Johnson was killed when he tried to stop an armed robbery at a grocery store in East Atlanta on Feb. 16, 1980. Two masked men, one armed with a shotgun and one with a handgun, burst into the store that evening and announced a robbery.
The 31-year-old Johnson was moonlighting as a guard and confronted the shotgun wielder in an aisle. They wrestled for control of the gun, and the officer was blasted in the midsection, said Detective Vince Velazquez, who recently reopened the investigation into Johnson’s death.
The bandits then cleaned out the cash registers of several hundred dollars and a batch of food stamps and fled the now-defunct Big Buy supermarket at 470 Flat Shoals Ave.
Velazquez took a personal interest in the case because he said it was the last unsolved murder of an Atlanta police officer still open. A news conference is scheduled for Friday to announce a $35,000 reward for information leading to a conviction.
“This was pretty brazen because these robberies hardly ever occur when an officer is working,” Velazquez said. “They had to know an officer was there because they would have cased the place and … they were definitely prepared to shoot him.”
Widow still holds hope
In the past decade, detectives have solved two other cold cases involving killings of Atlanta police officers: Officer James Richard Greene, who was assassinated by the Black Liberation Army while he was on duty in 1971; and Detective Sam Guy, who was killed during a robbery of a motel in 1975 while moonlighting as a guard. Two elderly men are serving life sentences for those murders.
But as in those cases, police possibly could have arrested the key suspects in Johnson’s case when leads surfaced decades ago – if police brass or prosecutors had pursued the criminals more vigorously.
Johnson’s widow, Mildred, said she pestered detectives about their progress, but they always refused to give her much information. The 55-year-old woman said this week that she never remarried and kept a wall of her house decorated with pictures of her husband so that his daughters, Kessa and Tanya, who were 2 and 5 when he died, would remember him.
She said they had been married for seven years. After he got out of the Marines after his combat tour in Vietnam, she met him when both were working at the Sears, Roebuck warehouse on East Ponce de Leon Avenue. She helped him study for the police entrance exam and remembers him as “a good dancer” who preferred to spend more time in his vegetable garden than in the clubs.
She was working as a bartender at the Omni International Hotel when two police officers came and took her to the hospital. Johnson died before she could see him, she said.
“I loved him with all my heart, and I just feel I didn’t have enough time with him,” she said. “I’m looking for something happening for the good. I’ve prayed to God that before I leave this Earth that I get some satisfaction and learn who did it. … Now I say maybe, perhaps you know, maybe there is a chance.”
Suspects turned up soon
Retired Atlanta Police Detective Ponce Harris, who originally investigated the case, said one of Johnson’s daughters came to him when Guy’s killer was convicted and asked whatever had happened with her father’s case. It was then, he said, that he had to give her the hard news that he and his partner had located suspects in the killing 20 years earlier only to see them slip away.
“We took it as far as we could, and I’m glad now that somebody came and picked it up 30 years later,” he said.
Velazquez said the Johnson case went cold quickly because no store patrons could identify the gunmen. But Harris said detectives received solid information within two years of the killing that identified the two gunmen and a female driver of their getaway car. He said the information could have led to three arrests, but he and his partners were unable to get Fulton County District Attorney Lewis Slaton to give the tipster a deal to secure his cooperation at trial.
Case similar to others
Velazquez declined to discuss any possible suspects in the case. Jack Mallard, a former senior prosecutor for Slaton, was skeptical that his now-deceased boss had derailed the prosecution.
But in both the Guy and the Greene cases, the suspects who were convicted had been known to investigators for decades.
Former Fulton County Police Officer David Guy, who was investigating his father’s death on his own time, said he learned the identities of the two killers in 1982 but was told to back off by superiors because they feared he was too emotionally involved in the case, and the investigation fizzled.
In 2002, a Fulton County jury convicted Terry Jackson of the murder with the help of testimony from his co-defendant, who cut a deal with prosecutors.
Weeks after Greene was killed in 1971, Atlanta police announced they had a witness who could pin the case on the two gunmen, but Slaton said the case wasn’t strong enough to indict. In 2003, a jury convicted Freddie Hilton of the murder — his cohort had been killed decades ago — on largely the same evidence.
Harris said that now might be an ideal time to get cooperation in the case — just as detectives did in the Guy and Greene cases — because people who have the information may not want take it to their graves. The fact that the killing involved a police officer was another reason that memories may still be sharp after three decades, Mallard said.
“The murder of a police officer never gets cold,” Mallard said. “You might call it a cold case, but you never forget it.”
Anyone with information about the case should call Crime Stoppers at 404-577-8477.