Bus Driver Is Mourned By Family, Colleagues
By Lyndsey Layton and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 27, 2002; Page C01
They buried the last victim of the serial sniper yesterday, a bus driver whose slaying reverberated so widely that his three-hour funeral drew the overflow crowds and lengthy tributes more often reserved for dignitaries.
Conrad E. Johnson, a 35-year-old son of Jamaican immigrants and an Oxon Hill resident, was remembered as a working man who prided himself on his pot roast and curried chicken, loved to challenge his two young sons on the basketball court and romanced his wife from the moment they met in high school 17 years ago.
Nearly 2,000 people came to Glendale Baptist Church for the funeral yesterday. Johnson's death touched a chord in the working community -- the people who take the early bus, who wear uniforms, whose jobs seldom inspire envy.
"Conrad Johnson was at work when many of us were still sleeping," said Pastor Anthony G. Maclin of Glendale Baptist. "We need to show kindness, especially to people who serve. Perhaps we don't know their names. Perhaps they don't appear on television. . . . So many depend on people like Conrad Johnson, who faced his final moment standing on his feet."
Johnson was standing on the top step of his Ride On bus before dawn Tuesday, preparing for his first run of the day, when he was shot and killed. He had been a bus driver for 10 years, following in the footsteps of his stepfather, Tyrone Wills, who was recently promoted from bus driver to scheduler.
It was the 10th and final funeral attended by Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan since the sniper began the shootings that terrorized the region for three weeks.
As he spoke from the pulpit, Duncan's face reddened, and he broke into tears. "When I met the Johnson family at the hospital, they said, 'Catch him,' " Duncan said as he started to choke on his words. "Here we are today. I'm finally able to say this: We caught him."
Applause ripped through the large church, and people bounded to their feet.
"We caught them for you," Duncan shouted, pointing a finger at the congregation. "We caught them for Conrad, so they will never, ever be able to do this again."
But the relief of an arrest did not temper the sense of loss. "It doesn't make it any easier," said Braxton Wiggins, an operator with Ride On. "You've just lost someone who can't come back. It's nonreturnable."
Hundreds of bus drivers in ironed blue uniforms packed the church and stood three deep in the aisles. Those who couldn't fit inside the main sanctuary or the overflow room below milled around in the parking lot.
The day began with a slow, sad cortege of 30 buses representing 14 bus systems. They traveled 17 miles from the Silver Spring Metro station to the church in Landover. Every type of bus claimed a place in line -- shuttles for the elderly, minibuses, 40-foot transit vehicles, plush commuter coaches, diesel workhorses, brand-new natural gas buses. Black streamers dangled from side mirrors.
As the line of buses rolled along Colesville Road toward the Capital Beltway, people on the sidewalk stood at attention and waved small American flags.
"It could have been any of us," said C.B. Carter, a Metrobus supervisor who carried an envelope stuffed with $135 in cash -- donations for Johnson's family made by passengers. "When you're driving a bus, it's no different here than in Indiana or Florida or California."
Seven employees from the tiny South Bend, Ind., bus system drove 12 hours for 611 miles to reach the funeral. "He was a brother union man," said Alfonza Ward, one of the South Bend drivers, explaining why he made the trip.
Ride On operated a limited schedule yesterday to allow employees to attend the funeral. Rides were free all day in honor of Johnson. At noon, Ride On operators who were working pulled their buses to the side of the road to observe a minute of silence.
Robert Quander, a 64-year-old Ride On driver, said he's found kindness in the days since Johnson's slaying. "A lot of people we don't know have come up and given their condolences," he said. "This week has been special because they have made bus drivers feel like special people."
Johnson came from a large family, with aunts and uncles who have lilting Jamaican accents. His relatives filled 23 pews in the church.
Known to friends and family as "CeeJay," Johnson was devoted to his wife, Denise. On her last birthday, Feb. 15, Johnson called her from his bus and prompted his busload of passengers to sing "Happy Birthday" into the cellular phone.
Johnson and seven or eight other bus operators would get together on Friday nights, just because they enjoyed each other's company. In the small Silver Spring bus garage where they were based, the line between work and private time blurred.
"We'd just sit and talk and laugh about what was going on at work," said Nelvin Ransome, one of the group. "We'd have cookouts or fish fries or play basketball. We became friends. There was something about Conrad that drew you to him."
His warm demeanor earned him fans on the job as well. When he was preparing to start his route, Johnson would let children waiting for their school bus keep warm inside his idling transit bus. At Christmas, some passengers baked him cakes, Duncan said. After the shooting, his regular riders on Ride On Route 34 were in tears.
He was a strapping man, a weightlifter and athlete. Several of the 13- and 14-year-old boys he coached in basketball at the Fort Washington Boys and Girls Club attended the funeral. Teary-eyed, they presented a plaque to Denise Johnson, who gave each of them a long hug.
Conrad Johnson took his last ride yesterday in a white hearse, escorted to the Resurrection Cemetery in Clinton by a mile-long line of buses.