Walter Johnson fought to open up opportunities for others with disabilities.

Man's death revives 1977 robbery-shooting case

Published: Monday, Mar. 25, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B

Walter Johnson was an active, 26-year-old man – a former high school track athlete, a tennis lover, an aspiring California Highway Patrol officer – when a bullet fired during an Oak Park robbery left him a paraplegic.

That was in 1977. Last month, Johnson died of complications from the paralysis that changed the course of his life. He was 62.

In the years between, Johnson became an advocate for those like him, a career-term state worker who fought to open up opportunities for those with disabilities.

He did so with great warmth and gentleness, and never with complaint, his friends and former coworkers recalled.

"He was so genuine and so open and willing to fight the good fight – do what's right, no matter what," said Jennifer Mitchell, 45, who knew Johnson when he worked at the Employment Development Department. "He was … one of the good ones."

Because Johnson died of injuries that could be directly linked to the April 9, 1977, shooting, his death is now considered a homicide.

His robbery case, long gone cold and void of suspects, was placed in the hands of Sacramento police homicide Detective Pat Higgins, and the investigation has been renewed.

In Johnson's case, Higgins faces a great challenge. Detectives long ago followed the few leads they had and came up empty. Those investigators have long since retired, leaving behind old, sparse reports.

Still, Higgins said he has hope he can find justice for Johnson nearly 36 years after what he described as an "act of senseless violence."

"I believe there are people out there who know what happened. I'm hoping with the passage of time, they'll come forward," he said. "We've already received some information that makes me cautiously optimistic."

It was almost 4 o'clock the morning of the crime when Johnson left a coffee shop and headed for his parents' house to catch a few hours of sleep before a morning of fishing with his father.

As he drove down San Carlos Way in Oak Park, north of 14th Avenue, he came across a car parked in the street, Higgins said. As Johnson, an African American, tried to pass, one of three men who stepped out of the parked car said, "That's far enough," and used a racial slur.

One of the suspects then reached into Johnson's car and began struggling with the victim as he tried to get out. The suspect then shot him and he fell to the ground.

The suspects kicked him, stole his wallet and fled.

Johnson told police the men were Latino and between the ages of 19 and 25; one of them had "long fluffy hair or a mustache," Higgins said. They drove a new model Ford Pinto, brown or red in color and with "shiny looking oversized tires with chrome or mag wheels."

At the time, Johnson was working as a sergeant-at-arms in the state Assembly. He had applied to enter the California Highway Patrol Academy, and while recovering in the hospital, got a letter notifying him he had passed the physical agility test. He was invited for an interview.

Johnson grew up in Sacramento, attending Catholic schools. In 1968, he graduated from Bishop Armstrong High School (now Christian Brothers) and attended Sacramento City College and California State University, Sacramento.

He went on to receive a master's in public administration from the University of Southern California.

He married his high school sweetheart, though the two divorced sometime after the shooting.

Those who knew him in his later years say he didn't talk much about how he ended up in a wheelchair, nor did he pity himself or ask for sympathy from others – not even while traveling the state for business, his friends said. He also drove, and got himself in and out of his car without help, they said.

"Though he was a chair user, that never got in the way. He never allowed it or pointed to it as a reason not to perform at the highest level," said Michael Bernick, former director of the EDD and Johnson's boss.

"I just remember him as a very, very positive person for the department. That was the main part of his identity. (Being) a chair user – that was really a very minor, non-part of his identity."

Still, it was clear to his state co-workers that his disability had inspired him to help others in similar situations.

"What I liked about Walter the most was Walter believed in what we were doing," said Michael Krisman, who worked with Johnson at the EDD.

According to the State Controller's Office, Johnson worked for the EDD from 1990 to 1994 and then again from 2000 to 2007. He also worked for the Department of Health Services and the Department of Social Services.

Friends and family said Johnson liked to paint and read, and was involved in Democratic Party politics.

In the past decade, Johnson had suffered health troubles, some of which he seemed to have difficulty overcoming, friends said.

Krisman, 70, said he visited Johnson every day during a prolonged hospital stay several years ago. He read to Johnson and the two chatted.

"He never whined," Krisman said. "He was never sorry for what happened to him or why it happened to him and not somebody else."

Angie Skierka, who also uses a wheelchair, said she met Johnson through a statewide disability advisory group. The two later served together as commissioners on Sacramento's Disability Advisory Committee.

She last spoke to him earlier this year and was shocked to hear of his death.

"He was just a really very nice, gentle person," said Skierka, 73. "He'll be missed."

Call The Bee's Kim Minugh, (916) 321-1038. Follow her on Twitter @kim_minugh.

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