Death of minister baffles family; Chattanooga police investigate body of man found in ditch

photo Kenneth Johnson
photo Site where body was found in ditch.

After the man's body was found in a ditch, after police strung up the bright yellow crime tape and after the crowd of neighbors gathered at the corner of Kelly and Blackford streets early Tuesday morning, Sandra Johnson sat alone in her car, eyes distant.

Her husband was the dead man, she said, voice barely audible. She was parked next to the crime scene, had been for hours. The dead man was Kenneth Johnson, her best friend. They had been married 16 years and were about to celebrate another anniversary on Nov. 20.

"I found him," she said. "There was my husband, dead in a ditch."

People knew Kenneth Johnson, 59, as a man who helped others. He was an associate minister at Mount Canaan Baptist Church and volunteered with a prison outreach program, using his story as an ex-con to help others turn their lives around, too. He would even hire ex-cons to work for his paving company, said Glyn Turner, volunteer coordinator at Prison Prevention Ministries.

"He was really a source of inspiration for the guys," Turner said. "He was an awesome guy who gave and gave and gave. And it looks like someone maybe took advantage of that."

"He was a wonderful Christian man," said Ternae Jordan Jr., assistant pastor at Mount Canaan. "This is a shock to everyone."

Police officers discovered the body around 7:15 a.m. Tuesday.

Officers responded to a suspicious vehicle call and then noticed the body of a black man in the ditch.

Investigators are awaiting the medical examiner's report to say how Kenneth Johnson died and whether foul play was involved, police said Tuesday.

Sandra Johnson said officers stopped at the couple's house before they went to check on the suspicious vehicle because the vehicle's plates -- given by the 911 caller -- were registered to their address. She said she went with police to Blackford Street, where she saw Kenneth's car and then spotted his body.

photo Crime scene investigators Heather Williams, right, and Ken Burnette work the scene where the body of Kenneth Johnson was found on Blackford Street in Chattanooga.

"I just started screaming," she said. "And then the police came over."

Sandra Johnson said she saw a gun by Kenneth's body, and other witnesses said he looked like he had been beaten, but police refused to confirm or dispute those details.

Sandra believes Kenneth was on Blackford Street to meet with a man who had called and asked for help earlier in the night. That wasn't unusual, she said, because Kenneth was always meeting with folks.

On Monday, Kenneth agreed to meet with the caller, Sandra said, and told her he would be home for dinner.

But he never came home.

"It's unbelievable," said Tabitha Finch, his niece. "He was so passionate about helping people."

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or [email protected] with tips or story ideas.