Shocking news of a Kentucky lawmaker’s suicide Wednesday night rattled the airwaves, drawing to a close the disturbing story of Dan Johnson’s life as the “Pope”.
Following a story published by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, news media across the country reported on allegations that Johnson had sexually assaulted a 17-year-old girl in the basement of his church.
But there is far more to the tale of the “Pope”, as evidenced by decades of lies, crimes, and unsolved mysteries. The Intellectualist has condensed this real-life-novel below but encourages the reader to absorb the full story as well.
Danny Ray Johnson was a bigger-than-life figure in Louisville, Kentucky. His identity as the pastor of the Heart of Fire Church, with his self-proclaimed title of the “Pope”, was well-established prior to a run for state legislature in 2016.
He claims he served as White House chaplain to three presidents. A United Nations ambassador. He says he set up the morgue after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and was the pastor who gave last rites for all of those pulled from the towers.
Johnson also claimed to have healed a deaf person and raised the dead; he was a key figure in quelling the Los Angeles race riots after the officers who assaulted Rodney King were acquitted; and was given a seat at the table for international peace talks.
No proof for any of his claims could be found, but reasons to doubt them are plentiful.
Johnson took his grandiose ways from the church to politics with a run for office steeped in racism, rightwing lies, and outrageous claims against his Democratic opponent.
Racist social media posts garnered national attention but weren’t enough to end his bid:
Media reports highlighted racist posts he shared. One image depicted Barack and Michelle Obama as cartoonish apes. Another showed a young chimpanzee with a caption, “Obama’s baby picture.” A third post showed former President Ronald Reagan feeding a small chimp a bottle. It was titled, “Reagan babysits a young Obama.”
How Johnson was able to get so far is unclear, with a history of shady behavior that no one seemed to notice.
Johnson has claimed to have a Ph.D. and to be a “doctor of theology.” And he has said, under oath, that he holds a “doctorate of divinity” from a Bible school in Des Moines, Iowa. A spokeswoman for Kingsway University and Theological Seminary in Des Moines said Johnson studied there but never earned a degree.
In campaign videos and speeches, Johnson talks about serving as an ambassador to the United Nations. A UN researcher couldn’t find any evidence of it.
Johnson claimed to have been near the World Trade Center on 9/11:
He set up a morgue right there, right near the rubble. And for two weeks — two heinous weeks — the Pope gave last rites for “all of those” pulled from the towers.
No one else could place his at the scene, and others said it would be unthinkable that he set up his own morgue on that day.
In 1985, Johnson paid two people to set his car on fire so he could collect the insurance money:
He admitted to handing over the keys and paying to get rid of the car. He wanted it destroyed. He wanted to collect insurance money. The young preacher told police he was about to go broke. Johnson owed more than $10,000 on the car, which also needed repairs that would total thousands more.
When the Heart of Fire Church burned to the ground in 2000, Johnson was the primary suspect in what investigators determined to be arson. But he was never charged.
At the time it burned down, the Heart of Fire Church was essentially bankrupt, according to the insurance company Brotherhood Mutual, which filed a lawsuit after the blaze. The company claimed that the church owed far more on outstanding loans than it could ever pay, more than the property was worth, more than it would sell for.
And then there were the parties. Alcohol-fueled parties in the basement of Johnson’s church were common. On three occasions, he was cited for selling booze without a license, but that didn’t stop the “Pope”.
Often, weekends meant parties at the Pope’s House. Sometimes there’d be concerts. Other times just booze and camaraderie. Some of the antics — the scantily clad women, the dancing on the bar, the body shots, the costumes — have been documented in pictures posted to Johnson’s Facebook page.
It was following one of these parties, an event on New Year’s Eve in 2012, that Maranda Richmond alleges she was sexually assaulted by Johnson. The charge that precipitated his untimely death on December 13.
That night, she woke after settling in on the sofa. She was groggy, unfocused. But she saw Johnson kneeling above her. He gave her a kiss on the head. She thought it fatherly, nothing out of the ordinary, simply one last goodnight gesture.
Then he started to stroke her arm. He slid his hands up, under her shirt and bra, and groped her. He stuck his tongue in her mouth. Then, he forced his hands down her pants, underneath her underwear, and penetrated her with his finger.
A botched police investigation led to no charges, and Richmond tried more than once to alert the press to her story leading up to Johnson’s election. But no one listened.
KYCIR investigated Richmond’s claims, along with all others presented above, over the course of seven months, logging more than 100 interviews and thousands of pages of public documents.
In the end, the “Pope” denied everything and refused to step down.
Johnson — the preacher-turned-politician, the alleged arsonist and molester, the liar who says he was on the front lines of history and has received nearly $20,000 in legislative pay this year — will be in Frankfort when the legislature meets again soon.
The final act in this sordid tale arrived on Wednesday, when Dan “the Pope” Johnson took his own life, leaving the following note on his personal Facebook page:
The lawmaker’s body was found Wednesday night near a bridge on Greenwell Ford Road in Mount Washington, Ky., in a spot called the River Bottoms. Johnson had suffered a single gunshot wound to his head, and a gun was recovered at the scene, Bullitt County Sheriff’s Lt. Scotty McGaha said.