Rep. Dan Johnson, a colorful state lawmaker in Kentucky who ran a controversial biker-style church, died by suicide on a bridge in his home state after being accused of sexually assaulting a teenage girl in his home basement, accusations he fervently denied after they emerged in a recent journalistic expose about him.
On Facebook, Johnson, who was the pastor of Heart of Fire church in Louisville, called himself “Pope Dan R. Johnson” and was sometimes known as Danny Ray Johnson. Johnson – a controversial figure who had once been criticized for racist Facebook posts – was the subject of accusations in a five-chapter investigative series that ran on December 11. On December 12, according to WDRB-TV, “Johnson held a press conference at his church on Bardstown Road, where he denied the molestation allegations.” On December 13, he took his own life.
His church was unorthodox, to say the least, but credited by some with bringing new people into religious life. Videos on YouTube show scenes of people holding guns in church in what was labeled the “Heart of Fire gun choir.” Wrote Guns.com with the below video, “I was recently invited to the Heart of Fire Church in Louisville, Kentucky by Pope Dan Johnson to listen to their new gun choir. Toting an assortment of pistols and rifles, they sang Amazing Grace along with a few other spiritual favorites. Their voices were balanced and rich. I thought they were pretty good.”
The death comes in the midst of sexual harassment and assault allegations that have swept the nation as the #metoo movement took off following accusations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and a string of politicians and celebrities.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Johnson Posted a Suicide Note on His Facebook Page Before Shooting Himself
Under a cloud of accusations, Johnson drove to a local bridge and shot himself to death in a “probable suicide,” the county coroner told WDRB-TV. The Bullitt County Sheriff Donnie Tinnell told the television station that Johnson “drove on to the bridge over the Salt River on Greenwell Ford Road in Mt. Washington, parked on the north side of it and shot himself in front of his car. His body was found on the bank of the river, just past the bridge.”
Around 5 p.m. on December 13, Johnson posted the above suicide note on his Facebook page. It reads:
The accusations from NPR are false GOD and only GOD knows the truth, nothing is the way they make it out to be. AMERICA will not survive this type of judge and jury fake news . Conservatives take a stand. I LOVE GOD and I LOVE MY WIFE, who is the best WIFE in the world,My Love Forever ! My Mom and Dad my FAMILY and all five of my kids and Nine grandchildren two in tummies and many more to come each of you or a total gift from GOD stay strong, REBECCA needs YOU . 9-11-2001 NYC/WTC, PTSD 24/7 16 years is a sickness that will take my life, I cannot handle it any longer. IT Has Won This Life . BUT HEAVEN IS MY HOME. “PLEASE LISTEN CLOSELY, Only Three things I ask of you to do,if you love me is (1)blame no person,Satan is the accuser, so blame the Devil himself. (2) Forgive and Love everyone especially yourself .(3)most importantly LOVE GOD. P.S. I LOVE MY FRIENDS YOU ARE FAMILY ! GOD LOVES ALL PEOPLE NO MATTER WHAT !
Johnson’s reference to 9/11 and post-traumatic stress disorder is a reference to his claim that he was in New York City during the terror attacks and that he helped set up a morgue at Ground Zero, and also gave last rites to dying victims, according to Insider Louisville. Johnson’s story was disputed by chaplains at the scene, but Johnson defended himself recently, saying that Mayor Rudy Giuliani visited his church in Louisville because of what he said he did on 9/11.
He often talked about the terror attacks, saying in 2013 at a Freedom Watch rally in D.C., “I live 9/11 every day of my life.”
According to WDRB, someone who saw the troubled Facebook post called police, who located Johnson’s body after pinging his cell phone. Unfortunately, it was too late. The governor, Matt Bevin, sent out this tweet after news of Johnson’s death broke: “Saddened to hear of tonight’s death of KY Representative Dan Johnson…My heart breaks for his family tonight…These are heavy days in Frankfort and in America…May God indeed shed His grace on us all…We sure need it…”
2. The Expose on Johnson by the Kentucky Center of Investigative Reporting Was Headlined ‘The Pope’s Long Con’
According to the Associated Press, “Johnson sponsored a number of bills having to do with religious liberty and teaching the Bible in public schools. But he was mostly out of the spotlight until Monday, when the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting published an account from a woman saying Johnson sexually assaulted her in the basement of his home in 2013.”
The lengthy article encompasses five chapters and includes an artistic rendering of Johnson and a subhead that reads, “Kentucky preacher-turned-politician’s web of lies.” The series opens with a scene of Johnson in a fellowship hall festooned with a confederate flag, and calls him “Danny Ray Johnson, 57, the self-proclaimed pope, bishop and minister to outcasts…”
The article accused Johnson of molestation and hypocrisy. “Long ago, Johnson fashioned an identity as a modern-day American patriot. Pro-gun, pro-God, pro-life. He talked in 2013 about making America great again. He lamented the lack of God in everyone’s lives. He wept over the country’s future,” it reads. “But behind this persona — cultivated, built up and fine-tuned over decades — is a web of lies and deception. A mysterious fire. Attempted arson and false testimony. Alleged molestation in his church.”
The series also alleged, “He claims he served as White House chaplain to three presidents. A United Nations ambassador. He says he set up the morgue after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and was the pastor who gave last rites for all of those pulled from the towers.” The expose also dredged up an old mugshot of Johnson, reporting that his checkered past included an indictment for complicity to commit arson, which was dismissed when he completed a diversion program, a bankruptcy, and a divorce.
3. A Young Woman Accused Johnson of Sexual Contact When She Was 17
Maranda Richmond, 21, was the young woman who accused Johnson of sexual abuse, coming forward by name in the KCIR report. She was friends with Johnson’s daughter and attended the church because her father liked it, the article says. In the last few days of his life, Danny Ray Johnson was embroiled in a controversy that sparked due to Richmond’s allegations, but he refused to resign as a state lawmaker.
She was 17, she alleged, when, according to the article, “Hours after midnight, she remembers Johnson returning to the hall, drunk. He was stumbling and fumbling around, and she helped him down the stairs into the apartment and told him to go to bed. Johnson put an arm around her — for balance, Richmond thought — until his hand slipped up her shirt. At the time, she didn’t pay it much heed.” Criminal charges did not result. You can read all of the details from the police reports in the case here.
According to NBC News, “Johnson was elected in 2016 to represent Kentucky’s 49th House District, which includes part of Bullitt County.” The assault accusations dated to 2013. “Police documents from an interview with Richmond in 2013 corroborate what she told the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting,” NBC News reported. “Police documents obtained by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting show a detective closed the case because Richmond would not cooperate. Richmond denied this, saying she never once wanted to stop the investigation.”
The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting released a statement after Johnson’s suicide:
Dan Johnson’s daughter, Sarah Johnson, wrote on Facebook the day before Johnson’s suicide, “I know the truth. No matter how bad it gets, I won’t run or hide. I’ll stand behind the truth. It’s pretty awful right now, but it’s gunna be okay.” Sarah Johnson also wrote, “Why are people so ugly hearted these days? They’ll lie, tear you down, and hurt you just for there own selfish gain. Literally blows my mind how awful people can be.”
At his own press conference shortly before he died, Johnson said, “This allegation concerning this lady, this young girl, absolutely has no merit. These are unfounded accusations, totally.”
4. Johnson Was Accused of Posting Racist Facebook Messages About the Obamas & Was a Fervent Trump Supporter
According to the Associated Press, Johnson was a controversial figure in Kentucky and was once accused of comparing Barack and Michelle Obama to monkeys on Facebook. As a result, some in the GOP opposed his candidacy for the state legislature.
“Johnson was elected to the state legislature in 2016, part of a wave of Republican victories that gave the GOP control of the Kentucky House of Representatives for the first time in nearly 100 years,” AP reported. “He won his election despite Republican leaders urging him to drop out of the race after some of his racist Facebook posts came to light.” The investigative expose also quoted Johnson as once saying, “the Islam’crat Barack Obama, criminal Clinton and lyin’ Linda have sent Chicago thugs.”
A sideways Facebook Live video was the last public post that now shows on Dan Johnson’s Facebook page. It was streamed December 12. He also recently shared a news story about the explosion in the Port Authority terminal in New York City. He also shared a post about “hemp changing the world.” The video has since been removed or privatized from the page.
Johnson shared a meme about voting for Trump and other pro-Trump rhetoric, and his profile picture showed him with the president. Johnson mixed guns with religion. There’s another video on YouTube by Guns.com that shows him with a firearm.
“Heart of Fire Church: A welcoming of spirit, guns and patriotism,” it reads. Guns.com wrote on one video, “Heart of Fire is known as a ‘biker church’. In fact, half of the church is an actual biker bar. This means is that if you’re a tattooed, sunburnt gun-toting, leather-wearing biker that might get kicked out of a regular church, you’re definitely welcome at Heart of Fire. There’s lots of music and fellowship and Johnson’s fiery and passionate sermons will light a fire in your heart.”
The church website says, “We are an Evangelical Church, Where Jesus is Real and the People are too! At Heart of Fire Church, we ‘love people to life!’ We are an ‘Inclusive’ ministry, actively reaching out to the ‘unchurched,’ and we believe that absolutely no one is beyond the reach of the unconditional love of God. Our prayer is that all may be one. Everyone is welcome! ‘WE LOVE FAMILY! WE LOVE YOU!'”
5. Johnson Was Married & His Wife Told Reporters They Would Have ‘Blood’ on Their Hands
Johnson’s Facebook page says he lived in Mount Washington, Kentucky, was married, and was from Bastrop, Louisiana. The series about him says that he was married to Rebecca. Rebecca Johnson’s most recent Facebook post dates to early December and reads, “Courage Strength Vision Purpose can be found in the presence of friends and family! Get to church to get yours, Heart of Fire Noon, Sunday School 11 AM. Wear jeans no dress codes. Coffee and Donuts to wake you up!”
The expose on Johnson describes a scene in which his wife ushers reporters out the door, quoting her, before his suicide, as saying, “We know what you’re going to do. And you’re going to have blood on your hands. I’m telling you now, it’s the word of the Lord.”
Sarah Johnson also shared a Facebook post from a friend that read, “Please be in prayer for Rep Dan Johnson who has put forth the bill of abolition in Kentucky. The media has written an article accusing him of everything from sexual assault, burning down his own church, and lying about his past. I just spent time with Dan where he denied every allegation. For example they accused him of lying about being a chaplain at 9/11. Dan showed me picture after picture of him at 9/11 with Mayor Rudy and President Bush.”
This photo appears on Johnson’s Facebook page:
The Facebook post from the friend continued, “It was overwhelming the pictures and proof that he was a chaplain, yet they still wrote an article accusing him of lying. As far as the other accusations, he denied them to me and offered up good explanations. We are living in a crazy time when anyone who is in public is fair game. One thing is for sure, we better live above reproach. I challenged Dan Johnson to maintain a life above reproach and put behind anything that could even remotely be used against him. Pray for him and his family.”