Fraternity Life & Death

Junior Johnson’s Sigma Chi brothers are mourning his apparent suicide, while his mother says they killed him

On the afternoon of Nov. 22, 2008, 20-year-old Gregory Marcel Johnson Jr. was discovered dead in the basement of the Sigma Chi fraternity house in downtown San Jose. He was found hanging from a ceiling water pipe, a noose fashioned from 14-gauge heavy-duty electrical cord wrapped around his neck twice.

Johnson, a San Jose State University junior and Sigma Chi fraternity member, had been dangling there for an hour and a half, slowly suffocating to death. Johnson’s knees were bent, legs resting on the floor underneath him the entire time. When a fraternity brother came upon Johnson at 2:45pm, he quickly unwound the electrical cord and placed him in an office chair before calling paramedics. Johnson was pronounced dead upon arrival.

No suicide note was found. But an autopsy report conducted by the Santa Clara County medical examiner states that Johnson, who went by the name “Junior,” committed suicide.

Johnson’s parents don’t believe it. Denise and Gregory Johnson Sr. believe that their son was murdered, in a hate crime, most likely by his fellow fraternity brothers. And they have launched a campaign accusing local officials of a cover-up, contacting NAACPs, Black Student Unions and media around California.

“Junior was a good kid from the time he was born until the time they killed him over there at San Jose State,” says Gregory Johnson Sr., who lives with his wife in Clearlake, Calif. “They murdered him down there. They treated my son like an animal.”

Johnson’s parents have raised questions as to what is written in their son’s autopsy report and how his case is being handled by both the SJSU Police Department and the Santa Clara County coroner’s office. The SJSU Police Department is still working on its official investigation report into Johnson’s case, which is expected to be released within the next month. Pat Lopes Harris, director of media relations at SJSU, says that the UPD has been interviewing multiple persons who knew Johnson and submitting evidence to crime labs.

“We have absolutely no evidence to date to suggest this was anything other then a suicide,” Harris says. “Pressure from anyone to suggest otherwise, we feel, is unfairly criticizing the members of Sigma Chi and essentially accusing them of a murder that we have no evidence to suggest took place.”

Sigma Chi chapter president Nick Wright declined to comment on this story. Jeff Twibell, the Northern California regional adviser for Sigma Chi, said that the fraternity is taking a no-comment stance on Johnson’s parents’ allegations.

“This was horrific and terrible, and [the fraternity members] are going to need time to get through this,” Twibell says. “We need to be cognizant that these are young men going through something very difficult.”

Johnson’s death and his parents’ accusation have caused an uproar on the SJSU campus. On Feb. 19, SJSU’s Spartan Daily student newspaper ran a lead story on Johnson, with the headline “Cover-up alleged in student’s death.” Written by senior staff writer David Zugnoni, the article detailed the Johnsons’ contention that the physical injuries that were described in their son’s autopsy report, including the state of his neck and his spinal cord, did not correspond with the actual condition of his body when they saw it.

Santa Clara County Medical Examiner Glenn V. Nazareno writes in the autopsy report that the external examination of Johnson’s body revealed that “a raised nodular skin lesion is noted in the midline of the lower occipital scalp and upper neck measuring approximately 1 to 1-1/2 inch in diameter.”

The Johnsons say that their son’s neck didn’t look like that. “He didn’t have any marks on his neck,” Denise Johnson says. “If he had hung himself, he should have had ligature marks. With a ligature hanging, you have marks, that’s why they call it ligature hanging. They’re going to tell me that he hung, without a mark on his neck? It’s a blatant lie, a misconception. It’s a cover-up.”

Johnson’s parents also say that the ceiling pipe that the fraternity brother found Johnson hanging from was far too low to have allowed him to hang himself to death. The autopsy report states that “officers measured approximately 70 inches from the floor of the bottom of the water pipe.” Johnson’s driver’s license stated that he was 6-foot-2.

According to Nazareno, who supervised Johnson’s autopsy, it is possible for a person to die from asphyxia due to ligature hanging, which does not necessarily leave a prominent mark on the deceased’s neck.

“This is seen in cases where the ligature used is made of soft material over a broad surface area of the neck or if the decedent was discovered shortly after death has occurred. In these cases, the abraded furrow will appear as areas of blanched skin. After embalming and preparation for viewing, these marks may become less prominent,” Nazareno wrote in an email responding to Metro’s questions.

The autopsy report states that Johnson’s body was found approximately an hour and a half after he hanged and that rigor mortis had not yet set in.

The Johnsons’ anger over the handling of their son’s death began two days after he was found. The autopsy report says that “the decedent is positively identified visually by his mother on Nov. 24, 2008.” Denise Johnson says she never actually saw her son’s body in person until he was turned over to the family for burial on Dec. 1.

Johnson says that she and her husband traveled the four-hour trip from Clearlake to identify their son’s body in person at the coroner’s office on Nov. 24 but were denied access to see him because, they were told, he had already been identified by his driver’s license and the fraternity brothers.

“I thought that according to law, unless you don’t have any family, you’re supposed to be identified by your family,” she says. “He was our child, and they refused to let us identify him.”

“When we went to the coroner’s office, we talked to a Patra Albrecht [the medical examiner’s Investigator] ... we asked to see him, and we were denied. She went in the back and said, ‘Oh, let me go take a picture of him.’ She didn’t even take a picture; she went back and in a few minutes she came out with a black-and-white piece of paper, a printout from the Xerox machine.”

The Brothers

The Sigma Chi house where Johnson died, located at 284 N. 10th Street, is a stereotypical frat house on SJSU’s 10th Street Greek strip. Prominent blue-and-gold letters reading “Sigma Chi” hang on the front of the worn-in gray-painted residence. The front crabgrass lawn is patchy, and the occasional red party cup can be seen under bushes or on the sidewalk out in front.

In the SJSU fraternity community, Sigma Chi has the reputation as the “nice guy” frat. According to one SJSU sorority member who asked to remain anonymous, Sigma Chi guys like to party but will still “walk girls home at night to make sure they’re safe.”

It was in this community that Johnson lived the last two years of his life, with 30-some members of the multicultural all-male fraternity.

According to the autopsy report, Johnson was a very sociable young man who never showed symptoms of depression or suicidal tendencies to his fraternity brothers. Going by the name “Junior” since he started college at SJSU, he had a large “JR” tattooed on his right bicep. As a kinesiology major who wanted to work in sports medicine, he was in the best shape of his life, fit and built from working as a personal trainer at Bally’s Total Fitness in San Jose.

In numerous photos posted by his friends on Facebook, Johnson can be seen living it up in the fraternity lifestyle, with a Bud Lite it one hand, his arm around a pretty girl or two and a wide smile on his face. Other photos show him dancing and making funny faces at the camera with his frat brothers, all clad in their “EX” Sigma Chi shirts. Nothing unusual for his peer group.

Denise Johnson sees this as evidence that her son did not commit suicide.

“He had everything going for himself,” she says. “Girls weren’t a problem. Even the same frat brothers that claimed that he did this to himself, they said that he wasn’t depressed about anything. It just doesn’t add up. It doesn’t make sense.”

Wiggsy Sivertsen, an SJSU personal counselor, spent time with the Sigma Chi members following Johnson’s death, and said that she believes that nobody in the house had any notion at all that Junior was going to kill himself.

“They had an idea that Junior had ups and downs, but that’s life, it’s full of ups and downs. He hadn’t threatened suicide, he hadn’t talked about it, which is not uncommon. A lot of times, people never talk about it, never threaten it. They just do it. You can’t tell,” says Sivertsen.

The only hints that Johnson may have been struggling can be found on the autopsy report, which details the events surrounding his death. In the hours before he died, the autopsy report states that Johnson had met up with an ex-girlfriend for lunch.

“During lunch, the decedent started to tell her about his father’s addiction to drugs,” says the autopsy’s investigation report, conducted by Albrecht. “The decedent told her that his father used their family’s money and resources to buy drugs instead of providing for the family. The ‘former girlfriend’ thought that this was an odd and uncomfortable conversation. At no time during the conversation did the decedent say he was suicidal or depressed.”

When asked about her husband’s alleged drug use, Denise Johnson did not respond directly.

“When he was in high school, his father was not here, just like Obama’s father wasn’t around,” she said. “This had nothing to do with succeeding or failing, because he was going to succeed no matter what. They [the police] used what they thought was true, that wasn’t even true at the time. His father is fine.”

When asked again about her husband’s drug use, she said, “Halloween, we were there. We gave him money, and he hugged his father and gave him a hat.”

Asked for a third time if her husband had any history of drug use, Johnson said, “His father has never been arrested for drugs, or anything like that. They made up that thing with his ex-girlfriend having lunch with him that day, but he had no food in his stomach.”

According to the autopsy report, Johnson in fact had no food in his stomach when he was found, though a toxicology report conducted on his blood shows that he had been drinking. His blood alcohol level postmortem was .07 percent, which means that he most likely had the alcohol content of three to four beers before he died. No other drugs were found in his system.

Gregory Johnson Sr. later said that he did have a history of drug use, but that those days were behind him.

“I used drugs back before he was born,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with drugs, not for the past 25 years.”

The Race Question

The Johnsons have said explicitly that they believe their son’s death was related to his race, and that the UPD and coroner’s office have treated them poorly and lied about their son’s condition because they are African American.

“I know for a fact that if it had of been someone of Caucasian race at a black fraternity house, they would have arrested every black child in there until they found out what really happened,” Denise Johnson says.

Gregory Johnson Sr. says his son’s frat brothers should have been arrested on the spot when his son’s body was found.

“If I were found with a dead body, they would take me to jail because I’m a black man,” he says. “They need to go down there and arrest the white boys who were found up there with my son.”

SJSU’s Harris said that the UPD handled the investigation into Johnson’s death according to standard police procedure.

“We have no reason to have anything other then full faith in the work of the police department. The district attorney’s office will review their work when it is completed.”

Dr. Steven M. Millner, a SJSU professor of African American studies, says many of his black students have expressed concern and suspicion to him about the way Johnson died.

“It’s a tragic circumstance, and enough has occurred in America’s past and recent history that parents may feel that they have credible reason to be fearful of what they think may have occurred to their son. And that’s tragic within itself,” Millner says.

Millner continues, “There is skepticism. There is fear, but there is also genuine grief from some of the young white and other fraternity members who lost a brother. This is one of the most tragic circumstances that we’ve seen here.”

Can Healing Begin?

Wiggsy Sivertsen felt compelled to write a letter to the editor of the Spartan Daily after seeing the backlash caused by their Jan. 19 story.

“When Gregory hung himself, I spent a lot of time in that fraternity, with the men, dealing with their grief and sorrow,” she says. “When I saw the article, I thought it was really important to say something for the students, the men that were committed to their fraternity, and to Junior. I felt really strongly that the guys needed support.”

Sivertsen has worked as a counselor at SJSU for 41 years and has counseled students several times when a suicide has occurred on or near campus. She said that Johnson’s suicide was particularly tragic.

“I know about suicide, and the residual effects that suicide has not only on friends but on family members. I feel profoundly sad for Mrs. Johnson, because there’s nothing worse then losing a child. But to lose a child by their own hand, that’s just horrible.”

Although she has never personally spoken to the Johnsons, Sivertsen said she believes that Denise and Gregory Johnson Sr. are prolonging their own agony by inciting murder allegations that do not have any merit.

“Parents will look for anything they can possibly find that might be what caused their child to lose their life, other than they took it by their own hand. I totally understand what Mrs. Johnson is doing.”

Dr. Millner said that he was personally affected by suicide when he was a student at San Jose State in the 1960s, and that he feels for the Sigma Chi members and Johnson’s parents.

“I lost a college roommate to suicide, and the long-term damage to everyone involved is so severe,” he says. “People go through stages of denial. That is going to capture the tragedy of this young man’s fate. It’s beyond belief, the grief and the self-doubt, that is going to remain with his parents, with his fraternity brothers, and with all of those who just don’t want to accept that these things can occur.”

 

12 Comments

  1. 1.  San Jose Inside is really helping the community as is the Metro for running this story.  SJI is a well read and respected blog and getting attention on this story is very good idea.

    2.  There are many unanswered questions and SJSU is not helping the Johnson family at all.  They do not seem to care.

    3.  Why is Wiggsy Siversten making comments about the Johnson family, whom she has never met nor seems to want to meet?  Siversten has a direct conflict of interest in trying to get the Johnson family to stop asking questions and it is unethical for her to try to interfere with this matter. 

    4.  Student Affairs at San Jose State is the most incompetent and mismanaged division on campus.  Four years ago, the Executive Director of the Associated Students was caught serving booze at a retreat to underage students.  By the way, at the time, this guy was making over 180,000 dollars a year.  Verril Phillips is the laziest administrator on campus and this incident about the Johnson death is the 11th major problem under Phillips’ watch.

    5.  Student activism is dead at San Jose State.  Associated Students leaders and self appointed activists that ran around during rthe Obama campaign have done nothing over the years to be active in the affairs at the university.

    6.  The Johnson family should get a civil rights lawyer and then you will see the administration scurry around like roaches in a room with the light on, to hide and try to escape the scrutiny.  Maybe Whitmore will be able to find where the campus is located.

    7.  Where is Whitmore, the President of the University, as this tragic death is being discussed?  Having dinner in Washington, D.C.

    8.  The Johnson death is another example of the lack of focus of the administration, the lack of leadership in Student Affairs, and the general lack of concern of San Jose State Officials.  Lucky there was a not a blood drive conducted at Sigma Chi during this, Carr would have demanded answers.

  2. This is such a sad story. My deepest sympathies go out to the family and friends of this young man, and to everyone involved. May God watch over them during this difficult time, and may Junior rest in peace.

  3. What a wonderful expression of respect for a family’s troubles.  I am sure if this finny fanny had been in the same situation, he would screaming for the United Nations Security Council to be involved.

    Oh, yes, the African American Community, based on finfan’s standards are just childish.

    As I said, he would be happy to demonstrate such patience if this would be a situation involving him Luckily, finny fanny, likes to spammy, is not a typical white person, nor really a typical anything except the ones that like to march wearing narrow haircuts.

  4. 1. For so detailed a report about such serious charges, why no mention of a substantive motive or preexisting problem between the deceased and his fraternity brothers? Could it be the young man’s parents possess no such information? Could it be that neither motive nor problematic history exists? Judging by the information provided about Junior Johnson, and by the decent and respectful manner in which his fraternity brothers have responded to his tragic death, he appears to have been a fine young man. Unfortunately, fine young men sometimes kill themselves.

    2. Has the “race card” been elevated to “wild card” status, with the power to force law enforcement and the community to suspend the rational weighing of facts, the minimal definition of evidence, the fair treatment of others? How else to explain the passive response of officials, or how it is that the young man’s parents feel entitled to point fingers and hurl accusations of the most horrific variety, at every conceivable target within range.

    3. The deceased lived in the fraternity for two years—apparently of his own volition, which renders all the more preposterous the unsupported allegations that his fraternity brothers held any animosity or race hatred for him. Quite the contrary, as the young man’s lengthy, harmonious participation in the fraternity speaks not only to his own comfort there, but that of his fraternity brothers with him. There is no evidence that his housemates ever treated him as anything but a brother, nonetheless, his white fraternity brothers now stand accused, by his parents, of hating and murdering him.

    What is the message here, if not that for white people there exists no course of action, not even that of friendship and brotherhood, sufficient to immunize them from accusations of hate and racism? Hire, befriend, or rent to a black person and you’ve effectively put a “kick me” on your back, as well as put yourself with striking distance of the shakedown artists at the NAACP.

    4. The hate factor in this entire affair can be isolated to the Johnson family’s hatred for white people, as evidenced by their insistent portrayal of this tragedy as the murder and cover-up of an innocent black man by racist white people. Nowhere else in this story is there a hint of hatred or racism, just as nowhere is there a sign of anyone in an official capacity standing up to the two of them for their despicable behavior. These days officials deliver their moral condemnation only as directed to by minorities.

    5. Is this what life in our free society has been reduced to for white people, the obligation to remain silent and stoic in the face of brutal slander? The Johnson’s have every right to their racist, hysterical beliefs, but by what standard do their qualify for a public platform from which to spew their reckless, racist slander at their son’s fraternity brothers, the university police, the coroner’s office, and the university staff? To publicly accuse those fraternity brothers of murder without even a shred of corroborating evidence is disgraceful. To suggest that the students, the university, the police, and the county coroner are all involved in a murder-conspiracy is pure lunacy—and undeserving of news coverage of any kind.

  5. Mr Rowen,

    I understand your need to strike out at me, given the moronic content of your first comment on this post, where you felt the need to criticize SJSU for its failure to confront the family’s “unanswered questions,” yet listed not a one. Perhaps your omission had something to do with the fact that the family’s questions few legitimate questions are about the crime scene investigation and the cause of death, two subjects far beyond the administration’s realm of expertise.

    Tell me, do you have mental problems? Obviously you have an ax to grind with SJSU that predates this tragedy, but how could a rational person ever see the young man’s death as connected in any way with the administration’s alleged “lack of focus,” or a lack of leadership at Student Affairs, or an official’s lack of concern? Are you incapable of accepting that sometimes there are no bad guys to blame when bad things happen, or are you simply one more scoundrel eager to exploit a tragedy?

    You criticize me for my not respecting the family’s troubles, which I take to mean the family’s heartbreak. I disrespected no such thing. What I disrespected was the appalling disrespect they extended towards everyone connected with this case in seeking to have their own concerns addressed, their own interests served. However, you are entitled to your own opinion, and if you think that black people have an innate right to unfairly accuse white people of murder and cover-up and conspiracy, then I’m sure there’ll be a seat for you at the next NAACP meeting.

    Lastly, you speculate how I might react should tragedy strike in my life. You should save your concern for your own ability to stay composed when confronted by a mere difference of opinion on a blog. As for me, having been tested by tragedy many times, I’m quite confident that reason and decency would not abandon me, as it so obviously has abandoned the Johnson family.

  6. “a seat at the next naacp meeting?”

    Hmm, well, I suppose we both know what seat is waiting for you at the Knox Knights of Kronus group.

    Ps, do get to cash checks with the name finfan, or do you have a real name?  Is the card you get those dvds in the paper sack got the name finfan on it?

  7. I am a member of Sigma Chi who was at SJSU 10 years ago. We had three brothers of African American decent, two brothers of Assyrian decent, a vietnamese guy, and many latinos, making up about 35-40 percent of the chapter. These accusations need FORENSIC BACKING before they can level charges of a lynching against my brothers. I am all for the Johnson family hiring their own investigator to satisfy their questions. Until then, do not ruin the lives of young men who in all likelihood had a great relationship with this man and loved him. In my time there we partied, chased girls, argued, bonded, went to games and studied, we never had a solitary incident racial in nature. These allegations are reckless, disgusting and belong in another time and another place, not 2009 San Jose. Mrs. Johnson invoked the name of Obama to help her argument. I feel disgusted by this 1960s Selma, AL attitude. There are not enough black people in the US to vote him into office, so some white people voted for and support him, like me. If someone in that chapter coerced (there are no signs of a struggle anywhere or drugs or enough alcohol to render a 6’2, 20-year-old in the best shape of his life helpless) Junior into that basement, then find the specific people involved. Hatred on the level they are speaking (a LYNCHING!) is hard to come by in California. In light of the Oscar Grant shooting I can understand the lashing out. I cannot, however, watch as several upstanding and good young men are accused en masse with one of the most grievous crimes imaginable, against one of their own. And believe me, guys become tight in that house. I have seen enough of the brothers in that house mourn to know that you cannot accuse all of them in one fell swoop of something so hateful. I try to sympathize with the Johnsons, but there is no place in this day and age for wildly blind accusations of a lynching. If they need to look into shoddy investigations, fine, but do not accuse 30 young men aged 18-24 of a group lynching. The innocence of even one man in that chapter is enough to stop the broad accusations. Appalling. It seems to me that Junior was trying to undo the hatred he grew up with by joining a multicultural institution at his university. He did not join Alpha Phi Alpha (100% black fraternity), he was courted, initiated into and lived with those brothers for two years. If we are to move forward in this race game we are all a part of, we need logical cooperation from both sides. Until someone besides Mrs. Johnson’s hairdresser analyzes the evidence, I stand by my brothers, even the black ones.
    IN HOC SIGNO VINCES

  8. Junior was a friend of mine, as well as many others in the Sigma Chi fraternity. I think it’s disgusting that people are accusing his best friends and brothers of killing him. I was there the day it happened when they were all crying in the parking lot together in disbelief. Someone commented that “finfan” was being insensitive to the family, but what about his fraternity brothers? How could you be any more insensitive to his best friends then accuse them, with no motive or evidence, of killing him. Can you imagine what that would be like, to try to mourn for your friend, all while publicly being accused of being a racist who murdered him?
    I absolutely agree with everything “finfan” had to say. This is simply racism against Caucasians. The brothers of Sigma Chi loved Junior and I know they miss him everyday. Consider that they need to be shown sensitivity as well.

    • u really were not a friend of jr when was the last time u called the parents . the da called the suspicous where did the crack in the back of jrs hear come from id u see what happened ? according to your newsletter the house was full of people or so called friends from the pics in the bayview this was not a sucide !

      • you don’t know what you are talking about!  There was no “crack” in the back of Junior’s head.  I was in another fraternity at SJSU at the time of Junior’s death.  I knew Junior, though admittedly not very well.  He always seemed like a very nice and well adjusted guy. 

        In 2008 Sigma Chi had two African American brothers, both of whom were very well liked in our greek community and neither were the victims of any hatred.  I don’t know what Junior was thinking, just a month earlier he was singing at a memorial at Pi Kappa Alpha in the memory of another student who had passed away….but there simply was no motive to kill Junior.  It didn’t happen that way and there is no evidence to believe it.  Junior was loved by all who knew him inside the Sigma Chi house and all across fraternity row (10th/11th street).  Period end of story.

        • to lair u r the real liar or u just dont read the news papers junior mother gave pics of the back of jr head to yht sf bayview his head had a crack onthe backof it unless u think she drew the pic. check out the sf bayviewgregory johnson jr . gregory johnson jr WAS the only african american LIVING in the sigma chi frat house at the time of his murder gregory johnson jr had no marks on his neck to indicate he ever hung but from LOOKING at his mothers pictures his neck was broken. if this was a ligit sucide why was is the mother unable to get a police report or autopsy pics a do most parents when the truth is being told no you are the liar but why ? because u know the truth? well that still makes u a liar! period !