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Bus Joy Ride Shooting Becomes Controversy

February 10, 1989 GMT

BOSTON (AP) _ Less than four years ago, Donald Johnson was cited for heroism after he rescued a family from a fire. Last week, police fatally shot the teen-ager after he took a Greyhound bus for a joy ride.

Police maintain they shot at the bus, killing Johnson, because he was endangering the lives of others by refusing to stop driving erratically through a Boston neighborhood late at night. And city officials, in preliminary findings, say the shooting was justified.

But his mother, Betty Johnson, a longtime community activist, and other black leaders claim that police overreacted, shooting someone who was unarmed and had no criminal background.

″This means a black kid’s life in Boston doesn’t mean very much,″ said the Rev. Graylan Ellis-Hagler, a minister in the mostly black neighborhood of Roxbury. ″Police don’t hesitate to use deadly force against kids of color.″

Mrs. Johnson, 48, is unable to explain why her son, a junior in high school who turned 19 the day before he died, took the bus on Jan. 31.

She was further embittered by the fact that she was not notified by police about her son’s death, learning about it from a newspaper the next morning. The Boston Herald ran an Associated Press photograph of her son taken at the scene. The newspaper said the teen-ager had not been identified.

Police spokesman James Jordan on Thursday said police did not know who Johnson was until his mother, having seen the picture in the newspaper, went to the city morgue and identified him.

Mrs. Johnson said she remembers her son as a ″boy with a heart of gold,″ a Boy Scout who worked with her on community projects and was active in youth anti-drug work.

″Donald wasn’t on drugs. He wasn’t a drinker,″ said Mrs. Johnson. ″I’m not saying he wasn’t wrong in what he did. I’m saying he wasn’t out to hurt anybody.

″If police had given him half a chance, he would have come home to me in the bus and I could have gotten him out of there.″

Certificates attesting to Donald’s community work sit on a shelf surrounded by the plaque he received in 1985 for rescuing a mother and her three children in a fire in suburban Winchester. He and a friend were out selling candy when they spotted the blaze and led the family to safety.

Family and friends said Johnson wanted to be a bus driver and called him a dreamer.

Police said Johnson stole a Greyhound bus in Providence, R.I., and drove it 50 miles to Boston.

Officers spotted the bus in the Chinatown section of the city about 10:25 p.m. A chase ensued through urban neighborhoods, reaching 40 mph on small side streets. He was apparently heading to his mother’s home.

As the chase neared an end, the bus hit several cars and struck a garage before stopping before a vacant house on a dead-end street.

Police say officers approached the bus when it suddenly leaped forward, ramming into the house. The driver then threw the bus into reverse, hitting several police cruisers. No officers were injured.

About five officers opened fire at the bus as it backed out of the street, rounded the corner and came to a stop nearby. Johnson was pronounced dead from a gunshot wound, authorities said.

A group led by Ellis-Hagler is conducting an independent investigation of the shooting, and says Johnson was wounded twice, not once as authorities said.

Separate investigations are being conducted by the Suffolk County district attorney’s office, police and the Metropolitan District Commission, whose police force also was involved in the chase. Still being determined, officials said, are which officer fired the fatal shot and whether Johnson had drugs or alcohol in his system at the time of the chase.

But in preliminary comments, Mayor Raymond Flynn, who had posed proudly with Johnson after the fire rescue in 1985, backed the officers.

″Under the circumstances, the law required that the police take some action to protect themselves and the public,″ Flynn said last week. ″I don’t think it is fair to jump all over the police every time they go out and do their job.″

First Assistant District Attorney Paul K. Leary said a day after the shooting that his preliminary investigation showed it appeared to be justified. Ellis-Hagler disagrees.

″It wasn’t something to die for,″ he said. ″To spend all that time and energy chasing a Greyhound bus with all the drugs and the gang activity around here is such a waste.″