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Monday, February 13,2012

Recovering from the loss

Coping with the loss of a daughter, Lori Black opens up about the final hours of Shayla Johnson’s life and why she thinks the media haven’t accurately portrayed her family

by Andy Balaskovitz

This story was updated Feb. 13 to clarify the amount of marijuana grown in the house at the time of Johnson's murder.

“This is pretty much what my life has become,” Lori Black says while walking into the dining room of her west Lansing home. She’s carrying two stacks of paper. The first is about 3 1/2 inches thick with court hearing notifications. The second stack, of Lansing State Journal newspapers dating back to July 2010, is a little thicker.

The two stacks represent the ongoing struggle for Black as she and her family rebound from the brutal murder of her daughter, Shayla Johnson, 19, who was shot in a car trunk July 23, 2010, and died early the next morning.

For Black, Johnson’s 42-year-old mother, the past year-and-a-half has been a battle of facing the accused in connection to her daughter’s death and living with the “huge issue” of her family’s portrayal in the media.

“They’ve just twisted my words. There’s not a whole lot on Shayla herself. It’s been a huge issue with her portrayal,” Black said of the media coverage following her daughter’s death. “I immediately turned off to the media.”

Particularly, Black fears the popular image is: “Oh, Shayla got killed over drugs so she must be a big dope head and her family is too.”

As a 15-year Army veteran, Black said she worked for about seven of those writing for the Pentagon’s historical archives and for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “I’m not ignorant to how the media works,” she said. 

While in the military, she served “three times down range during the Bosnia/Serbia conflict” and also has been stationed in Africa, Egypt, Thailand and Russia. Before that, she moved to Lansing when she was 12 years old and graduated from Holt High School, just like her daughter did. 

Charles Lewis Jr., who was 13 at the time, was convicted of first-degree murder last week for his role in Johnson’s murder. “I cried immediately,” Black said when she heard the verdict. She awaits the 15-year-old’s sentencing in April. “I don’t want people to think I’m happy this child is going to have to spend the rest of his life in prison. … I think it’s unfortunate that a 13, now 15-year-old, child has to spend the rest of his life in prison and that another mother has to lose her child. I guess that’s the forgiveness side that I’m trying to work on. I’m not there yet, but I do feel bad that he’s going to lose his life too.”

More than a half-dozen other people were initially suspects in the crime. Some have accepted plea bargains, while others’ charges were dismissed. Others, including Lewis’ own father, await trial in federal court. Lewis was 13 at the time of the shooting but was tried as an adult.

Black said another difficult issue she’s faced is being asked: How could Johnson’s own mother not know what’s going on in relation to the drugs? “Because I’m a single mother trying to support my family. They didn’t know anything about us,” she said. 

Black said she discovered during testimony that 48 one-half-inch "clones" that were not ready for harvest were growing in the attic at the time of the incident. This matches testimony by Anthony Johnson, Shayla Johnson’s brother, during the trial.

It is unclear who owned the plants, but “I don’t think they belonged to Shayla,” said Ingham County Assistant Prosecutor Jeff Cruz. He speculated they might have belonged to Shayla Johnson’s boyfriend, David Allen, or possibly Anthony Johnson. Black said she believes they belonged to Allen. Black added that the plants were in enclosed, makeshift boxes beneath grow lights in the home’s attic and were being tended.

“I know that they were there to take her and hold her to have someone bring them drugs, the drugs they were after. They weren’t actually after her drugs. I’m relieved on that.”

Black recounts the incident with calmness and clarity. She said she gained a better understanding of what exactly happened during testimony last week. She often thinks that it could have very well been her in the house — not Johnson. “I wish I were there. I would have taken every one of those for her,” she said. 

In an hour-long interview with City Pulse Monday afternoon, Black not only recounted the night of Johnson’s shooting, but also Johnson’s relationships and dreams of the future; how the family is coping with the loss of her daughter; and her thoughts on the accused. Johnson’s ashes sat in an urn on the dining table.

“Shayla is an awesome person — I still talk about her like she’s still here,” Black said. “She’s the type of person that you love her or hate her, and even if you hate her, you still like her a little bit just because she’s sassy. She was a person who spoke her mind.”

One of Black’s favorite memories of Johnson is on the day she died. “She sat with me for about an hour and told me how much she loved me, how beautiful I was and what a great person I was. That’s a memory I’m always going to be thankful for.”

Johnson graduated from Holt High School in 2008. Black said about 500 people attended her funeral. At the time of her death, Johnson was working for Great Lakes Specialty Finance, or a “check and go,” for about six to eight months, Black said.

Black said she attempted to have dinner with her two children every night of the week and every Wednesday night was “date night,” which involved dinner at World Buffet for all-you-can-eat crab legs. 

“That was kind of our big thing,” Black said. “I always wanted to spend time with her. She was just fun. I thought of her as my best friend.”

Johnson was planning to move to Texas where her best friend from high school lives, Black said. “That was her plan. A week before that could happen she was killed. She was all set to go,” Black said. “Her initial plan was to get out of Lansing, move to Texas and get a change in life.”

On the night of the shooting, Black said she, her now 18-year-old son Anthony Johnson and his girlfriend were at the westside home where this interview took place packing for a weekend trip to Michigan’s Adventure amusement park near Muskegon. Black said she asked Johnson if she wanted to come help, but Johnson declined, saying: “No, Mom, I’m tired. I just want to sleep,” Black said.

Black was living at the Lenore Avenue home where the shooting took place, but spent time going back and forth between the westside home, where her boyfriend, Brainard Davis, lives. 

“I immediately moved here,” after the shooting, she said. Black’s teenage son and his girlfriend, Kali Pahl, along with Black and Johnson, were living at the Lenore Avenue home at the time of the shooting.

Now, Black is living in west Lansing with her grandson Brayden Johnson, Davis and two dogs named Daisy and Baby. She’s considering a second anniversary party for Johnson, but something more modestly sized than last year’s. She fears her son is still having difficulty coping with the incident. Black credits her own spirituality for guiding her through the past year and a half. She has no immediate plans for leaving the city, though she hasn’t ruled it out, either.

“I’m actually doing great. I’m not going to say I don’t have my moments where I break down and cry. I miss my daughter immensely,” she said. “I just try to keep her spirit and memory alive and I feel like that’s my job now. I can’t sit around and cry and mope about it. I won’t be able to get anything done, I won’t be any good to anybody.”

It was her own fault, she admits, for reading the comments section of the State Journal’s website that she says mischaracterize her and her family. Black said she doesn’t want Johnson to “be that girl that was murdered in 2010. I want people to know that we’re a family that love her and miss her.”

That will take some work, she said, which will likely involve the media. As she places her hands on the court documents and news clippings toward the end of our interview, Black said: “We’re a long way from this being a finished project.”

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