The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Slain homeless man recalled as quiet photographer with family

Metropolitan Police officers Robert Fennell, left, and Che Allen, with vigil attendee Julian Blair in center, stood silently at the portico where Joel Johnson was killed. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Joel Johnson Jr. spent his last day alive following the most routine of schedules.

He shuttled documents to the State Department for a courier service in Foggy Bottom, earning about $40 the morning of June 19. He spent the afternoon at a church hall in Georgetown. He mailed a Father’s Day card to his uncle. He took a bus to Glover Park.

There, the 53-year-old met one of his few close friends — fellow homeless man John Meade — and stopped at Whole Foods on Wisconsin Avenue. Johnson bought a cup of chicken noodle soup for $3.29. At 6 p.m., he walked up to Calvert Street and claimed his spot under the portico of St. Luke’s Mission Center, settling in against a set of white double doors by the second of four red brick pillars.

The other homeless there called him the “Quiet Guy.”

Four hours later, Johnson was stabbed in the head and neck, a killing for which police are looking for a suspect and a motive. He had a laptop computer and a camera, neither of which was taken.

Homeless man found killed at church mission in Glover Park.

Johnson grew up in Upper Marlboro, graduated from high school there and attended East Tennessee State University, studying fine arts. He was a photographer by profession, with a portfolio that included shots of parades and rallies, of the famous and ordinary, of moments centered on civil rights and social justice causes. He wrote on his LinkedIn page that he wanted to tell a story “that others did not have a chance to witness first hand.”

He once had a job processing film, but he lost his condo in New Carrollton when the store closed in 2011 or 2012. Johnson never told his family he was homeless. He kept his Facebook page and other social media sites updated. Bespectacled, thin and reclusive, he wandered the District streets with a smile, bent over from scoliosis and struggling with diminishing eyesight.

“Joel didn’t have to be homeless,” said Lois Johnson, a cousin who lives in the District and is among dozens of relatives in the area. “We all have houses. He could have just reached out and let us know. My last Facebook comment from him was that he was staying with friends, that he was okay. . . . It was a choice he made to keep it from us.”

Johnson was one of at least 68 people killed in the District as of June 30, 10 more than were slain by that time last year, a troubling spike at the beginning of the summer. Living on the street put Johnson in another dangerous category — a continuing crisis of homelessness that the District’s mayor has made a priority.

On Wednesday, Johnson’s family, friends and parishioners at St. Luke’s Mission, a former church that merged with Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church seven years ago, held a candlelight vigil on the spot of the killing. Three dozen people came to talk not only about Johnson, but about his death’s greater meaning as a member of a vulnerable population.

“We confess that this tragedy is part of a wider failure to create safe communities that are humane, compassionate, just and filled with dignity and hope for all,” a parishioner, Duncan Wilson, read to those gathered.

Three uniformed D.C. police officers also came, along with the homicide detectives assigned to the case, Gus Giannakoulias and James Wilson. They distributed a flier with a photo of a person of interest — a small, dark image of the back of a man standing in the shadows of a brick pillar, wearing what appears to be black coat and a white hat.

“We’re trying to identify this person,” Wilson told one person at the vigil. “It was taken minutes before the homicide took place.” Relatives said they were told an aggressive newcomer had recently joined the group sleeping under the portico.

Johnson’s mother, Carole Lee Kin, 72, did not attend. She said her son would not have wanted a public gathering. But it was important for her to tell her son’s story to Giannakoulias when he visited her home in Silver Spring to inform her of the death.

“I want you to know that my son was not a nobody,” she told him.

Kin, who is from the island of Trinidad and moved to Maryland to marry a U.S. sailor, described her son as a subdued but inquisitive child. He played football and ran track at Frederick Douglass High School in Upper Marlboro and resisted teacher’s attempts to steer him into math.

His mother said girls were interested in Johnson, but she lamented, “they got tired. He was too much work. He preferred to draw, to do quiet things.” He never outgrew that trait. “You could talk your brain out,” Kin said, “and he might smile. If you asked him a direct question, he would answer with the least amount of words he could find. Or he might not answer at all.” She said he relied on his sister “to fight his battles.”

Johnson’s sister is a nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, and his brother works at the Patent and Trademark Office. Kin is retired from an accounting job at the Smithsonian.

Relatives knew Johnson had lost his job, but they believed him when he said he was staying with friends and that he was okay. At first, Johnson regularly attended family gatherings. But over time, even holiday appearances became less frequent. His mother, who does not use a computer, left it up to her children and grandchildren to keep tabs on Johnson on the Internet.

Two years ago, Kin said, she went to a funeral for an uncle, hoping her son would show up. When she saw him walking up the street, she said, “I hugged him.” She invited him to her home for a visit, but along the way, he told her to stop her car. He got out and said he would catch a cab to his house.

“I watched him through my rearview mirror,” Kin said. She didn’t know he didn’t have a home. It was the last time she saw him.

In May, his cousin Lois and his 83-year-old uncle Ricardo Johnson and aunt Eunice Johnson had another sighting. They were at the Grand Review of the Armies parade on Pennsylvania Avenue to honor Johnson’s great grandfather, Alonzo Johnson, who was part of a regiment that pursued Gen. Robert E. Lee to his surrender at Appomattox. The parade was a reenactment of the march of the victorious Union armies in 1865.

Amid the marchers was Johnson, wearing a period uniform like that worn by his great-grandfather. He had paid $210 and had it shipped to a mission. After the parade, he posed for pictures with his relatives, and although he accepted an invitation to come to a family cookout that night, he never showed.

Those who knew him said it was his character. He didn’t drink or do drugs, family and friends said, and had no criminal record. But he was socially awkward and preferred to be alone. He attended each of the Saturday Suppers at Mount Zion Methodist Church in Georgetown. The pastor, the Rev. Johnsie W. Cogman, said he was always first to arrive, and he set up and broke down tables, carried in food and cleaned up. He also enjoyed the meal.

“He was not what people want to classify as homeless,” Cogman said. “He is a very intelligent person, very educated, and humble. He talked about his work, his photos and what he liked to do.”

Most of his pictures posted on various Internet sites were taken before 2011, including several he lists as professionally published and others from the 2010 funeral of civil rights leader Dorothy Height at the Washington National Cathedral. A Washington Post photographer took a picture of Johnson taking a photo of a new blue Chevrolet Corvette convertible at the 2015 Washington Auto Show at the convention center in January.

“He was always productive,” said Johnson’s uncle and god­father, Ricardo Johnson, who worked for 40 years in the District’s sanitation department. “Something happened that took him on a downward spiral. I have yet to understand what that is.”

The uncle was the family’s de facto patriarch, but he said he tried not to meddle. “My nephew didn’t come out and tell us what his problem was, and I didn’t ask him what his problem was,” he said. “Maybe I should have.”

Joel Johnson kept up family appearances by sending cards. He rarely missed a birthday or a holiday. Hours before he was killed, he put a Father’s Day card in the mail to Ricardo. “You’re a good man, and a good guy,” the author had penned.

He signed it in block letters, “Joel.”

Ricardo Johnson received it two days after learning of his nephew’s death.

There was no return address.

This article has been updated to correct the name of a church where Johnson attended Saturday suppers.