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- What happened:

My father, Jared Johnson, and my older half-brother, John Onyejiaka, beat one of my best friends, Reinhard Zeuner, nearly to death.  My mother, Sheila Simpson/Johnson, watched the attack as it happened.  She held a loaded gun in her hand as the beating progressed.

My younger (but much bigger) brother, Joshua Johnson, also played a part in the attack.  He pinned me down to keep me from intervening.  

Reinhard nearly died as a result of the injuries he received; he would have certainly died had a woman passing by not started filming the attack.  This caused my father and brother to retreat before finishing what they had set out to do.

- When: Friday, May 5, 2006

- Why: 1. Reinhard was gay. That was not the only reason for the attack, but it played a large part.  My family despised gays with a passion. The fact that I had become friends with Reinhard was, in their eyes, enough justification to kill him.  After all, didn't the Bible say that homosexuals should be stoned to death?

- Why: 2. Reinhard was White. My African American family was racist against White people.  The fact that Reinhard and my other friend, Jeremy, were White was a major reason for the murder attempt.  My family made specific comments to that effect just before the attack.

- Why: 3. Reinhard was a Jesus Christian. More than anything else, their chief concern had to do with religion.

I was raised to almost literally worship money, whereas the Jesus Christians taught voluntary poverty.  My parents nicknamed me ‘Money’ as a child, because they believed I had the talents to make a lot of it and bring it home for them.  They wanted me to graduate from high school, go on to university, and then move into a high paying job.  I stood to either play professional basketball in the NBA, or go on to become a medical doctor.  Either way, their plans had me on track to make a lot of money, and to be a respectable member of society, looked up to and admired by others.

My parents taught me from as early as I can remember that God wanted me to be rich.  They taught (in particular) that I should give a large percentage of whatever I might eventually make to them.  They had ingrained this into me from early childhood.  Things were looking more and more like I would be bringing in millions in just a few years. Sharing such wealth with them would be the bare minimum they expected as repayment for the work they had done in raising me.

However, I had become inspired by the Jesus Christians, a tiny Christian community with teams on several continents, to forsake all of my material possessions.  I wanted to give the proceeds to the poor, as per Jesus' instructions, and to use my time (life) to serve God.  I had become convinced that I did not want to work to earn money; rather, I wanted to use my time to serve God and love others in whatever ways God might reveal to me.  For me at that particular time, it meant leaving high school soon after I turned eighteen.  I did this (shortly before graduation) despite expectations that I would give a speech as valedictorian of my graduating class.  Obviously, it also meant dropping plans to attend university.  I had been offered athletic and academic scholarships to some of the wealthiest and most respected universities in the country.  These included Yale, Stanford, UCLA, USC, and Columbia.  But I decided I didn't want to attend any of those universities; I wanted to serve God. This decision started a series of events that would ultimately lead to the murder attempt against Reinhard Zeuner.

- Where: 941 East New York Street, Long Beach, California. My half-brother, John, lived less than five minutes away by car.

- How (and here begins my story): Two other Jesus Christians, Jeremy and Reinhard, accompanied me to my parents' house on the morning of May 5, 2006.  They came along to introduce themselves to my parents and to give me moral support when I faced what I expected would be strong opposition to my decision.  I planned to share in person with my parents for a short while, and then to get the rest of my stuff (clothes mostly) which I had left at the house.  I intended to give these to the poor, as instructed by Jesus in Mark 10:21 and elsewhere.

At 7am we walked up to the door, rang the bell, and waited to be welcomed into the house. My father, Jared, opened the door.  He showed little emotion toward the son he had supposedly been so keen to see during the ten days I had been away, on a ‘trial week’ with the Jesus Christians.  He later testified that he believed I had been kidnapped (despite the fact that I had left a note, spoken with members of the family on the phone while away, and sent many emails during those ten days). The reception I faced at that time made it clear that he was more concerned with revenge on the Jesus Christians, than with welcoming home his supposedly ‘kidnapped’ son.

At first Jared said that I could come in, but my friends were not welcome.  I stated that if my friends were not welcome, then I would not enter either.  Jared thought for a second, and then told me to wait.  He closed the door, and went to counsel with my mother, Sheila.  She was awake in their bedroom at the time.  Sheila's refusal to come to the door was further evidence that my family did not see my return as a good thing.  It didn’t take a genius to recognize that they had other, more sinister plans afoot.

Meanwhile, Jeremy, Reinhard and I waited patiently outside the front door.  We stood for several minutes before Jared finally returned. Sheila had been using that time to phone John Onyejiaka, my older half-brother.  He lived about a five-minute drive away; she urged him to dress quickly and rush over to the house.  Later Sheila would claim that she called John over under the impression that her house was being robbed.  However, all of the available evidence suggests that she had told John to do what the family had been planning since shortly after I had left home ten days earlier.  That plan consisted of trying to kill Jeremy, Reinhard, or anyone else associated with the Jesus Christians and to forcibly take me away from them.

But back to the front door… Returning from his bedroom counselling session with Sheila, Jared welcomed Jeremy, Reinhard, and me into the house.  After a few seconds' delay, Sheila entered the living room. (We later learned through court testimony that she was carrying a .38 caliber pistol in her pocket at that time.) I could see the intensity of the situation, and I wanted to get out of there as soon as I could.  Introductions were suddenly dropped from my original plan.  All I wanted to do was explain that I had decided to join the Jesus Christian community, get the rest of my stuff, which I had left at the house ten days earlier, and get out of there.

Sheila responded with a stern look and a comment about me becoming a slave to White men.  Jeremy unwisely asked her what race had to do with the teachings of Jesus; things turned nastier from there.  Ironically, Reinhard, who bore the brunt of the beating later, remained almost totally silent throughout the five minutes or so that we stayed in the house.  He wanted to give my parents and me as much opportunity as possible to express ourselves while together.

Sheila dominated the conversation.  She pulled out a piece of paper and read out a list of false and unsubstantiated claims against the Jesus Christians, which she said she had found on the Internet.  I had already read those same allegations in emails sent by Sheila during my ten days away.  And I had seen most of them even earlier in my own ‘research’ into the Jesus Christians, before I chose to join the community.

At one point Jared turned to Jeremy, asking him to step outside so they could talk privately.  Jeremy declined, sensing that Jared had evil intentions for wishing to ‘talk’ privately, as opposed to speaking out in the open.

Sheila carried on with arguments against the Jesus Christians until Jared suddenly snapped, and started screaming out wildly, "Get the f*** out of my house!  Get the f*** out of my house!"  He screamed this while pushing Reinhard and Jeremy through the front door one after the other.

At the same time, John's white pick-up truck came skidding to a stop parallel to the house, parked facing the wrong way on the street. It seemed like Jared had heard the truck coming, and decided that the time had come to start the attack.  John leapt out of the truck and sprinted toward Reinhard and Jeremy, with murder on his mind.  He later testified under oath that he felt he had a right to kill Reinhard and Jeremy in ‘defense’ of his family.

Upon seeing Reinhard and Jeremy being pushed out the door, I lunged toward it, hoping to follow them out of the house.  Jared, a muscular ex-gymnast and weight-lifting enthusiast, gave me a sharp stiff-arm to the mid-section.  Simultaneously, as if by prior arrangement, my younger brother, Joshua, grabbed me from behind.  He put me in a bear-hug, and dragged me away from the front door.  My last recollection before Jared shut the door, and while Josh was dragging me away, was John hopping out of his truck and sprinting toward the two much skinnier Jesus Christians.  I knew that what awaited Reinhard and Jeremy would not be anything nice.  I later learned that as soon as he saw John, Jeremy, who had been the main spokesperson inside the house, shouted to Reinhard to flee.  Jeremy had then jumped the fence to get safely out of the yard.  Reinhard, who delayed for a moment to check on my safety, had not been so lucky.

As my father and older brother kicked and punched Reinhard unconscious, I considered trying to break free from Josh's grasp.  He stood two inches taller and weighed about 50 pounds more than me.  Fear of being attacked if I resisted, and a warped concept of pacifism, caused me to offer little resistance.  Josh dragged me into Sheila and Jared's bedroom toward the back of the house, where he kept me pinned down until near the end of the attack.  Sheila came in soon after we entered and reached into her drawer to grab bullets for the pistol which she had been hiding in her coat pocket.  If she had, before then, only planned to brandish the gun to scare someone, getting bullets at that time showed she was in fact preparing to use it.  That makes it even more miraculous that Reinhard managed to survive the attack!

Outside the house, a crowd began to form.  Jared and John continued to punch and kick Reinhard in the face, head, and back.  This was as Reinhard lay unconscious and bleeding on the ground, unable to offer any resistance. In fact, because of his commitment to pacifism, Reinhard had not offered any resistance even before Jared and John knocked him unconscious.

Jeremy had returned up the public sidewalk to shout for someone to call the police, and to risk a similar fate for himself by trying to lure John away from Reinhard.  [The final few seconds of the attack can be seen in the video at the right.]

Because it was a weekday, and the local high school, Long Beach Polytechnic, was only minutes away, it did not take long for people to come running toward the house.  There they witnessed the cruel and cowardly beating that was taking place.

One of those individuals in the crowd was a brave girl with a camera phone. She was moved to pull out her phone, and start filming. In fact, it is now understood that it was only this courageous woman's filming of the attack, and the crowd gathering around her, that caused John and Jared to stop their brutality against Reinhard. Otherwise, it is almost certain they would not have been satisfied until they were sure he was dead.  Jared testified under oath that the only reason he kicked Reinhard in the head in that scene from the video, was to ascertain whether or not he was ‘conscious'.  It would probably be more accurate to say that he did it to make certain that he was dead.

After Josh released his hold on me, I left the bedroom and rushed into the front room.  I had no sense of time.  The attack may have been going on for half an hour or only a few seconds; I could not say at that point.  In reality, it had only been a few minutes.  But even that could seem like an eternity when someone is being repeatedly kicked in the face and head.

I was shocked to see my own mother, Sheila, standing in line with the front door while holding her .38.  Reinhard was face-down, in a pool of blood, while Jeremy yelled for help.  Sheila, perhaps as a result of seeing the woman with the camera, was calling out to John and Jared to come inside.  She wanted to flee the scene before the police arrived.

Jared followed Sheila's orders obediently, quickly coming inside the house, while John took his time before moving on.  He eventually came around to the other side of the house, near the garage, where we were getting into the car.  He told Sheila to forget about the police, as he would beat them up as well if they came for him.  As John slowly came off his violent high, he began to realize the futility of such boasts, and so he agreed to get in his truck, and follow Sheila.

Jared told me to get in the back of Sheila's red car, with Josh on my left and him squeezed in on my right.  This was so that I could not escape.  Sheila drove, while the front passenger seat was left empty.  She took us to see Prince Sullivan, a Black (apparently homosexual) cult buster from Long Beach.  I could not get over the irony of her consulting a homosexual for support in what constituted at least a partially homophobic attack.  But, more than that, these same people who had falsely accused the Jesus Christians of kidnapping me were now kidnapping me themselves!

Prince's First Street Laundromat was near the beach.  When we got there, John, who had been following in his white pick-up, took Jared's place in the back seat with me while Jared went inside to see if he could find Prince.

"What! What! You wan’na see crazy, I'll show you crazy!" John shouted at me repeatedly.  He shoved his forearm into my side, increasing the force each time.  It seemed like John had been whipped up into such a violent rage that he might soon turn it on me as well.

From as early as I can recall, I had been taught to defend my family, even when we were wrong.  As a result, I had not even thought to call the police to report the crime which I had just witnessed. (Not that I had been given any opportunity to do so.)  The only objection I gave to what they had done was to say it was dumb, and that now they were going to go to jail. (I was wrong.)  But as John kept screaming, shouting, and pushing his forearm into my side, I finally decided that enough was enough. If I didn't speak up soon, I could end up like Reinhard.

I told John that if he didn't stop, I would call the police (little thinking how I would get away with such a thing while so heavily outnumbered).  Perhaps prompted by this threat, Sheila and Jared told John to back off.  They had earlier been tacitly supporting him in teaching me a ‘lesson’ for being a ‘disobedient’ son.  I could see that they were drawn between their hatred for my decision, and how it would look if I ended up in a pool of blood as well.

When Jared returned from the laundromat, we drove to Prince's luxury apartment suite.  It too was near the beach.  John, who had given his seat back to Jared, was in his truck once again, following behind us

By now I was feeling quite defeated.  I had just made a difficult decision, to leave high school and join the Jesus Christian community.  Now only a day or so after officially joining, my family had tried to kill one of the members of that very same community.  Would I side with the Jesus Christians, or with my family, in what had turned into a life and death battle?  Thoughts were spinning around inside my head at a million miles an hour.

I stepped outside of the car at Prince's, and saw a short, stocky, middle-aged African-American male exiting a Black Mercedes.  He was wearing a dingy white t-shirt, grey sweats, and house sandals.  Here stood Prince Sullivan, Sheila's self-professed cult buster.  He nodded at me, and instructed us all to follow him into the fancy apartment building, up into his suite.  I could have made a run for it right then, but I was so depressed that I lacked the will to do anything.  I didn't feel ready to make the effort it would take to escape my family's hold on me.

Inside, Prince began to weave his devilish magic.  His goal was simple: to cast doubt on everything I believed, and to move my thoughts away from Reinhard's condition, and what my family had just done to put him into that condition.  He wanted us to focus on theological topics that were quite pointless by comparison, like what the Jesus Christians thought of the popular ‘rapture’ doctrine of so many churches. 

He started by telling me that he would have done the same thing my parents did, i.e. he would have ‘capped’ (killed) anyone who came between him and his kids.  (Kids?  Did he even have kids?)  Then we moved into what he thought was more important than the murder attempt we had just run away from.

Prince had me do some strange things, including reading Matthew 5 backwards.  He wanted to convince me that people shouldn't really try to take the teachings of Jesus literally.  He also had me read other passages from the Bible, to try to get me to question whether the Jesus Christians' position on the rapture (i.e. that it comes after the Great Tribulation) was, in fact, scripturally accurate.

Despite my own inflated opinion that I knew and fully believed Jesus Christian teachings on such topics, as time passed I found my resolve waning.  I began to question whether I had, in fact, made the wrong decision by joining the Jesus Christians.  Prince was doing exactly what he had set out to do.

After nearly two hours of this, Sheila led us to our next stop - southwest Los Angeles. We went there to visit two of my aunts, Yvonne, and ‘Cookie’ Simpson.  On our way to see Yvonne, we stopped at the McDonald's on Crenshaw and Imperial Blvd, in Inglewood.  Jared went inside to buy food, while the rest of us stayed in the car.  After several minutes, Jared returned with food for himself, Sheila, John, and Josh, but nothing for me.  I was being punished for not supporting them.

He then purchased bottled water from an adjacent grocery store.  This time they decided to be ‘nice’, and offered me some.  I quickly accepted before we drove off.  I now wonder how many times such subtle forms of reward and punishment had been used on me as a child, to make me conform with teachings that were both immoral and unchristian.

Yvonne was at work, but Sheila told her they were in the middle of a crisis; so Yvonne slipped away from work to come and support Sheila in this time of need.  Sheila parked near Yvonne's real estate office not far from Southwest College, and Yvonne came to the car.  Sheila gave her version of what had just happened with Reinhard.  Yvonne said she too disagreed with my decision to leave high school and join the Jesus Christians; but she said when a child is grown, parents just have to let go when their children make ‘dumb’ decisions, and turn their children over to ‘the Lord’.  She counselled Sheila to do this.  I don't think Sheila liked that part of it.

Then Yvonne turned to where I was sitting quietly in the back seat.  She gave me a stern look, then said she was disappointed with my decision to leave high school and join the Jesus Christians.  She said I should have “at least graduated from high school” before considering any religious pursuits.  

This admonition was ironic, because I would have already graduated high school a year earlier, if my own parents had not chosen to hold me back for a year in middle school when I was already at the top of my class.  They did this purely to let me grow taller, and thus increase my chances of getting a university scholarship for basketball.  Of course, because the motive behind that decision to delay my academic education was money, there had been no qualms expressed by any of my extended family.  Now, because I had decided to leave high school to serve God, I was facing nothing but opposition.  It did not seem fair.

After about fifteen minutes with Yvonne, Sheila led us to our next stop: a meet-up with her other sister, Jean ‘Cookie’ Simpson.  We went to her sandwich and sweet shop a bit further north in Los Angeles.  

John left us at this point, partly because of strained relations between him and Cookie, and partly because of a growing fear that the police could be coming at any minute. This same guy who had earlier been boasting of his ability to take on the entire Long Beach police force, was now sharing an urgent feeling of panic, and a need to go someplace and hide.

We arrived at Cookie's shop and were welcomed in.  She offered to get hamburgers for the four of us.  Little mention, if any, was made of the fact that my family had just participated in a conspiracy to commit murder, nor of the fact that we still did not know whether or not they had succeeded in killing Reinhard.  Rather, talk between the five of us had to do with disgust over my decision to drop out of high school, and join the Jesus Christians.

Cookie did not seem to share the racist attitude toward Whites that others in my family had.  She was also a bit more liberal with regard to sexual ethics, so even the concern over Reinhard's sexuality was not a big deal to her.  However, the one issue which won Cookie over to supporting my family was money.  She was the most materialistic individual in Sheila’s wide, extended family.

She reprimanded me for, in effect, throwing away the scholarship offers that my years of ‘hard’ work had secured for me.  Financially, she said, I would be faced with a huge handicap without a proper high school diploma.  She feared that my standard of living would decrease dramatically if I did not finish high school, and go on to graduate from university.  Reinhard’s condition, on the other hand, was not something she could bring herself to talk about.

After eating a hamburger with the others, I could see that fear of me running away had eased considerably.  I decided to test my freedom by asking if I could call Jeremy.  I secretly wanted to meet back up with the group, since I still wanted to work with them, despite the seeds of doubt that Prince had successfully sown.  Perhaps sensing my double-mindedness, Sheila begrudgingly consented.  

The amazing thing, as I look back now, is that I was thinking mainly about my relationship, both with the group, and with my family.  I gave very little thought at all to Reinhard's condition.

Jeremy's cell phone number was on a piece of paper in the pocket of my shorts.  I went to the payphone in front of the shop and dialed it, but the phone was out of order.  There was little choice but to ask Sheila if I could borrow her phone to make the call. She agreed, and I quickly typed in the numbers as I read from the piece of paper, anxiously awaiting Jeremy's response.

Jeremy was actually chatting via Yahoo Messenger with the community’s co-founder, Dave McKay, in Australia, at the time.  He had not heard from me for three hours following the attack, and because of that, he felt unsure of how to react.  He asked me to call him back in fifteen minutes, to give him time to counsel with Dave about how best to deal with me. The fact that I had neither fled nor contacted them for three hours, and the fact that I now rang them in the presence of my family (who very likely would have noted the phone number as I dialed it), made the JCs consider me a security risk.

Jeremy had only escaped the same fate as Reinhard by being quicker off the mark.  As a key witness to the attack, he was not about to give my family a second crack at himself.

Fifteen minutes later, I asked to use the phone again to call Jeremy back.  Sheila insisted that I make the JCs wait a further five minutes, to prove that I was not Jeremy's ‘puppet’.  I agreed, and I even took on board some of the sentiment in what she was saying.  This was partly because I was not happy with the strained reception I had received from Jeremy in my first call.  Five minutes later, I dialed Jeremy on Sheila's cell as we drove away from Cookie's.

"Jeremy,” I mumbled through the phone, hoping that the others would not hear me. "Where are you? I want to meet up, so we can get back to working together."  I said nothing at all about Reinhard, and Jeremy took this as a serious sign that I had been compromised by my family. He was, as I later learned, at the hospital.  But he said he would not give me his location, out of fear that I would pass it on to my family and they would come to finish off Reinhard and then take him out too.  I griped about being treated with suspicion like this, but had to accept that it seemed fair enough, considering the position that Jeremy was now in.

He said he would consent to meeting up with both me and my family at a police station. But other than that, he said, I would just have to wait.  Because of a strong desire to not see my family punished for the crime they had just committed, I ruled out the police station option, which probably sent further signals about my confused loyalties.  I was being forced now to decide who I loved more.  It was not just a choice between the Jesus Christians and my family, but rather a choice between the truth and my family.  The choice was not easy, so steeped had I been in the concept of family loyalty above all else.  My double-mindedness had the effect of making both sides distrust me.

Sheila continued to drive, as I hung up the phone.  We ended up at the beach, on the west side of the city.  There, my family finally took some time to talk, and even listen. But once again, it was not about what they had done.  Instead it turned into a full-on interrogation of me.

"What have you been eating?" "Where'd you get those clothes?" "Who cut your hair?" "Have you been molested?" The questions came in a flurry.

"A variety of food.  They were purchased from a charity shop.  Jeremy cut it with our clippers.  No, I haven't been molested."  I struggled to keep pace with my parents and my younger brother.  

Josh, who was on medication for a condition that was somewhere between bi-polar disorder, and schizophrenia, said he was afraid to touch me now, because I was probably gay. Such comments were typical of my family's homophobia, and they came up frequently during our beach side interlude.

Nevertheless, we were talking now, and I was able to give my personal account of what life had been like during my time away from home. The cool waves on the beach, and the gentle breeze of the wind against our backs, had created an atmosphere of false peace for both the anxious conspirators and for me.  But reality was that Reinhard lay even now inside the Intensive Care Unit at St. Mary's Medical Hospital, battling bleeding on the brain, a fractured spine, broken teeth, and numerous cuts (some of them quite deep) to his face and body.  I gave no thought to the suffering and agony that Reinhard was currently going through, as I laughed and joked with the very people who had just tried to kill him.  If anyone wanted evidence that we were a close-knit family, here it was.  But was it a morally healthy closeness?

After half an hour at the beach, Sheila, ever the organizer, and the one with an answer for seemingly everything, led us to a motel in Gardena.  It was about a five minute walk from the local YMCA where I would go to work out most mornings before heading to school.  I attended Juniperro Serra High, a Catholic school on the west end of Gardena.

Sheila walked up to the front desk, calm and self-assured, with the rest of us following timidly behind.  She announced that she would need two rooms now, and gave her credit card to complete the transaction.  The rooms were booked, no questions asked, and we swiftly made our way to the elevator and up to our respective rooms, out of reach and out of sight of the police.  Sheila, Jared, and Josh stayed together in one room, while they gave me the impression that I was free to do whatever I liked.  This was likely spurred on by my strained communication with Jeremy, which gave them the impression that I had no choice but to stay with them.  My room was a couple of doors down the hall from theirs.  No doubt they would have taken further solace in the fact that I would have had to pass their room in order to leave the hotel.

Once in the room, I thought about all that I had just gone through, and about where my life was going from that point on.  Unfortunately, though, my thoughts were still mostly focused on myself, and I was still not putting myself in Reinhard’s (or the community’s) shoes.

Click here to read Part 2 of Joe's Story.

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