Homeless man's slaying galvanizes Detroiters who remember him as easy-going 'guy and his dog'

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

The two were almost always together, and a quite a sight.

A homeless man known as Jesse and his black-and-white dog, Baby Girl, frequented Detroit’s east side as well as other city spots. Throughout the year, the relentlessly friendly owner charmed audiences as his canine companion rolled over, rode a skateboard in sunglasses or try to bark “I love you.” 

“You never saw him without that dog,” said Daphne Johnson, a city resident who befriended him. “He left an impression.”

The pair walking in Detroit.

She and other fans noticed as soon as the duo disappeared in early December. The reason shocked them: police reported the man was found fatally shot not far from his favorite haunts. Friends believe his beloved pet also was harmed in the attack and died shortly after.

The loss galvanized Johnson to create an online campaign to highlight the case while raising money to properly bury a man who left a checkered past on the East Coast.  As authorities hunt for suspects, supporters seek answers to ensure his slaying does not remain unsolved like others in Michigan’s largest city.

“It’s disgusting that anyone could commit an act like this,” said Paige McMullen, who first met Jesse last year. “If they would bring those people to justice, it would bring me a lot of peace.”

To those who encountered “the guy and his dog,” as one acquaintance called them, their presence was a calming distraction amid daily routines.

Perched outside the Harbortown Market entrance in the shopping plaza on Jefferson Avenue, they welcomed residents in the nearby apartment towers stopping for groceries or workers in nearby offices frequenting the nearby restaurants.

With Baby Girl at his side to show off tricks, the generally genial tattooed man with long dark hair eased approaching visitors into conversation. 

Throughout the pandemic, Johnson befriended him and sought his advice on tending to her Pomeranian. She even joked about hiring him if starting a dog-washing business. “He was the nicest person,” Johnson said.

McMullen, a Metro Detroit native who relocated to the city last summer, remembers seeing the two several times a week. A memorable exchange moved her to buy them treats; Best offered to fix her car, she said. “He was just a sweet, genuine guy.” 

Best, who pitched a tent near the river with Baby Girl, gave varying accounts of his life before arriving in Detroit about five years ago, telling Johnson he had a son, once trained animals and aspired to be the next Eminem. Other than admiring the rapper who hails from the region, the 42-year-old had no ties to the city. 

Born and raised in central North Carolina, he loved to blast music, hang out with friends and tend to cars. However, at some point, he “just got with the wrong people,” said his father, also named Johnnie Best.

Soon he was in trouble. North Carolina Department of Public Safety records show multiple offenses starting in his late teens and prison sentences, including for drug-related incidents.

Johnnie Best, who was known as Jesse in Detroit.

That record sometimes complicated Best's job search, his father said, though he gained work in a grocery store, fast food spots, even with horses. Best also helped at a junkyard and lawn care through Jesse Eastwood Jr., a longtime friend he sometimes introduced as his brother. Best was an “easy-going, good guy” known for his rapping skills and “cutting up,” Eastwood said. “He was cool. He had a good heart.” 

Both Eastwood and Best’s father acknowledge he used drugs but was wary of acting in a way that would return him to incarceration. That’s why, fearing arrest after a fight in another town, Best fled with Baby Girl, which he raised since a puppy.

The pair survived in Detroit through performing on the street. “He could endure anything and adapt and deal with any kind of situation,” Eastwood said.

At some point while crossing Detroit's east side, Best met James Wadsworth, who runs a restoration business near Belle Isle Park, and volunteered his services. Wadsworth initially hesitated, but when duties piled up one day, he obliged. Best soon pitched in, including at area houses, and mainly guarded the business at night, Wadsworth said. 

Best was resourceful enough to memorize when sports teams had games downtown so he'd know when to perform with Baby Girl, friends said. The pair sometimes ambled to Greektown, where they encountered the mobile mission of the nonprofit Feeding Detroit and Downriver. Best usually requested food for his pup first, said Mat Simons, who leads FDDR. “They were always close and friendly.”

Best joined a population in the city that the latest Homeless Action Network of Detroit annual report found was about 10,000 people in 2019. Roughly 2,300 were considered chronically homeless, which means having a disability while lacking a permanent residence multiple times in three years or at least 12 months, said Tasha Gray, the network’s executive director.

While overall homelessness figures fell 2017-19, the number of chronically homeless climbed, her group found. Besides an array of resources available, she said, “We’re not known as much as other communities to criminalize homelessness.”

Those like Best, who had a rap sheet, also face trials when seeking housing, said Eric Hufnagel, executive director for the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness. “People with histories of incarceration are up against the wall in accessing housing if they’re honest with their applications.”

Since relocating to Detroit, Best briefly returned to his home state at least once and kept in sporadic contact with loved ones, often from different numbers. Though struggling to stay warm and worried about work, he refused to leave, his father said.

Recently, Best texted Eastwood about his urban adventures. When last contacting his mother, Tammy, “he didn’t act like anything was wrong," she said, aside from mentioning possibly having to relocate from a favorite spot for unclear reasons.

On Dec. 8, the last message on his Facebook page was a repost of one he shared often since mid-November warning Harbortown customers to avoid a man Best alleged was a "violent sex offender" faking homelessness. The final words typed above it were “NO NO NO HELL NO.”

The same week, when Best failed to show at the restoration shop, Wadsworth said he and several workers searched for him. They eventually checked a nearby vacant building and spotted blood leading to his body.

Officer Holly Lance, a spokeswoman for the Detroit Police Department, confirmed he was found dead at about 6 p.m. Dec. 10 in the 6400 block of East Jefferson. Police would only say his body showed signs of trauma.

The Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office determined Best had died from a gunshot wound to the head and ruled it a homicide, spokesman Michael McElrath said.

Best's death certificate also listed multiple blunt force trauma and said he had been “found shot and beat.”

Police said his dog was found at the scene and turned over to the Michigan Humane shelter. The group's intake records did not show one matching her description, spokeswoman Anna Chrisman told The Detroit News.

Wadsworth told The News he believes officers briefly took Baby Girl when moving Best’s remains yet returned her shortly after. She appeared to have been injured, he said, but “I don’t know what really happened. She was hurt. I tried to feed her, she threw up.”

The dog died before a veterinarian could treat her, Wadsworth said.

The dog known as Baby Girl.

Since her owner died violently blocks from the market he frequented, Mount Elliott Park, a Coast Guard station and upscale waterfront apartments, word of the tragedy spread quickly.

Hearing the news from an acquaintance days after having presented Best a hat, gloves, scarf and money for Christmas, Johnson rushed to find details and asked a friend to write a Facebook post on the incident. She also launched a GoFundMe campaign for burial costs that raised more than $1,300.

Meanwhile, for days police thought Best was Eastwood based on the ID found on him. North Carolina authorities contacted Eastwood, who reached the Best family. He isn't sure when or how Best grabbed an old card, but the slaying stunned him. “I couldn’t imagine anything he could do to deserve what he got,” he said. “He did touch a lot of people.”

That steered Johnson on a lengthy journey for answers, even through learning Best had been cremated and wasn’t named Jesse. It didn't shake her resolve, and she now hopes to launch a nonprofit to help the homeless.

"He was still a human being who was killed,” she said.

McMullen, who burst into tears when learning about the death, agreed. “I don’t think someone’s past defines them,” she said. “Everyone makes mistakes.”

The death remains under investigation and no arrests had been made as of Friday, Detroit police Sgt. Nicole Kirkwood said.

Johnson connected with Best’s parents last month and turned over the money she raised. While mulling a memorial, they long for closure.

“I hope somebody comes forward, because it’s not right,” Tammy Best said. “I would say that for any homeless person out there. They shouldn’t be killed or forgotten. It’s ridiculous we’ve suffered all these weeks and now we’re suffering because we don’t know who did it.”

Anyone with information or tips in the case is asked to call the Detroit Police Department Homicide Unit at (313) 596-2260. Anonymous tips also can be submitted to Crime Stoppers of Michigan at 1-800-SPEAK-UP.