In the community

Fallen officer remembered for his quick wit, caring nature and dedication to service

NYSSA – Joseph “JJ” Johnson was thoughtful and dedicated to his community but the little things will linger in the memory of his friends and colleagues.
Like his smile and sense of humor.
“He was a goofball. You looked forward to him coming in. No matter how bad a day you were having, you knew he’d do something to make you laugh,” said Don Ballou, Nyssa police chief.
“He was like an irritating little brother,” said Tess Shellenbarger, executive director of an Ontario mental health clinic where Johnson helped. She said he was big on the “dad jokes” and playful little pranks.
Johnson, 43, of Ontario, was killed Saturday, April 15, after he responded to a call for service at the intersection of North Third Street and Locust Avenue. Johnson had been a reserve officer for Nyssa since 2018.
“He was about helping out folks,” said Ballou.
Interviews with police officers and colleagues and presentations at his memorial service portray a man who was committed to his community and beloved in many of the circles in which he moved. Those circles include local police agencies, Snake River Correctional Institution and the College of Idaho.
He was born in Angola, Indiana, and grew up in Idaho and graduated from Weiser High School. In 1999, he earned an associate’s degree in criminal justice from Treasure Valley Community College, where he would later teach.

“JJ is definitely the kind of guy that was always there beside you.”

–Trevor Olvera, former coworker

He worked in community corrections in Ontario and started a family. He married Linda in 2002 and they would have two children, Kenneth, now 14, and Kendra, now 12.
In 2004, he joined the College of Idaho in Caldwell, working part time as a campus safety and training officer, continuing there for 14 years.
“He was always the one that worried about getting younger officers up to speed and making sure that they did things safely,” said Ben Mosley, the College of Idaho’s director of campus safety.
Mosley said Johnson also pushed the college to hire young people who wanted to get into law enforcement or emergency services.
He went to work as a corrections officer for the Oregon Department of Corrections in 2007.
Trevor Olvera, who worked with Johnson at the prison for roughly four years, said Johnson looked out for him during his first few years at the facility.
“JJ was one of the first guys that you were drawn to and you knew you could go to for help if needed,” Olvera said. “He was there for everyone.”
While others were closer to Johnson and knew him longer than he did, Olvera said Johnson was an influential figure in his life.
Corrections officers, Olvera said, put each other’s lives in their fellow officers’ hands every day.
A fellow officer is the one that will have your back if things go wrong, Olvera said.
“JJ is definitely the kind of guy that was always there beside you and he was the kind of guy that you want beside you,” Olvera said. “You knew he was going to take care of you. So, knowing that we lost someone always there for us hurt.”
Johnson pursued two other interests in subsequent years – counseling and police work.
In 2018, he started as a reserve officer for the Nyssa Police Department, an unpaid volunteer position.
Ballou had met Johnson years earlier and they had become friends. Ballou became chief in 2021.
Ballou said Johnson was an officer “I could trust to do whatever task I had.”
“He helped us out internally. He covered shifts,” said Ballou.
Johnson was easy to like, said Ballou.
“He was a big barbecue kind of person. He liked to tease us on Facebook about how well he was eating,” said Ballou.
Jim Maret, Nyssa city manager and also a reserve officer for the city, said Johnson was “fun to joke with.”
“God, he was funny,” said Maret.
Maret said Johnson relieved him on Saturday, April 15. Typically, Johnson was an hour early for his shift.
“He had been losing weight. I said to him, now don’t get skinny on me. I need you to hide behind when we go somewhere and need some cover. He just laughed,” said Maret.
Johnson also was kind hearted. Maret said every Christmas, Johnson spent time choosing a gift for each member of the police department. One year, said Maret, Johnson presented each officer a Christmas bulb.
“It had a flag with a blue line on it. It had my name, badge number and call sign. His presents were always so thoughtful,” said Maret.
Johnson was a big guy, said Ballou, and often encountered good-natured ribbing from his peers.
“He was not fat but was a big guy. We’d flip him crap about how many sheep we had to kill to make his pants. He’d just laugh,” said Ballou.
At the same time he took on police duty, Johnson went back to school, studying counseling. He took courses through Colorado Christian University of Lakewood, Colorado, which provides graduate studies online.
In 2018, he joined TFP Therapeutics, an Ontario mental health clinic, to do his internship for his master’s program. Shellenbarger, its executive director, already knew Johnson and his family and said he became a reserve officer because he was “propelled to help people.”
She said he was a stickler for protocol and “upholding rules and the law.”’
At TFP, she said he saw a lot of victims. Shellenbarger said he was one of the only male therapists she would allow to work with women who were trauma victims. 
“He just knew what to do,” she said.
Johnson was awarded his master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling in 2021. A year later, he became the first state corrections officer to become a behavioral health specialist, working with inmates.
Genelyn Maidwell, a licensed mental health counselor who was in Johnson’s master’s program at Colorado Christian College, said the fact Johnson continued at the prison and volunteered as a reserve officer spoke volumes about his dedication to his community.
He could have gone into private practice and made more money as a licensed counselor, Maidwell said.
“He helped his community as a reserve police officer,” she said. “He impacted the lives of the inmates at the penitentiary as a mental health counselor. Joe is a hero.”
He was regarded as a shoulder to lean on by those acquainted with him.
Charlotte New, an administrative assistant and a dispatcher with the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office, remembers that Johnson helped her through a difficult time. She said she doubted the value of therapy but Johnson served as her unpaid therapist to counsel her.
John Mosqueda, a corrections officer, worked with Johnson for 12 years. He said his colleague helped him get through the loss of his son in a shooting in Boise in 2020.
Mosqueda, who described Johnson as “a big bear of a guy,” was a hugger and would wrap him in one of his bear hugs and made sure to check in on him regularly during those early days in his grief.
Johnson intuitively knew that he did not need to say anything to him, Mosqueda said, but at the same time, Johnson knew how important it was to be there for someone while they grieve.
“He didn’t pretend to know what I was feeling or going through, he said. “He just knew to be there. That’s a quality a lot of people don’t understand.”
Kailee Evans, lead correctional counselor at prison, said Johnson was known for being an excellent listener. He also provided peer support, a confidential service for employees and other staff members over the years.
Evans said Johnson was passionate about mental health awareness and push for state corrections employees to receive resiliency training, suicide prevention, and crisis intervention. She said Johnson would often attend training and bring back the information to benefit the rest of the staff.
Lacey Mackenzie-Yraguen, behavioral health services manager at the prison, said he was also known for bringing lunch for his coworkers that he and his wife had prepared.
Conversations in the lunchroom, Mackenzie-Yraguen said, would be about his wife and kids, his developing cooking skills, or the last concert he had attended or was planning to attend. According to Johnson’s Facebook page, a few months back, he saw Kid Rock with his wife and friends.
Johnson’s office, adorned with Star Wars memorabilia, Mackenzie-Yraguen said, was revered by everyone who stepped foot in it.
“He was a quick learner, personable, laughed, joked, and kept a positive atmosphere alive,” Mackenzie-Yraguen said.
He said Johnson knew how to talk to inmates and understood that not all prisoners were inherently aggressive and dangerous. Instead, Mosqueda said, most needed help. Nobody understood that more than Johnson, he added.
“He was good at speaking to them, and they weren’t afraid to talk to him. He was good at what he did,” Mosqueda said.
Johnson was also remembered as a devoted family man.
Johnson’s children attended the Treasure Valley Christian School and Ontario resident Meg Issac said he was a fixture at the school with a “huge, warm smiling face, holding a coffee.”
“Every Monday morning chapel you’d find him in the back with the other SRCI dads,” Isaac said.
At the memorial service on Saturday, April 22, symbols of Johnson’s life – and his passions ­– were on display. That included barbecue sauce and grilling tongs, reminders of his passion for grilling – and teasing friends with Facebook photos of his latest meal. It included a banner from Colorado Christian and a “Starwars” poster titled “Words of Wisdom.” It then quoted Chewbacca, the big hairy creature in the film: “Uhhhrrr Ahhhrrr Aaargh, Ahhhhhhrrr.”
“He was a genuine person. He was so community-oriented,” said Maret.
His love of the community was evident even in his death, said Ballou.
“He was doing what he loved. He wouldn’t be sad about what happened to him but would want us to keep pushing forward and do what we do. He’d want us putting a stop to folks hurting people,” said Ballou.

Previous coverage:

NYSSA MOURNS: Procession winds into Nyssa to memorialize Cpl Joseph Johnson

NYSSA MOURNS: A ‘goofball with a master’s degree’ remembered at police memorial in Nyssa

Police arrest suspect in Ontario in fatal shooting of Nyssa officer

Nyssa reserve officer killed in Saturday shooting, gunman being sought

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