Lawmaker who spun history of heroics ends life in suicide
FRANKFORT, Ky. – The Kentucky lawmaker's resume included enough material for an award-winning memoir: He was a peacekeeper at the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, a White House chaplain to three presidents and a 9/11 first responder who gave last rites to hundreds of people at Ground Zero.
But Republican Dan Johnson's carefully crafted history crumbled this week following an extensively reported story from the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. The story tore down his claims and portrayed him as a con man whose deceptions propped up his ministry of a church of outcasts in Louisville and hid a sinister secret: a sexual assault allegation from a 17-year-old girl.
Johnson denied it all, declaring his innocence from the pulpit of the church where he was the self-appointed "pope." By Wednesday night, he was dead, his body found on the side of a secluded road with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
The death of the 57-year-old jolted Republican leaders, who were already struggling with a sexual harassment scandal that toppled the state's first GOP House speaker in nearly 100 years plus three other Republican committee chairmen. Most in the party had already turned their back on Johnson, calling for his resignation following the sexual assault allegation and his history of posting racist photos on Facebook that depicted President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama as monkeys.
By Thursday, many were offering messages of sympathy while acknowledging Johnson's complex life.
"He was passionate about others, I saw it often yet he needed help himself," GOP state Rep. Jim DuPlessis, who sat beside Johnson on the House floor, posted on Twitter.
Johnson's wife, Rebecca Johnson, said her husband was the victim of a "high-tech lynching" and announced she would run to replace him in the Legislature.
Elected in 2016, he was part of a wave of Republican victories that gave the GOP a majority in the Kentucky House for the first time in nearly 100 years. But before that, he was the pastor of Heart of Fire Church in Louisville, which prided itself on welcoming "real people."
"It was a biker church, so there was lots of leather jackets, lots of long hair and people that if you ran into them on the street, you might have a different first impression," said David Adams, a political operative who worked with Johnson on his campaign.
On the church's website, Johnson claimed to have healed sick people during a visit to South America in 1991, including the incredible story of raising a woman from the dead. The miracles were detailed in a letter from David Fischer, pastor of a church in California. Fischer told the investigative reporting center that he did not witness those events and could not point the agency to anyone who had.
On his financial disclosure forms, Johnson listed his only source of income as workers compensation from the state of New York. He said that money was from injuries he sustained while working as a chaplain immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York City. But the reporting center, after a seven-month effort, could find no evidence that Johnson was in New York that day.
In a Facebook message posted hours before his death, Johnson hinted that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder relating to what he witnessed in New York, details that he shared with friends through the years, including Republican state Sen. Dan Seum.
"He struggled with that. I know he did. The fact it was so horrific that he was involved in praying over these people," Seum said. "I believed him. I had no reason not to."
The sexual assault allegation came from Maranda Richmond, a former member of Johnson's church. Richmond told the reporting center she was spending the night at Johnson's house on New Year's Eve 2012 when she awoke several hours after midnight to find Johnson standing over her. She said he stuck his tongue in her mouth and put his hands down her pants and into her vagina. She said she begged him to stop and eventually he did.
The Associated Press does not generally identify victims who report sexual assault but is doing so because Richmond has gone public with her story.
Richmond's public comments match what she told police two years ago, according to police documents obtained by the reporting center. In 2013, police investigated the matter, including a secretly recorded phone call between Johnson and Richmond's father. But a detective later closed the case, saying Richmond refused to cooperate. Richmond denied that.
As a result of the center's reporting, the Louisville Metro Police Department re-opened its investigation.
Johnson held a news conference Tuesday at his church, denying the allegations with his wife by his side. He said he would not resign, calling the accusations part of a strategy to attack conservative Republicans nationwide. He saved his criticism for the media, saying he did not "want to blast this girl. I have compassion for her. I'm very sorrowful she is in this dark place in her life."
The reporting center interviewed people who were at the Rodney King riots and spoke with an expert on religious faith and the presidency. All of them said Johnson's claims were false.
He insisted it was all true.
"This whole piece was so outrageous. It was as though I had never lived or never done anything I had ever done," he told reporters.
At the end of the news conference, a reporter asked if he had ever raised anyone from the dead. Johnson stopped, turned to face the journalist and said, "God has," before walking out of the pulpit for the final time.