A ‘goofball with a master’s degree’ remembered at police memorial in Nyssa

NYSSA – With a riderless horse, bagpipes and a law enforcement procession that stretched 12 miles, the people of Nyssa and law enforcement officers from across the West on Saturday honored Joseph “JJ” Johnson, a reserve police corporal killed on duty a week earlier. 

Johnson, 43, was picking up an extra shift for the short-handed Nyssa Police Department when he was shot to death. 

He is the first officer to die on duty in Malheur County since 1957, when a Nyssa officer was killed when a car struck him. 

The service brought life nearly to a stop in Nyssa, an agricultural town of about 3,100. A crowd filled Nyssa High School’s auditorium and hundreds more observed the ceremony in a live feed to the school’s gymnasium. 

Over two hours, speakers described Johnson’s work career, drive for education and a personality that was both caring and fun-loving. 

“He was a goofball with a master’s degree,” said Don Ballou, Nyssa police chief. 

Ahead of the ceremony Saturday morning, hundreds of police and fire vehicles congregated in a parking lot at Treasure Valley Community College in Ontario. They represented city police departments, sheriff’s offices, fire departments and state police. 

The last vehicle in the procession was just leaving the parking lot as the lead vehicles pulled into Nyssa 12 miles away.  

VIDEO: Watch Nyssa ceremony 

Scattered all along the route, citizens parked and stood for the passing procession. Some held American flags. Some put their hands over their hearts. Others saluted. 

In Nyssa, the procession turned onto the street to the high school, passing under a massive U.S. flag stretched across Adrian Boulevard, held taut by two fire ladder trucks. 

As the vehicles carrying Johnson’s family drew near, members of honor guards stepped alongside, providing a walking escort the final few hundred yards to the school parking lot. The honor guards came from the Oregon Department of Corrections, the Oregon State Police and other agencies. 

Except for the sounds of vehicle engines, there would have been silence but for the mournful songs played by the Portland Police Highland Guard. The bagpipers and drummers stepped into the procession behind the honor guard. They were followed by a single riderless horse. 

Mindful that hundreds of officers had gathered, police tactical teams took positions on school building rooftops, keeping a watchful eye. 

At the high school, the auditorium filled with Johnson’s relatives, police in crisp uniforms and officers from the Oregon Department of Corrections, where Johnson had worked since 2007. 

Hundreds more mourners took seats in the high school gymnasium, home of the Bulldogs, to watch the ceremony on a large screen. 

Over two hours, speakers told Johnson’s life story, alternating with bagpipe music and honor guard presentations of flags. 

Ballou, the police chief, told of Johnson’s “cheesy grin” and zest for life. But he described a man who constantly sought more education, amassing double the number of trainings that his chief had. 

As a reserve, he wasn’t paid for his duty. 

The chief said that in the last four months, Johnson had worked patrol shifts on Saturday and Sunday ­– his days off from his job as a behavioral health specialist at the Snake River Correctional Institution. He did so, Ballou said, because he knew the small agency was short of people. 

“We’re never going to fully recover because it’s such a huge loss,” Ballou said. 

Johnson started with the Corrections Department as a corrections officer and last year became the first officer to make the shift to behavioral health. He was known among colleagues as a practical joker with a passion for “Star Wars.” 

A sizable man, Johnson was known as “Papa Bear” as much for his caring for agency workers and inmates as his girth. 

A slide show at the ceremony with photos and details of Johnson’s life played to the “Star Wars” theme. 

Gov. Tina Kotek, “in the name of a grateful state,” on Friday awarded Johnson the Law Enforcement Medal of Ultimate Sacrifice. The citation was presented at the memorial to Johnson’s widow, Linda, by Casey Codding, Oregon State Police superintendent. 

The ceremony took place just a mile from the Nyssa neighborhood where Johnson died, shot while behind the wheel of his patrol car, answering a domestic violence call. The suspect, Rene Castro, 36, was arrested two days later and now potentially faces the death penalty after being charged in Malheur County Circuit Court with aggravated murder. 

At the high school, the ceremony included the ceremonial broadcast from a dispatcher seeking to contact “320” ­­– Johnson’s radio identification. 

With no answer, the dispatcher declared “end of watch” for Johnson. 

A member of the Oregon Department of Corrections honor guard carries the remains of Joseph “JJ” Johnson into the memorial service on Saturday, April 22, at Nyssa High School. (ANGIE SILLONIS/Special to the Enterprise)
An honor guard conducts the ceremonial tolling of the bell on Saturday, April 22, at the memorial at Nyssa High School for Joseph “JJ” Johnson, a reserve corporal for the Nyssa Police Department. Johnson was killed on duty on April 15. (ANGIE SILLONIS/Special to the Enterprise)

Les Zaitz is editor of Salem Reporter and also serves as editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Oregon.