Family hopes for justice in officer's 1980 slaying

Mildred Johnson had given up pestering Atlanta Police to investigate the murder of their brother officer -- her husband -- until she got the call nearly 30 years later.

"I feel hope," said Johnson, who never remarried and who kept photos of her husband up in her home so her daughters would see them. "I've prayed for 30 years to get justice. ... It is rough. The pain never goes away."

She and her two daughters joined interim Police Chief George Turner at a news conference Friday to announce a $35,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of those responsible for murdering 31-year-old Officer Alfred Johnson on Feb. 16, 1980.

The poised family said it was grateful that Detective Vince Velazquez was investigating Johnson's death, but the family tactfully alluded to the department's earlier abandonment of the case.

"We're elated that case is being opened -- something we thought was thrown away," said daughter Kessa Johnson, who was 2 when her father died, her eyes welling up with tears. "It's pretty strange. It is disquieting how it has taken 30 years to bring this back to light."

Retired Detective Ponce Harris told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week that within two years of the killing, he and his partner had identified the gunmen who had killed Johnson during the robbery of an East Atlanta grocery, but authorities weren't willing to cut a notorious bank robber a deal to secure his testimony against the killers. That criminal was the cellmate of one of the robbers who had been imprisoned for another crime, Harris said.

Turner said he learned the case had not been solved after the homicide file surfaced when the department was moving headquarters from Ponce de Leon Avenue to Garnett Street last year.

He didn't mention the suspects who were identified in the early 1980s but instead noted that the wrong man had been arrested immediately after the killing.

That man, Claybon Pounds, was instead convicted of a similar robbery that happened minutes after the grocery store robbery in 1980, Velazquez said. Johnson was moonlighting as a guard at the grocery store when he was killed.

"That guy is not the guy," said the veteran cold-case investigator.

Turner said detectives have some strong leads and hope that the $35,000 reward will shake loose more witnesses who can identify the two masked men who robbed the store, or their getaway driver. He noted that over the years, even hardened criminals can soften. "We just believe that as time passes, people grow more mellow and want to be forgiven," he said.  In 2002, two men were convicted of a 1975 murder of a police officer after now-retired Detective Jim Rose secured a confession from one of the gunmen who testified in exchange for a lighter sentence.

Maj. Keith Meadows said he was confident that the $35,000 reward -- which is being put up by the International Brotherhood of Police Officers union and Crime Stoppers Atlanta -- would help bring good information. He acknowledged the size of the reward could directly affect the outcome of the investigation.

Asked if the city of Atlanta was putting up any cash, Turner said Mayor Kasim Reed couldn't make the news conference he had wanted to attend to show his support, but he was confident of the support of the mayor and City Council. As of the news conference, however, the city had not yet put up any cash. "The family deserves closure to this thing," Turner said.

Tonya Isaacs, who was 5 when her father died, said that her memories of her dad included him galloping after her on his hands and knees when they played in their College Park house. The first memory that came to mind, though, was how they were walking to the house in the snow.

"I kept falling and he would pick me up," said Isaacs, who now lives in California, first smiling and then tears rimming her eyes. "I'm glad that my daughter and son have a dad who is in their life and active. People who do these things don't just hurt the people they kill. They hurt the children."

People with any information on the case should call Crime Stoppers Atlanta, 404-577-8477.