LARAMIE — Arms crossed, brow furrowed, A.J. Johnson stared straight ahead.
“I had a job to do, to serve and protect,” said Johnson, then a sergeant for the University of Wyoming Police Department. “I’d been trained to do a job, and that’s why I was there. I was there to protect people. And that’s usually not my face. I’m a happy guy.”
A 1999 photo by former Star-Tribune photographer Dan Cepeda captured Johnson in that stern pose as members of the Westboro Baptist Church protested behind him, separated by a fence. “God hates fags,” one of their signs read in all capital letters. “Fags can’t repent.” “Matt in Hell,” reads one, held by a child.
It was one of two moments that defined Johnson’s law enforcement career, he said. The other occurred in 1992, when a barricaded subject took a shot at Johnson while he was part of a special response team.
In October 1999, the Westboro Baptist Church, designated an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, came from Topeka, Kansas, to Laramie to protest the murder trial of Aaron McKinney. The year before, McKinney and Russell Henderson had brutally attacked UW student Matthew Shepard, a gay 21-year-old from Casper, and left him tied to a fence. Shepard died six days later. McKinney and Henderson both received life sentences.
Faith, ostensibly, was the church’s motivation for condemning Shepard. Faith is also an essential part of Johnson’s life — “numero uno,” he said. Now retired, Johnson works with Point Guard Ministries and serves as the chaplain for the UW men’s basketball team, for whom he played in the 1980s.
Faith is what shapes Johnson’s memories when he reflects on that photograph.
“You love people,” he said. “... Sometimes it’s very difficult, but that’s what we’re called to do. That’s what I’m going to my grave with. I think anybody can be changed. That’s what the gospel is about, is that people can find Christ and have a relationship with him. There’s a scripture in the Bible where it says if he had 100 and 99 were still there and one went away, he’d go and get that one.”
Johnson once received copies of Cepeda’s photo from friends in San Diego who saw it in a newspaper there.
“So it was definitely national news,” he said.
Nineteen years later — 20 years after the murder that necessitated the trial and put the nation’s eyes on Laramie — Johnson stood in the same spot on the west side of the Albany County Courthouse. He posed for the same photograph.
This time, he wanted to smile.
“I want you to take another picture of me and put that one (in),” Johnson asked Star-Tribune photographer Josh Galemore with a laugh. “Can you change it out?”