ON THE EVENING of May 10, Terrell Kyreem Johnson was shot and killed by a Portland transit officer after allegedly displaying a box cutter during a foot pursuit near the MAX station near Southeast 92nd Avenue and Flavel Street. Remarkably few details of the incident have been released, other than that Johnson was allegedly threatening people near the stop.
Also absent has been any real picture of Johnson himself. News reports have focused on the erratic behavior described by police, his recent homelessness, and a history of addiction.
But those who knew him say there was much more to Johnson, who was 24 when he was killed by Portland officer Samson Ajir. Many describe him as loving, giving, and non-violent—even when he was using. The man they knew was religious, goofy, and outgoing.
“You were happy when you were with him,” says Jesse Howell, who met Johnson when they were teenagers attending the same church youth group in Portland. He describes Johnson as one of the most genuine people he has ever known, “even when he was going through his shit.”
Johnson was born and raised in Portland, along with his brother Tobias, by a large, loving, and deeply religious family. He loved his faith, music, skateboarding, basketball, and football. He attended Cleveland High School until his junior year, when he dropped out and eventually earned his GED. Johnson spent about four years living in the Midwest before returning to Portland last summer.
The Mercury spoke to friends from high school and the multiple Christian churches he attended, family acquaintances, and religious leaders who all knew Johnson well. It quickly became clear that he was immensely loved, and had a large army of people rooting for him.
Johnson also struggled with addiction to various drugs. He started using cannabis when he was 12 or 13, and then ecstasy and prescription drugs in his later teens. It has not been revealed what substances—if any—were present in Johnson’s system the evening of his death, but it is believed that addiction played a role in the altercation.
Despite those struggles, Johnson remained dedicated to his church and family throughout his life.
“He is not what the media made him out to be,” Howell emphasizes. “They ran his mugshot like 50 times. He is not that guy. He is not his mistakes.”
Rebecca Dolan, who was a leader of a youth group Johnson attended in high school, agrees.
“I want people to understand that if every person were summed up by their worst faults, we’d all be terrible,” she says.
Dolan stayed by Johnson’s side through many of his hard times. In 2010, she drove him, at his own request, to an inpatient drug treatment center to get help. The program “was really, really beneficial for him,” she says. Until last summer, Dolan believes, Johnson had been clean for about five years.
“All of this came as a shock to me, because he had been doing so well that I didn’t expect this to happen,” she says. “This should not have happened.”
Dolan says that until recently, Johnson wasn’t living on the streets. He wasn’t committing crimes. He was simply a kind-hearted young man struggling with inner demons.
Camille Adana, a teacher and counselor at Cleveland High School, grew up with Johnson’s mother Alicia, and knew Johnson and his brother their entire lives. She considers them family—so much so that when they started attending Cleveland, she would embrace the boys with a hug and a kiss when she saw them in the halls.
“I had this huge, beautiful connection with Terrell,” Adana says. “He was vivacious and vibrant, he had a twinkling smile and a beautiful personality. He was very loving.”
Adana has been deeply saddened by Johnson’s death, especially seeing how it has affected his parents. “I know that they’re having a really hard time with it. They’ve lost their son,” she says. “But they also knew that he was struggling so immensely with his addiction.”
People traveled from across the country to attend Johnson’s May 21 memorial service, which was referred to not as a funeral, but a celebration of life. Howell, who flew up from California for the service, said the room was packed with people who loved the man. “The church held about 250 people, and we filled that room,” he says.
Friends and family are finding comfort in their religious beliefs. Adana says, “It made me feel good that he’s in a better place, and he’s very happy.”
But of course there are still questions about the incident that wound up claiming Johnson’s life.
According to police, someone called 911 on May 10 to report that Johnson was threatening people at the transit stop near Southeast Foster and 92nd. A West Linn officer assigned to the Transit Division arrived and spoke with Johnson, but the man was noncompliant, police say. When Portland Officer Samson Ajir and his partner—a Clackamas County deputy who is also Ajir’s brother—arrived on the scene, police say Johnson ran from them, ending up on a MAX bridge over Johnson Creek. What happened next remains unclear. Police have said that Johnson “displayed” a “utility knife” near Ajir.
The officer was placed on leave, and there have been no details released as to when a grand jury will hear testimony regarding Ajir’s actions. When the Mercury requested video surveillance footage of the incident, TriMet responded that the incident took place out of view of security cameras and no such footage existed.
Court documents indicate that Johnson had been living on the streets immediately prior to his death. The only criminal case that appears in a search of Oregon court records is for an alleged bicycle theft in late April.
Friends and acquaintances the Mercury spoke with question Ajir’s use of lethal force, and Adana’s immediate reaction is a familiar one. “Why wasn’t he Tased?” she asks. “I don’t get it.”
According to the national database of police shootings, killedbypolice.net, Terrell Johnson is one of more than 500 people killed at the hands of police in 2017. His death is only the second officer-involved fatality in Portland this year, following the February shooting of 17-year-old Quanice Hayes.
Grieving for Johnson, family and friends attending his memorial service found a measure of peace in a song the man had written late last year. It reads, in part: “He laid himself down / Died so I could live / Co-crucified now I’m raised with Him / Dying self, I’m found in Him / Losing my life, my soul I give.”