If there was one thing Father Gerry Kleba wanted to impart on Johnny Johnson in their short time together, it was this: You are a beloved child of God.
Father Kleba, a retired priest of the archdiocese, served as Johnson’s spiritual adviser in the final weeks before his execution on Aug. 1, visiting him frequently and sitting by his side in the chamber as he died. During his visits, Father Kleba helped Johnson select a confirmation saint before confirming him in the Catholic faith. They landed on John, Jesus’ beloved apostle — and an easy name for Johnson to remember.
“Johnny ‘John the Beloved’ Johnson: That’s what I called him every time I went to see him,” Father Kleba said.
When Johnson was 24 years old, he took 6-year-old Casey Williams to an abandoned glass factory in Valley Park, attempted to sexually assault her and then killed her. He confessed to the murder and was sentenced to death.
Twenty-one years after the crime, Johnson, 45, died by lethal injection at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre. He was fortified with the sacraments of confession and anointing of the sick, and he received holy Communion earlier that day.
“I know more certainly than I’ve ever known that our God is a God of mercy,” Father Kleba said the next morning. “It is always the right time to turn to God, who is waiting like the father in the Prodigal Son story.”
‘All of us are
Ministering to those in prison is an essential part of answering Jesus’ call of mercy, said Archdiocese of St. Louis Auxiliary Bishop Mark S. Rivituso.
“In the Last Judgment (passage), He reminds us: When you visited those who are in prison, you visited me,” Bishop Rivituso said. “I hear over and over again from those who are residents of our correctional centers, jails and prisons, that it’s important for them to know that the Church cares about them, that they’re not forgotten. Our presence shows that care in a very real way.”
As a priest, being able to bring the sacraments to those in prison is an important part of his ministry to the people of archdiocese, he said. He celebrates Mass and distributes holy Communion; offers anointing of the sick to those in need; and hears the confessions of people at all stages of serving their sentences.
“People need to know that wherever they’re at right now in real life, that all of us are redeemable. And it’s important for people to realize that in the sacrament of confession, all of us can be forgiven, all of us have worth, and it’s not because of our own merit, but rather that Jesus is the one who loves us and shows His redeeming love,” Bishop Rivituso said. “It’s also important in the sacrament of confession for people to know that they are forgiven, but also called to conversion.”
Although Father Kleba didn’t have much prison ministry experience, when Johnson’s attorneys reached out in early July, he accepted the spiritual adviser role. With a little under a month left until Johnson’s execution date, Father Kleba visited him regularly.
While Johnson was housed in Potosi Correctional Center, Father Kleba was allowed to sit in the same room as him, talking face-to-face across a table. Father Kleba brought him Communion and heard his confessions. They prayed the Rosary; they talked about other murderers, like Moses in the Old Testament and St. Paul in the New Testament.
Johnson, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and experienced delusions and hallucinations, may not have fully grasped everything they discussed, Father Kleba said. But he knew that God wanted to give him His grace all the same.
On the day of the execution, Father Kleba visited Johnson from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. at the Bonne Terre prison, where they spoke through a thick pane of glass. Father Kleba celebrated a short, private Mass — passing the Eucharist through a small window to Johnson — and they prayed the Rosary together, remembering specific intentions: Johnson’s attorneys. His family. Father Kleba’s family.
“And finally, we prayed for the Williamson family,” he said.
Before he left, Father Kleba reminded Johnson of one of the most repeated lines in the Bible: Do not be afraid.
Then, he asked Johnson to stand up and put his hand on the window with him. “I said, repeat after me: ‘I, Johnny ‘John the Beloved’ Johnson, am a child of God.’ And then I told him, ‘I’m Simon of Cyrene. I’ll see you later — we’re going to walk the last mile of the way together.’”
‘Jesus, remember me’
When Father Kleba was summoned to enter the execution chamber a few minutes after 6 p.m., Johnson was already strapped down with the IV lines attached. A white sheet covered his body up to his neck.
“I sat on the chair next to his bed and put my hand on his shoulder. That was what the law said I was allowed to do,” Father Kleba said. “And I was instructed to please sit back because everybody who’s going to be watching from the theater on the other side of the theater curtain doesn’t want me to obstruct the view.”
He had just a few more minutes to speak to Johnson before the end of his life. He told him that soon, the evil voices he’d heard inside his head would give way to the voice of God.
“I told him the story once more of the Prodigal Son, and the Father who just always had his binoculars out, looking for this ragtag kid who went down the wrong path,” he said. “And God was that Father, and He threw a party — I said, ‘Johnny, that’s the heavenly banquet. That’s what it’s about.’”
As the lethal dose of pentobarbital worked its way through Johnson’s veins, Father Kleba recounted the story of the Good Thief, who was crucified next to Jesus. Jesus promised the thief he would be with Him in paradise.
“I sang 10 times, ‘Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom,’” Father Kleba said. “And the last thing I sang was ‘Silent Night’: Sleep in heavenly peace.”
And finally, drawing from the prayers used at the end of a funeral Mass, he prayed over Johnson: “May the angels lead you into paradise, and may the martyrs come to welcome you on the way; and with the poor man Lazarus, who is poor no longer, may you enjoy everlasting and eternal life.”
Johnson was pronounced dead at 6:33 p.m.
Father Kleba was led out of the execution chamber. On the other side of the door, he paused, to pray a few more minutes for Johnson’s soul.
Then Simon of Cyrene went home.