Commentary

Saunders: Not a RoboCop, but a caring, likeable, super cop

bsaunders@newsobserver.comApril 21, 2014 

Yep, that’s what his friends called him, and you could see why, but Charles Johnson never cared for the nickname that stuck to him: “RoboCop.”

“He was just a really good guy,” Kenny Honeycutt told me last week. “I’m sure you saw on the news reports where people called him ‘RoboCop.’ He didn’t really like that.”

I did indeed see that while reading and watching the story about an off-duty police officer who had been a cop for more than half of his life when he was killed by a DOT excavator that crossed the center line and smashed into his Honda Odyssey minivan in Tarboro last week.

Johnson was 46 and had been a police officer in Tarboro for 24 years.

William Allen Harrell II, 29, of Macclesfield, was charged with driving left of center and misdemeanor death by motor vehicle.

‘Most caring officer’

Honeycutt is owner of the Piggly Wiggly grocery store in Tarboro where Johnson worked as a security guard when he was not policing the town. When he wasn’t providing security for Piggly Wiggly or policing the town, he was working security at Edgecombe Community College.

Ginny McLendon, dean of Enrollment Management at ECC, said, “He told me he worked three jobs so that his wife would not have to work. He has left behind a wife and two young boys who were his life. He worked these extra jobs in order to provide for ... and take his family to Disney World every year.”

Johnson, McLendon said, “was the epitome of the most caring officer. On campus, he was active in every department and would go out of the way to assist any employee or student. He would always have a smile on his face and (be) ready to share a joke with you or to brag on his wife and sons. The employees and students loved him dearly.”

So did the employees at the Piggly Wiggly, where Johnson worked for 15 years, Honeycutt said. “Several officers work for us, and they’re all good people, but Charles worked for us more than anybody.”

Johnson and McLendon called Johnson a man of “many passions,” including guns, trains and cars.

“If he’d been a wealthy man, he would’ve had a collection of cars, I’m sure,” Honeycutt said.

Since small-town cops – even the ones who work two extra jobs – seldom become wealthy, Johnson’s car collection consisted of model cars, Honeycutt said.

Frequently throughout our conversation, Honeycutt had to take a moment to compose himself. Johnson’s fellow police officers were so distraught over his death that the Edgecombe County Sheriff’s Department covered the city for them the day they realized it was their friend and colleague lying mortally injured in a ditch on N.C. 111.

‘Very, very strong’

Even though Johnson wasn’t a fan of his “RoboCop” nickname and Honeycutt never called him that, he said he understood why others did.

“He just had a presence,” Honeycutt said. “He was an imposing figure, 6 feet 2 inches, muscular and very, very strong. When he wasn’t inside talking with the cashiers, he was standing at the front of the store, right by the entrance, standing more or less at attention with his hands clasped in front of him.

“He didn’t generally appear to be approachable, but he was. He was very likable when you started talking to him,” he said.

That – talking to Johnson – is something Honeycutt expects to do.

Speaking in a halting voice of their shared Christian faith, Honeycutt said, “I know I will see Charles Johnson again.”

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or bsaunders@newsobserver.com

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