A Gentle Soul Wrapped in a Big Personality
Slain Security Guard Remembered as Kind, Caring, Outgoing and Imposing
By Michael Birnbaum and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 12, 2009
Stephen Tyrone Johns opened the door for the man who authorities say killed him.
On Wednesday afternoon, Johns was at his post in the lobby of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum when he saw an elderly man walking toward the glass entrance and cracked open the door. If he saw a .22-caliber rifle at the old man's side, he saw it too late.
Johns, 39, was pronounced dead hours after James W. von Brunn, 88, an avowed white supremacist, allegedly shot him in the chest. Von Brunn, shot by other security guards, lay in the same hospital in critical condition.
Opening the museum door was a final gesture of goodwill for a man who had long opened his own door for friends, family and anyone in need. He was a "care bear" who despite the imposing mass that made him well suited for security -- 6 feet 6 inches and more than 300 pounds -- "wouldn't harm anybody," said Brian Lennon, a longtime friend and onetime roommate.
Lennon, Johns and a third friend, Anthony Harmon, shared an Oxon Hill apartment for five years, beginning in 2002, and they had known one another since meeting at a job training program in 1990. They were like brothers, keeping tabs on one another's families. Harmon, 36, said they fit together like "puzzle pieces." But in the past couple of years, their lives took different directions -- Lennon got married and so did Johns, for the second time -- and they saw less of one another.
In the past month, however, Johns and Lennon had gone fishing together several times, and it was the beginning of a new friendship, Lennon said, as married men, rather than as the "girl-crazy" guys they once were.
Just last week, Harmon said, he joined his old buddies for night fishing, the first time the old roommates had been all together in a long time. Johns didn't catch a thing, but Harmon and Lennon gave him their fish so that he would have something to give his wife, who was waiting up for him when they returned in the wee hours.
"He was talking, and we was chilling together," Harmon said. "It was just so exciting that we were around each other." They made plans to do it again on Father's Day.
Harmon said that Johns was a passionate sports fan -- "a good D.C. person," deeply committed to the Redskins and the Wizards -- and that he also loved to travel. Every year about tax time, he and a group of friends would take a week off and visit Miami, Las Vegas, Myrtle Beach, S.C., Atlantic City or New York City, seeing sights, hitting bars and enjoying life.
Johns's favorite movies were comedies, and Johns was a funny man, keeping friends and family in stitches.
"He liked to make people laugh, and he liked people to make him laugh," Harmon said.
Johns was a 1988 graduate of Crossland High School in Temple Hills.
Recently, Johns and his wife, Zakia, bought a house minutes away from his mother and stepfather in Temple Hills. The neighborhood is also near the home of Johns's ex-wife, Eliza Williams, and their 11-year-old son, Stephen Jr.
Zakia Johns remained in seclusion yesterday and declined to comment for this story. Since Johns moved back to Temple Hills, he and his son had been spending much more time together, something both father and son were happy about, Lennon said.
Yesterday, Stephen Jr. sat with his grandmother, Jacqueline Carter, on the couch in her white Colonial-style Temple Hills home.
"To me, he was a pretty great guy, and he was always there for me," Stephen Jr. said. "When I had heard about what happened, I was just . . . sad. Mad at the guy that shot him."
Carter struggled with her emotions as she talked about the loss of her only son. "People can say that I know how you feel, and I do appreciate that and all," she said. "But right this second, I just miss my son, knowing that I am not going to see him again."
Carter said her son had once considered training to become a police officer but was dissuaded by his first wife. Instead, he stuck to his career as a security guard. He had worked at the Holocaust Museum for six years. Before that, he had worked at the Whole Foods grocery in Logan Circle.
Johns was attached to his job, Harmon said. "It was the best thing that ever happened to him," he said. "We'd do things, and he'd say: 'I can't stay out too late. I've got work in the morning.' "
Yesterday, about 200 people gathered at the Holocaust Museum for a vigil to remember Johns, and colleagues remembered his bright personality and knack for turning the foyer of the museum into an occasional stage for his comedy.
"He was just a delightful colleague, a wonderful individual, a great professional and a very dedicated security officer," said Sara Bloomfield, the museum's director. "But I would say, above all, what a personality. . . . He just had one of those personalities that you couldn't avoid."
When Johns decided to be licensed as a "special police officer," which permitted him to carry a handgun on duty, his friends laughed at him, Harmon said. He was too sweet a person for people to imagine him getting into an altercation. "We said, 'You don't need a gun, man,' " Harmon said.
Johns explained it to Harmon this way: "It's not really about the gun. I want to step up careers a little bit."
Harmon rushed to the hospital when he learned that his friend had been shot.
"I totally thought it was a joke," Harmon said, who arrived before Johns's mother and couldn't bear to break the news. When Stephen Jr. arrived, "I just grabbed him and held on," Harmon said.
Staff writer Avis Thomas-Lester and staff researchers Meg Smith and Julie Tate contributed to this report.