The Man Who Wasn't There

Bill Johnson doesn't let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Bill Johnson had a hard act to follow.

A former staffer with Southern California's Orange County Register, Johnson was hired as a columnist for the Rocky Mountain News in August 1996, mere months after his predecessor, the widely revered Greg Lopez, was killed in a hit-and-run accident. Since then, by most observers' reckoning, his writing has seldom reached Lopez-ian heights, and to make matters worse, he inspired a series of non-column headlines for some rather unpleasant reasons -- specifically, he was accused of third-degree assault and negligent child abuse in Boulder County following a December 1997 incident involving his ex-wife, Carol Shirley. (He was acquitted of the charges in November 1998.) So it was likely with a palpable sense of surprise that News subscribers experienced "The Children Nobody Wanted," Johnson's 9,000-plus word Thanksgiving epic about the poignant reunion of four siblings who'd been featured on the News's cover back in 1963. The article was unnecessarily melodramatic at times, and sometimes overwritten, yet in the end it was intriguing and undeniably moving. In addition, it required some real digging, not just a conversation or two and a bit of imagination.

Was this a sign of better, more energetically reported Johnson pieces to come? Perhaps -- but before anyone starts comparing him to Mike Royko, lend an eye to his December 1 column, "The Policeman's Job Reconsidered." In it, Johnson wrote about a conversation with an unnamed Denver detective who chided him for offering negative opinions about the police. When Johnson countered that he only criticized crummy officers, not good ones, the detective apologized for the bad apples but insisted that such items lead many members of the public to think poorly of even the worthiest boys and girls in blue. The detective then forwarded to Johnson "The Lousy Cop," an essay attributed to "Trooper Mitchell Brown of the Virginia State Police" that attempted to make the average person revise his assumptions about the police with assertions such as "You have no use for me at all. But, of course, it's OK if I change a flat for your wife, deliver your child in the back of the patrol car or, perhaps, save your son's life with mouth-to-mouth breathing, or work many hours overtime looking for your lost daughter." It concludes, "So, Mr. Citizen, you can stand there on your soapbox and rant and rave about the way I do my work, calling me every name. But you never stop to think that your property, family or maybe even your life depends on me or one of my buddies. Yes, Mr. Citizen, it's me. The Lousy Cop."

Afterward, Johnson delivered his verdict on the submission: "Yes it is, I think, a dandy piece of prose. Quite haunting, too. In this way: Trooper Mitchell Brown was killed in the line of duty two months after he wrote it."

Or was he? A reader of the column was suspicious about the origins of "The Lousy Cop" and decided to do some checking. To that end, he contacted the Virginia State Police, and learned that the organization had no knowledge of the essay's purported author. Karen Scales, the Virginia State Police's director of public affairs, said the same to Westword: "We've never had a Mitchell Brown work for us, and no Mitchell Brown has been killed in the line of duty as a Virginia state trooper."

A little Web surfing turned up copies of "The Lousy Cop" on numerous law-enforcement-oriented computer sites, contributing to the mystery of its creation. Such documents have become a part of Internet culture, and they're often either misattributed or outright shams: A 1997 column by Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich, which eventually served as the basis of Baz Luhrman's quirky 1999 hit single "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)," was falsely reported to be a commencement address delivered by Kurt Vonnegut, and a bogus note attributed to Columbine High School gunman Eric Harris wound up getting prominent play in the News before being revealed as fiction (see The Message, August 19). But when the reader who'd discovered that no Mitchell Brown had served as a Virginia trooper e-mailed Johnson with this information, Johnson's e-mail reply showed that he hadn't bothered to investigate the veracity of "The Lousy Cop" before putting it in the News -- and that he didn't view the possibility of it's being a phony as all that problematic. "Indeed, I will call the Virginia patrol," Johnson wrote. "Yet whether it is an Internet hoax, whether the Virginia officer exists or not, is, in my view, irrelevant."

In a conversation with Westword on December 2, Johnson didn't back away from this jaw-dropping assertion: "I don't think that was the point. The point of the column is that the essay spoke to [the Denver detective], and it spoke to me." He amended that view slightly in regard to his claim that virtual Trooper Brown's "death" two months after penning "The Lousy Cop" gave it a "haunting" quality: "That part makes a difference. But what's most important is that what's written makes you stop and think."

Johnson said that he would address the Mitchell Brown matter in his December 5 column, but for whatever reason (perhaps all those phone calls to Virginia), he did so on December 3, in an effort titled "Fictitious Trooper's Message Remains." During the first paragraph, Johnson confirmed his gaffe -- "There is no Trooper Mitchell Brown of the Virginia State Police. I never checked to see if there was one" -- albeit without mentioning the date of his previous column. He also engaged in some spin-doctoring, writing, "At the time, I didn't believe it mattered," as if he'd mulled over looking into the trooper's background but eventually decided against it, adding, "But he doesn't exist and, therefore, couldn't have died two weeks after he wrote 'The Lousy Cop.' [As noted above, the original column had Brown dying two months after completing his masterwork.] So I gotta eat a little crow."

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