THE POPE'S LONG CN

A Kentucky preacher-turned-politician's web of lies

EDITOR’S NOTE: On Dec. 13, two days after the release of this investigation, Rep. Dan Johnson died by suicide in Bullitt County. Read our organization's response to Johnson's death. Our coverage is here.

one

Welcome To Pope's House

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On a Saturday afternoon at the fellowship hall, the stereo blares Southern rock anthems for a flock of Harley riders in leather vests.

Banners on the wall honor veterans, and flags commemorate the Confederacy. A disco ball hovers over a clawfoot tub full of canned beers — two bucks buys you a token and a token gets you a drink from Charlie the bartender.

In one corner of the room, the "Pope" strides across a stage, his voice full of fervor as he auctions off items to the highest bidder. A motorcyclist died recently in a crash and there is money to be raised for the man’s family.  

At the fellowship hall, called "Pope’s House," next to the Heart of Fire Church in southeast Louisville, the motto is “when you are here, you are family.”

And today, Danny Ray Johnson, 57, the self-proclaimed pope, bishop and minister to outcasts, really wants you to bid on this gift card to a local tattoo shop.

“I need somebody right now that’ll give me $50 on a $150 tattoo,” he says. “Who will give me $50?”

The Pope, as everyone knows him, commands this side of the room, his voice tinged with the Louisiana drawl of his youth. His biceps are decorated in ink, his sideburns white, his golden pompadour thinning.

Long ago, Johnson fashioned an identity as a modern-day American patriot. Pro-gun, pro-God, pro-life. He talked in 2013 about making America great again. He lamented the lack of God in everyone’s lives. He wept over the country’s future.

But behind this persona — cultivated, built up and fine-tuned over decades — is a web of lies and deception. A mysterious fire. Attempted arson and false testimony. Alleged molestation in his church.

In Johnson's wake lies a trail of police records and court files, shattered lives and a flagrant disregard for truth.

This seven-month investigation is based on more than 100 interviews and several thousand pages of public documents. It also included numerous attempts to interview Johnson, who refused all requests. 

Over and over, there were warning signs for government officials, law enforcement, political leaders and others. Yet, virtually nothing was done. For years, Johnson broke laws. Now, he helps make them.

In his latest feat, Johnson catapulted himself into the Kentucky Capitol in 2016 as representative for the 49th House District.

To hear him tell it, Johnson has been on stage nearly his whole life. Like Forrest Gump, he just so happens to be in the front row, playing a pivotal role in America’s biggest moments. Time after time. Decade after decade.

He claims he served as White House chaplain to three presidents. A United Nations ambassador. He says he set up the morgue after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and was the pastor who gave last rites for all of those pulled from the towers.

He’s healed the sick and raised the dead. He helped quell the riots in Los Angeles that followed the acquittals of police officers in connection with the beating of Rodney King. He loves people of all races and religions, and he had a seat at the table for international peace talks.

"Pope's House" fellowship hall on June 24, 2017. (R.G. Dunlop)
"Pope's House" fellowship hall. (R.G. Dunlop)

All this despite his history of hate speech, racist Facebook posts and general derision for African-Americans and Muslims. All this, despite his own secrets.

And now, as he paces across the stage at the Pope’s House, Johnson shines, mic in hand, full of passion.

Half of the crowd is focused on Johnson; the other half is interested in beer and the buffet. Johnson’s wife, Rebecca, scans the scene. She spots us.

The church does great work, she says. The Pope is a great man. Why would journalists be skeptical and ask questions?

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.”

On election night 2016, Johnson reveled in his victory, grinning beneath the glow of a neon beer sign at a favorite local haunt near the church.

Inside T.K.’s Pub, dozens of his friends and supporters crowded up to the bar. This was a big night for Republicans. And it was a huge night, the capstone of a wild political season, for the Pope of Bullitt County.

What led Johnson to dive into politics is anyone’s guess. But in recent years, he had begun to assert himself in right-wing and libertarian circles. He talked freedom and liberty with the same fervor he preached about heaven and hell.

In 2014, he cradled an AK-47 — his “favorite anti-mean government gun” — in an interview with Guns.com.

“Jesus taught us to be armed,” said Johnson. “The real reason for our Second Amendment rights is that we have a gun to keep a mean-spirited government off of us. If they go crazy, we gotta have something to be crazier with.”

He was talking about making America great again before presidential candidate Donald Trump made the phrase his own.

“America is great and it needs to be restored to its greatness,” Johnson said during a 2013 Washington, D.C., rally organized by the arch-conservative, anti-Muslim group Freedom Watch.

At the rally, he was introduced as “Bishop” Dan Johnson and gave the invocation wearing a black suit and a white priest’s collar.

Johnson touted the Tea Party, recounted his heroic role in 9/11 and urged elected officials to “get on their knees, not to Allah, but to God Almighty."

Johnson at a 9/11 memorial event in Bullitt County on Sept. 10, 2017. (Jacob Ryan)
Johnson at a 9/11 memorial event in Bullitt County on Sept. 10, 2017. (Jacob Ryan)

Fast forward to July 2016. Jennifer Stepp had won the May Republican primary for Kentucky’s 49th District seat. But a former county jailer filed a lawsuit questioning her candidacy papers, and a judge declared Stepp ineligible.

Then, the Bullitt County GOP’s executive committee met behind closed doors, pored over four candidates and took a secret ballot. The winner: Danny Ray Johnson, the preacher from the nondenominational Heart of Fire Church.

As a newly minted candidate, Johnson’s platform didn’t skew far from his years-old rhetoric supporting guns, liberty and pro-life causes.

“Pray To Make America Great Again” was the edict on his church’s billboard for Freedom Fest, a political rally held in August 2016 at Heart of Fire.

“It’s never been like this before,” Johnson told hundreds of attendees, his voice cracking. Tears welled in his eyes and he held his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart. “We are so close to losing this freedom.

“Donald Trump, we need you.”

The only person standing between Johnson and public office was 69-year-old Linda Belcher, a retired schoolteacher, principal and lifelong county resident.

She campaigned on her dedication to public service. Her husband, Larry, had held the 49th District seat for six years before he died in a 2008 car accident. Belcher succeeded him and served three terms. She was the incumbent and a formidable opponent, for sure. But, she was a Democrat in a county that, like many in Kentucky, was becoming increasingly Republican.

Local politics can be combative and personal. Johnson liked to lob verbal bombs at Belcher via Facebook. He skipped the only public debate and canvassing came courtesy of a supporter who drove around a big pickup truck with a Johnson logo.

One Facebook campaign video, shot on a cell phone, opens with Johnson in a military fatigue-style shirt. He stands in front of a flag-draped, military-grade cannon, a piece of artillery the size of a pickup truck.

“Emergency. This is an emergency,” he says, staring into the camera. “We’ve had death threats, we have had bomb threats on our church, bomb threats at our house, our address has been given out, this is happening by lyin’ Linda.”

Danny Ray Johnson (Facebook)

That would be Linda Belcher.

Johnson continues for the camera. He gives out Belcher’s home address. He claims that “the Islam’crat Barack Obama, criminal Clinton and lyin’ Linda have sent Chicago thugs” after him. His children and grandchild have been threatened, he says.

Just recently, Johnson claims in the video, his truck was roadblocked and ambushed, and his friend’s life threatened.

In the cadence of a seasoned preacher, Johnson says Belcher personally “killed” 80,000 babies — a warped reference to her stance on abortion. He says he heard Belcher’s shoes were stained red due to “all the blood of all those babies.”

He calls his critics “pygmies” and “Smurfs.” Toward the end of his five-minute screed, Johnson makes the stakes clear: This is a race that pits Donald Trump and Danny Ray Johnson against “criminal Hillary Clinton and lyin’ Linda Lou.”

His closing plea: “Let’s show ‘em that the good ol’ boys matter.”

Founded in 1796, Bullitt County got its name from Alexander Scott Bullitt, a leader in Kentucky’s early political formation. It sits on the far western end of the Bluegrass region and has a population of about 75,000, nearly 97 percent of whom are white.

The percentage of adults with a college degree is less than half the national average. A population boom began in the mid-1970s, after school desegregation and busing came to neighboring Jefferson County, home to Louisville.

Today, it’s not uncommon to see Confederate flags hanging from poles, porches and barns around Bullitt.

Belcher’s campaign couldn’t have been more different from that of her opponent. Her Facebook page featured no Confederate flags, no angry videos and no guns. Her listed interests included gardening, reading, civic activities, crafts and flower arranging.

She heard and saw Johnson’s slanderous boasts but didn’t want to take the bait. She doesn’t know any Chicago thugs, she said. She’s a Christian. “The last thing I would think of would be harming a church.”

Belcher wanted to focus on her own record.

“I’m more of a positive person,” she said. “People who want to believe garbage like that, I don’t know how you convince them otherwise.”

With Johnson’s social media campaign in full gear, some of his Facebook posts made news.

Media reports highlighted racist posts he shared. One image depicted Barack and Michelle Obama as cartoonish apes. Another showed a young chimpanzee with a caption, “Obama’s baby picture.” A third post showed former President Ronald Reagan feeding a small chimp a bottle. It was titled, “Reagan babysits a young Obama.”

Johnson dismissed the criticism. He said Facebook was “entertaining.” He claimed that the posts were simply satire and fair game.

Even his own party disagreed, urging him to withdraw from the race. The state’s GOP chair, Mac Brown, called the posts “outrageous” and the “rankest sort of prejudice.”

Johnson ignored all critics and continued to post and share exclusionary, nationalist, anti-Islam, racist posts. This country was in trouble, Johnson claimed, and needed help. He was the one to provide it.

On election night, Trump swamped Clinton in Bullitt County, winning nearly three-quarters of the vote. In the 49th District race, Johnson beat Belcher by 156 votes.

So, Johnson had reason to smile that night. He was on his way to the statehouse. He had weathered the Facebook controversy, in part because the most controversial posts were removed and his profile made private.

But other aspects of his past cannot be so readily erased.

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From Bastrop To Bullitt: A Strange, Sensational Journey

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Kentucky’s self-proclaimed Pope paces in front of the Heart of Fire altar on a Sunday in early July. He’s wearing a red, white and blue shirt, not robes and a collar.

His small congregation knows well that Danny Ray Johnson’s free-spirited sermons can go in many directions.

One minute he quotes from the Bible. The next, he shares tales of his valor or an anecdote about sex with his wife on their honeymoon. Another time, it’s a story about driving trucks through mud holes, or a childhood science fair, or hobnobbing with Kentucky’s political elite, including Republican Gov. Matt Bevin.

This unorthodox preacher is, after all, now a state lawmaker.

To hear the Pope preach it, his life is a series of heroic feats, miracles and inspiring acts. He pops up at major moments in history. Always there. Right in the mix. Just like Forrest Gump.

His fabricated or questionable stories — told in countless sermons and invocations, listed in official biographies and in campaign videos — are too long to list. Here are some of them.

Early in 1991, while working with the Living Waters Church in Pasadena, California, Johnson traveled on a mission trip to South America. There, he claims to have performed a series of miracles. By his own account, he healed the sick and raised the dead.

On the church's website, Johnson promotes a June 1991 letter written by Dr. David Fischer, pastor of the Living Waters Church.

Fischer’s letter asserts that in Venezuela in March 1991, Johnson placed his fingers in the ears of a man who had been deaf since birth. Johnson healed the man instantly, just one of several healings on that mission trip.

Later, Johnson approached a dead woman in front of a crowd of about 7,000 in Colombia. Her skin “looked like rubber with a darkness under it,” the letter claims. “She was slumped over in a chair.”

Johnson lifted her out of the chair, according to Fischer's letter. He spoke to death and commanded it to leave.

“Then Danny spoke life to her and she took a breath ... and another breath. She was raised from the dead!”

Twenty-six years later, Fischer said he doesn’t remember details of his letter. By email, he admitted that he didn’t witness these supposed miracles. Rather, he “depended on later reports from pastors and other people in our large meetings for what may have occurred.”

Who actually witnessed the miraculous healing powers of Kentucky’s pope, bishop and future state representative?

Fischer couldn’t say.

Johnson's nameplate in the state capitol. (Ryland Barton)
Johnson's nameplate in the state Capitol. (Ryland Barton)

No lie is too big or too small for Johnson. In a campaign video posted the day before the November 2016 election, he implores, “I want to give you a few facts.”

He then says he has four children. In reality, he has five children, including one from his first marriage.

Then he boasts that there was a Ted Nugent rally at Bowman Field Airport and that the conservative rock-and-roller had endorsed him. Spokeswomen for Nugent and the airport said they had no record of such an event.

Other times, Johnson has claimed to have a Ph.D. and to be a “doctor of theology.” And he has said, under oath, that he holds a “doctorate of divinity” from a Bible school in Des Moines, Iowa. A spokeswoman for Kingsway University and Theological Seminary in Des Moines said Johnson studied there but never earned a degree.

Now, for some of his broader exaggerations.

Johnson contends that he was in Los Angeles amid the riots and fires that followed a jury’s acquittal in 1992 of four police officers who had beaten motorist Rodney King. Johnson claims he helped set up “safe zones” in the maelstrom.

The Rev. Dr. Cecil Murray, then of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, actually was at the heart of the unrest and could see the fires from his church. What Murray didn’t see was a tall, golden-haired preacher from Kentucky. He also doesn’t recall any “safe zones.” We couldn't find any mention of Johnson in the media coverage of the Rodney King riots, and no references to "safe zones."

Around the time of the riots, Johnson also claims he assumed what would be one of the most influential religious positions in the world.

“I served as chaplain to the White House. Chaplain to the White House,” under presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Johnson asserted in a campaign video.

Not true.

Gary Scott Smith, a retired professor and the author of two books on religious faith and the presidency, scoffed at that claim. There is no such thing as an office of White House chaplain, Smith said. “That would definitely be incorrect.”

Representatives of the three former presidents’ libraries could find no connection between Johnson and the White House.

In campaign videos and speeches, Johnson talks about serving as an ambassador to the United Nations. A UN researcher couldn’t find any evidence of it.

There are UN Messengers of Peace, selected by the UN secretary-general. They include people like cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Princess Haya of Jordan, actor George Clooney, opera singer Luciano Pavarotti and Louisville’s own Muhammad Ali.

Records show no sign of the Pope from Kentucky. No Bishop from Bullitt County. No Danny Ray Johnson.

Johnson bowed his head recently at a memorial service remembering 9/11, one of the worst days in this country’s modern history. He says it was one of his worst days too — but regularly boasts about his heroic acts that day.

Time and again, he’s told this story with himself in the lead role.

Looking out a hotel window, he watched the second plane crash into the World Trade Center. He raced to Ground Zero. He pulled a body from the outstretched arms of first responders.

He set up a morgue right there, right near the rubble. And for two weeks — two heinous weeks — the Pope gave last rites for “all of those” pulled from the towers.

But Storm Swain, a Philadelphia theology professor who wrote a book about chaplains at Ground Zero, has never heard of Johnson. She said it’s highly unlikely that any civilian, let alone an out-of-town clergyman, would have been asked to — or would have been able to — set up a morgue in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

And a spokeswoman for New York City’s medical examiner’s office said she checked with several colleagues who were at the scene. No one remembers Danny Ray Johnson.

Johnson has photos, which he shares all the time, and which appear to show that he was in New York around the time of 9/11. They include shots of him with luminaries such as then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

“I live 9/11 every day of my life,” he said at the 2013 Freedom Watch rally in Washington.

In fact, 9/11 is part of his everyday life.

 

Records show Johnson collects workers' compensation from the state of New York. But there’s no credible evidence of Johnson ever living or working in New York for any length of time. So, his workers' comp benefits are almost certainly tied to 9/11.

His financial disclosure forms, filed in Kentucky in connection with his political campaign and his election, list the public benefit as his only source of gross income in 2015 and 2016.

According to the New York Workers’ Compensation Board, 9/11 workers and volunteers who performed rescue, recovery and cleanup duties are eligible for benefits if they were injured or became ill as a result of their efforts.

Kentucky disclosure forms don’t say how much workers’ comp Johnson is receiving, and New York’s workers’ compensation files are private. So it’s not clear why he’s getting workers’ compensation, or how much he collects.

In a sermon in early July 2017, Johnson preaches with one hand in his pocket. On this Sunday, he’s a little more reserved, almost downbeat.

He’d been thinking a lot this morning, he says. He had heard that a pair of investigative reporters were asking questions about him.

Johnson's July 9, 2017 sermon (Facebook)

“Amazing, amazing that folks want to know so much about me. Just being raised on the bayou, raised in church, in a little small church… had a lot of miracles and a lot of things that have happened in my life.”

He asks his congregation how many of them have been part of miracles.

“If you’re like me, if you start trying to tell people how you got to where you are today and you begin to try to tell them all the things you’ve been through, I think you’d be like me, just better to leave a lot of it out.”

The preacher grins and shakes his head.

“I don’t want to even try to explain it, I don’t want to try to tell you, you’d never believe it if I told you.”

Long before he became the pope, the bishop or the politician, Danny Ray Johnson grew up in Bastrop, Louisiana, in the working class city’s upper economic strata. The town is in the impoverished Mississippi Delta region, in Louisiana’s northeastern corner.

Downtown, shuttered businesses surround the courthouse. Jobs have disappeared over the years and now four of every 10 residents live below the poverty line. Barely one in 10 has a college degree. The city’s population is about 11,000.

If you believe his resume, Johnson would be one of the town’s most famous citizens. But when asked about Bastrop’s biggest names, Mayor Arthur Jones mentions a few professional athletes: Bob “Butterbean” Love, Willie David Parker, Calvin Natt. No reference to Danny Ray Johnson.

Over at Bastrop High School, where Johnson graduated in 1979, a yearbook shows him sporting blond, feathered hair and a straight face. Voted neatest in his class, he was part of the school’s rock band and the history and journalism clubs.

Johnson's 1979 high school yearbook photo.

Johnson’s parents, Jerry and Charlene, still live in Bastrop and still own the ranch house where Johnson grew up.

“I don’t know what you want to hear. He’s been a good boy all his life, in church,”  said Jerry Johnson, a retired manager at the now shuttered local paper mill who, like his son, sports a shock of gold hair, slicked back in a pompadour.

He and his wife are still close to their son — “as close as a phone call,” Jerry Johnson says — and they are surprised to hear reporters asking questions.

What was the young Pope like? How did he get his start preaching? Was he healed by a miracle?

Johnson has said his religious underpinnings go back to childhood and that, at age 7, he was cured of blindness. It was, by his account, a miracle.

But details of this miracle are spotty. There was an incident with a BB gun and a trip to the doctor, his parents said. It might have been his left eye, maybe his right eye. Maybe it was both.

What is clear is that this incident helped propel Johnson on a path towards God and the pulpit.

Not far from Bastrop, at the Swartz First Assembly of God Church, pastor Gerald Lewis mows the grass, cleans the floors and preaches each weekend. He considered Johnson like a son and thought himself an influence in Johnson’s path to preaching.

Lewis, a pastor of 50 years, saw promise in the young man with the golden hair. But one day, without explanation, Johnson vanished. He never returned to the church and Lewis, his mentor, has no idea why. He knows Johnson dreamed of a life beyond Bastrop.

“Danny always wanted to get out and mingle with the people, like a celebrity, he had dreams of doing something big,” Lewis said.

Johnson's 1985 mugshot.

Danny Johnson spent his 25th birthday, his first in Louisville, at police headquarters.

Just after midnight on Oct. 18, 1985, police stumbled on an abandoned 1982 Cadillac Coupe de Ville in Cox Park, next to the Ohio River. Two people ran away as police pulled up.

The car had been stripped of its tires and rims. It had been doused, inside and out, with gasoline. Someone had intended to set the Cadillac ablaze.

Investigators picked up the pair who ran away. Under questioning, they told police they planned to torch the vehicle. A preacher named Johnson had given them $200 to set the fire and told them they could keep the rims and tires as a bonus. He had moved to the city earlier that year and started working at a church just south of downtown.

The preacher left the car in the church’s parking lot and handed over an extra set of keys. He wanted the deed done that night. He had plans to go out and party with other church ministers. They were celebrating his birthday.

Johnson arrived at police headquarters that morning in a police cruiser, fresh from the party. The detectives pressed him about the car. He said he last saw the Cadillac in the church parking lot. It must have been stolen.

Who stole it? Johnson had no clue. He signed off on a stolen vehicle report.

The detectives were skeptical and asked him to hang around. They had more questions. A short time later, things got serious. Police read Johnson his rights and told him a couple of co-conspirators had confessed.

This time, the preacher told a different story.

He admitted to handing over the keys and paying to get rid of the car. He wanted it destroyed. He wanted to collect insurance money. The young preacher told police he was about to go broke. Johnson owed more than $10,000 on the car, which also needed repairs that would total thousands more.

Money woes had set Johnson back before. He had fathered a child, gotten divorced and filed for bankruptcy in Louisiana just a few years earlier.

Less than two months after his arrest, a grand jury indicted Johnson for complicity to commit arson, a felony, and making a false police report, a misdemeanor. He pleaded not guilty and completed a six-month pretrial diversion program. The criminal charges were dismissed in February 1987.

Years later, while under oath in another case, his story about the gas-soaked Cadillac and insurance scheme would change again. And again, he lied. This time, Johnson claimed the car disappeared.

“When the car came up missing, I didn’t know what happened to the car. It was vandalized.”

These days, Sharon Stubbins, 63, spends most of her time in a small Southern Indiana apartment watching television with a home health aide.  

Her memory is slightly faded. But she’s never forgotten the dashing young preacher with the Louisiana drawl, the newcomer to Louisville with the passion for preaching.

Yes, she remembers. Thirty-two years ago, she agreed to help torch that Cadillac. He paid her to do it. Johnson needed insurance money. It seemed simple. Until it wasn’t.

Stubbins recalls she had a complicated relationship with Johnson. They weren’t a couple — they didn’t date — but they did sleep together.

She says she hasn’t talked to Johnson since they were arrested in 1985, and she has no desire to. She’s seen his rise to political power, watched it on the television news, in fact. And Stubbins, who is black, has heard about his racist Facebook posts.

“He must be stuck on stupid,” she says.

This was the first time investigators linked Danny Ray Johnson to a mysterious arson plot. But it wouldn’t be the last.

three

An Empire Built On Blind Faith

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On June 12, 2000, the Heart of Fire Church was ablaze. Flames lit the sky. The building burned to the ground.

Investigators found a rear door of the church unlocked. They discovered a flammable liquid had been poured down a hallway and intentionally set on fire.

Before long, Danny Ray Johnson — the self-proclaimed White House chaplain, United Nations ambassador and healer of the sick — was a suspect. It’s unclear if local and federal investigators knew that Johnson, the church’s founder, had been indicted 15 years earlier in the planned torching of his Cadillac.

As part of the church fire probe, investigators talked to a man who had driven by around the time of the blaze. He told them he saw a white, late-model Cadillac pulling out from behind the church with no lights on, according to police records.

The man said the driver was a white guy who might have had blond hair. And the Cadillac had sped off down Bardstown Road.

The Pope’s hair is blond, golden even. At the time of the fire, he and his wife Rebecca had two cars, records show. One of them was a white 1995 Cadillac.

With his church in ashes, Johnson denied playing any role in the fire. Instead, he blamed the Ku Klux Klan and claimed that numerous threats had been made against the church.

Heart of Fire Church in Fern Creek (R.G. Dunlop)
Heart of Fire Church in Fern Creek (R.G. Dunlop)

At the time it burned down, the Heart of Fire Church was essentially bankrupt, according to the insurance company Brotherhood Mutual, which filed a lawsuit after the blaze. The company claimed that the church owed far more on outstanding loans than it could ever pay, more than the property was worth, more than it would sell for.

The company also said that in light of the alleged threats, it seemed odd that no one kept watch at the church at night, that there was no alarm system in the building, no tracking of who had keys to it and no person responsible for making sure that the building was locked.

Arson investigations frequently find that the owner is “in various stages of financial distress,” Brotherhood Mutual attorney Bernard Leachman asserted in the lawsuit.

Court records also detail dozens of bounced checks and credit card debts leading up to the fire. The checks surfaced in bank accounts tied to the church, Johnson and his wife. In a sworn statement given as part of the lawsuit, Johnson acknowledged financial problems. And additional records filed in the lawsuit raise more questions about Johnson’s financial management.

Jennifer Charles, a former church member and employee, told police that Johnson often bragged about beating the system and about having a good attorney.

Michelle Cook, the Johnsons’ secretary and a church member, told police that there was “ongoing misappropriation of funds” at the church. Cook said Johnson would take insurance checks, cut a better deal with contractors and make a little money for himself.

No one was ever charged in the church fire. The insurance lawsuit was settled.  

A new house of worship rose from the Heart of Fire’s ashes. The new church remained steadfast in its mission: Jesus without judgment. Fellowship for all.

“It was good stuff. He was getting a lot of people who (normally) wouldn’t go to church,” recalls Cliff Richmond, a former church member.

A 2016 Guns.com video shows men and women of the Heart of Fire Church clustered at the altar with a cross looming above them. Seven of them sit in the front row, staring straight at the camera. Another nine stand behind them. They look ready for a school picture. With a nod, they begin to sing.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
I was blind, but now I see.

Some have handguns over their hearts. One woman is tightly clutching a Bible. Others, assault rifles. There’s a revolver, too. This is the Heart of Fire gun choir.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no 
less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.

The camera pans to the center, to Johnson, right in the middle of it all. He has on a motorcycle cap, the word “POPE” embroidered on it. His black leather vest carries an American flag patch, a gold cross and a medallion. In his right hand is a Kalashnikov-style assault rifle with a large, curved magazine. The rifle is pointed toward the heavens.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
I was blind, but now I see.

To the Pope’s right stands a tall man in a backward baseball cap, holding a silver handgun. On the other side of the Pope, a stern-looking man with a salt-and-pepper goatee. His right arm is held up at a 90-degree angle, as if he’s surrendering, or perhaps waving. Two fingers jut out from his clench on his gun. It almost looks like a peace sign.

The video’s description on YouTube notes that if you’re a tattooed, sunburned, gun-toting, leather-wearing biker who might get kicked out of a regular church, you’re definitely welcome at Heart of Fire.

Through the years, as American politics grew more divisive, the Pope used his church as an outlet for his political agenda.

A tax-exempt church such as Heart of Fire is barred by the U.S. tax code from supporting or opposing a specific political candidate. Such activity can, in theory, result in the revocation of a church’s tax-exempt status, according to Fran Hill, a professor at University of Miami Law School and a tax attorney.

The church rally in August 2016, when Johnson tearfully pushed Trump’s candidacy, was a violation, according to Hill and two other tax attorneys who reviewed the video. There were many other political endorsements, former church members say.

But Hill and others said the IRS lacks the political flexibility and the resources to enforce this law. Indeed, Congress has imposed limitations on the IRS’s ability to investigate possible violations by churches.

More recently, President Trump and Kentucky governor Bevin have sought to eliminate the politicking prohibition altogether.

 

At least one churchgoer was turned off by Johnson’s political proselytizing. Jennifer Stepp, who was bounced from the ballot last year and replaced by Johnson, attended Heart of Fire for several months, a few years ago.

“Turning worship into a political event bothered me,” she said recently.

She also recalled sermons laced with racist and anti-Islam comments. And congregants smoked in church. “I didn’t want to be associated with that,” Stepp said.

Stepp grew troubled by another component of the church: the weekend parties at Pope’s House.

“The first night I went up there I was like, ‘Wow… never seen a church like this before,” Stepp said.

Bikers, booze and, occasionally, bare breasts. A part-time tattoo parlor with a costume party featuring zombie nuns in short skirts.

Law enforcement saw some of this, too. State and local Alcoholic Beverage Control officers cited Johnson and the church three times between 2008 and 2015 for unlicensed alcohol sales.

In one case, ABC agents arrived to see Johnson and others whisking away cases of beer from behind the bar. Patrons told officers they had been directed to say they had brought their own alcohol in, rather than buying it there.

When the case went to trial in March 2009, Johnson testified before Jefferson District Judge Sheila Collins. He wore a priest’s collar and a cross around his neck. His defense to the charge: the alcohol being served at the church actually constituted “communion.”

Since it was communion, he argued, he didn’t need a liquor license.

Collins was not impressed, or convinced.

“I do not find that this party was ‘communion’ in any sense of the church word of ‘communion’ that I’m familiar with,” Collins said.

She called his characterization disingenuous. She found him guilty and fined him $250.

The three criminal charges resulted in minor penalties, diversion or dismissal. And since February 2015, ABC officials have conducted no additional inspections at the church. No follow-ups, no check-ins, since.

Meanwhile, the booze has continued to flow. Underage drinking was common, according to several people who partook.

Danielle Elmore, now in her mid-20s, was underage when she attended some of these parties. She considered herself a regular at the church and the bar.

“Yes, there’s times when it got crazy,” Elmore said. She recalls feeling uncomfortable when a boozy Johnson would sometimes kiss her and other young women on the lips.

Elmore knew something wasn’t right. But she didn’t know that the liquor and partying would serve as a backdrop to something much more serious: alleged molestation in Pope’s House.

four

An Accusation Of Molestation

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Maranda Richmond sips a cup of water and takes a seat in the newsroom's studio.

The 21-year-old shifts her weight in the chair and says she is ready. She has waited years for this day. And she looks as comfortable as anyone could be while telling us about an alleged sexual assault that occurred years ago at the hands of her trusted pastor, who later parlayed voters’ trust into a seat in the statehouse.

The story of how she ended up here in front of a microphone began seven weeks earlier, with our public records request to the Louisville Metro Police Department for all complaints related to Danny Ray Johnson, the self-proclaimed Pope and now state lawmaker. The request yielded just nine pages of documents.

Most of the documents were pretty routine: a couple of minor traffic-related mishaps. But there also was this report:

Sexual abuse of a 17-year-old girl at the church. Danny Ray Johnson listed as the suspect. The disposition: case closed.

The alleged victim’s name, and virtually all other details, had been redacted from the document. But a few phone calls led to Maranda Richmond.

She was willing to sit down and share her story. She wanted others to know more about the man she knew as Pope. 

Maranda Richmond (J. Tyler Franklin)

The Heart of Fire Church’s affinity for motorcyclists first captured the interest of Maranda’s father about 13 years ago. Cliff Richmond rides and works on bikes, and a friend said he should check out this unusual church on Bardstown Road. The church seemed welcoming, fun and unconventional. He took his daughter, who was then 8 years old, to her first Sunday service.

Maranda found the hourslong services — the sermons, the music, the shared communal meal — a bit exhausting. But they also provided a sense of community. She considered Danny Ray Johnson “a second dad.”

Through the years, she grew attached to Johnson’s children, especially his daughter, Sarah. “We were two peas in a pod,” Richmond remembers.

They grew up together, saw each other on Sundays and spent time together outside the church. As a young teen, Richmond would sleep over at the church, get into teenage hijinks and drink booze.

From time to time, Johnson and other adults would prepare the drinks.

“Sometimes they would make mixed drinks for us, and I never knew exactly what it was at the time, but I drank it because it was alcohol and I thought it was cool,” Richmond said.

 

Often, weekends meant parties at the Pope’s House. Sometimes there’d be concerts. Other times just booze and camaraderie. Some of the antics — the scantily clad women, the dancing on the bar, the body shots, the costumes — have been documented in pictures posted to Johnson’s Facebook page.

But New Year’s Eve 2012 was especially wild. Johnson, Richmond remembers, was drunk. Midnight came, people celebrated and then partiers started to head home. Johnson disappeared for a bit to a favorite local bar, T.K.’s Pub.

Richmond had planned to stay the night with her friend Sarah at the apartment below the fellowship hall. There was no school the next day.

Hours after midnight, she remembers Johnson returning to the hall, drunk. He was stumbling and fumbling around, and she helped him down the stairs into the apartment and told him to go to bed. Johnson put an arm around her — for balance, Richmond thought — until his hand slipped up her shirt. At the time, she didn’t pay it much heed.

She and Sarah hung out for a while. Then they went to sleep on a large, L-shaped sectional sofa.

Here, in the studio, Richmond speaks quickly without pausing. She says she's been dealing with this for so long that telling her story barely makes her emotional anymore. She plunges ahead with the details.

That night, she woke after settling in on the sofa. She was groggy, unfocused. But she saw Johnson kneeling above her. He gave her a kiss on the head. She thought it fatherly, nothing out of the ordinarysimply one last goodnight gesture.

Then he started to stroke her arm. He slid his hands up, under her shirt and bra, and groped her. He stuck his tongue in her mouth. Then, he forced his hands down her pants, underneath her underwear, and penetrated her with his finger.

She begged her pastor to stop and tried to force him off, quietly. She remembers not wanting to awaken Sarah. But Johnson was a big man, roughly twice her weight.

He told her she’d like it. She said no, she didn’t. She pleaded with him: go away, go away.

Eventually, he did.

She lay on the sofa for hours, those moments running through her head, over and over. She remembers feeling frozen.

"Every little sound that I heard I was terrified that it was his door opening up and he was coming back out,” she said.

She felt she couldn’t leave or scream. Shortly after dawn, she concocted a story for Sarah and left. She never returned.

Johnson noticed when Maranda didn’t show up for Sunday service the next week. At 11:28 p.m. on Jan. 7, 2013, he sent her a Facebook message.

Johnson wrote that his daughter, Sarah, had told him he had been mean to the girls and his son, Boaz.

Sarah said I was mean to Bo You and Her by telling you all to go to bed so sorry don’t remember I was told we all got drugged at TK’s anyway so sorry if I sounded mean, you know you are one of my favorites, love you sorry! Boaz did Great Sunday ! Your future Husband !

Maranda couldn’t believe it. Days after this New Year’s party and encounter, her pastor was sending her a Facebook message saying he was sorry, sort of. And he was claiming someone “drugged him” at his go-to local bar.

Richmond responded a day later.

What you did was beyond mean, it was evil. Drugged or not, I think you know what happened that night and that’s why you’re sending this message. I never thought something like that would happen to me, especially by someone like you. I looked at you as a Dad, but now I sincerely hope I don’t see you again, but I might try to maintain a relationship with your kids. And there is no point in responding to this message either because I don’t want to talk about it ever again.  

Johnson never replied.

What kind of impact does an alleged sexual assault at the hands of a trusted pastor have on a 17-year-old girl?

“I’ve coped with it,” Richmond says now. “I know that it happened to me. And the main thing I can do is get it out there so that people know and that it doesn’t happen to anybody else. That’s all I want. I just don’t want somebody else to go through this.”

She shared her therapist’s psychosocial assessment, notes and progress reports from their sessions together in the summer following the encounter. The documents outline how an alleged sexual assault pushed an honor roll student and drum major at Louisville Male High School into despair. She had signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The therapist noted Maranda had previously felt safe in the church, trusted the pastor and looked up to him. Now, she was having dreams, seeing visions. Terrified of running into him, she avoided Bardstown Road and Fern Creek.

Maranda kept hearing the word “rape” in her dreams. She thought she saw her pastor in the backyard. She cried in appointments. “He basically molested me,” she told the therapist.

She couldn't erase the image of herself, lying on a couch, a dark figure looming over her. She remembered the smell of beer on his breath... everything happening in slow motion… she thought of broken trust, a lost friendship.

All the preaching, all the sermons. She told her therapist: “Every single thing he was doing is a lie. It’s all fake.”

The therapist’s record of their June 17, 2013, meeting noted that Richmond wanted to press charges regardless of where the case may go. Richmond told the therapist she’s “the kind of person who doesn’t give up. No matter what.”

Maranda didn’t immediately tell her parents. It took several months.

Her mother, Cathy Brooks, had expressed worry about her unusual behavior and Maranda finally told her. Then they called Cliff Richmond. Just as Maranda had predicted, her father wanted revenge.

“Like any father, I was enraged,” Cliff Richmond recalls. “I was wanting to stomp him.”

Cliff had been at the Heart of Fire Church that New Year’s Eve, and he vividly remembers Johnson.

“He was lit,” he said. “I looked over and he had his face in some young girl’s crotch and boobs and I was, ‘whoa, I don’t see ministers doing that.’”

But it never occurred to him that Johnson might do something similar, or worse, to Maranda. After all, Johnson was his longtime friend and their pastor. Cliff felt comfortable letting Maranda spend the night with her friend, Sarah.

He and Johnson were like brothers. Then he heard Maranda’s story. Now, Cliff can’t stand Johnson. “He’s a manipulator,” he said.

Shortly after Maranda told her parents, the three of them went to police. It was April 2013. Officers wanted Maranda to meet with Johnson and secretly record their conversation, hoping he would confess.

She was afraid to go through with it.

Instead, a detective had her call Johnson on a recorded line. Johnson didn’t answer. He didn’t respond to a Facebook message either.

Cliff had stopped going to Heart of Fire after Maranda shared her story. But, police asked him to make his own recorded call to Johnson.

This time, the Pope answered.

A scratchy recording of the call captures Cliff and Johnson making small talk for a few moments. Then Cliff asks point-blank: Did you sexually assault my daughter?

Johnson denies it. He repeats his earlier claim — in the Facebook message to Maranda — that he’d been drugged that night. He says he didn’t remember.

The call ends unremarkably. So did the case.

Police did little after that call. Investigators closed the case. No charges were filed.

The Pope continued to preach and Maranda Richmond tried to move past those memories.

Johnson ran for office, and won, with this story of alleged sexual assault — contained in a few police documents and recordings — still a secret to most. It wouldn’t remain so for long.

five

When Our Institutions Fail

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Maranda Richmond has lived for years with memories of the traumatic New Year’s encounter with her pastor, Danny Ray Johnson. We share with her an email from police that shows how her case concluded.

“Closed by exception.”

She doesn’t understand what it means.

The detective concluded that Maranda had either withdrawn her complaint or refused to cooperate with investigators.

This is news to Maranda. She falls silent, pondering the claim.

“I never once did not want to continue on,” she says.

She was 17 at the time of the alleged assault, and had no idea how police investigations work.

“I didn’t know if I was supposed to go there and continue to try, or if they were supposed to contact me,” Maranda says. “I never stopped it... I feel as if they kind of gave up on it.”

Records show police did exactly that.

After Richmond and her father couldn’t get Johnson to incriminate himself on the phone, LMPD Det. Antoinette Leitsch reached out to Richmond’s mother in a single phone call.

According to Leitsch’s report, Cathy Brooks claimed her daughter was busy and having second thoughts about pushing the matter.

Following that phone call in September 2013, and hearing nothing more, Leitsch closed the case.

Brooks says today that she never told the detective that Maranda didn’t want to press charges. Both she and Maranda say the goal was always to see Johnson brought to justice.

The case file makes clear: Leitsch never attempted to interview Johnson. And it appears the detective reviewed the case under the wrong criminal classification, characterizing it as a misdemeanor, rather than a more serious felony offense.

Four criminal justice experts analyzed LMPD records of Richmond’s case at the request of the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. The experts were unanimous: police botched the investigation.

David Stengel, who oversaw countless Louisville police investigations during his 16-year tenure as Jefferson commonwealth’s attorney, found several holes in this one. The biggest: classifying the alleged crime as a misdemeanor.

Here’s why:

Upon hearing Richmond’s story, Leitsch wrote up the initial complaint as third-degree sexual abuse, a misdemeanor. The maximum penalty for that offense is 90 days in jail and the window for bringing a prosecution is one year.

Stengel said the case should have been investigated as sexual abuse in the first degree — a felony. A conviction for that offense can bring up to five years behind bars. And in Kentucky, there is no statute of limitations for a felony prosecution.

First-degree sexual abuse fits with the allegations made in the case, Stengel said. The law also states that felony sexual abuse occurs when someone in a position of authority or special trust subjects a minor to sexual contact. That specifically includes a “religious leader.”

Richmond was 17 at the time. Johnson was her pastor.

As for police not interviewing Johnson, and not consulting with Richmond herself before closing the case, Stengel said they should have done both. Other experts agreed.

David Harris, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, said sex crime allegations involving minors need to be investigated thoroughly and aggressively.

“If there's good evidence of a sex crime, this may have happened to other kids before, and letting it go means other victims may be harmed in the future,” Harris said.

Leitsch, who has since retired from the department, refused to discuss her handling of the case.

“I don’t want to do any interviews,” she said.

Maranda Richmond meets with reporters. (J. Tyler Franklin)
Richmond meets with KyCIR reporters. (J. Tyler Franklin)

Louisville police officials refused to talk about Richmond’s case. They did agree in July to meet and talk generally about sexual assault investigations. But when questions turned to her case, things changed quickly. Three police officials ordered us out of headquarters. Follow-up phone calls and email requests to police were ignored.

But following our repeated inquiries to LMPD, Maranda Richmond did receive a phone call from police, 3 1/2 years after they’d closed her case. On the phone, an LMPD detective asked her if she was satisfied with the initial police investigation. She was not.

The detective asked Richmond if she wanted to reopen the case. She did. And police have complied.

But some five months later, according to Richmond, it appears detectives once again have done virtually nothing to determine what happened in the basement below the church bar on New Year’s Eve in 2012.

Richmond told us her story several months before allegations of sexual harassment and assault involving top entertainment, business and political figures rocketed across the country.

Kentucky lawmakers have also once again become embroiled in controversy over sexual misconduct, the latest in a series of cases in the last several decades to tarnish the legislature. The Republican Speaker of the House, Jeff Hoover, recently resigned his post after allegations of sexual misconduct. Governor Bevin has urged those involved to leave office.

And state Rep. Danny Ray Johnson weighed in.  

“I’m totally against anything that has to do with abuse,” he told Courier Journal. “However, there are no perfect people.”

While experts say it’s clear that police botched the investigation of Johnson, no one will ever know whether he would have been elected had details of the case been made public.

What is clear is that this failure to investigate further wasn’t the only time an institution faltered, failed or looked the other way when Johnson did something improper or illegal. Time and again, institutional failures amid a web of deception and lies provided tiny cracks, openings even, for Johnson’s rise and ascension from preacher to politician.

Among the failures:

Johnson’s Heart of Fire Church was cited three separate times between 2008 and 2015 for selling alcohol without a license. But it’s clear — from a recent visit and interviews with a half-dozen former church members and others — that visitors to the Pope’s House could still easily purchase booze there. Aside from a few temporary, short-term event licenses, the church never could sell alcohol legally during the past decade. And it still has no liquor license.

Danny Ray Johnson (LRC Public Information)
Johnson (LRC Public Information)

Why haven’t ABC officers been back to the church in more than two years, to see if it was still breaking the law? Why hasn’t a repeat offender warranted more scrutiny?

State ABC officials won’t discuss the matter. The local ABC administrator, Robert Kirchdorfer, said follow-ups aren’t part of his agency’s protocol, and that it mostly responds to complaints.

Mike Hatzell, an attorney who for some 40 years represented clients before state and local ABC boards, said the history of alcohol violations at Pope’s House creates reasonable suspicion of more problems and warrants regular inspections and follow-ups. “I’m surprised they are not doing that,” Hatzell said.

Another institution that could have – and under federal law, should have – done more to examine Johnson and his church is the Internal Revenue Service.

Johnson’s pulpit politicking, in which he aligned himself with Trump at every opportunity, was crucial in building his image and campaign. His explicit advocacy for Trump’s candidacy for president was a clear violation of the IRS code governing tax-exempt organizations.

The IRS could attempt to rescind the church’s tax-exempt status.

“The agency that is supposed to be enforcing the laws that Congress enacted is not doing it,” said law professor Fran Hill. “And they’ve announced publicly that they are not doing it and they are not able to.”

The state’s political parties and leaders have also failed to hold Johnson accountable. Following news of Johnson’s racist Facebook posts, officials on both sides of the political aisle called for him to get out of the 49th District race.

Johnson ignored them. That’s where it ended.

Why didn’t state and local politicians do more to get Johnson off the ballot? Did they adequately vet him?

 

Rebecca Witherington, head of the Bullitt County Democratic Party, and Paul Ham, the local GOP chair, both dodged questions about their pre-election silence.

“That campaign is done, it’s over with, we’re moving forward,” Witherington said.

Added Ham: “I’m not going to answer anything else about Dan Johnson, let’s push on.”

The state Democratic Party didn’t do much either. Daniel Lowry, the party’s spokesman at the time of the election, acknowledged that the party knew about the alcohol violations and had heard some of the details surrounding Maranda Richmond.

But the party did little more than issue the statement condemning Johnson’s racist Facebook rants.

“That was about as strong as we could do,” Lowry said. “We would have had to spend money on advertisements, maybe, and bought commercials.”

In other words, pressing the matter wasn’t seen as worth the money.

The state Republican Party also pretty much took a pass.

“We washed our hands of the situation as best we could,” said party spokesman Tres Watson. “We are very comfortable with the efforts we took. The only thing you can’t get back is time.”

Linda Belcher, Johnson’s Democratic opponent in the legislative race, had heard some murmurings about Johnson, too. In mid-October 2016, Maranda Richmond sent an email to Belcher, asserting that Johnson had “sexually molested” her several years earlier.

Richmond wrote: “I would hate to see this district vote for someone they don’t know the truth about. I’d really like to finally have him exposed for his actions.”

Belcher remembers telling Richmond she “couldn’t do anything for her.” She passed the message on to local and state Democratic Party leaders. And that was that.  

Another institution that merits scrutiny for failing to examine Johnson’s past: the media.

Five weeks before the 2016 election, media outlets were saturated with stories about Johnson’s racist Facebook posts. Maranda Richmond said she reached out to a television reporter in the weeks before the election, seeking to tell her story. That effort went nowhere.

No news organization’s curiosity was piqued to dig deeper, to find out what else the public should know about Johnson.

Chuck Clark, who is director of student publications at Western Kentucky University and previously helped manage newspapers in several states, said media outlets no longer devote time to scrubbing a candidate’s history.

“They don’t have the resources, local races go uncovered,” Clark said. “Journalists are the best thing to vet information. We poke holes in it. Testing it. The only thing that makes American democracy work is having an informed public. Journalists are the best source of information.”

But informing the public often is not quick or easy.

This investigation started with a late-night text message from a longtime source earlier this year. “Strictly off the record, do you know about state Rep. Dan Johnson’s past? I hate hypocrites among public officials.”

This led to records requests and phone calls, which led to sit-down interviews and reporting trips. Each open door led to more doors. More twists, more turns, more lies.

And ultimately, a visit to the Bullitt County courthouse for a 9/11 memorial event.

Johnson was the master of ceremonies. He knew why a couple of investigative reporters had come. He knew we had information about him that differed drastically from his public persona.

He’d already made it very clear that he didn’t want to talk. He’d been evasive for weeks. Calls and emails to him went unanswered. He agreed to an interview, then canceled it. After that, he passed the buck to the Kentucky Republican party, which was no help either.

Twice, Johnson called us “fake news.”

Here, at a public event, was a last effort to arrange a meeting, a last chance to ask him why he’s lied so often for so long, why he breaks the law with indifference. And, how did he pull this whole thing off?

But before Johnson took the stage, he called out loudly across the courthouse square. Then he strode over.

“There’s a lawsuit pending, so y’all have to leave,” he said.

What lawsuit? And isn’t this public property?

“You’ll get it all. It’s going to be fully read, attorney written,” Johnson said. “You’ll get it. Bye. Y’all need to leave. You can’t be close to me, because you’ve been harassing me.”

No interview. No answers from Danny Ray Johnson, the preacher and elected politician.

Three months later, no lawsuit has materialized. But this much seems clear:

Johnson — the preacher-turned-politician, the alleged arsonist and molester, the liar who says he was on the front lines of history and has received nearly $20,000 in legislative pay this year — will be in Frankfort when the legislature meets again soon.

Come Sunday, he’ll be preaching from the Heart of Fire Church pulpit.

And he’s filed papers to seek re-election next May.

EDITOR’S NOTE: On Dec. 13, two days after the release of this investigation, Rep. Dan Johnson committed suicide in Bullitt County. Read our organization's response to Johnson's death. Our coverage is here.

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R.G. Dunlop can be reached at rdunlop@kycir.org or (502) 814.6533. Jacob Ryan can be reached at jryan@kycir.org and (502) 814.6559.

This post has been updated. Learn more about how we reported "The Pope's Long Con".

Reporters/producers: R.G. Dunlop and Jacob Ryan
Producer: Laura Ellis
Editing: Brendan McCarthy, Erica Peterson and Stephen George
Website: Alexandra Kanik
Creative direction: Sean Cannon
Scoring: Kevin Ratterman at La La Land Sound
Theme song: “Seventh Son” by Willie Dixon; recorded by Ratterman and featuring Louisville’s own Patrick Hallahan, Alex Wrickle, Scott Carney and Otis Jr., with backing vocals from Hannah Sexton and Savannah Ecklar
Illustrations: Carrie Neumayer
Legal: Jon Fleischaker and Michael Abate

A grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism supported this work.