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Formerly incarcerated advocate for NYC criminal justice reform arrested for murder

<i>Theodore Parisienne/For NY Daily News/Getty Images via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Sheldon Johnson worked as a client advocate for at-risk youth
Theodore Parisienne/For NY Daily News/Getty Images via CNN Newsource
Sheldon Johnson worked as a client advocate for at-risk youth

By Zoe Sottile, Sabrina Souza and Mark Morales, CNN

(CNN) — A man who spent decades in prison before starting a new chapter as a high-profile advocate for criminal justice reform has been arrested and charged in the brutal murder and dismemberment of a Bronx man.

Sheldon Johnson, 48, was arrested and charged with murder, manslaughter, criminal possession of a weapon and concealment of a human corpse on Thursday, according to the New York Police Department.

Johnson was arraigned Thursday and pleaded not guilty to all charges. He was remanded back into custody and is due in court on Monday. He stands accused of fatally shooting Collin Small, 44, inside Small’s Bronx apartment, according to court records.

Police were called to Small’s apartment after neighbors overheard gunshots coming from inside on Tuesday, according to a law enforcement source. Neighbors heard two gunshots and then two more shots, the source said.

Police told CNN that when officers arrived, they found an unidentified human torso at the apartment. The Office of Chief Medical Examiner will determine the cause of death, according to the NYPD.

Johnson was at Small’s apartment when officers arrived, a law enforcement official told CNN. When law enforcement officials visited the suspect’s Harlem home, they discovered a human arm, legs and head with a gunshot wound stored in the freezer, a law enforcement official told CNN. Surveillance video also showed the suspect entering and exiting the victim’s building wearing different disguises and at one point carrying a large blue bin, the official said. The bin was found at Small’s home with the torso inside, another law enforcement official told CNN.

After decades in prison, Johnson was released last May and described himself as a client advocate for at-risk youth at Queen Defenders, which provides legal representation for people who have been charged with a crime in Queens and cannot afford to hire a lawyer.

Since his release, Johnson has been a public voice for rehabilitation after incarceration. Last month, he appeared on Joe Rogan’s popular podcast, where he detailed his journey through the criminal justice system. He described himself as formerly “the top of the food chain” in the Bloods.

In 1999, Johnson was convicted for homicide, robbery and several other charges, according to court records. He was incarcerated on June 8, 1999.

The Queens Defenders declined to comment when asked about Johnson Friday.

Brian Stanley, a justice court advocate at Avenues for Justice, an NYC-based group that advocates for alternatives to incarceration for youth offenders, told CNN he hopes people can distinguish between Johnson’s alleged crimes and the work he was doing in criminal justice reform.

“We can acknowledge the depravity and insanity of this and at the same time be able to look at a broader picture and see the general impacts of the kind of work that we do and that even Mr. Johnson was engaged in,” he told CNN.

He added that jails and prisons are “inherently violent places” and noted that Johnson had been released less than a year ago. “The trauma that people experience while incarcerated – I just think it’s something that the general public is not really wrapping their mind around,” he added.

‘A product of intergenerational incarceration’

Speaking on “The Joe Rogan Experience,” Johnson described himself as “a product of intergenerational incarceration” who faced social and economic challenges in his youth.

“My father was incarcerated when I was young at an early age – he did about 15 years,” he said. “I was incarcerated. My grandfather was incarcerated. My great-grandfather was a slave.”

He described being sent to a psychiatric facility for “behavioral issues” as a child. “This is where I learned how to be a criminal,” he said. Afterwards, he never returned to school and turned to selling drugs to survive, he said.

“I had a whole nation under me,” he said of his gang relationships during the 1980s and 1990s. He said that he continued to sell drugs while in prison. It was after enduring solitary confinement and other harsh treatment in prison that he decided to turn away from crime, he said on the podcast.

“I made the decision that I was going to walk away and I didn’t care about what the consequences was,” he said. “And I said to myself, ‘I’ve been doing bad for so long. I’m going to try to do something good.’”

He got his GED in prison, he said, and stopped his gang involvement.

Johnson’s LinkedIn profile describes him as the co-founder of FICAR (Formerly Incarcerated Citizens Against Recidivism), an organization “geared toward dismantling recidivism and stemming the pipeline of mass incarceration.”

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