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Photo by Jack GouldGary Johnson has regrets. He regrets the day he and his best friend, Joshua Moore, blew off post-high-school-graduation steam by taking photographs of themselves posing with Johnson's pellet gun, a .45-caliber look-alike. He regrets leaving the pellet gun under the driver's seat of Moore's Geo Prism, where Orange police found it while searching the car following a November 1998 ATM holdup. He regrets that the gun, the photos and his 1999 court testimony—that Moore and Johnson wrote rap lyrics involving guns and robberies—helped an Orange County prosecutor convict Moore of two armed robberies, including an August 1998 heist at a Fullerton video store.
Most of all, Johnson simply misses his friend, now serving a 12-year sentence at Wasco State Prison near Bakersfield for a crime Johnson knows Moore didn't commit.
"Joshua tells me everything," Johnson asserted. "I know his character and the values he holds. . . . If I was called to the stand again, I would do it in a heartbeat."
Johnson may get to do that in June, when Moore's appeal is scheduled to begin at the California Court of Appeals in Santa Ana. Johnson claimed that neither he nor the rest of Moore's friends and fellow rappers are gangbangers and that none of them has been arrested.
Johnson said he befriended Moore during their sophomore year of high school, on Bellflower High School's basketball courts. Along with two other friends, Ken Williams and Mike Jones, he said they showed off their rap skills during breaks at school. They called their quartet the Westside First Class Players, or FCP. They called Moore Big J-Mo.
"I grew up in Watts with Mike, and Joshua and Ken grew up in Lakewood and Bellflower," Johnson recalled. "The main focus was to draft different people from different neighborhoods into one big rap group like the Wu-Tang Clan. We didn't rap about cops or anything; we just [boasted] about ourselves," he said. "We called it 'playerism' you know, like we were players. We did talk about hardcore gangsterism, but that wasn't our focus."
While prosecutors in Moore's trial made much of the fact that FCP's material included violent imagery and numerous references to handguns and drive-by shootings, Johnson insists the lyrics were pure fantasy. "As far as the things we wrote, it was made up, you know; it was just something that we enjoyed writing about," he said. "If it's a crime to write about violence, then you might as well lock me up."
Life hasn't been the same for Johnson since Moore went to prison. For one thing, the former members of FCP don't see one another quite as often. "Josh usually keeps everybody together," Johnson observed. "To be honest with you, it's been really tough to know that a dear friend is in prison for something he didn't do. It's like missing a brother; something seems out of place."
Johnson says he continues to work on his rap skills in his free time and plans to work toward his undergraduate degree this summer with math classes at Cerritos Community College. Five days a week, he works a 10-hour shift at the counter of a Downey equipment-rental agency. And on Wednesday nights, Johnson attends a Bible study run by the LA Church of Christ.
"At the meetings, I help other people spiritually," he said. "If they want to study the Bible, I study with them. Ever since I joined the church —I don't know if Josh noticed it—my lyrics started to get cleaner. I still say 'nigga,' but that's basically it."
For his part, Moore's lyrics have also gotten softer—even poignant. On March 9, he sent the Weekly a song titled "In My Shoes," a grim portrayal of an innocent man who spends each day behind bars alongside hardcore criminals. In a letter attached to the song, Moore declared his innocence in the Fullerton robbery, adding that he was "in the wrong place at the wrong time" when the Orange holdup occurred.
As for the Fullerton robbery, Moore claimed police—and even his own defense lawyer—failed to investigate his alibi, thus making him a fall guy. He also charged that during his interrogation, one officer, whose name he did not recall, kept demanding to know "why I hang around black people."
"We were just four guys from Southeast Los Angeles trying to get somewhere doing what we love to do—make music," Moore explained. "Other rappers receive awards for their songs. Not me: I got 12 years in prison."
In fact, Moore no longer hangs around black people. To protect inmates from one another inside the racially charged California prison system, officials segregate prison populations by race. While anyone can apply to visit Moore, his best friend, Gary Johnson, says he sent a visit request to prison authorities but never heard back. He later learned that Moore had refused to authorize the visit out of fear of retaliation by other white inmates.
"Josh didn't want to tell me I couldn't go up there and visit him because that would crush me," Johnson explained. "He finally wrote me a letter telling me what was up. It's no problem; I understand. I'm looking forward to seeing him, but I can wait until he gets home."
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