Garnett `Gus' D. Johnson, 59, Balto. Co. police detective

March 05, 2006|By BRADLEY OLSON | BRADLEY OLSON,SUN REPORTER

Garnett "Gus" Dobbin Johnson, a Vietnam veteran and retired Baltimore County police detective, died Feb. 26 of lung cancer. He was 59.

Fellow officers said he was an aggressive investigator who spent most of his career working armed robbery cases -- from bank robberies to street holdups -- solving about a third of all the department's cases.

"He was a hell of a cop," said Gus Vaselaros, who worked with him for 20 years. "He led the show, he knew his job, and he was a damn good detective."

Born in Baltimore, Mr. Johnson was raised in a house on North Wolfe Street and attended St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church. He graduated from City College in 1965 and briefly went to work for the state health department, where he met his first wife, Barbara Morgan.

The two married that year, when both were 19, just a short time before he joined the Navy and served as a boatswain's mate aboard the USS Dewey during the Vietnam War. He received the National Defense Service Medal and two Vietnam Service medals, and was honorably discharged in 1968.

Three years after he returned, Barbara Johnson, 26, died of kidney failure, a loss one of his daughters said he mourned for the rest of his life.

One year later, in 1972, he was the only African-American graduate of the Baltimore Police Academy, which trained officers for several different departments. He began his career as one of a very small number of black police officers in Baltimore County.

Fellow officers said he was promoted quickly to detective after success in various cases, including one undercover investigation into a drug-selling ring among employees of the Social Security Administration in the mid-1970s. Promoted to detective, he spent most of his time on a small staff of armed robbery investigators, a prestigious assignment in the department.

Tim Caslin, a retired Baltimore County officer who went through the police academy with him in 1972, said Mr. Johnson served almost his entire career as one of the only African-American officers and detectives in the department.

"He was able to become an excellent police officer in Baltimore County even though I feel it was more difficult for him as an African-American than others," Caslin said. "Very quickly, his supervisors recognized that his investigative skills were very advanced."

Several officers said Mr. Johnson enjoyed pranks, including playing tricks on rookies and persuading colleagues to pose in lineups and then posting their pictures under the banner: "America's Most Wanted."

He retired from the department in 1993 after 21 years and went to work in security at the Johns Hopkins Peabody Institute and as a bailiff at the Baltimore County District Court.

He married Hattie Watts in 1980 and helped raise her daughter, while his wife helped raise his two daughters.

Daughter Lisa Johnson said Mr. Johnson was a great father who loved to blow his boatswain's whistle to wake them up when school began each year. When they were little, she said, he would have his daughters dress up so he could take them out to dinner.

"Even though we didn't know about what fork to eat with or anything like that, he wanted to expose us to different kinds of things before we started dating," said Ms. Johnson of Chase. "That was important to him."

Mr. Johnson enjoyed ancient history, particularly Greek civilization and mythology, and he took his daughters to popular movies that depicted ancient societies. Lisa Johnson said he recently took her to see Troy and loved it, as he did most such films.

Mrs. Johnson said her husband was easygoing and took care of her when she was very ill. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in August.

"He was my soulmate," she said. "He was my king."

Services will be held at 11 a.m. tomorrow at the Vaughn Greene Funeral Home.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Johnson is survived daughters Karen Johnson of West Baltimore and Sandi Cooper of East Baltimore; a sister, the Rev. Yardley Vann of Woodlawn; and seven grandchildren.

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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