Drugs, Murder, and Family: The Life of Louisiana Football Legend Janzen Jackson
Once one of high school football's most vaunted prospects, Janzen Jackson's life went off the rails and no one is sure how or why.
In the heart of downtown Los Angeles, there is a jail that bills itself as the largest in the world.
The Twin Towers Correctional Facility sits on 1.5 million square feet of land and is named for a pair of identical structures that sit a mile and a half from the civic center, one a medical services building and the other the jail. The jail houses a wide range of offenders, but specializes in maximum security cases and inmates with mental health conditions. Mother Jones magazine named it one of the 10 worst in America. Although the Los Angeles Department of Corrections does not disclose the exact number of occupants, its inmate population is believed to number will into the thousands. And packed in amongst them, dressed in a standard-issue canary yellow top and drab blue pants, is perhaps the finest defensive back to come out of high school in the class of 2009.
His name is Janzen Jackson, and for more than a year he has been held in the Towers awaiting trial on charges that he murdered his mother's long-term boyfriend in September 2013. He has since pled not guilty. His bail is set at one million dollars.
But once, he was a five-star prospect recruited by every school imaginable, a coach's son with limitless potential.
"He was extremely talented," says Brent Hubbs, who covered Jackson at the University of Tennessee for VolQuest.com. "Just an athlete that you'd say 'if he can put on weight and get a little stronger,' you'd see dollar signs because he had 'NFL' written all over him."
Jackson was born on December 14, 1990 to Tesra Jackson and Lance Guidry in Lake Charles, Louisiana, a city of roughly 70,000 located two hours east of Houston. His parents split up when he was young, so Jackson spent much of his childhood living with his mother in Houston and Los Angeles during the school year. During the summer, he'd live in Louisiana with Guidry, who was climbing the ranks in his football coaching career. By the time Janzen was in middle school, Guidry was entrenched as McNeese State's defensive coordinator and Jackson moved back to Lake Charles to live with his father full time. Immediately, he dazzled on the field and garnered a reputation around town as a prodigy, on par with Justin Vincent, a running back who was the MVP of the 2004 BCS National Championship game for LSU and graduated from the same high school as Jackson—Lake Charles football powerhouse, Alfred M. Barbe High School.
By the time Jackson took the field for his senior season with Barbe—after spending the previous three years at another school—his legend had only grown. He rivaled future New York Giants receiver Rueben Randle as the best player in the state, and had already made an early verbal commitment to LSU. Lake Charles isn't exactly a backwater in recruiting circles, but it is no mecca, either, and so Division I caliber football prospects are treated as anomalies. But Jackson, whom Rivals.com would eventually rank as the second-best cornerback nationally behind only eventual Alabama star and Bengals first-round draft pick Dre Kirkpatrick, was a cut above.
Jimmy Shaver, Barbe's coach, didn't know what he was getting in Jackson beyond someone he knew "would be the best player on our team."
Shaver was right. Jackson was preposterously fluid for his size, a 6'0" corner who could cling to receivers like shrink wrap. He was willing to hit, too; years later, Shaver still smiles about the time Janzen stopped future Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy dead in his tracks on a two-point conversion attempt to preserve what was then an undefeated season.
"Probably a team that for us would have been 7-3, he made it a 12-0, 12-1 team because of him being there," Shaver says. "He was that good of a player."
Over the course of that season, Shaver became equally convinced of Jackson's overall makeup.
"I know nothing but good things about Janzen," he says. "Never one second of trouble. When he lived with his dad, his dad kept a pretty tight thumb on him… I just know, with us, he was not only a model football player but a model student."
The problems began after he left for college—or, some in town would say, just before. After being committed to LSU for nearly a year, Jackson floored local and national observers alike by signing with Tennessee as part of Lane Kiffin's first, and only, recruiting class with the Volunteers. He did so a day after no-showing the school's scheduled National Signing Day ceremony, a choice he made so Tesra could fly in from California to be with him when he signed. Although the decision had been in the works for almost a month following a recruiting trip to Knoxville, much of the local populace took it as a slight against the hometown Tigers.
"Up to that point, he was very highly regarded," says Alex Hickey, who covers McNeese State for the American Press, the local newspaper. "That was the first shockwave in the Janzen story."
Jackson's Tennessee career was a freight train, hard and fast and perpetually on the verge of teetering off the tracks. Signed as a cornerback, he instead broke his first camp as a rangy free safety, and less than a month into the season, was entrenched in the starting lineup. But on the heels of his best game, a seven-tackle day in a win over South Carolina, he was abruptly suspended for the following week's tilt with Memphis. The school did not reveal the reason at the time, but the cause was a failed drug test. It would be the first of several incidents in which substance-abuse issues would disrupt his football career.
Less than a week later, Jackson had his first serious brush with the law. He was riding in a car with a woman, 22-year-old Marie Montmarquet, and two other Vols freshmen, Nu'Keese Richardson and Mike Edwards, on November 12, 2009 when they pulled into a Pilot convenience store parking lot. From there, two of the men—later identified as Richardson and Edwards—attempted to rob three people in the car next to them using a powered pellet gun, only to find that none of them had cash in their wallets. They returned to the car and fled after Jackson told them that they needed to leave. All four would be charged with armed robbery, with Montmarquet also garnering drug possession charges after police found a grinder and a bag of marijuana in the car that she claimed was hers.
Four days after the incident, Richardson and Edwards were kicked off the team. Jackson, however, had all charges against him dropped after police determined that he had no prior knowledge of the plan and did not actively participate in the robbery itself. By season's end, his image had been mostly rehabilitated.
Things seemed to come together during his sophomore season, but that optimism began to wane after Jackson was suspended for several practice sessions leading to Tennessee's bowl game after a dorm-room incident on December 7, 2010 that was reportedly drug-related. Two months later, in February 2011, Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley dropped a bombshell: Jackson had withdrawn from school to attend to "personal issues." A source told VICE Sports that those issues were substance abuse-related, and that Jackson spent much of that spring at a rehabilitation facility. Out of school and off scholarship, Jackson stayed close by, even working a part-time job on campus in facilities management. The hope was that he would return for the fall—for his talent, yes, but also because Dooley wanted to shepherd a kid who meant well.
"He was very engaging to talk to," says Hubbs. "He was nice. He came across as immature and a little bit rough around the edges but he didn't present a thuggish attitude or anything like that. He was OK [...] It was tough. It was a hard ride for him."
Jackson was reinstated in early July, and for the next month-and-a-half things appeared to be copacetic. The usual platitudes were thrown around, with Jackson saying he appreciated having a second chance and Dooley pleased to see his pupil getting his life together. Then, on August 24, 2011, Jackson was dismissed from the team. Though never publicly reported, the cause was once again related to substance abuse.
"You kind of felt sorry for him because he couldn't get a handle on it," says Hubbs. "He just never could manage life. He was never mean, but frankly he was a guy that every day you went to the practice field, you looked to see if he was there."
Jackson's dismissal from Tennessee left him short on options and long on time. Only a true junior, he would not be eligible to enter the NFL Draft for another year, and so he needed somewhere to play, a place that would at least give him a chance, if not a clean slate. He found both back home in Lake Charles.
Though its total enrollment is just over 7,500 and its stadium seats only 17,400 people, McNeese State has something of a reputation as an FBS giant killer, and the program rarely, if ever, accepts Division I transfers. It's an informal policy that traces back to 1998 and an absurdly talented running back named Cecil "The Diesel" Collins, who was kicked out of LSU before his sophomore year after twice illegally entering the apartments of female students. Collins' time at McNeese was a blight on the university. He showed up overweight and was kicked out of school less than three weeks into the season after failing a court-ordered drug test. In 2001, he was sentenced to 15 years in a Florida prison on burglary charges.
Collins' ghost still lingered around the program in 2011 when Jackson was cut loose from Tennessee. McNeese head coach Matt Viator was an old friend of Guidry's and if he was hesitant about taking Janzen in, there was also a strong pull to buck tradition. Jackson was family, the son of Cowboy royalty, a kid who almost literally was born and raised around the program. They wanted to help him. "[Viator] had known Janzen since he was a toddler," says Hickey. "I think he honestly thought this kid was in trouble, maybe if we bring him home we can bring him back on track. All the coaches had known Janzen essentially his whole life."
Four days after his dismissal, Jackson enrolled at McNeese. Right away, McNeese made Jackson off-limits to reporters for the entire season.
After coming into his own as a sophomore in the SEC, he was the most talented player in the Southland Conference as a junior and it was easy to envision him dominating. But he began the year on the bench, only cracking the starting lineup when players ahead of him on the depth chart got injured. Jackson was told in no uncertain terms that school was to be prioritized as much as football, yet he stopped attending classes and did not even receive a varsity letter for the season.
And then, three years after he stunned the town on National Signing Day, Jackson did it again and turned pro. It turned out to be every bit as bad of an idea as it seemed. Jackson's talent was undeniable, but his draft stock was weighed down by the myriad off-field issues and now, underwhelming junior film. Once discussed as an early-round certainty, he went unselected in the 2012 NFL Draft.
His football career never recovered. He latched on to the Giants as an undrafted free agent but was waived immediately after being suspended four games by the NFL for undisclosed reasons. He then bounced around the United Football League and Canadian Football League, but soon wore out his welcome.
With no teams biting, Jackson had a choice to make about where to go next. Returning to Lake Charles would mean returning home for a second time as a disappointment, to a place where everyone knew exactly how much his star was dimmed by his failings. Instead, he headed west to Los Angeles, and to his mother, Tesra.
Soon after Jackson arrived, he settled into a rhythm of shuttling between two residencies. The first was a great uncle's house in Los Angeles. The second was Tesra's apartment in Santa Monica, which she shared with her boyfriend, 43-year-old Frank Herrera.
Janzen had only been in town for a few weeks when, according to testimony from Tesra Jackson, Herrera was scheduled to drop Janzen off at his great-uncle's house on September 11, 2013. But Herrera did not return home that night or check in. Nor did he the next day. Or the day after that. Finally, on September 14, Tesra Jackson drove to her uncle's house and discovered Herrera's car nearby. She peered into the window and saw flies buzzing around. There was a foul smell coming from inside the car.
Police found Frank Herrera's body inside the car, wrapped in a blanket. He was strangled to death using a lamp cord that was still wrapped around his neck. Investigators reviewed security footage from Jackson and Herrera's building and saw video of a man resembling Janzen Jackson exiting an elevator dragging a large, bulky object.
Two days after Herrera's body was discovered, on September 16, 2013, Janzen Jackson was arrested and charged with murder.
Since then, Jackson's life has become a portrait of the legal system at its most dawdling. On no fewer than 23 occasions, attorneys involved have gone in front of a judge to file motions and prepare for trial. Five different judges have heard arguments. Jackson himself has had four different defense attorneys, the most notable of which being Christopher Darden, who is famous for prosecuting the OJ Simpson murder trial. On August 1, Darden recused himself for a conflict of interest, and his case was turned over to the public defender's office. Jackson's current lawyer, Daryne Nicole, was appointed to him the night before a pretrial hearing to determine his trial date and had all of 40 minutes to interview and brief her client. That was two pretrial hearings ago.
Jackson's most recent appearance before the court came on December 1, less than two weeks shy of his 24th birthday. He was escorted to his seat in shackles, a thick beard covering his once smooth cheeks. His case is still in limbo, as Nicole announces to the presiding judge that the public defender's office still has not received several important documents from Darden. Neither Nicole nor Darden returned requests for comment from VICE Sports.
Among those documents are the possible lynchpin to Jackson's defense: medical records. As far back as January, Darden declared to the court doubts of Jackson's mental competence. Tesra Jackson would later testify that Janzen had been acting strangely soon after he arrived in California and that she had called for him to be evaluated by mental health professionals in August, weeks before Herrera's death. As she addressed the judge, Nicole confirmed that much of the trial will hinge on "a lot of medical records and a lot of mental health records."
Janzen Jackson, for his part, uttered all of two words. The judge, Lisa Lench, asked him if he was willing to waive his right to set his trial date before January, so the court could schedule another pretrial hearing.
"Yes, ma'am," he replied, his voice sweet and full of Bayou brine.