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People We’ll Miss—2014

Sheila Johnson, 54

August 19, 1959–April 12, 2014

Every day, I read dozens of stories from Texas publications, from the major metro dailies to the small-town weekly circulars. The dates of the various stories change, but the content rarely does. Politicians squabble; police make another drug arrest; the local football team does better (or worse) than expected; weather is happening. At this point, even the deaths seem rather mundane: motorcyclist killed on I-35; dispute resolved after heavy drinking, target practice; community mourns sudden passing of 125-year-old volunteer.

Then a news item comes along that’s devoid of puns or splash. Something just completely straightforward, an amazing feat in our modern world of commentary and snark.

Like the Fort Worth Star-Telegram piece I read on April 15 that started, “Woman killed in apparent shootout . . . ”

What followed was a story so quintessentially Texas, it’s impossible not to turn the pain and loss into an abstract glorification of violence, stubborn pride, and true grit. After all, that’s how most of our Lone Star heroes have lived on in legend and tall tales. So why not the same treatment for Sheila Johnson, a 54-year-old, five-foot-four, 110-pound woman who died after being shot multiple times with a .45-caliber pistol?

Based on that story and the multiple personal accounts of Johnson’s life, it would seem that all of our Texas ideals and eccentricities could be packed into this one tiny frame. The Texas spirit personified by a single woman whose passing should elicit not that universal and hoary idiom “Rest in peace,” but rather the battle cry so often used within our borders: “Give em hell!”

It was the night of Sunday, April 13. Johnson, who helped run 4A Good Auction—“a country auction barn in the city”—in southeast Fort Worth for thirteen years, was staying late. There’s a good chance she was keeping watch. The auction had recently experienced a string of burglaries—two within two weeks in December, another two in January and February. There was still a .45 slug sunk in the front door from one attempt. Another time, burglars had entered, thrown a sheet over Johnson, and pistol-whipped her until she was unconscious. The police hadn’t done much. So Johnson—“not ruled by fear” and “independent,” as friends and family all repeat like a Greek chorus—began taking it upon herself to visit the auction late at night, or even setting up camp inside until morning.

This time, when the thieves came in through the back door, Johnson grabbed her gun and fought back. She was not one to back down.

“Back in the old days, she would have been one of the gunslingers,” said Johnson’s sister, Karen DePriest. “Like Annie Oakley.”

And like Annie Oakley, Johnson loved guns. Had a whole collection. She was also a tomboy who would later pair her cowboy hat with a little Chanel No. 5. Who really liked her Jack, putting away that whiskey neat, with no chaser. Whose go-to meal at the local diner was as classic as it gets: roast beef, mashed taters, green beans, and gravy. Who was kind but wouldn’t take no guff.

Johnson got her first taste of Texas early on, coming down from the family home in Leavenworth, Kansas, to study drama at Austin’s St. Edward’s University. After that, she roamed. She joined the Air Force in her late twenties and was stationed in Germany. There was time spent in Memphis, too, before returning to Texas. First to Arlington and then Fort Worth, where she began working at the auction house. It became a second home to Johnson.

“She would outlift—outwork—the football players that would come from O.D. Wyatt [High School] that we worked with,” 4A co-owner Bob Crowder had told the Star-Telegram. Picking up items for the auction, three-hundred-pound men would simply stand and watch as Johnson moved entire refrigerators twice her weight by herself. Once, Johnson and 4As other co-owner, Beverly Carter, had to pick up a “llama named Obama and the son of Obama the Llama.” Obama the Llama was kind and gentle; his son was not. After two hours of lassoing, Johnson finally got hold of him. Heels in the dirt, Johnson was screaming, “I’m not gonna let go!” as the son of Obama the Llama dragged her through the pasture. Again, she was not one to back down.

“When I was a kid, I had a book of Pecos Bill, and it had this tornado and this guy on a bucking bronco with his six-shooter guns drawn,” Crowder said. “That’s the thought I have of Sheila.” Crowder paused for a moment. It was unclear whether he meant to compare Johnson to Pecos Bill or the twister. From the sound of it, she could have been both forces at once.

Sheila Johnson: frying pan–sized but would charge hell with a bucket of ice water; strong as a high school linebacker; tough as nickel steak; independent as a hog on ice and as stubborn as a son of a llama.

Even the sparse details of her death—the “shootout”—provide perfectly portioned ingredients for legend.

The night she was killed, Johnson was sitting on the auction house stage, which had, over the years, “become kind of her nest, her cozy spot,” as Carter put it. When the thieves entered, Johnson sprang to action, emptying the clip of her Marlin, semiautomatic .22 rifle. Maybe the future stories will have her finishing off the bad guys just before dropping down and reciting her own glorious dirge. All we really know about that night is the cause of death—“gunshot wounds of torso,” according to the coroner’s report. The alleged killers are awaiting trial. But she was found the next day, directly behind the auction podium, with the rifle still in her hands. She’d defended her home, the life she’d made. It was her own personal Alamo.

Painful as it is, Johnson’s friends and family instinctively understand.

“At first, it was like, ‘Oh, my gosh what were you thinking?’” DePriest said. “But then it’s like, ‘Well, that would be her.’ You know, ‘This is my place, this is our livelihood, and nobody can come in here and take it.’” –Jeff Winkler

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