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Redeemed, Johnson named year's top officer

February 27, 2005|BY CANDICE BOSELY

MARTINSBURG, W.VA.

Willie Johnson no longer has The Hat.

More than four years ago, Johnson was fired from his job with the Berkeley County Sheriff's Department because he wore a political hat during a charity golf tournament.

The hat was inscribed with then-Sheriff Ron Jones' opponent's name, W. Randy Smith. The day after Smith won in the general election of 2000, Jones called Johnson into his office and, in not-so-polite terms, fired him.

The baseball cap that Johnson had used to protect his head from a hot July sun suddenly turned into a looming black cloud.

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He found himself without a job, without an income.

Friends, though, let him live in their basement, rent-free.

"Elves" somehow jimmied his car door open and filled the seats with bags of groceries.

The woman whom he was dating at the time, and since has married, stuck by his side, while Johnson's sister lobbied on his behalf to everyone who would listen.

For Johnson, 44, who was rehired to the sheriff's department in 2001, it only could have been sweet redemption when he was named the department's Officer of the Year two weeks ago.

When Sheriff Smith surprised Johnson with the honor at a banquet, he said one thing that made Johnson especially proud: "If you give him something, it's done," Johnson recalled.

A transformation

Johnson's career in police work began right out of high school, when he joined the Army National Guard as a military police officer.

The self-proclaimed "nerd" in high school - complete with the plaid pants, striped shirts and thick glasses - found himself in a whole new world.

To this day, some of his former classmates cannot believe Johnson is a police officer.

After high school, Johnson started a land surveying business with his father. When his father died in 1983, Johnson decided to pursue his dream of becoming a sheriff's deputy for Berkeley County, where he was born and raised.

There were no openings with the sheriff's department at the time, but Johnson took the civil service test every time it was offered. He was hired as an officer with the Martinsburg Police Department in 1984, but left on amicable terms for a job - finally - with the sheriff's department in 1989.

He enjoyed working road patrol, and was named a road supervisor shortly before he was fired.

Talking about being fired doesn't seem to bother Johnson - who personifies the term "nice guy."

"Even though I didn't do it intentionally," Johnson said of wearing the hat for a political purpose, "I learned a lot from it."

Now if someone brings so much as a political pin in his office, he makes them remove it. He won't even touch it.

After he was fired, Johnson hired an attorney, Barry Beck, and filed a lawsuit against the sheriff's department. He decided to drop the suit when he was assured he would be rehired at his former salary and rank, and would receive back pay for the time he had missed.

Smith - the man whose hat he had worn - rehired him in February 2001.

So what became of the hat?

Johnson's initial inclination was to burn it, but he realized he might need it as a court exhibit. A friend offered to keep it for him and, there, it remains.

"He still wears it to this day," Johnson said.

Sage advice

This is the kind of man Willie Johnson is.

His dog - his "son" - Pepper is 15 years old and is losing his hearing. Johnson taught him sign language and now uses hand signals to communicate with him.

Johnson also works with children in need, taking them camping and to the movies and trying to be a positive male role model. He addresses groups of students, at a school's or teacher's request.

He helps victims he meets who are new to the area get acclimated. He also is active with the local Moose club and Fraternal Order of Police chapter.

He sat in the dunk tank during the Berkeley County Youth Fair.

"I call myself a people person," he said.

He never complains when he has to go to court on his days off, or when paperwork stemming from an arrest means he won't be able to eat dinner with his wife, Sonja.

"It's part of the job," he said.

His primary duties include investigating crimes that need a lot of time dedicated to them. He and other members of the department's Criminal Investigation Division now are looking into a rash of robberies.

Johnson also does accident reconstruction work. Show him a photograph of a fatal accident and he immediately can name the person or persons who died.

Everybody he arrests is addressed as "sir" or "ma'am," even those who might not deserve such a courtesy.

"My grandfather told me when I got this job, 'Don't let that badge go to your head,'" Johnson said. "I never have and I never will."

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