Danny Ray Johnson (October 18, 1960 – December 13, 2017) was an American pastor and Republican member of the Kentucky House of Representatives, representing the 49th District in 2017. In December 2017, Johnson committed suicide one day after the publication of an exposé that included an allegation of sexual misconduct with a minor.
Danny Ray Johnson was raised by his parents, Jerry and Charlene Johnson, in Bastrop, Louisiana. At the age of seven, Johnson suffered an eye injury following an incident with a BB gun. He would later say the incident left him blind, but that his sight was miraculously healed.
In 1979, Johnson graduated from Bastrop High School, where he was a member of the history and journalism clubs and the school rock band. While still in Louisiana, he married, had a child, and later divorced, leaving him in a precarious financial situation. He claimed he graduated from a non-accredited Bible college whose authorities said he took courses but never received a credential.
At the age of 24, Johnson moved to Louisville, Kentucky. In the early morning hours of his twenty-fifth birthday, Johnson's 1982 Cadillac Coupe de Ville was found without tires or rims and doused in gasoline in Louisville's Cox Park. Two men arrested fleeing the scene told police that Johnson had paid them to burn the vehicle. After initially signing a stolen vehicle report, Johnson later admitted that he had paid the men to destroy the car — for which he was over $10,000 in debt — so that he could collect the insurance money. He was indicted on charges of conspiracy to commit arson and filing a false police report. He pled not guilty, and the charges were dropped after Johnson completed a six-month diversion program.
Johnson and his second wife, Rebecca, had four children together.
In 1991, Johnson was involved in international missions through the Living Waters Church in Pasadena, California. Johnson said he had performed miracles during trips to Venezuela and Colombia, including curing deafness and raising a woman from the dead.
The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting (KyCIR) reported and debunked several claims made by Johnson about his life and ministry, including that he helped set up "safe zones" to protect people from the 1992 Los Angeles riots, that he served as White House Chaplain (a non-existent position) to Presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, and that he had been an ambassador to the United Nations. Although Johnson received workers' compensation benefits from the state of New York, KyCIR found no credible evidence of Johnson's claims that he set up an impromptu morgue near Ground Zero in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks and administered last rites for two weeks to the bodies of those pulled from the rubble.
Johnson presented himself as a self-styled "bishop" at the Heart of Fire Church in Louisville, Kentucky. The Lexington Herald-Leader described Johnson's nondenominational Heart of Fire church as "part evangelical church, part motorcycle bar" and reported that "heavy drinking parties including juveniles appear to be a regular part of the 'worship'". On three separate occasions, officers from the Kentucky Alcoholic Beverage Commission cited Johnson and the church for selling alcohol without a license during weekend church parties. At a 2009 trial involving the charges, Johnson said the alcohol was being used in communion ceremonies. Johnson referred to himself as the "pope" of the church.
After the church building burned in 2000, investigators found evidence that the fire had been intentionally set. Johnson blamed the Ku Klux Klan for the act of arson. The church's insurance company sued, and the case was settled with no formal charges being brought.
In 2016, Johnson was the Republican challenger to incumbent Democrat Linda H. Belcher in the race to represent the 49th District (Bullitt County) in the Kentucky House of Representatives. Melanie Roberts, the Republican Judge/Executive of Bullitt County, originally filed to run against Belcher, but withdrew in early 2016. Jennifer Stepp won the Republican primary election later that year, but was retroactively disqualified for incorrectly completing paperwork. County Republican officials, acting on a short time frame, then chose Johnson, a local Tea Party activist, as the party's replacement nominee.
Eschewing orthodox campaign methods — he skipped the formal candidate debate co-organized by the county chamber of commerce and the local newspaper — Johnson primarily relied on social media to declare his policy platform, which included opposition to abortion, gun control, same-sex marriage, the Common Core State Standards Initiative, and the Affordable Care Act. He referred to his opponent as "Bloody Lyin' Linda" and "baby killer", and alleged, without supporting evidence, that Belcher had hired "Chicago thugs" to threaten and intimidate him and his family. State party officials gave Johnson extremely limited support, and by the first of October, the candidate had reported no contributions to his campaign.
A month before the election, the Republican Party of Kentucky publicly called for Johnson to drop out of the race, citing posts on Johnson's social media accounts that "represent the rankest sort of prejudice present in our society". The posts included a photo of Barack and Michelle Obama that was altered to make them look like apes, a picture of a chimpanzee with a caption describing it as a baby photo of Barack Obama, and a message proclaiming, "Allah sucks. Mohammed sucks. Islam sucks. Any of you Hadji's have an issue with me saying this, PM me and I'll gladly give you my address. You can come visit me, where I promise I will KILL YOU in my front yard!!" Johnson resisted the calls to end his campaign and defended the posts as "satire". When the photos disappeared from Johnson's page, he insisted that he had not removed them, but that they had been deleted by Facebook.
On an election night that saw Republicans take control of the state House from Democrats for the first time since 1921, Johnson was one of 17 Republicans to unseat Democratic incumbents, winning the election by a vote of 9,342 to 9,186. Because of the small victory margin, Belcher requested a recanvass, but the vote count remained unchanged. Following his election, he was placed on several interim legislative committees, including tourism, small business, and information technology; transportation; veterans, military affairs, and public protection. In the 2017 General Assembly, he co-sponsored a bill — later signed into law by Governor Matt Bevin — allowing public schools to teach classes in biblical literacy. He pre-filed a bill for the 2018 General Assembly that would require software to block pornography to be installed on all devices sold in Kentucky that are capable of accessing the Internet.
On December 11, 2017, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting (KyCIR) published a story on Johnson that included allegations by a woman who says Johnson molested her at a party at his church on New Year's Eve in 2012, when she was 17 years old. The alleged victim and her parents reported the incident to Louisville Metro Police in April 2013. Police investigators had both the victim and her father call Johnson on a recorded line in an attempt to get him to confess, but he did not. After minimal further investigation, the case was closed in September 2013. During KyCIR's 2017 investigation, the police re-opened the case.
The Republican Party of Kentucky called on Johnson to resign the same day the allegations were published. The following day, Johnson held a news conference at his church where he claimed the allegations were untrue and were politically motivated.
Just before 5 p.m. Eastern Time on December 13, a lengthy post on Johnson's Facebook page asked readers to support his wife, Rebecca, and alluded to his alleged post-traumatic stress disorder that he claimed resulted from his ostensible presence at the World Trade Center immediately following the September 11 attacks as "a sickness that will take my life, I cannot handle it any longer." An individual who read the post alerted police, who used Johnson's cell phone signal to track his location. His body was found, with a single gunshot wound to the head, by a bridge over the Salt River in Mount Washington, Kentucky. He was pronounced dead at the scene at 8:20 p.m. An autopsy confirmed that Johnson had killed himself.
The day after his death, Johnson's widow, Rebecca, issued a press release declaring his death to be "high-tech lynching based on lies and half-truths" and announcing her intent to seek election to his seat in the Kentucky House. Republican party officials reciprocated by choosing Rebecca to be the party's nominee in the special election to replace him. Former Representative and Johnson’s predecessor Linda Belcher was the victorious Democratic nominee in the February 20, 2018 special election. Though Belcher won the election to reclaim the 49th District, with 68% of the vote, in a district which president Donald Trump had won by 72% in 2016, Johnson's widow refused to concede, claiming her loss was due to fraudulent election procedures.
Johnson was buried in Mount Washington Cemetery in Campbellsville, Taylor County.