2 communities, one `tough' loss

Victim: Friends and co-workers react with fond memories and profound grief.

October 23, 2002|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

It was still dark outside when Conrad Everton Johnson left his family's tidy town house in Prince George's County for his job driving the No. 34 bus route through the leafy suburbs of Montgomery County.

His 35-mile commute to work from Oxon Hill crossed the network of highways and thoroughfares along which a sniper had struck: the Capital Beltway and Georgia and Connecticut avenues.

He traversed them all safely yesterday in the predawn hours. But as Johnson, 35, was preparing paperwork on his Ride On bus for the morning's first run, idling alongside a well-lit wooded area of garden apartments, basketball courts and playgrounds, an unidentified shooter fatally wounded him.

Gino Renne, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1994, which represents 8,000 Montgomery County workers, said Johnson's death devastated fellow bus operators.

"He was an absolute beautiful human being, and he was a strong family man, a good father, an excellent worker, really a model employee, and just somebody that people were proud to be acquainted with," Renne said, his voice breaking. "This is a tough one for a lot of people."

Johnson, a second-generation bus driver and the married father of two school-age sons, was the 10th person killed by the sniper who has terrorized a stretch from Washington's suburbs to the Richmond area.

A grim-faced Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose said at a news conference that no one was safe. "We realize that the person or the people involved in this have shown a clear willingness and ability to kill people of all ages, all races, all genders, all professions, [at] different times, different days, different locations."

Yesterday's shooting was the sniper's third in Aspen Hill, an area of apartment complexes and single-family homes near Rockville and Wheaton.

Like Johnson -- who was shot as he stepped down from the bus that runs from Grand Pre Road to the Bethesda Metro station -- the sniper's victims have all been hit while going about routine tasks.

Police said Johnson, who had worked for the county since 1992, was idling in the 14100 block of Grand Pre Road when he was shot just before his first pickup at 5:57 a.m.

He was taken by helicopter to Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, where he underwent surgery for massive internal bleeding caused by the wound to his upper stomach. Hospital officials announced that he died later in the morning.

A woman answering the telephone yesterday afternoon at the Johnsons' cream-colored townhouse on Rosecroft Court in Oxon Hill said she didn't want to talk about the shooting.

But neighborhood kids, playing tag on the cul-de-sac, remembered Johnson as a father quick to join pick-up games of football and basketball, as a man who left early for work and came home wearing his blue uniform every afternoon.

Shakira Benton, 16, who grew up with Johnson's elder son, Dante, said the teen was extraordinarily close to his father.

"He used to come out and sit on the porch and watch all us kids play," Benton said.

Neighbor Steven Addison, 33, whose daughter attended National Christian Academy in Fort Washington last year with Johnson's younger son, Devon, was numbed by the news.

"Man, he was like a brother to me," said Addison, a WorldCom engineer who wept when his wife told him of the shooting.

Johnson was a man of humor and faith who took pride in his home and cars, he said. "Conrad liked to keep his stuff clean and orderly."

On weekend mornings, he would find his tall, bald, muscular neighbor elbow-deep in soap suds as he cleaned the family's two tan cars, a Nissan Maxima and a Toyota Camry.

"He'd be out there nearly every day. I can't keep up with him," Addison said with a pained laugh.

"He was a real family man," Addison said. Johnson's wife, Denise, "would even sit on the steps while he washed the car. Him and his boys were always outside together.

"He loved his boys."

Four doors down, the Johnson home sat dark and shuttered.

Just after 5 p.m., Ellen Alexander from the victim assistance unit of the Montgomery County Police Department arrived and told a dozen reporters from New York, San Jose and local news agencies that the family had called to ask that neighbors not be bothered.

"The family is at an undisclosed location. They won't be back anytime soon," Alexander said. "They have no statement, and they're trying to be very private with this."

Then she picked up a fruit basket left by a Good Morning America producer -- who sat waiting in a taxicab for more than two hours -- and left.

Back in Montgomery County, Johnson's death resonated with colleagues. Dozens of drivers with the county's Ride On system met with crisis management counselors at the Brookvillle Road bus depot in Silver Spring, where Johnson had begun his work day.

Driver Monica Brown volunteered to fill in for a friend of Johnson's who was too upset to drive Route 34.

"Nobody is running on their regular schedule," she said on a near-empty bus. Late in the afternoon, the county posted a notice on the transit authority's Web site advising riders in Silver Spring, Takoma Park, Langley Park, Wheaton and Bethesda that routes had been affected.

"Especially the ones who were close to him couldn't take it, so they had to come off their routes," Brown said. "We're a big family down here."

She was speaking literally: Johnson's father, Tyrone Wills, used to drive Ride On buses and was recently promoted to the position of coordinator.

Brown said she was paranoid that another driver might be targeted.

Driver Christopher Jean Baptiste echoed her: "Who is not afraid these days?"

Sun staff writers Julie Bykowicz, Ivan Penn and Jason Song contributed to this article.

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