Dan Johnson’s closed silver casket was at the front of the sanctuary next to his favorite Harley on Saturday, and scores of mourners lined up to wish him a final farewell, many of them sporting tattoos, black leather vests and silver skull rings.
Here, on this same spot within the Heart of Fire Church in the rural outskirts of this Kentucky city, Johnson had built his reputation as the congregation’s “Pope.” Here, he delivered sermons to a flock of self-described bikers, outlaws and lost sheep, giving them hope and direction. Here, he presided over a fun-loving, boozy crowd that liked to party. Here, he launched an unlikely bid to become a state representative.
And here, a week ago, he denied published allegations that he had gotten drunk and sexually assaulted a teenage friend of his daughter’s after a party at the church fellowship hall. His return, in a casket, came days after he killed himself amid the ensuing tumult.
There’s just a lot of hurt. He saved a lot of these guys from an early grave. You’ve got a bunch of guys who were like sons to my dad, and we all feel really hurt.
Judah Johnson, Dan Johnson’s 25-year-old son
The atmosphere at the church was a mixture of sadness and anger over the weekend, sadness at the loss of the gregarious pastor, anger at the local investigative news organization that reported the allegation that Johnson had forced himself on a 17-year-old girl. Many in this congregation — including Johnson’s wife, Rebecca, and their four children — staunchly deny the allegations could be true.
“There’s just a lot of hurt. He saved a lot of these guys from an early grave,” Johnson’s 25-year-old son Judah told The Washington Post. “You’ve got a bunch of guys who were like sons to my dad, and we all feel really hurt. We just want it to stop, and we wish we could get someone to make it stop, you know?”
Johnson’s suicide Wednesday at age 57 came amid a stream of sexual assault and harassment allegations against powerful men in U.S. society, including the entertainment business, the media, local politicians, judges, mayors and members of Congress. His death followed his denials of sexual assault accusations published in a lengthy story by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting on Dec. 11.
It was an end that his wife and friends say they never saw coming. In retrospect, they said, it appears that while Johnson had found a way to balance his seemingly contradictory natures of a “born-to-be-wild” biker and his calling to ministry, it was his entry into politics — and public scrutiny — last year that was perhaps too much for him.
“His lifestyle was so unorthodox that the mainstream Christian leaders just felt there were sinners in his church. And then in politics, the leaders of the Republican Party felt the same way, that he was out of the mainstream,” said Jeff Klusmeier, chairman of the Kentucky Young Professionals for Trump, noting that members of Louisville’s two largest motorcycle clubs, the Grim Reapers and Outlaws, consider Johnson’s church to be neutral territory. “But that’s where the rubber meets the road. Christ came to save the lost.”
The foyer of the Heart of Fire Church celebrates Johnson’s pastoral career with a wall dedicated to the 9/11 terrorist attacks — Johnson had long said he was in New York at the time and administered last rites to victims at the World Trade Center. The wall displays photos of Johnson at anniversary services in New York in 2003 and 2004 with him standing next to former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, R, former President George H. W. Bush, then-President George W. Bush and then-New York Gov. George Pataki, R. On another wall, a photo from 2000 shows Johnson at the Million Family March in Washington, standing next to former D.C. mayor Marion Barry D, and Martin Luther King III.
Johnson’s career as a minister reached its peak in early March 2016, when he prayed the invocation at the first rally in Louisville for then-candidate Donald Trump, an event remembered for protesters getting roughed up as they were ejected.
A few months after that Trump rally, Johnson found his way onto the November ballot as a Republican candidate for state representative for a district that covers part of Bullitt County, a mostly rural area adjacent to Louisville. It was an ambitious career move that would bring closer scrutiny of his past.
During the campaign, it was reported that Johnson had shared racist memes on his Facebook page that compared the Obama family to monkeys. The Republican Party of Kentucky asked that he withdraw from the race, but he refused. He narrowly defeated the incumbent Democrat by fewer than 160 votes.
In his only legislative session, Johnson served on four committees at a time when the future seemed bright for newly elected Republicans, the Kentucky General Assembly having flipped to Republican control for the first time in nearly 100 years.
But the past few months had been rocky in the state capital: The Republican speaker of the Kentucky House, Jeff Hoover, was accused of sexual harassment and stepped down from his leadership post, sending the House into potential chaos as the 2018 legislative session is set to begin in January. At the same time, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting was conducting a months-long investigation into Johnson’s background, which included the allegations that in the early morning of New Year’s Day 2013, he got drunk and molested a teenager who was sleeping in the apartment attached to the church’s fellowship hall.
On Tuesday, the day after the story was published, Johnson spoke at a news conference in the Heart of Fire sanctuary and refused calls for his resignation, even from his party. On Wednesday, Johnson drove to a remote part of Bullitt County to a graffiti-covered bridge over the Salt River and killed himself with a handgun, according to the Bullitt County coroner. In his final posting on Facebook, Johnson wrote that the allegations are false and that “GOD and only GOD knows the truth, nothing is the way they make it out to be. AMERICA will not survive this type of judge and jury fake news.”
In his final posting on Facebook, Johnson wrote that the allegations are false and that “GOD and only GOD knows the truth, nothing is the way they make it out to be. AMERICA will not survive this type of judge and jury fake news.”
The day after his death, his widow sat for a 20-minute interview with local ABC affiliate WHAS-11, calling the last few days “pretty horrific.” She said she was “indignant” and “mad because this man who has served his community and given everything he has, literally, has been treated so bad.”
Rebecca Johnson said in the television interview that Johnson struggled with health issues and post-traumatic stress disorder after, she says, he worked as a minister at Ground Zero after 9/11. Johnson’s experience in New York became a central part of the personal narrative he would share as a public speaker; the local investigative story called that story into question. In the note Johnson posted to Facebook shortly before his death, he referenced his emotional trauma from 9/11 as a factor.
To his son Judah, Dan Johnson wasn’t just his dad, but also a father to many in the extended nontraditional family that congregated at the Heart of Fire Church. Judah stands over 6 feet tall with long blond hair that touched the shoulders of his black leather Harley-Davidson riding jacket. He wore a large cross around his neck and rings on his fingers.
“I have a great dad. My friends didn’t have dads at home, and my dad was that man for them,” Judah Johnson said.
“I can’t count how many guys I know, who I played music with, who I went to high school with, they would come to me and they were ready to die. And I’m doing all I can to talk to them, and I would say, ‘You need to meet my dad,’ and my dad would give them what they needed. He would help their heart. … He was a motorcycle enthusiast, and he was an artist, and a drummer, and a musician, and a writer, and a very articulate speaker, but most of all, he was a father,” he said.