzoglou was found by a passerby dead in his car on the shoulder of Victory Road. He had been shot six times in the back and face.
The jury of 12 found Johnson and Jones guilty as charged of felony murder and especially aggravated robbery. They were both found guilty of the lesser charge of second-degree murder. The second-degree murder and felony murder charge will be merged. Second degree murder and especially aggravated robbery are both Class A felonies punishable by 15-25 years of incarceration.
Both men will be sentenced by Judge Gasaway on Nov. 26.
The family of Taylor Hotzoglou remained composed while the verdict was read. Johnson gestured to the audience as he was being led out of the courtroom.
After the jury and both defendants left the courtroom, Taylor Hotzoglou’s his sister, Nicoletta, and step-mother, Heidi Rizzo, sobbed in each other’s arms.
The families of Jones and Johnson were overcome with emotion as they left the court complex.
“I have gratitude for the whole legal system,” Debra Hotzoglou, Taylor Hotzoglou’s mom said. “I had all my eggs in Mr. Nash’s basket. I had that much confidence. I had faith the jury would see what it was. I had to have faith the truth would prevail.”
Robert Nash, assistant district attorney said the Clarksville Police Department and lead Detective Mike Ulrey, worked hard on the case and thanked them and the jury for their hard work and diligence.
“The thing about this case that really grabbed Detective Ulrey, Clarksville Police and the District Attorney’s office is the circumstances surrounding the case. Taylor was being nice and helping someone in need and he was killed for doing it. The DA’s office is thankful for the witnesses in this case that came forward and stuck with us and wanted to see the right thing done in this case.”
During closing arguments Thursday morning, Robert Nash, assistant district attorney, told the jury both men were responsible for each others’ actions and asked that they be convicted as charged.
“Taylor Hotzoglou was a 22-year-old U.S. Army specialist, a four-year career that ended April 28, 2012. He served his country in combat and in the Middle East...”
Nash said Hotzoglou opened his door after Johnson and Jones knocked on his door late that night and decided to speak with them and help them.
“They needed a ride, and he offered them a ride … with objection from his roommate, he simply said, ‘What if that was us?’ … He grabs his puppy and keys and leaves without hesitation…that’s who Taylor Hotzoglou was.”
Nash said the call Johnson made on Hotzoglou’s phone was at 10:53 p.m. A neighbor heard a gunshot, followed by five more at 11 p.m.
“He had a 10-minute interaction with Mr. Jones and Mr. Johnson, and at the end of it, he lay dead ... a tenth of a mile from where Giovanne Johnson resides,” Nash said. “Little did Taylor Hotzoglou know that, just a few hours before this, that Mr. Johnson decided to ‘hit a lick,’ go out and commit a robbery because he needed some extra money.”
Nash said DNA linked Jones and Johnson to the crime scene. Johnson’s fingerprint was found on Hotzoglou’s car window. The Kel-Tec and a towel with Hotzoglou’s blood on it was found at Johnson’s house. Jones’ DNA was found on the Walther PPK gun taken from Hotzoglou.
Nash said there were no other injuries to Hotzoglou.
“There was no struggle, no physical confrontation, no provocation. Taylor Hotzoglou was driving a car and got shot from behind six times ... The physical evidence tells you the whole story. It ties both these individuals. They have a common plan. They are criminally responsible for each other. They both knew what they were going to do when they left Giovanne’s house.”
Nash asked for guilty as charged convictions of both men.
Chris Clark, Johnson’s attorney, said Jones committed the robbery and homicide of Hotzoglou.
“On April 28, 2012, Jones walked into Johnson’s house and told Johnson and Cody Driver he just popped someone. He fell to his knees and prayed for forgiveness … five days later, the gun (taken from the victim) was found under his seat.”
Clark asked if the state proved if Johnson shot and killed Hotzoglou and that Johnson robbed him and took property from him.
“The answer is no,” Clark said. “Only one person pulled that trigger. The state tells you that because they can’t tell you who pulled that trigger. One person took (the victim’s) gun, and the state tells you that because they don’t know who took that gun.”
Clark said the shots came from back to front, right to left, and the stippling was found behind Hotzoglou’s ear. The evidence pointed to the person sitting in the backseat, which was Jones, Clark said.
Clark said the state did not prove to a moral certainty and beyond a reasonable doubt that Johnson killed Hotzoglou and robbed him.
Chase Smith, Jones’ attorney, said Johnson began the plan to rob someone. Johnson made the phone call and orchestrated the crime, he said.
“He is the leader in the commission of the situation. He does all the talking...”
Thursday, Judge Gasaway gave the jury instructions and attorneys gave closing arguments.
At about 3:45 p.m. Judge Gasaway called attorneys and interested parties into the courtroom. A bailiff reported while standing guard at the jury room door during deliberations that a juror ran out of the room “visibly upset.”
Court came to order, and Judge Gasaway carefully asked the juror questions about possible personality differences and tension. He called the jury back into the courtroom and reread them jury instructions about their duty to deliberate.
They all agreed they could continue deliberation.