Columbia mall victim Tyler Johnson remembered as 'vibrant'

Those who knew him said Johnson 'may have saved lives'

  • Tyler Johnson, victim of shooting at The Mall in Columbia
Tyler Johnson, victim of shooting at The Mall in Columbia (Baltimore Sun )
January 26, 2014|By Yvonne Wenger, The Baltimore Sun

Tyler Johnson had been clean for more than two years, he wrote on his Facebook page.

The 25-year-old Mount Airy man made a point of seeking out other struggling addicts, was active in local 12-step programs and spoke to high school students and young adults about living a sober life, friends said.

But his life was cut short Saturday morning when he and Brianna Benlolo, 21, were killed in a shooting at Zumiez, the skate shop where they worked in the Mall in Columbia. Police have not established a motive for the shooting or a relationship between the victims and the alleged shooter, 19-year-old Darion Marcus Aguilar, who also died.

Benlolo had lived in a yellow bungalow in College Park with Corey Lewis and another housemate for the past two months.

Lewis said Benlolo was "ecstatic" when she became assistant manager at the Zumiez skate shop at the Columbia mall. She was "happy and always smiling," he said, and seemed to be in high spirits when she left for work Saturday morning.

Her primary focus was her toddler son, Elijah, who did not live with her but visited often, according to Lewis. Benlolo doted on and adored her son, he said. On Sunday, a toy four-wheeler sat outside the house, covered in snow.

Billy Copeland, 25, of Ellicott City, said he had been friends with Johnson since middle school. Copeland graduated in 2007 from Centennial High School, a year behind Johnson, he said.

"I wish I could give you a picture of him — he was just alive, vibrant," Copeland said. "He would laugh and he just drew people to him."

At a 12-step meeting Sunday at the Serenity Center in Columbia, friends and acquaintances called Johnson an inspiration in their recoveries.

Copeland said Johnson "dove into this program and he tried to help everybody. He really cared about everybody."

"He would tell people, 'If you want to keep what you have, you have to give it away,'" Copeland said.

Several friends credited Johnson with aiding in their recoveries by taking them to 12-step meetings. Copeland said Johnson was so serious about the program he would attend meetings for 90-day stretches, not missing a day.

Copeland said he learned of Johnson's death Sunday morning from the television news.

"I felt sick. I said, 'No, no, no, not Tyler! I could not stop crying. I went on Facebook and I saw 'R.I.P., Tyler Johnson,' and I knew it was true," Copeland said. "He did not deserve this."

Friends said Johnson enjoyed skating and was working at the mall while he sorted out what direction he wanted to take his life. At one point, he took classes at Howard Community College to become a chef but changed his mind.

"He was a good kid," said Johnson's sponsor, who did not want to be identified due to the anonymous nature of the program. "Tyler did a lot of good for young kids, because he went to talk to them. He may have saved lives.

"He was a pretty carefree kinda guy. He liked to kid around a lot."

When he heard about the shooting Saturday, the sponsor tried to call Johnson, but the call went straight to voice mail. The sponsor said he knew then that something was wrong — otherwise, Johnson would have called back immediately.

"It's a great loss," the man said. "He was a good friend."

Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article.

ywenger@baltsun.com

twitter.com/yvonnewenger

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