‘Angel’ in San Bernardino attack grew up in Georgia

Shannon Johnson died a hero when he shielded a woman during the San Bernardino shooting spree. Ironically, the 45-year-old Georgia native had followed in his father’s footsteps.

Johnson was one 14 people killed this week when a county employee and his wife opened fire during a celebration before the couple was later killed by police. The FBI is investigating the California mass shooting, which also injured 17, as an act of terrorism

On Friday, Johnson was remembered for being a loving soul who easily made friends and loved to travel, though he never forgot those back home. He was a role model long before his heroic death, his friends and family said.

“He was on a mission in life, and he’s done so many things,” Ken Smith Sr., a family friend who lives in Warner Robins, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And that was the finale. He completed the mission.”

When he was 6-years-old, Johnson’s father died while trying to save a man at a southeast Georgia paper mill. Johnson was devastated, Smith said.

“He was just a model father. Shannon always missed his father, and it was a void nobody could fill,” Smith said.

Wednesday morning, it was Johnson who played the role of hero when he helped shield one of his co-workers during the San Bernardino shooting at a social services center.

Through Facebook, Stephanie Rose Baldwin, whose sister was wounded but survived, conveyed her appreciation for the man she called an angel.

“This angel of a man was sitting next to my sister (Denise Peraza) when the shooting happened.” Baldwin said. “He helped protect her from the bullets and we are so grateful for his heroic love, that most likely saved her life. She said he was a very sweet man and she spoke with him often at work. Our heart breaks hearing of his passing, and it bursts knowing of his love for my sister.”

As a child growing up in Georgia, Johnson was a natural athlete with a strong build who excelled at football and baseball. He played both at Windsor Academy in Macon, later choosing baseball over football in college.

To Smith, Johnson was like another son, and Smith’s wife and three children felt like he was part of the family. Smith’s son, Ken Smith Jr., and Johnson were the same age and best friends.

“He was attached like a fourth youngin,” Smith said. “Lord have mercy, we just loved him. You couldn’t resist Shannon.”

During his senior year of high school, Johnson even lived with the Smiths before graduating in 1988. At the small private school, Johnson was popular for his good looks and physique, but it was his down-to-earth nature that others loved. Younger students adored him, and Johnson was strong enough to carry them when they approached him in the hallways.

“My son played quarterback and he was the running back,” Smith said. “My son was the pitcher and he was the catcher. He was family. He was family.”

After two years of college, Johnson took a job driving a tractor-trailer, giving him the chance to travel throughout the country. For 12 years, it was a job that suited him, but when he could, he returned to Georgia to visit his family and friends.

“He just liked to travel, see different people, different places,” said Ken Smith Jr., who lives in Milledgeville.

Johnson was married for six years, but later the couple broke up, though the two remained friends, Smith Jr. said.

From his travels, Johnson fell in love with California, and he moved to Los Angeles to finish his degree. He graduated from California State University-San Bernardino in 2004 with a degree in health science, and the following year took a job as environmental health specialist in San Bernardino County. It was a long commute but worth it for Johnson.

About three years ago in California, Johnson met a girlfriend he adored, Mandy Pifer, and the two had talked about getting married. In May, Johnson was planning a trip back to Georgia, and Smith Jr. said he had expected the couple to share their plans near Christmas.

In a recent conversation, Johnson had mentioned possibly returning home to Georgia to live, Smith Jr. said.

“He loved taking long walks throughout the city, going to concerts, and hanging out at his favorite tattoo parlor,” Johnson’s family said in a statement. “He truly enjoyed laughter, conversation, music, and his pets.”

Funeral arrangements for Johnson were pending, but his body will be returned to Georgia. A GoFundMe page called the Shannon Johnson Memorial has been created to assist the family and friends with burial costs.

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