Ex-officer forgives man who shot him 

By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator  

A.J. Johnson vividly remembers a steamy July afternoon in 1979 that would forever change his life and put him on a path to forgiveness that perhaps few can imagine.  

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A.J. Johnson looks over at more than 30 years of memories as told through photos sitting on the mantle and hanging from the walls of his Baton Rouge home. Johnson, a man of deep faith, recently decided so speak in favor of granting parole to a man who had shot him in 1979.  Photo by Richard Meek | The Catholic Commentator 

 

Johnson, a Baton Rouge Police Department officer at the time, was waiting in line at Montgomery Ward to pay his bill. Johnson, dressed in his police uniform, was taking his lunch break to tend to the errand.  

Suddenly, he felt as if the back of his head “just blew off. I mean, it was as if it had just exploded.”  

As he fell to the ground, he asked, “Who did that?” and a lady pointed to an African American male who was escaping across the parking lot with an armful of guns he had just stolen. Johnson, recalling the words of his former football coach who once said, “It’s not a sin to get knocked down but it’s a sin if you don’t get up,” immediately pursued the perpetrator, who shot at Johnson while holding a woman hostage.  

During the exchange of gunfire, Johnson shot Lionel “Penitentiary Slim” Wallace in the leg and in the process freed the hostage. Wallace, originally from Baton Rouge, was captured several days later in a rooming house in Detroit, Michigan with the bullet from Johnson still lodged in his leg. 

As the chaos settled down, it turned out a bullet from Wallace’s gun had ricocheted off of the back of Johnson’s head and struck a clerk behind the counter at Montgomery Ward. She also survived. The woman who was briefly held hostage escaped without injury.  

Amazingly, Johnson, the father of Holy Rosary Church in St. Amant pastor Father Josh Johnson, returned to work the same day, without even visiting a doctor much less the emergency room, and his major simply said ‘to fill out a report,” which Johnson did before going home, simply another, albeit a bit more exciting, day on the job.  

Although the memories remain emblazoned in Johnson’s memory four decades later, there is no bitterness, no anger at the man who shot him in the head for no other reason than a hatred for the uniform Johnson was wearing. In fact, Wallace told the judge before being sentenced to life in jail without possibility of parole that after seeing Johnson in uniform he would “take him out.”  

“I had forgiven him many years ago,” said Johnson, a man of deep religious conviction who has made it his lifelong mission to stress the importance of faith on his seven children. 

“The Lord has forgiven me for all of the stuff I have done,” he added. “I’m blessed to have seven kids and one of them is a priest. You can’t be more blessed than that.”  

“And the priest is the baby,” Johnson added, flashing an infectious grin that makes a stranger feel at home.  

Johnson and his family did receive quite the shock earlier this year when they learned Wallace was up for parole since the original sentence stipulated he would never be freed. He admitted that a member of the parole board told Johnson that Wallace was likely to be denied parole but his input was still solicited.  

“I just thought he would be in there forever and ever,” Johnson said.  

After careful thought, revealing the tenderness and faith that defines the man, Johnson decided to speak in favor of granting Wallace parole. The decision was one he also discussed with his family, including his wife of more than 30 years, and they all supported their father and husband.  

“When his name came up, I said the Lord forgives people for things that they’ve done and forgives me for things I’ve done,” said Johnson, “I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to forgive him.’ The Lord teaches us to forgive others just as he forgives us, so I had no problem with it.”  

He said his only concern is that Wallace seizes the opportunity to turn around his life and use his unexpected freedom as an opportunity to do something constructive with his life.  

“I hope he doesn’t hurt anybody else,” Johnson said. “That was my only reservation. I hope he doesn’t get out and (hurt) someone else because then I would say if I hadn’t (spoke up for him) this person would not be in that position.”  

He said he has not personally spoken to Wallace and would unlikely recognize him if they met face to face.  

“I was a stranger to him; he was killing (the) uniform,” Johnson said.  

“He did come from a good family,” he quickly added. “I guess every family has one.”  

As he reflects on that day 40 years ago, Johnson glances at the mantle in the house where he and his wife have lived for 33 years, a mantle telling a family history through countless photos, snapshots of a family filled with laughter and an obvious love of each other.  

Using the large hands of a former offensive tackle, Johnson gently grabs individual photos, embracing the memories, emotion filling his voice.  

Describing each photo, the faith in Johnson’s voice is evident. He understands the frailty of life, and how it can all end so abruptly.  

“There is nothing like the Lord,” he said. “I’m grateful for the life that I have been able to live, and the life he has given me. I am thankful for my kids.  

“I was just glad the Lord let me live. If he hadn’t Josh would not be here.”