Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
BAD CONCLUSION: Gregory 'Junior' Johnson was found hanging in the basement of his fraternity house in November. His parents refuse to accept the coroner's report that says he killed himself.
Fraternity Life & Death
Junior Johnson's Sigma Chi brothers are mourning his apparent suicide, while his mother says they killed him
By Jessica Fromm
ON THE afternoon of Nov. 22, 2008, 20-year-old Gregory Marcel Johnson Jr. was discovered dead in the basement of the Sigma Chi fraternity house in downtown San Jose. He was found hanging from a ceiling water pipe, a noose fashioned from 14-gauge heavy-duty electrical cord wrapped around his neck twice.
Johnson, a San Jose State University junior and Sigma Chi fraternity member, had been dangling there for an hour and a half, slowly suffocating to death. Johnson's knees were bent, legs resting on the floor underneath him the entire time. When a fraternity brother came upon Johnson at 2:45pm, he quickly unwound the electrical cord and placed him in an office chair before calling paramedics. Johnson was pronounced dead upon arrival.
No suicide note was found. But an autopsy report conducted by the Santa Clara County medical examiner states that Johnson, who went by the name "Junior," committed suicide.
Johnson's parents don't believe it. Denise and Gregory Johnson Sr. believe that their son was murdered, in a hate crime, most likely by his fellow fraternity brothers. And they have launched a campaign accusing local officials of a cover-up, contacting NAACPs, Black Student Unions and media around California.
"Junior was a good kid from the time he was born until the time they killed him over there at San Jose State," says Gregory Johnson Sr., who lives with his wife in Clearlake, Calif. "They murdered him down there. They treated my son like an animal."
Johnson's parents have raised questions as to what is written in their son's autopsy report and how his case is being handled by both the SJSU Police Department and the Santa Clara County coroner's office. The SJSU Police Department is still working on its official investigation report into Johnson's case, which is expected to be released within the next month. Pat Lopes Harris, director of media relations at SJSU, says that the UPD has been interviewing multiple persons who knew Johnson and submitting evidence to crime labs.
"We have absolutely no evidence to date to suggest this was anything other then a suicide," Harris says. "Pressure from anyone to suggest otherwise, we feel, is unfairly criticizing the members of Sigma Chi and essentially accusing them of a murder that we have no evidence to suggest took place."
Sigma Chi chapter president Nick Wright declined to comment on this story. Jeff Twibell, the Northern California regional adviser for Sigma Chi, said that the fraternity is taking a no-comment stance on Johnson's parents' allegations.
"This was horrific and terrible, and [the fraternity members] are going to need time to get through this," Twibell says. "We need to be cognizant that these are young men going through something very difficult."
Johnson's death and his parents' accusation have caused an uproar on the SJSU campus. On Feb. 19, SJSU's Spartan Daily student newspaper ran a lead story on Johnson, with the headline "Cover-up alleged in student's death." Written by senior staff writer David Zugnoni, the article detailed the Johnsons' contention that the physical injuries that were described in their son's autopsy report, including the state of his neck and his spinal cord, did not correspond with the actual condition of his body when they saw it.
Santa Clara County Medical Examiner Glenn V. Nazareno writes in the autopsy report that the external examination of Johnson's body revealed that "a raised nodular skin lesion is noted in the midline of the lower occipital scalp and upper neck measuring approximately 1 to 1-1/2 inch in diameter."
The Johnsons say that their son's neck didn't look like that. "He didn't have any marks on his neck," Denise Johnson says. "If he had hung himself, he should have had ligature marks. With a ligature hanging, you have marks, that's why they call it ligature hanging. They're going to tell me that he hung, without a mark on his neck? It's a blatant lie, a misconception. It's a cover-up."
Johnson's parents also say that the ceiling pipe that the fraternity brother found Johnson hanging from was far too low to have allowed him to hang himself to death. The autopsy report states that "officers measured approximately 70 inches from the floor of the bottom of the water pipe." Johnson's driver's license stated that he was 6-foot-2.
According to Nazareno, who supervised Johnson's autopsy, it is possible for a person to die from asphyxia due to ligature hanging, which does not necessarily leave a prominent mark on the deceased's neck.
"This is seen in cases where the ligature used is made of soft material over a broad surface area of the neck or if the decedent was discovered shortly after death has occurred. In these cases, the abraded furrow will appear as areas of blanched skin. After embalming and preparation for viewing, these marks may become less prominent," Nazareno wrote in an email responding to Metro's questions.
The autopsy report states that Johnson's body was found approximately an hour and a half after he hanged and that rigor mortis had not yet set in.
The Johnsons' anger over the handling of their son's death began two days after he was found. The autopsy report says that "the decedent is positively identified visually by his mother on Nov. 24, 2008." Denise Johnson says she never actually saw her son's body in person until he was turned over to the family for burial on Dec. 1.
Johnson says that she and her husband traveled the four-hour trip from Clearlake to identify their son's body in person at the coroner's office on Nov. 24 but were denied access to see him because, they were told, he had already been identified by his driver's license and the fraternity brothers.
"I thought that according to law, unless you don't have any family, you're supposed to be identified by your family," she says. "He was our child, and they refused to let us identify him."
"When we went to the coroner's office, we talked to a Patra Albrecht [the medical examiner's Investigator] ... we asked to see him, and we were denied. She went in the back and said, 'Oh, let me go take a picture of him.' She didn't even take a picture; she went back and in a few minutes she came out with a black-and-white piece of paper, a printout from the Xerox machine."
The Sigma Chi house where Johnson died, located at 284 N. 10th Street, is a stereotypical frat house on SJSU's 10th Street Greek strip. Prominent blue-and-gold letters reading "Sigma Chi" hang on the front of the worn-in gray-painted residence. The front crabgrass lawn is patchy, and the occasional red party cup can be seen under bushes or on the sidewalk out in front.
In the SJSU fraternity community, Sigma Chi has the reputation as the "nice guy" frat. According to one SJSU sorority member who asked to remain anonymous, Sigma Chi guys like to party but will still "walk girls home at night to make sure they're safe."
It was in this community that Johnson lived the last two years of his life, with 30-some members of the multicultural all-male fraternity.
According to the autopsy report, Johnson was a very sociable young man who never showed symptoms of depression or suicidal tendencies to his fraternity brothers. Going by the name "Junior" since he started college at SJSU, he had a large "JR" tattooed on his right bicep. As a kinesiology major who wanted to work in sports medicine, he was in the best shape of his life, fit and built from working as a personal trainer at Bally's Total Fitness in San Jose.
In numerous photos posted by his friends on Facebook, Johnson can be seen living it up in the fraternity lifestyle, with a Bud Lite it one hand, his arm around a pretty girl or two and a wide smile on his face. Other photos show him dancing and making funny faces at the camera with his frat brothers, all clad in their "EX" Sigma Chi shirts. Nothing unusual for his peer group.
Denise Johnson sees this as evidence that her son did not commit suicide.
"He had everything going for himself," she says. "Girls weren't a problem. Even the same frat brothers that claimed that he did this to himself, they said that he wasn't depressed about anything. It just doesn't add up. It doesn't make sense."
Wiggsy Sivertsen, an SJSU personal counselor, spent time with the Sigma Chi members following Johnson's death, and said that she believes that nobody in the house had any notion at all that Junior was going to kill himself.
"They had an idea that Junior had ups and downs, but that's life, it's full of ups and downs. He hadn't threatened suicide, he hadn't talked about it, which is not uncommon. A lot of times, people never talk about it, never threaten it. They just do it. You can't tell," says Sivertsen.
The only hints that Johnson may have been struggling can be found on the autopsy report, which details the events surrounding his death. In the hours before he died, the autopsy report states that Johnson had met up with an ex-girlfriend for lunch.
"During lunch, the decedent started to tell her about his father's addiction to drugs," says the autopsy's investigation report, conducted by Albrecht. "The decedent told her that his father used their family's money and resources to buy drugs instead of providing for the family. The 'former girlfriend' thought that this was an odd and uncomfortable conversation. At no time during the conversation did the decedent say he was suicidal or depressed."
When asked about her husband's alleged drug use, Denise Johnson did not respond directly.
"When he was in high school, his father was not here, just like Obama's father wasn't around," she said. "This had nothing to do with succeeding or failing, because he was going to succeed no matter what. They [the police] used what they thought was true, that wasn't even true at the time. His father is fine."
When asked again about her husband's drug use, she said, "Halloween, we were there. We gave him money, and he hugged his father and gave him a hat."
Asked for a third time if her husband had any history of drug use, Johnson said, "His father has never been arrested for drugs, or anything like that. They made up that thing with his ex-girlfriend having lunch with him that day, but he had no food in his stomach."
According to the autopsy report, Johnson in fact had no food in his stomach when he was found, though a toxicology report conducted on his blood shows that he had been drinking. His blood alcohol level postmortem was .07 percent, which means that he most likely had the alcohol content of three to four beers before he died. No other drugs were found in his system.
Gregory Johnson Sr. later said that he did have a history of drug use, but that those days were behind him.
"I used drugs back before he was born," he said. "I don't have a problem with drugs, not for the past 25 years."
The Race Question
The Johnsons have said explicitly that they believe their son's death was related to his race, and that the UPD and coroner's office have treated them poorly and lied about their son's condition because they are African American.
"I know for a fact that if it had of been someone of Caucasian race at a black fraternity house, they would have arrested every black child in there until they found out what really happened," Denise Johnson says.
Gregory Johnson Sr. says his son's frat brothers should have been arrested on the spot when his son's body was found.
"If I were found with a dead body, they would take me to jail because I'm a black man," he says. "They need to go down there and arrest the white boys who were found up there with my son."
SJSU's Harris said that the UPD handled the investigation into Johnson's death according to standard police procedure.
"We have no reason to have anything other then full faith in the work of the police department. The district attorney's office will review their work when it is completed."
Dr. Steven M. Millner, a SJSU professor of African American studies, says many of his black students have expressed concern and suspicion to him about the way Johnson died.
"It's a tragic circumstance, and enough has occurred in America's past and recent history that parents may feel that they have credible reason to be fearful of what they think may have occurred to their son. And that's tragic within itself," Millner says.
Millner continues, "There is skepticism. There is fear, but there is also genuine grief from some of the young white and other fraternity members who lost a brother. This is one of the most tragic circumstances that we've seen here."
Can Healing Begin?
Wiggsy Sivertsen felt compelled to write a letter to the editor of the Spartan Daily after seeing the backlash caused by their Jan. 19 story.
"When Gregory hung himself, I spent a lot of time in that fraternity, with the men, dealing with their grief and sorrow," she says. "When I saw the article, I thought it was really important to say something for the students, the men that were committed to their fraternity, and to Junior. I felt really strongly that the guys needed support."
Sivertsen has worked as a counselor at SJSU for 41 years and has counseled students several times when a suicide has occurred on or near campus. She said that Johnson's suicide was particularly tragic.
"I know about suicide, and the residual effects that suicide has not only on friends but on family members. I feel profoundly sad for Mrs. Johnson, because there's nothing worse then losing a child. But to lose a child by their own hand, that's just horrible."
Although she has never personally spoken to the Johnsons, Sivertsen said she believes that Denise and Gregory Johnson Sr. are prolonging their own agony by inciting murder allegations that do not have any merit.
"Parents will look for anything they can possibly find that might be what caused their child to lose their life, other than they took it by their own hand. I totally understand what Mrs. Johnson is doing."
Dr. Millner said that he was personally affected by suicide when he was a student at San Jose State in the 1960s, and that he feels for the Sigma Chi members and Johnson's parents.
"I lost a college roommate to suicide, and the long-term damage to everyone involved is so severe," he says. "People go through stages of denial. That is going to capture the tragedy of this young man's fate. It's beyond belief, the grief and the self-doubt, that is going to remain with his parents, with his fraternity brothers, and with all of those who just don't want to accept that these things can occur."
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