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Seeing Sierra one last time

Sierra Johnson was shot in front of her daughters. Now, her family wants a final chance to say goodbye.

A T-shirt worn by family and friends to Sierra Johnson’s funeral in February. The mother of three, who was pregnant with a fourth child, was killed in front of her two daughters. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The mother arrived first, her cane tapping as she crossed the parking lot, the pompom on her blue knit hat bobbing. It was late January — bitter, overcast — and she was 24 minutes late to plan her daughter’s burial.

Sheryle Johnson rang the doorbell of the Southern Maryland funeral home. A moment later, the director of operations answered.

“I’m Sierra’s mom,” Johnson said, her face hollowed by grief.

“Hi, Sierra’s mom,” Dani Skinner replied. “How you doing?”

She didn’t have an answer for him.

Skinner led the 62-year-old woman inside, to a seat at a glass tabletop that had been wiped with Windex only minutes earlier, erasing the fingerprints left by other grieving families. Johnson unwrapped her scarf. She gestured to the parking lot, where her oldest daughter was still on the phone with a D.C. prosecutor, a conversation that had delayed their arrival.

In a courthouse 14 miles away, the man charged in the killing of 27-year-old Sierra Johnson — who’d been four months pregnant — was about to make his first appearance before a judge. Joseph Fox would plead not guilty to second-degree murder.

A week had passed since the Jan. 19 shooting, but the shock hadn’t faded. In a city often numb to gun violence, Sierra’s death had been too appalling to ignore — another sign that the soaring number of murders in the nation’s capital in 2021 was not receding.

An aspiring social worker, Sierra had been parked near Howard University in Northwest Washington around 8 p.m. when Fox — someone she’d known since high school — allegedly shot her six times in the head, neck and body, according to the 11-page criminal complaint against him. Buckled in the back seat were her 2- and 4-year-old daughters. Police found the girls uninjured, surrounded by bullet casings and their mother’s blood. They are among at least seven children who have witnessed the fatal shootings of their parents in D.C. since the start of the year.

Now Sheryle Johnson sat at the glass-topped table at Compassion and Serenity Funeral Home, the grief of planning her child’s home-going colliding with the logistics of a police investigation and hard decisions over who would raise her daughter’s children: the two girls and an 11-month-old boy. She wondered if the terrible nature of Sierra’s death would make an open-casket funeral impossible. How could their family mourn Sierra if they couldn’t see her one last time?

Just then, the front door opened.

“I’m sorry,” said Danielle Green, her voice quivering. “One second. Where’s the bathroom, Mom?”

“[The prosecutor] told you something,” Johnson said, struggling to stand. “What she tell you?”

“Nothing. It’s just a lot, Mom. It’s a lot.”

Skinner pointed Green down the hallway, then sat next to Johnson at the table. At 38, he’d worked with families like hers for more than a decade. Over the previous year, Skinner had helped with the funeral arrangements of 37 homicide victims, among them an 8-year-old boy killed by a stray bullet while eating a taco and a 27-year-old father whose killing still hadn’t resulted in an arrest.

In an hour, Skinner would meet at the same table with another family of another gun violence victim. Compassion and Serenity had become known for this kind of work — the erasure of visible violence from bodies, the chance to say a final goodbye. He promised Johnson that this was possible for Sierra, too.

“We are going to take care of y’all,” he said.

Once Green returned, Skinner told them what to do: purchase a dress in Sierra’s favorite colors — purple or royal blue — with long sleeves and a high neck, plus a wig and costume jewelry. Call the church, pick out a cemetery.

Green promised that they would find any additional money needed for the services, even if she had to borrow against her retirement plan. The $10,000 offered by D.C.’s Crime Victims Compensation Program only went so far.

Johnson listened, clutching a clear zip-top bag of her dead daughter’s legal documents. She’d lost Sierra once before, to the foster care system when she was about 11 years old. But this loss was unfathomable.

She looked at the laminated price list, about the size of a restaurant menu. Her body rattled with a sob. She pushed back her chair.

“I just can’t focus right now,” she said, heading for the privacy of the bathroom. “Whatever you think she might like, Danielle.”

As she disappeared down the hallway, Green’s cellphone rang again. This time, it was the property manager of Sierra’s apartment complex. Because her belongings — keys included — were still in possession of the police, no one could get inside the unit. Green just wanted the children’s clothing and toys, to offer them some sense of normalcy.

Maybe tomorrow, the property manager offered.

Green hung up, frustrated.

“My oldest niece, she kept talking about how her hands was wet with crayon,” Green told Skinner. “We were like, 'Crayon?’ She’s trying to say that her hands were wet with her mom’s blood, because she was shaking her to wake up.”

Skinner was finishing the last of the paperwork when Johnson returned, her cane clacking back down the hallway. After tucking death certificates into black folders, he offered to lead the two women in a prayer.

Bowing his head, he began: “We ask that you uplift the Johnson family. Give them understanding. Make it easy, God.”

They got up from the table and hugged. They’d scheduled the funeral for early February. It would be their last chance to see Sierra as she was, not what she had become — another victim of gun violence.

Johnson tapped a cigarette from the carton in her purse and followed her oldest daughter into the afternoon light.

Beating the odds

Five days later, Sierra’s body arrived at the funeral home in the back of a white Dodge minivan with tinted windows. She was zipped into a black bag from the D.C. morgue labeled with her name and a number: 22-0276. Scrawled at her feet in white marker was a single word: “DONE.”

A cemetery worker helped bury murder victims. Then her son was killed, too.

After transferring her onto a gurney, the van driver pushed through Compassion and Serenity’s front doors and rolled her down the hallway to the embalming room.

As the mortician got to work preserving her body later that week, the lives of Sierra’s family were being reorganized in ways both big and small.

Sierra had been the seventh of 10 kids, a brood that swelled to include their 21 children. In a studio portrait taken for her mother’s 55th birthday, Sierra and her siblings had posed in matching T-shirts: four sons in white, six daughters in blue, their children in peach.

Navigating the vast web of family birthdays had been the most difficult part of scheduling Sierra’s funeral, but they’d figured it out. Navigating her absence was far harder.

Sierra’s oldest brother had taken to saying that a piece of their puzzle had been stolen from them. Their mother felt this pain so acutely that she’d stopped eating for a time. Unable to bear the quiet of her home in Southeast Washington, Johnson had begun staying with Green.

At 43, Green was the oldest of the bunch. Her own two daughters were in college, so she’d taken custody of Sierra’s girls: 4-year-old Jayla and 2-year-old Kahmiya. A brother would raise the baby, King.

Green was a teenager when Sierra was born — a 15-year age gap that had closed in adulthood. Green still remembers how their mother had gone into labor in their small apartment, unable to make it to the hospital in time. Sierra had emerged with chocolate-colored skin, a contrast with her light-skinned siblings. Green instantly fell in love with her “brownie baby” — her fuzz of hair, her round cheeks. She took Sierra with her everywhere, nicknaming her “Fat Cat” for her voracious appetite.

“I just looked at her like she was my baby,” Green said. “I kept telling my mom: ‘I want to put her in my bed. I wanted to get her bottle.’ ”

Sierra’s time in foster care — the result of her mother’s struggle with drug addiction — was tough for her, said her aunt, Darlene Garrett, 51. But Sierra didn’t let that define her.

Instead she became the first of her siblings to earn a college degree, studying criminal justice at Trinity Washington University while working at Macy’s and raising three young children.

She was a devoted mother, planning elaborate themed birthday parties for the girls and taking them to McDonald’s for after-school treats, said Garrett, who teaches at Cedar Tree Academy in Southeast Washington, where Jayla attends preschool.

“She had three kids and still managed to get her undergraduate degree,” her aunt said. “She was very determined.”

When Sierra graduated in May, both her biological and foster families were in the audience. To celebrate, they’d eaten dinner at a restaurant in Georgetown.

Sierra wanted to become a social worker to help others, like the social workers who helped her as a child. She’d planned to pursue her master’s degree. Friends and family liked to say that she’d “beaten the odds.”

But now, she wouldn’t get to plan her son’s first birthday party or encourage her daughters to attend college. She’d never know the sex of the child she was carrying — or who that child would have become.

“It’s crushing to us,” Green said. “We don’t know why it happened, and it’s not something we will ever be able to get over. … To hear my niece ask, ‘Where’s Mommy?’ constantly. She’ll say, ‘Can I go to heaven and visit her?’ I always say, ‘You can, but not today.’ ”

In the embalming room of Compassion and Serenity, the mortician had finished his work. With the help of another employee, Sierra was dressed in a ribbed purple dress — so new that the $40 price tag was still attached — and settled into a white casket.

They pushed her into the viewing room, where the windows were layered with translucent adhesives: white lilies, green leaves, blue water that mimicked stained glass. On sunny days, the room was splashed with color.

For now, they closed the lid.

‘Bringing her back’

The beauticians descended on Compassion and Serenity on a bright Sunday afternoon, carting suitcases of cosmetics and perfumes, nail polishes and hair tools. They’d studied photos of Sierra: her grin, the thin arc of her eyebrows, the way she’d styled her long hair.

Restoring gun violence victims to the person they’d been required care, ingenuity and good makeup. And so the half-dozen women unsnapped their cases in the viewing room.

They filed the acrylics from Sierra’s nails — sending a cloud of pastel blue dust into the air — and tied her hands together, right over left, so they rested peacefully.

Skinner slid a faux-diamond bracelet onto her wrist, then draped a matching necklace across her chest.

The hairstylist fitted a wig onto Sierra’s head and traced the edges with lace glue. The wavy locks fell evenly around Sierra’s face, obscuring the bullet holes that dimpled her temple. Then a makeup artist began dolloping concealers onto the back of her latex glove.

She chose from compact powders and tubes of cream with names like Madagascar, Nairobi, Ethiopia. A spectrum of pinks and browns. Using an egg-shaped sponge, she dabbed color on Sierra’s forehead and along the high planes of her cheekbones, bringing the life back to her face.

“She’s looking like herself again,” said the hairstylist, Lisa Rose. “She looks like her sisters.”

Rose paused. She’d gotten into this work after doing the hair for the funeral of her 28-year-old nephew, who was shot and killed in 2020. She knew how meaningful it was for families to have a chance to say goodbye.

She also had a more personal connection — she’d grown up on the same block as Sierra and had been friendly with two of her sisters.

“You know they got the guy that shot at her?” Rose asked the makeup artist.

Sierra and Fox — the man accused of killing her — had known each other for about eight years, according to the criminal complaint against him. Though he hadn’t fathered any of her children, her family said, they’d remained close after high school. And their relationship had been marked by violence before.

In 2018, after they’d gotten into an argument over money and a laptop, Fox had beaten Sierra up, police records show. Found guilty of simple assault and attempted second-degree theft, he received a 30-day sentence. But by late 2021, witnesses told police, they’d reconciled.

In December, Fox posted on Sierra’s Facebook page to wish her a happy birthday.

Weeks later, she was dead.

Now Sierra’s family was waiting for his preliminary hearing, scheduled for March 29.

“Good,” the makeup artist replied, closing a tube of foundation. “Glad they got him.”

She looked down at Sierra. Her nails were polished in silver glitter, and her lips lined with brown pencil. She smelled of perfume: sweet and floral.

“We’re bringing her back, baby,” Rose crooned. “Bringing her back.”

She brushed her fingers through the wavy hair of Sierra’s wig, spritzing it with holding spray. Using a pink comb, she smoothed out a few last tangles, then leaned back for a final look.

“I’ll be praying for your babies,” she told Sierra.

Goodbye

The church was filling up with people.

At the front of the Temple of Praise in Southeast Washington, Sierra lay in her casket. The lid was propped open — something that had once seemed like an impossibility. The mourners filed across the church’s green carpet, pausing to touch Sierra’s folded hands or mutter a prayer, before finding a seat in the pews.

Johnson passed, followed by Jayla and Kahmiya in matching navy dresses, their flouncy skirts studded with sparkles that caught the light. Sierra’s baby, King, in the arms of her brother’s wife. Her great aunts in their wheelchairs. The two police detectives investigating her killing.

Sierra’s family had already seen her the previous day at a private viewing. Bundled in their winter coats and boots, her sisters and brothers had stood in front of the casket for a long time.

When Johnson had walked into the room and seen her daughter’s face for the first time, she’d crumpled over her cane, staggering the last few feet to the casket. She’d bent so deeply over Sierra’s body that Green had to remind her mother that they weren’t allowed to kiss Sierra.

“I’m not kissing her,” Johnson had replied, her voice cracking. “I’m talking to her.”

Now, a slide show of photos played on screens at the front of the church. Sierra in her cap and gown, clutching a bouquet of yellow flowers. Sierra at the baby shower Green had hosted, Jayla and Kahmiya hugging the round curve of their mother’s belly. Sierra at a wedding, dressed in a blue floor-length gown with the rest of the bridesmaids.

“Oh, look!” Jayla shouted from a front pew, focused on the slide show. “Mommy! There’s Mommy!”

When she noticed that her relatives were sobbing, she grimaced.

“Stop crying,” she commanded. Then a different thought passed through her mind: “Mommy … she pregnant!”

Green hushed her.

At 10:58 a.m., Skinner announced it was time for the final viewing. Johnson walked to the front of the church, kissing Sierra through her blue surgical mask for the last time. Jayla knocked on the casket, asking if her mother was inside.

Sierra’s siblings stood, their hands zippered together for one last glimpse of their sister. After this, they’d follow the hearse to a cemetery in Southern Maryland, where they would say their last goodbye — but none would feel quite as final as this.

Skinner shut the casket, and Sierra was gone.

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