ELKHART — Blake Layman was a fully involved teenager. Angela Johnson, Layman’s mother, said he had a job at Wendy’s; he had a girlfriend with whom he was planning to go to prom; he was struggling with classes his freshman year but he was finishing up some courses at Merit Learning Center and was planning to go back to Concord High School; he was also helpful in taking care of his younger sister, who has been on treatment most of her life for a brain tumor.
Layman lived with his mother, his younger sister, Destiny, and his younger brother Gavin.
Looking back on everything he did as an ordinary teen, Johnson doesn’t understand one thing: What was going through the mind of her 16-year-old son when he and a group of friends walked into a house with the intention to steal?
“It was a shocker to everybody, because Blake has been doing so well, everybody was telling him how proud they were of him, he was working 30 hours a week and going to school. He was doing great. Honestly, they cared about their lives. What got over them that day, I don’t know.”
Layman, along with Jose Quiroz, 17, Levi Sparkman, 17, and Anthony Sharp, 18, were arrested following an attempted home invasion at 1919 Frances Ave. on Oct. 3. During the invasion, 21-year-old Danzele Johnson, who was also a part of the group that broke in, was shot and killed by the homeowner.
The four teenagers were charged with murder during the commission of a felony, commonly known as felony murder. Under Indiana law, if anyone dies during the commission of a felony, everyone committing that felony can be charged with murder, even if it’s a conspirator who dies.
The day of the incident, Angie Johnson was in South Bend with her daughter for chemotherapy. She had tried calling her son a couple times, but he didn’t pick up — and that was not usual for Layman, she said.
A friend called her shortly after and told her something had happened on Frances Avenue, just down the road.
She drove directly to 1919 Frances Ave. to find out if her son had anything to do with the incident. But at the time she couldn’t get any information. Rumors soon began to spread about one person being killed during the incident, and Angie Johnson thought is might be her son who had been shot.
A few hours later she received a call from the Police Department explaining that her son was in custody and that he had been treated for a gunshot wound. “For two hours, I was flipping out.”
The family maintains close contact with Layman. He calls Angie Johnson every day and the family goes to the jail to talk with him twice a week.
STARTING A MOVEMENT:
On Thursday, Quiroz pleaded guilty to felony murder. The plea agreement calls for 45 years in prison and 10 under supervised release.
During the plea hearing, Quiroz testified, saying he, along with Layman and Sparks, knocked on a few different houses to make sure no one was home before trying to break into the one at 1919 Frances Ave.
Layman’s family plans to continue fighting for the other three who remain in jail.
Angie Johnson and the rest of Layman’s family started a petition at change.org, in which they ask Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller and Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill to drop the charges of felony murder and give the teenagers another chance.
Angie Johnson said the Layman’s family understands that the four teenagers committed an offense, but they are fighting for an alternative punishment for the boys, and possibly, in the future, eliminate the charge of felony murder in Indiana.
“(If convicted) they’re going to come out in 25 to 30 years, they won’t know how to live. They are going to be raised with criminals,” said Tammy Dovel, Layman’s great-aunt.
The petition online has collected more than 1,200 signatures. Angie Johnson said they are also distributing paper forms for people to sign and overall they think they see a strong support from the community.
Katherine Huskey, Layman’s girlfriend’s mother, has been by their side since the arrests were made.
“When Blake wasn’t (home) he was at my house, he was with his girlfriend, at school and at work,” Huskey said. “So I know his character. This is not like him. It blows my mind.”
The family keeps a positive vibe overall. They hear comments both supportive and negative, but Angie Johnson said they will continue to look forward.
“We’ll see the blessing come out of this one.”