A Kentucky lawmaker accused of molestation commits suicide. Now his widow wants his seat

The widow of a Kentucky lawmaker who killed himself this week after he was accused of molesting a teenager has announced plans to run for her husband’s old seat.

State Rep. Dan Johnson was found dead Wednesday, two days after an investigative news report revealed that a 17-year-old girl had accused him of drunkenly attacking her at his Louisville-area church in 2013. The Republican lawmaker had initially resisted calls to resign from leaders of both parties.

“Dan is gone but the story of his life is far from over,” Rebecca Johnson said Thursday in a statement to the media. “These high-tech lynchings based on lies and half-truths can't be allowed to win the day. I've been fighting behind my husband for 30 years and his fight will go on.”

In addition to representing Kentucky’s 49th District, south of Louisville, Johnson was the head of the nondenominational Heart of Fire Church. He embraced an identity as an anti-Barack Obama, gun-loving man of God.

“I believe Jesus taught us to be armed,” Johnson told Guns.com in a 2014 interview.

He held an AK-47 rifle while amiably answering questions in his church, as a tattered don’t-tread-on-me Gadsden flag flapped in the breeze on a flagpole outside. “This is like one of my favorite home-defense, and, uh, it’s also one of my favorite anti-mean-government guns.”

Johnson had been in public office for less than a year. He became a candidate for the state Legislature in 2016 after the Republican who won the primary was disqualified and Bullitt County GOP officials selected him as a replacement. Piggybacking on support for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, he ran on slogans to make Kentucky and his county “great again.”

He faced calls from the state Republican Party to drop out after news media highlighted racist posts he made on Facebook, depicting the Obama family as monkeys. Johnson blamed the media for the outcry and shrugged off the criticism.

“The state Republican Party wasn’t supporting me to start with, so I didn’t really lose anything,” he said in an October 2016 news conference. “There was nothing there to be racially offensive.”

He eked out a victory over the Democratic incumbent, Linda Howlett Belcher — a retired principal he called “Lyin’ Linda Lou” — winning 9,342 votes to her 9,186 votes.

But Johnson had his own record of dubious claims.

He claimed he had healed the sick and raised the dead. He claimed he had set up “safe zones” in Los Angeles during the 1992 riots. He claimed he served as a White House chaplain under multiple presidents. He claimed he served as an ambassador to the United Nations. He claimed he set up a morgue and gave last rites to the dying in New York outside the collapsed World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

But in a seven-month investigation published Monday, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting couldn’t find evidence that Johnson’s stories about himself were true.

What the small journalism nonprofit did find was “a trail of police records and court files, shattered lives and a flagrant disregard for truth.”

In the 1980s, police investigated Johnson on suspicion of destroying his car in an arson because he needed insurance money. Criminal charges were dismissed after he completed a six-month pretrial diversion program.

Then, in 2000, an arsonist burned down Johnson’s church, and insurance investigators discovered it was deeply in debt. A secretary accused Johnson of financial misappropriation. Johnson blamed the Ku Klux Klan. No charges were filed.

Johnson rebuilt the church, which would later be cited by the state for unlicensed liquor sales at a bar inside. Johnson called church drinking “communion.”

At boozy church gatherings, Johnson would sometimes kiss young women on the lips, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting said.

In the story’s most explosive allegation, a woman named Maranda Richmond accused a drunk Johnson of digitally penetrating her while she was 17 and sleeping on a couch at Johnson’s church on New Year’s morning in 2013.

Richmond, now 21, complained to police later that year, but no charges were filed.

When the journalists’ investigation came out Monday, state lawmakers again called on Johnson to resign. He refused.

In a news conference at his church on Tuesday, Johnson told reporters that “anybody that has gotten wobbly in how they’re standing with me in the political ranks, they need to toughen up a little bit.”

But on Wednesday, it appeared Johnson’s internal defenses were crumbling.

In a final Facebook post, Johnson said he had “24/7” post-traumatic stress disorder after the Sept. 11 attacks and “cannot handle it any longer,” according to WDRB-TV. (The post appears to have been taken down or is not publicly available.)

The post also denied the molestation claim and said “only GOD knows the truth, nothing is the way they make it out to be. AMERICA will not survive this type of judge and jury fake news. Conservatives take a stand.”

Bullitt County Sheriff Donnie Tinnell told WDRB-TV that Johnson had killed himself on a bridge in Mount Washington, Ky.

Johnson is survived by five children and his wife, who had ejected the investigative journalists from Johnson’s church as they reported their expose.

Before kicking them out, she said her husband was a great man and the church did great work, the report said.

Then the journalists described what happened next: "She points us to the door. ‘We know what you’re going to do,’ she says. ‘And you’re going to have blood on your hands. I’m telling you now, it’s the word of the Lord. ’ ”

matt.pearce@latimes.com

Matt Pearce is a national reporter for The Times. Follow him on Twitter at @mattdpearce.

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