Recalling a tragedy

Family of a fallen senior on the path toward graduation hopes to keep his memory alive.

Stephen Khiry Johnson could light up a room.

“He was the definition of beautiful. He was strong-minded, independent, very articulate,” recalled his aunt, Kareema Johnson, speaking through tears at her nephew’s vigil last week. “We have never seen him without a smile on his face. Laughing, joking. It’s always been the same.”

Johnson’s life was tragically cut short in the early hours of New Year’s Day, when the senior marketing major was shot and killed in a house on the 1700 block of West Venango Street, just months away from graduating.

A hard worker who was seldom seen without a smile, Johnson, 23, known as ‘Khiry’ to friends and family, was headed toward a bright future. He intended to accept a naval commission in California after graduating from Temple in May, and hoped to pursue his master’s degree. Above all, said family members, he wanted to make a difference.

“This was a young man that had a future. That had a bright future ahead of him,” said Johnson’s cousin, Movita Johnson-Harrell, who is serving as unofficial spokesperson for his mother, Denine Johnson. “He wanted to impact young people.”

Senior marketing major Danielle Zoltak had class with Stephen Johnson last fall and remarked about the vision he had for his future.

“Not many people in college have such a clear vision about their future or have as much ambition as he did at 23,” Zoltak said. “I always felt like he would be great at whatever he did, I thought he would definitely go places.”

Johnson-Harrell, who said she often set an extra plate for Stephen Johnson at her family’s dinner table, remembered a young man who had a maturity far beyond his years, who held consistent jobs since the age of 14 and dressed in button-down shirts and dress shoes before he could drive. He wanted nothing to do with the “thug” lifestyle, she said, and strived to set a good example for his younger cousins, particularly Amir Johnson.

Amir Johnson, who at 17 years old is a student at Johnson’s high school alma mater, Community Academy of Philadelphia, struggled through tears as he spoke at his cousin’s vigil last Thursday night. The two were inseparable despite their age differences, Amir Johnson said, and often didn’t even need words to communicate with each other. Amir Johnson said his cousin instilled the value of honesty in him, and urged him to always tell the truth and stay out of trouble. Despite a busy schedule, Stephen Johnson made it to every one of Amir Johnson’s basketball games at CAP.

“Our personalities were so close, our bond was so strong,” Amir Johnson said. “The stuff we would talk about, we would just talk for hours, sometimes we don’t have to talk, and he would know there’s something wrong, or I would know there’s something wrong. It’s just crazy that he had to go.”

Amir Johnson was present on the night of the shooting.

“He was like my brother, I could tell him anything. He always protected me over anything…and he always told people he would protect me,” he said. “And I guess that day came, because if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here either.”

Antoine Johnson and Denine Johnson mourn the loss of Stephen Khiry Johnson at a vigil on Jan. 24. Johnson was a senior marketing major set to graduate in May. He was gunned down in the early hours of New Year’s Day. | ALI WATKINS TTN

Antoine Johnson and Denine Johnson mourn the loss of Stephen Khiry Johnson at a vigil on Jan. 24. Johnson was a senior marketing major set to graduate in May. He was gunned down in the early hours of New Year’s Day. | ALI WATKINS TTN

Two others were shot at the party and a woman was injured jumping from a second-floor window to avoid the gunfire, police have said. Lawrence Jeffries, 22, has been charged with murder and related offenses in connection with the shooting.

In an even more tragic twist, the Johnson family is no stranger to Philadelphia’s violent gun culture. Stephen Johnson’s late cousin, Charles Johnson, was shot and killed in a case of mistaken identity while waiting for his sister in Germantown in 2011. The family was less than two weeks shy of mourning the second Jan. 12 anniversary of Charles Johnson when the call came about Stephen Johnson.

“For this to happen to a family once is enough, but for this to happen to a family twice…there’s no words to define,” said Movita Johnson-Harrell, Charles Johnson’s mother. “I know the feeling of just wanting to see your baby one more time, just wanting to kiss your kid one more time. And I am so sorry my cousin is in this position.”

Johnson-Harrell was inspired to create the anti-violence Charles Foundation, an endeavor that was therapeutic in the painful aftermath of her son’s death. She said that the family will absolutely be doing the same for Stephen Johnson, and hopes it can offer the same comfort to his mother, Denine Johnson, who lost her only child. Although there are no concrete plans as of yet, Johnson-Harrell said there has been talk of scholarship funds in honor of her cousin.

“We’re looking in to doing a Stephen Khiry Johnson scholarship, one to the high school for a student who’s graduating and going in to a business school, and one through Temple through Fox School,” she said. “We will definitely be doing something in Khiry’s name and honor.”

Ali Watkins can be reached at  

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