Staff Photo: Tyler Estep This framed photo memorializing Darrell Johnson sits in the dining room of his family's Covington home. Johnson, an Army veteran and district manager for Waffle House, was shot and killed Jan. 4 by his daughter's boyfriend. Authorities are still deciding if the shooting was in self defense o his family said it was not.
COVINGTON — Darrell Johnson was an Army veteran, a proud grandfather, a tireless provider.
A district manager for Waffle House — covering stores in Lawrenceville, Snellville and Tucker — he worked 12- and 14-hour days, six days a week. He was a jokester and, as an Indiana native, a diehard Colts fan. He was protective.
Early on Jan. 5, Darrell Johnson’s wife and daughter watched him die.
“I held my husband in my arms until he took his last breath,” said Leisa Johnson, his wife.
The man who shot and killed Darrell Johnson that morning is 21-year-old Derrick Brown, the (now former) boyfriend of Johnson’s oldest daughter, Antonette. That fact is not in contention.
What’s up for debate — most notably by the Snellville Police Department and Gwinnett County District Attorney’s Office — is whether Brown was acting out of self-defense or out of malice.
As of Thursday, Brown had not been charged with any crime.
In the days after Johnson’s death, the official police version of the events went, to paraphrase, as follows:
• Antonette Johnson, 24, and Brown were involved in some type of domestic dispute at a friend’s Snellville home on the evening of Jan. 4.
• Johnson left but returned at about 3 a.m. with her mother, father and another family friend.
• Darrell Johnson and Brown got into two separate altercations; during the second, Johnson fractured Brown’s elbow with a barbell.
• During the second fight, Brown pulled a gun from his pajama pocket and shot Johnson twice.
• Johnson collapsed outside the apartment and died.
No charges were filed, and no more details were released. Snellville police and the district attorney’s office continue to work together to determine if the incident was self-defense or murder.
“The DA’s Office has requested that we complete three more interviews,” Snellville Police Chief Roy Whitehead said Thursday. “Efforts have been made to get this done, but we have not been able to make contact with the people at a convenient time.
“I hope to get these done in the next couple of days so we can get this case closed out.”
The Leisa Johnson version, relayed from the family’s comfortably middle-class Covington home, is more complete. And more than a little different.
Johnson said that Brown and her daughter, who had been involved in a “bad” relationship for a little over a year, had indeed been feuding that evening at a friend’s house in Snellville. When Darrell and Leisa Johnson left a friend’s birthday party after midnight, the latter had 25 voicemails from Antonette.
“There was also a text saying that (Brown) wouldn’t allow her to get her clothing and get into their apartment,” Leisa Johnson said this week.
The parents and a family friend decided to pick up Antonette from the friend’s house, escort her to the apartment to get some things and then take her back to Covington. When they all showed up at the apartment, Leisa Johnson said Brown tried to shut the door on her husband.
The duo — regrettably, Leisa Johnson said — did get into a fight.
But contrary to initial police reports, she said, that was it. The scrap was broken up, Darrell went upstairs to help his daughter pack some things, then came back down and told Brown that “this (expletive) has to stop.”
There was no second altercation, she said. Roughly 15 minutes had passed since the fight, and the family friend present told Brown to stop putting his hand in his left pocket.
Brown then went instead to his right pajama pocket, Leisa Johnson said.
“He put his hand in his right pocket, and when he pulled out I saw the butt of the gun and I screamed,” she said. “He shot my husband. They were not fighting. There was no threat to Derrick. The fight was over. Derrick chose to shoot my husband twice ... That isn’t self-defense.”
Darrell, a survivor of a “violent upbringing” himself, was only trying to help his daughter.
“It wasn’t like (Brown) shot him at the onset of their fight,” Leisa Johnson said. “He was sitting down, on the floor and he made a choice. My husband was not threatening him. So where is the self-defense?”
Darrell Johnson’s remains now rest on a mantel above his old bedroom door, and in necklaces around his family’s necks. His wife will wear his beloved Peyton Manning jersey to watch the Super Bowl on Sunday, then frame it and hang it in the foyer.
Darlisea Johnson, his 18-year-old daddy’s girl of a daughter, will push through to graduate from Newton High School without him.
“I still talk to him like he’s here,” she said.
Leisa Johnson will admit that her husband’s killer being charged with murder won’t help the healing process much, and won’t help the homemaker figure out how to provide for her family. It won’t help her better explain Darrell’s death to his “little buddy,” their 4-year-old grandson.
But it will, she believes, be what’s right.
“It wouldn’t ease the pain in any way,” she said. “Because, like I said, (Brown) didn’t have to. He made a choice. He didn’t have to shoot Darrell.
“But I would find some justice in it. But I would at least see a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel.”
Antonette Johnson doesn’t talk much anymore. Her final words to her father, printed on the program at his funeral, were hopeful ones.
“I just want you to know, Daddy, that you didn’t save my life and lose yours for nothing, I promise you! Your big girl is going to rock it like you always knew I could!
“I love you Daddy, see you soon!”