LOUISVILLE — Dan Johnson posted a final message to his friends and family Wednesday afternoon on Facebook. It appeared to be a goodbye.
In it, Johnson denied the accusations that had tormented him and his family for the past 48 hours — that he, a Kentucky state representative and the self-proclaimed “Pope” of his Louisville church, had gotten drunk and molested a 17-year-old girl during a sleepover years ago.
“GOD knows the truth, nothing is the way they make it out to be,” Johnson wrote in the since-deleted post. “I cannot handle it any longer . . . BUT HEAVEN IS MY HOME.”
The Republican lawmaker then drove to a graffiti-covered bridge outside Mount Washington, Ky., a quiet and isolated spot called the River Bottoms. He parked, stepped out of his car and shot himself with a .40-caliber handgun, according to Bullitt County Sheriff Donnie Tinnell.
The apparent suicide of a well-known local figure was another dark and dramatic turn in the nation’s reckoning with sexual assault and harassment, with near-daily revelations about powerful men leading to sudden falls from positions of power in entertainment, business, the media and politics. Many of those cases have led to denials, resignations and apologies; although Johnson denied the allegations, some think they pushed him over the edge.
His wife, Rebecca, announced Thursday that she plans to replace him in the state legislature. She spent the day at a funeral home arranging her husband’s service, consoling her relatives and continuing to fight for her family, said David Adams, a family friend and spokesman.
“Dan is gone but the story of his life is far from over,” Rebecca Johnson said through Adams. “These high-tech lynchings based on lies and half-truths can’t be allowed to win the day. I’ve been fighting behind my husband for 30 years and his fight will go on.”
Johnson’s death shook his family, friends, constituents and members of his Heart of Fire Church, with Kentucky’s political elite immediately expressing their grief. Gov. Matt Bevin (R) wrote on Twitter: “My heart breaks for his family … May God indeed shed His grace on us all.” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said in a tweet: “I cannot imagine his pain or the heartbreak his family is dealing with.”
Another Kentucky Republican, state Rep. C. Wesley Morgan, lashed out at the media and his own party. “Republicans,” he wrote on Twitter, “you turned your back on an ally and forced a good man who was trying to do right by the people of Kentucky to suicide.”
The tumult began Monday, when the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting published allegations that Johnson sexually assaulted his daughter’s friend during a sleepover in 2013.
The young woman, now 21, was quoted as saying that for years she had considered Johnson to be a “second dad.” She became close with his daughter and familiar with the boozy weekend parties Johnson would throw at the “Pope’s House” — the fellowship hall next to the Heart of Fire Church. Those parties, the Center reported, featured scantily clad women, body shots and costumes.
In the first hours of 2013, as a New Year’s Eve party came to an end, the woman said, she was spending the night with Johnson’s daughter in the apartment under the fellowship hall, according to the report. The Washington Post generally does not identify victims of sexual assault without their consent.
The woman said Johnson entered the apartment, drunk and stumbling, so the then-teenager helped him navigate the stairs. She thought he was putting his arm around her for balance, until his hand allegedly slipped up the girl’s shirt, the Center reported.
Later that night, she awoke on a sofa as Johnson knelt above her. She told the Center that Johnson kissed her forehead and then slipped his hands up her shirt and into her pants. She begged him to stop and tried to force the man, who weighed twice as much as she did, off her without waking Johnson’s daughter.
“He told her she’d like it. She said no, she didn’t. She pleaded with him: go away, go away,” the report said. He eventually did.
“What you did was beyond mean; it was evil,” the woman said she wrote in a Facebook message to Johnson shortly after the alleged assault, according to the account.
The Center’s seven-month investigation, comprised of more than 100 interviews and thousands of pages of public records, alleges the Republican’s persona was orchestrated to mask troubling incidents — including sexual abuse, arson and false testimony. It says that Johnson — known in his church community as “Danny Ray Johnson” — painted a picture of himself over the years as a pro-gun, antiabortion “patriot,” which helped propel him into the Kentucky legislature in 2016, when he won the House’s 49th District seat.
State leaders from both parties called for Johnson’s immediate resignation after the Center’s story was published. Johnson refused, and said at a news conference at his church on Tuesday that “these are unfounded accusations, totally.”
“I don’t want to blast this girl, I have a lot of compassion for her,” he said. “I’m very sorrowful that she’s in this dark place in her life.”
The following afternoon, he wrote on Facebook that the country “will not survive this type of judge and jury fake news.”
Hours later, he was dead.
Michael Skoler, the president of Louisville Public Media — which operates the Center — said in a statement that the organization was “deeply sad” to hear about Johnson’s death and was grieving “for his family, friends, church community and constituents.”
“Our aim, as always, is to provide the public with fact-based, unbiased reporting and hold public officials accountable for their actions,” Skoler said. “As part of our process, we reached out to Representative Johnson numerous times over the course of a seven-month investigation. He declined requests to talk about our findings.”
Paul Ham, chairman of the Bullitt County Republican Party, slammed the reported allegations, saying they were “the catalyst that started the whole thing.”
“The story was based on hearsay: No arrest, no conviction, no jail time,” Ham said. “Back when the Constitution meant something, a man could stand before a jury of his peers. But now, it’s just, ‘Let’s just make some accusations and run with it.’ We’re in a very bad place.”
Bevin on Thursday also called for an end to “all the nasty, vulgar comments & other despicable responses to the news.”
The website for the Heart of Fire Church shows pictures of Johnson with former presidents Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, as well as with New York officials including former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, governor George E. Pataki and religious leaders including Louis Farrakhan. The church sponsored a “Bike Ministry,” and photographs show Johnson clad in a leather biker outfit and an American flag bandanna in the lead of a group of motorcyclists.
A sign outside Johnson’s Heart of Fire Church read Thursday: “Satan accuses. God says youre not guilty.”
A video made by Guns.com showed what it called the church’s “Gun Choir,” with Johnson in a leather bike vest leading a group of people singing “Amazing Grace,” with pistols and guns displayed. Guns.com said that Heart of Fire was known as a “biker church.”
“Guns are welcome. Tattoos and Harleys are recommended, but not required,” the website said. “Just make sure you bring your Bible and an open mind.”
The church’s website said that Johnson was in New York City during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and he had claimed that he helped police officers and firefighters at Ground Zero immediately after the attack. On the Heart of Fire’s Facebook page, Johnson is referred to as a “911 First Responder.”
Johnson’s death came amid a flurry of sexual assault and harassment allegations against well-known and powerful men that has spawned a national conversation about its prevalence. Those accused include Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and broadcaster Charlie Rose.
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) both said last week that they would leave Congress as they faced sexual misconduct allegations. On Thursday, Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) said he will not seek reelection next year. Farenthold is under scrutiny for allegations that he sexually harassed female staff members and created a hostile work environment.