Detroit rapper Lil Mello arrested after feds find gun painted like American flag

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — Federal prosecutors Thursday charged Detroit rapper Lil Mello with a gun crime after investigators said they found a pistol painted like an American flag that he is accused of brandishing in a rap video and on social media posts.

The 19-year-old rapper, real name Romello Johnson, was arrested and held Thursday without bond pending an Aug. 23 hearing in federal court. His arrest on a felony chargeof being a marijuana user in possession of a firearm follows a short investigation involving YouTube rap videos, an Instagram account and incriminating photographs of an up-and-coming rapper.

Romello Johnson

The case is the latest in an ongoing crackdown by federal agents involving rappers, guns and drugs in one of the nation’s most dangerous big cities. The charges against Johnson come more than three years after federal prosecutors secured the convictions of rappers and members of the Seven Mile Bloods street gang in Detroit — a prosecution chronicled in The Detroit News true-crime series "Death by Instagram."

His court-appointed lawyer could not be reached for comment immediately Thursday.

The investigation emerged Tuesday when Detroit Police Department investigators raided a home in the 19500 block of Fairport Street on the city's east side. Across the street, an officer spotted Johnson in the backseat of a silver 2007 Mercury Mariner, according to court records.

After Johnson exited the car, an officer looked in the car and spotted "a magazine and grip of a firearm sticking out of a brown paper bag," according to an affidavit by Brett Brandon, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

Officers were familiar with Johnson from previous contacts and knew he was 19 and ineligible to obtain a concealed pistol license, according to a court filing. He was arrested and investigators recovered a Glock pistol from the car painted with a distinctive American flag design.

Another flourish linked Johnson with the firearm.

Johnson has a distinctive tattoo under his left eye. On Wednesday, investigators started watching YouTube rap videos starring Johnson, whose tattoo is visible along with what appeared to be a Glock pistol tucked in his waistband.

In one video titled "Lil Mello -- Baxk to Pressin" that has almost 83,000 views, Johnson is seen rapping in various locations, including along Fairport Street.

ATF agents interviewed Johnson on Wednesday. He admitted smoking marijuana every day since he was 14 and that he brandished the Glock pistol in music videos in Detroit, according to a court filing.

"Johnson stated he has free and ready access to the subject firearm anytime he wants to possess it," the ATF agent wrote. "Johnson denied owning the firearm."

Johnson is separately facing charges in Las Vegas stemming from the armed robbery of a marijuana dealer. Johnson is accused of stealing a firearm from the reported victim.

The reported victim led investigators to Johnson's Instagram account, "lilmello700," which has more than 27,700 followers. The account features photos and videos depicting stacks of cash and at least one firearm.

Investigators also searched Johnson's phone and found several photos of the rapper with the distinctive Glock and two videos of him holding a baby with the gun tucked in his waistband, according to a court filing.

rsnell@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @robertsnellnews