GRIDIRON TO BEHIND BARS
Football Star on Trial for Murder Was Protecting His Mom, Dad Says
Janzen Jackson was an explosive defensive back, and prosecutors say he used that power to strangle his mom’s boyfriend. But his dad says it wasn’t in cold blood.
LOS ANGELES—Before the lights went out, Frank Herrera saw black, brown, and white.
Those were the colors of the power cords former NFL player Janzen Jackson allegedly used to choke Herrera, his mother’s boyfriend, to death inside her Santa Monica apartment in 2013. Herrera’s body would be found three days later by Tesra Jackson, and her son would be arrested two days after.
Despite the grisly result, the ex-pro’s father is convinced his son was protecting his mother.
“Janzen told me about the incident when it happened,” Lance Guidry told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview. “I know that there was an incident that happened at the home beforehand and Janzen went to question his mother’s boyfriend and that led to a fight.
“I think as a dad I knew what my child was capable of,” he said. “Janzen is not one to shy away from a fight. At the same time I knew he’s not a murderer in his right mind.”
On Sept. 16, 2013, Jackson was slapped with murder charges in what Herrera’s autopsy—performed on the same day—would reveal was homicide by ligature strangulation.
Jackson pled not guilty before being remanded on a $1 million bond.
The 26-year-old man’s murder case has dragged on for years and seen defense attorneys come and go; early on Jackson retained former O.J. Simpson prosecutor Christopher Darden who later recused himself citing a conflict of interest, according to Vice Sports.
But now Jackson’s murder trial has officially gotten underway and he’s being represented by public defender Daryne Nicole in L.A. Superior Court.
Attempts by The Daily Beast to reach Jackson’s counsel were unsuccessful.
When opening arguments began, tension was on full display in front of jurors.
Janzen’s attorney described a clash between Herrera’s daughter, Rea Herrera, a witness for the prosecution, and Jackson’s mother in front of jurors who saw her saying, “Fuck this. I’m fucking mad. You fucking black bitch, don’t look at me.”
Judge Bernie LaForteza requested another court officer to man the 11th floor corridor.
“I’d like to add security for the remainder of the trial,” he said.
Moments after, Jackson walked in.
His dreads dangled over his purple poplin shirt with white stripes untucked over his khakis. His face lit up when he made eye contact with his family seated in the first pew of the courtroom.
He smiled and mouthed, “Hi.”
Before he’d find himself sporting a jumpsuit in L.A.’s notorious Twin Towers jail, Jackson wore a football uniform at the University of Tennessee and later, for the New York Giants.
He got there by being an explosive defensive back.
“I know he was a violent hitter and he suffered some concussions without anybody knowing because he’s a tough kid and didn’t let them know,” Guidry said.
During the preliminary hearing, Jackson’s mother Tesra testified that her son had been acting unlike himself and that she had been planning to have him evaluated a month before Herrera was strangled. (When questioned on the stand last week the mother didn’t raise any of her son’s supposed mental issues.)
He spent most of his childhood bouncing from Tesra’s homes in Houston, Texas, and later relocated to Los Angeles and then to Lake Charles, Louisiana, with his dad; he would ultimately move to Louisiana full-time once he started middle school.
Guidry, who played college ball, coached his son during his junior and senior years at Alfred M. Barbe High School.
“I was always just an offensive skill player because I think that is where the better athletes on a team usually play,” Jackson told ESPN in 2009. “My dad is the one who turned me into a DB and took the time to teach me how to play the position.”
Jackson even showcased his high football IQ.
“If you can’t turn your hips, you can’t turn and run,” a teenage Jackson explained in the article like a pigskin professor.
“I never saw any signs of anything,” Guidry said. “He was normal. Everything was normal and he did good in school.”
And the scouts were dazzled by Jackson’s film footage. Division 1 coaches began courting Jackson who was rated as one of the top prospects in the country.
He’d initially committed to Louisiana State University but then in a surprise reversal signed to become a Volunteer at Tennessee.
Today, the father and son reminisce about what was perhaps Jackson’s “best game” when he stopped future Alabama and Green Bay powerhouse Eddie Lacy from a two point conversion back in 2008 to give the Buccaneers a win.
His coach Jimmy Shaver touted Jackson as a dominant force on the field.
“He is not Superman,” he said. “He is human but he can make plays and when it is crunch time, that is who we pappy on and ask to make the play.”
It was a pinnacle point that Jackson can only reflect on now.
“He talks about football a lot these days,” his father noted. “About his days at Tennessee and he talks about to be different games—all the way back to high school when he played.
Guidry believes much of Jackson’s shortfalls on the gridiron were sourced off the field, namely his predilection for pot.
The habit started early on for his son who was trying to temper a great deal of trauma in his life.
“He had some demons from growing up in childhood,” said Guidry, who refused to elaborate. “I don’t want to get into it but I think he tried to medicate himself and forget about things by smoking weed.”
In 2009 while attending University of Tennessee, Jackson was initially charged as the getaway driver in a gas station robbery where ex-football pals and a coed tried to stick up patrons with a pellet gun.
Guidry also remembered chatting with Jackson’s then-girlfriend who made a visit to Knoxville. After spending time with him, she complained that he’d radically changed.
“She thought he was bipolar because he was acting very erratic,” his father recalled. “But I never saw that side of him… he was playing at Tennessee and things kept snowballing and snowballing all the way to where he’s at now.”
Jackson did a stint in rehab, but by August 2011 he was sacked from the team and as a true junior hoped to still make it to the pros. To get there he had to land a transfer to another college.
The young talent would get a lifeline from his hometown of Lake Charles, Louisiana, where McNeese State University welcomed him to play. Jackson had pull since his dad was a former defensive player at the institution back in the early 1990s; and it’s where he’s the head coach today.
The playing time there gave his son a shot to compete professionally.
Jackson entered the 2012 NFL draft where pro scouts aired “character concerns” and wasn’t picked. Then the Super Bowl-champion Giants brought Jackson on as a free agent to play safety, but he was waived after reportedly being witnessed talking to himself.
“I’ve never seen him talk to himself and they said that he was,” a perplexed Guidry said.
Jackson would try a go as a safety in the Canadian Football League and suited up with the Toronto Argonauts a year later, but was again shown the door.
“He slipped back into drugs and that was it,” Guidry said. “He went back to California and I really never heard anything until all this stuff happened with his mother’s boyfriend.”
Cut from the Toronto Argonauts after only five games, Jackson returned to L.A. and was crashing at both his great uncle’s and mom’s apartments.
The night before Herrera was slain, Tesra Jackson admitted she clashed with him.
It was Sept. 10 and Jackson returned to their Santa Monica apartment nearing midnight.
“I was getting my hair done with friends,” she said in court. “I told Frank.”
But when she pulled into the garage Frank met her there and unleashed a verbal tirade.
“He’s yelling, ‘Why you out all day and night?!’” she recalled. “He was a lot irritated… He started yelling and screaming; calling me a cheater and cursing as usual. He was just going
“I’m standing there and getting on an elevator.”
Herrera drove off in his car and returned later that night, Jackson said.
“I remember falling asleep and he was over there with the laptop watching movies and I remember him doing that,” she said.
The following morning just before leaving to meet city inspectors at a property she was managing, Tesra informed through the closed door where Janzen was taking a shower that she would return later to give him a lift to his great uncle Mark Williams’s house.
“He said, ‘OK.’”
She left and returned to an empty apartment that afternoon. She assumed Herrera gave Janzen a lift to her uncle’s.
“Did you give Janzen a ride to Mark’s?” she texted Herrera to no reply.
Janzen didn’t have a cell phone so she had no way of reaching him.
The following day, with Herrera still unaccounted for, Tesra said she began to reach out, but wasn’t worried.
“Tuesday night he was really angry and so I assumed he wouldn’t return my calls or texts so I left it alone,” she said. “It wasn’t abnormal for me to hear from him because he would get upset and he would leave—sometimes for two days,” she said.
As for one of the missing murder weapons, Tesra claimed the ceramic green lamp with the bent light bulb socket wasn’t working.
“It was a project to me,” she said. “I was going to rewire it. It wasn’t a lamp we used so I wouldn’t notice it was missing.”
Most striking is how the mother on the witness stand stated she kept her children in the dark about her rocky relationship with Frank.
“I didn’t tell him about the fight,” she said in court. “No, that’s not something I would discuss… I never talk to Janz or any of my children about my relationship.”
Investigators pulled closed circuit footage captured from Jackson’s mother’s apartment building and it showed a man, who they believe is Janzen Jackson, lugging a large object as he exits an elevator.
Jackson dismissed it to cops as simply part of his training regime.
Cut to three days later and his mother had been spending the Saturday with her other son, 16-year-old Royalle Bernstine and a friend at a city picnic. Toward the early evening they ventured over to Mark Williams’s South L.A. apartment located on 47th Street near Central Avenue to watch Floyd Mayweather Jr. fight Canelo Álvarez on TV.
As they pulled up to his building Tesra Jackson and her son spotted Herrera’s red Toyota Paseo.
For a moment there was hope.
“My son said, ‘He’s probably watching the fight at Uncle Mark’s,’” Jackson said.
But there was no sign of Frank and Jackson walked outside to survey the car.
“From the passenger’s side I kind of looked in,” she said.
She couldn’t see much beyond what she thought was “a big bag of tools or something,” which was not unusual for Herrera, who installed car stereos for a living.
What was unusual were the flies hovering inside.
When Jackson peered over the slightly ajar sunroof she caught a familiar stench she knew as a property manager from once finding a tenant’s body decomposing in an apartment.
“I was in panic mode,” she said in court. “I was running around asking everyone ‘Where’s Frank?’”
That included asking her son Janzen, too.
“He seemed calm,” she said.
With a flashlight her uncle Mark Williams took a closer look and there, slumped in the backseat was the blanketed body of a “hunched over” Herrera, his head crammed under the driver’s seat and legs jutting out onto the car’s cushions—the man’s nape tethered to the emerald green lamp and black fan from Tesra’s apartment, both dangling next to him.
They dialed 911.
The autopsy would later detail residual injuries beyond strangulation, including wounds to his head, right eye, and both his elbows.
The death of Frank Herrera left his four children fatherless.
The loss seemed to hit Rea Herrera hardest. She lived with her father along with Tesra and her son Royalle for a year before moving out a month before the murder.
When Janzen came to town Rea says she saw a violent streak.
She took the stand wearing a black T-shirt with blocked pink letters reading “GOD OVER EVERYTHING.” Jackson’s defense attorney questioned her.
“[Janzen] physically hit his brother in a fistfight,” she recalled during a Christmas incident, referring to his younger brother Royalle. “His mom was trying to break it up.
“It was in the living room and Royalle was trying to be tough and Janzen was trying to be the older brother and it just ended with them fistfighting… And Tesra got hurt.”
She also remembered how afraid she was during separate alleged explosions.
“Janzen was balling up his and fists, walking around—sometimes I thought he was going to hit me,” she said.
The violence was commonplace, according to Frank Herrera’s sister.
“I would talk to my brother when he was feeling down,” Rosie Herrera told The Daily Beast. “He’d think her kids were out of control.”
Most searing for her was the flaring tempers of Jackson’s sons.
“They would be hitting on each other and would break furniture… Janzen and his brother were always fighting.”
But if there were ever any direct incidents with him and his girlfriend’s sons, Frank never aired them.
“He would tell me that he was having problems with her because of her kids being disrespectful to her,” she said. “But my brother always said they were her kids.”
Their relationship suffered constant rows, with Herrera retreating to his car stereo shop for days at a clip.
“He’d set up a bed in the shop and the owner let him sleep there.”
Rosie said Tesra was icy toward her late boyfriend’s family, skipping Herrera’s funeral and rebuffing their requests to collect his belongings.
“There was a lot of stuff of my brother’s in her home that she didn’t let us take out,” the 45-year-old sibling said.
Yet Rosie feels empathy for Janzen’s mother’s tough spot.
“This is a lot for a mother,” she said. “I believe she’s in a bad place because she loves her son. I understand that.
“And even though the kids do wrong you know she needs to stick by them and try to help them out with the issues they’re having.”
With so much hurt, the aching sibling has a hard time believing justice can be done.
“I think we all make mistakes and bad mistakes, she said. “I think this young boy had a great future ahead of him. He’s so young.”
Rosie quickly transports to a happy place not long ago tracking back to how her brother “lit up the room” and was a jokester.
With Frank Herrera gone so suddenly she and many others who adored him feel the loss has cut deep. “He was a wonderful brother and it was like I got to know him more than my own parents because we spent so much of our lives together.”
Most tragic of all has been all the life missed since his murder. “My brother never got to see his two granddaughters,” she said. “He never met them.”