Forty years ago tonight, an unrepentant racist murdered a black high school friend of mine — in cold blood — for kissing a white woman on the cheek after midnight mass. This is his story.
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Michael D. Johnson was the sweetest person one could ever hope to meet. He was literally a choirboy at Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx, the private parochial school we attended, along with future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, between 1968 and 1972.
Spellman was an unusual Catholic school at the time. For one thing, while when we started there in 1968 it was a “co-institutional” school, meaning that it had separate boys’ and girls’ schools residing in the same building with an invisible dividing line down the center, by our graduation in 1972, it had gradually become fully co-ed, in contrast to every other Catholic high school in New York which were either all-boys or all-girls.
The student body was a diverse group that reflected the racial make-up of the city, lots of students of Italian, Irish, and Hispanic descent with a proportionate number of African Americans as well, especially considering the fact that most American Blacks belonged to Protestant denominations.
The usual high school cliques were all represented at Spellman, the jocks, the nerds, the arty outsiders, etc. As a dedicated student who was also a music nerd, I hung out mostly with the academic types and the counter-cultural misfits at lunch in the cafeteria, and probably met Michael either in class or through one of his choir buddies who was friends with my girlfriend at the time.
We weren’t particularly close friends but would see each other at parties, sporting events, and the like. His inner goodness illuminated his personality, with a bright and cheerful outlook always dominating his presence. Michael was a smart, dedicated student who avoided the pitfalls that urban high schoolers can fall prey to and was universally liked by everyone in my cliques, at least.
After graduation, we went off to different colleges and never saw each other again, although I would hear about him occasionally through mutual acquaintances. I was shocked when five years after we left Spellman, I heard the news of his brutal murder.
I learned after his death that Michael had earned a scholarship to prestigious Williams College in Massachusetts and went on to study English and psychology. After graduating with honors, he got a job writing ad copy for J.C. Penney and started taking graduate-level business courses at night at Fordham University.
It was at Fordham University Church that Michael Johnson attended midnight mass on Christmas 1977, along with his high school friends Dennis Vellucci and Patricia McLaughlin. After the mass ended, Dennis decided to attend a campus reception, but his girlfriend Patricia wanted to go home. Michael courteously insisted on walking her to her nearby home.
When he dropped her off, Patricia leaned over to say goodnight to her friend.
“I kissed him on the cheek. It was Christmas Eve. He was my friend.”
William Patrick Brennan and Robert Alvarez were driving by in Alvarez’ red Ford Mustang and saw the friendly holiday farewell, but distorted through the lens of racial hatred. Minutes later Alverez pulled up behind Michael Johnson as he walked down the usually bustling Fordham Road in the Bronx. After midnight on Christmas Eve, the street was relatively empty at this point.
The 17-year-old Brennan had a .22 caliber rifle with him in the car, and he pointed it out the window. He took aim and shot my friend in the back, the coward’s way. Michael fell to the ground as the Mustang sped away. A priest who had been nearby rushed to Michael’s side in time to hear his dying words:
“Tell my family I love them.”
I wish I could say that the police rushed to muster all their resources to solve the brutal murder, but with just a description of a red Mustang as the only clue, the case of the killing of a man with no known enemies languished in the cold case files for years in a nearly bankrupt 1970’s New York. The little publicity that the case received at the time came from a report on the killing in The New York Daily News, a report that would eventually prove crucial to the apprehension of the racist scum who took Michael from his friends, family, and the world.
William Brennan was a loudmouthed racist. He kept a copy of the Daily News article folded up in his wallet and would pull it out to brag about his murderous exploit at his favorite local bar, The Beehive on West Kingsbridge Road. In the company of other committed racists in the neighborhood, he had little fear of being exposed. They all laughed along and gave him the nickname “the ghost of Christmas past.”
What Brennan had counted on in his braggadocious manner was the eventuality that one of his drinking buddies would wind up in trouble with the law over an armed robbery. Looking for anything that might keep him from serving hard time, he offered the cops a lead on the then 7-year-old case, recounting Brennan’s boast.
It wasn’t long before Bronx District Attorney Mario Merola announced the breakthrough arrest of William Brennan. By then 24, Brennan was unemployed, overweight, and living with his mother. His criminal record dated back to his high school days, and he was proud of being featured the year before he killed Michael in a photo with his brothers showing off their guns in the white-supremacist publication White Lightning.
At Brennan’s trial, the DA painted this picture of the early Christmas morning assassination, according to the Daily News report:
“”They went out cruising on Christmas Eve, looking for a black guy to kill,’ Merola said. He scolded Kingsbridge for ‘an air of silence’ that kept Brennan’s open secret for seven years.”
Witnesses said that they kept silent out of fear for their lives and that Brennan was an outspoken racist who railed against blacks moving into his traditionally Irish Bronx neighborhood.
Brennan’s defense attorney didn’t even bother calling witnesses. Here was a character no one could vouch for. The jury of seven blacks and five whites convicted Brennan of murder in the second degree with little need for extended deliberation.
Justice Lawrence Tonetti said that the killing “must go down in the annals of history as one of the most dastardly, cowardly acts committed by one man against another, as he sentenced Brennan to the maximum punishment, 25 years to life. As Brennan was being led away from the courtroom, he spit on prosecutor Robert Santucci as he passed him. The prosecutor said he took it as a compliment.
Brennan’s accomplice in the crime, Robert Alvarez, took a plea deal for his role as the driver and served a four-year manslaughter sentence. Brennan was eligible for parole beginning in 2009 but was turned down four times before he died in prison last November of undisclosed causes.
With Brennan’s death, Michael Johnson’s family and friends can finally enjoy a Christmas without this particular shadow of injustice and racism hanging over them. The saddest part of the story, however, is that 40 years after my friend was viciously and unjustly shot by a man filled with racial hatred, racism is climbing back out of the shadows and into the mainstream with fascist marches and KKK rallies.
Michael’s tragic story proves that racism was not, and is not, confined to the South. Anybody in New York, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, or a host of other cities could tell you that. That it continues to exist at all and is, in fact, gaining renewed strength, gives those of us who are committed to establishing a more perfect world the motivation to fight against those who would tell us that all men are not created equal and against their leader currently occupying the Oval Office.
Rest in Peace, Michael. And Merry Christmas.