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Crime scene investigator Sgt. Heather Williams works the scene where the body of Kenneth Johnson was found on Blackford Street in Chattanooga.

Police think 59-year-old Kenneth Johnson - associate minister, ex-con, veteran, business owner, volunteer - died between 9:30 and 9:45 p.m. Monday.

When his body was found in a ditch on Blackford Street about nine hours later on Tuesday morning, he looked like he'd been beaten to death.

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Kenneth Johnson

By early Wednesday, police had traced text messages on Johnson's cell phone to a North Georgia couple now accused of murder: 26-year-old Jordan Craig and 22-year-old Steven Kelley. Both are charged with first-degree murder and especially aggravated robbery.

And by 11 a.m. Wednesday, Pastor Ternae Jordan Sr., senior pastor at Mount Canaan Baptist Church where Johnson was an associate minister, had gathered his deacons at the church's location on North Chamberlain Avenue to remember Johnson, declare that the good work must go on, and pray for Johnson's family.

But not just Johnson's family.

"We're also in prayer for those who have been arrested and their families," he said. "We as a church reach out to those who are wounded and hurting, and we're not the only family wounded today."

Johnson, 59, was known as an advocate on the street level, right in the middle of everything -- a guy who would always answer a call for help. He volunteered with the Salvation Army, the Community Kitchen and a prison outreach ministry. As an ex-con, he inspired others to change their lives. He hired former offenders to work at the paving company he ran. His wife runs a shelter for abused or addicted women.

His death is a reminder of the risks that accompany working in the streets.

•••••

Sandra Johnson says her husband went to Blackford Street on Monday night after getting a call from someone who asked for help. He often met people, she said, to help them find a place to stay or just help however he could.

But this time, police say, Kenneth Johnson was attacked, robbed and killed.

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Jordan Craig and Steven Kelley

According to an affidavit, Craig set up a meeting with Johnson through text messages on the minister's cellphone, which police later found in his car. In the text messages, Johnson is told to go to an alley for "an exchange of goods," according to the affidavit.

When he arrived, Kelley and Craig beat him to death and robbed him, police say. Johnson's car was ransacked and his keys were taken, according to the affidavit.

After investigators tracked the cellphone texts to Craig, she told police she had met with Johnson in order to buy drugs and secretly brought her boyfriend, Kelley, along in case the deal went bad.

She said she dropped Kelley off nearby before the deal. She said that Johnson wanted to exchange sexual favors for the drugs and that when she refused, Kelley came out from where he was hiding and attacked Johnson in order to protect her.

But Kelley told police a different story. He said he hid in the back seat of Craig's car when the pair arrived to meet Johnson for the drug deal. He said he got out of the car after Johnson propositioned his girlfriend and Johnson attacked him with a crowbar, so he fought back.

However, police found no evidence that Kelley had been attacked, according to the affidavit. He suffered only a small scratch on his forehead and no bruising on his chest. Police also found no evidence of illegal drugs.

Craig's criminal history dates back nine years and includes charges of domestic aggravated assault, theft, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. Kelley does not have a prior criminal record in Hamilton County.

Police believe the pair lured Johnson to the alley in order to rob him, not to buy drugs. Pastor Jordan said he had the utmost confidence in Johnson's character.

"If I was going to be in a foxhole for the kingdom fighting sin, I'd want to be with Kenneth Johnson," he said. "If he was slipping, I'm not aware of it."

•••••

Johnson often worked on his own to help others, or through his wife's shelter for women, Regeneration Outreach Ministry for Women. And while he volunteered with several local organizations, he wasn't employed with a major organization like the Salvation Army and he didn't work out of a brick-and-mortar building -- and both of those factors may have made him more of a target, local aid workers say.

"I call this uniform a passport," said Algerome Newsome, area commander of the Salvation Army. "It opens doors I usually would not get into. There's a respect for the uniform and for the Salvation Army."

The uniform helps keep him safe when he's working in unsafe areas, he said -- and that's something that Johnson didn't have. The Salvation Army also has strict safety protocols. Employees aren't supposed to go out and meet one-on-one with people asking for help.

"It's usually a no-no to go meet someone," he said. "If we meet, it's in a structured environment, at the Salvation Army where there are security cameras, where there are other people around."

Rebecca Whelchel, executive director at Metropolitan Ministries in downtown, said she's never had any trouble with anyone becoming violent at the organization's offices on McCallie. But, she said, her staff also follow safety rules: Don't be alone with a client, don't do business in the parking lot, don't put a client in your car.

"It's a gladiator culture out there," she said. "Our city is full of gladiators."

Back at Mount Canaan Baptist Church, Jordan said the church will mourn for Johnson and continue to focus on outreach and helping folks in the community. And Sandra Johnson said she plans to keep the women's shelter up and running despite her husband's death.

"I promised God I'll do this until I die," Sandra Johnson said. "I'm not afraid. I have faith in God."

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com with tips or story ideas.

Earlier news story:

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