A 16-year veteran of the Newark police department, described as being "personable" and "well-liked," was killed late Thursday night in a drive-by shooting in the city's South Ward, according to officials.
Officer William C. Johnson, who was unarmed and off-duty at the time of the shooting, was one of three struck by bullets inside Texas Fried Chicken and Pizza at 250 Lyons Ave. shortly before 10 p.m.
Johnson, 45, a lifelong resident of Newark and father of two daughters, was taken to University Hospital in "very grave condition," Mayor Cory Booker said during a hastily called press conference at midnight Thursday. Johnson, 45, who was assigned to the department's communications division, was pronounced dead at 3:10 a.m. at the hospital.
A 21-year-old man and a 19-year-old woman with a toddler also were shot inside the restaurant. The toddler was unharmed. Both are listed in stable condition. The man was shot in the stomach and taken to University Hospital. The woman was shot in the shoulder, walked to Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, where she was treated and released.
"We are dealing with this in a focused, clear, calm way," Booker said Friday morning, while flanked by members of the Essex County Prosecutor's Office. "We will find these people responsible for killing one of our officers. We will not let this cop killer stay on our streets."
Acting Newark Police Director Samuel DeMaio said no more than 10 shots were fired from a car that pulled up to the restaurant at the corner of Clinton Place and Lyons Avenue. DeMaio said Friday that officials believe they are searching for two shooters and an investigation is in the early stages. He refused to elaborate on descriptions of the vehicle, weapon used or the shooters.
"At this point in time, we certainly do not believe that the officer was the intended target," said DeMaio. Officials said someone inside the restaurant likely was the target. DeMaio said police currently are reviewing surveillance video and questioning additional witnesses, but he would not elaborate.
Adrees Nahiam, an employee of Texas Fried Chicken and Pizza, was not working at the time of the incident, but said it wasn't the first time he heard of a shooting in the area.
"A shooting isn't a big deal, but when someone gets shot, it's a big deal," said Nahiam, a Whippany resident whose family owns the Lyons Avenue restaurant. "You hear about it, you don't really witness it."
Weequahic Avenue resident known as "Dutch 40," who refused to give his real name, said he heard three shots fired Thursday night. He said the restaurant — known as a "chicken shack" — is a popular hangout among teenagers.
"In this 10-block radius, there are a lot of gun shots," said "Dutch 40," who alleges he was jumped about two years ago by three kids while walking in front of nearby Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. "The South Ward is literally a war zone. It's the new Guantanamo Bay."
Newark Police Department Det. Levi Holmes, who's also the president of the Newark Bronze Shields, the African-American police officers' association within the Newark Police Department, said he knew Johnson for nearly 15 years.
"He was the sweetest kind of guy who would never hurt anyone," said Holmes, who visited the hospital when he heard of the shooting. "A heart of gold."
Holmes described Johnson as a master at verbal judo when dealing with suspects and would do anything in his power not to use force — even in times of arrest, Johnson had the ability of disarming suspects without using force, said Holmes.
"He was full of personality, full of life," he said.
Holmes said Johnson's girlfriend, 22-year-old daughter and other family members were at the hospital Thursday night into Friday. His 11-year-old daughter was not there, according to Holmes.
New Jersey State Patrolmen's Benevolent Association is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible, according to its website.
"The shooting of any active or retired police officer in the line of duty will generate a response from all of us," said Anthony Wieners, president of the state patrolmen's benevolent association, in a statement. "We will not let those responsible for gunning down an officer enjoy one moment of peace after they pull that trigger. This $10,000 assures he will get no comfort as his friends and family race to the phone to collect."
The Essex County Sheriff's Crimestoppers' program is offering an additional $20,000 reward, according to officials.
Holmes said he had to compose himself when he heard the news of the shooting. He was particularly shaken because the Bronze Shields had recently helped bury Natombe Simmonds, a 24-year-old former Newark cop who was on the Bronze Shields basketball team. Simmonds was one of the 167 officers laid off last year. He had apparently died of a heart attack.
"I had to go on my knees and compose myself," said Holmes. "It's one tragedy after another."
Police had cordoned off the section of Lyons Avenue Thursday night one block west of Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. Neighbors were seen chatting quietly on the sidewalk after the shooting.
Jazmyn Carr, 19, of Newark's West Ward, said she used to live around the corner from where the shooting took place on Irvington Avenue.
"We were on our way here and we heard someone got shot," she said. "We're just waiting to hear if it was one of my friends."
Asia Manuel, 19, of the city's South Ward, characterized the ward as "the worst ward in Newark."
"My friend got shot a few blocks from here," she said. "I can't count the number of people that have died on my hand."
Newark City Councilman Ras Baraka, who represents the South Ward and was on scene of the shooting Thursday night, called the incident "unfortunate."
"It's unfortunate that people were shot up there and the fact that it was a police officer makes it that much more alarming to people," he said. "He was here shopping, getting something to eat and he was gunned down."
Baraka cited the mayor's choice to lay off police officers last year.
"That's the problem right there," he said. "We need to bring some of the police officers back and we need a plan to deal with crime as a public health issue."
Donna Jackson, a resident of Newark's West Ward and a member of the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition, was on scene Thursday. She said crime in Newark "has been out of control for over the last two years." She also said the police layoffs are impacting the community.
"Everyone right now is running at minimal," said Jackson.
Booker briefly addressed the layoffs when talking with media late Thursday, but said "there's another time for criticism."
— Karen Yi and Sharon Adarlo contributed to this report.
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[Editor's note: This story first published May 26 at 11:24 p.m. It has since been updated.]