Aljawann Johnson
Aljawann Johnson

An intruder dashed to follow an employee into the Archdiocese of Portland Pastoral Center the afternoon of Oct. 17 and a scuffle ensued, with one church worker punched and several others on the ground. No one was seriously injured.

Portland Police arrested 47-year-old Aljawann Johnson for criminal trespass.

Johnson, who appears to be mentally ill, has been arrested and convicted before. In the spring, he was detained by police when he had attempted to enter the pastoral center without an appointment and smeared dirt on the building’s doors. He harassed workers at a nearby Starbucks before officers nabbed him. In August, he was booked by North Precinct police for a separate case of trespassing.

On Oct. 17, Johnson, 6 feet tall and 210 pounds, ran in behind a worker then sat down and began speaking with Father Martin King, pastor of St. Thomas More Parish in Southwest Portland. Father King, who was early for an appointment, chatted and laughed with Johnson, who has a loud voice and fingernails several inches long. The man asked the priest odd questions, including inquiries about popes in general, but seemed harmless. Father King left for his appointment at about the same time Todd Cooper, special assistant to Archbishop Alexander Sample, came to the lobby after being hailed earlier by receptionist Debbie Schall, who suspected trouble.

Cooper sat down to speak with Johnson.

“I could tell right away he had mental health issues,” said the gentle-speaking Cooper.

Johnson cited clergy sex abuse of children and then told Cooper he had powers to raise people from the dead. He discussed the relationship of faith and science and asked Cooper to have the Catholic Church help him buy land and get him on television. Cooper listened patiently but told Johnson those are not the kinds of things the church can do. Johnson repeatedly insisted on speaking to someone else. Eventually, Cooper stood up and told Johnson he would need to leave. At that point, Johnson also stood up. Suddenly, he became furious and reared back to deliver a punch. Cooper ducked so that Johnson’s fist missed his face but caught him solidly in the back of the head, sending him reeling.

“He was cordial and relaxed and then he just snapped,” said Cooper, who was dressed in suit and tie for a meeting that afternoon with city officials on the issue of homelessness. “He threw that punch with everything he had. It rocked me. I did not lose consciousness, but I was on the point of seeing stars.”

As staff dialed 9-1-1, Johnson began to pursue Cooper around the lobby, even vaulting over a four-foot tall planter in the chase. Cooper, seeing that Johnson’s goal was now to hunt him, moved to the door and lured the angry man to it.

“I thought, ‘I’ve got to get this guy out of the building,’” Cooper said.

Johnson did move toward the door and both men flowed outside, where Cooper tried to evade the attacker.

Meanwhile, Schall had called Auxiliary Bishop Peter Smith, a former South African Army soldier. Bishop Smith rushed to the lobby to find it empty then looked outside, where Cooper had tripped on a speed bump and was trying to fend off Johnson, who had gotten on top of him.

Bishop Smith ran to the scene, and at the same time, Peter Corrado, director of the Catholic Schools Endowment Foundation, was returning from lunch. Corrado saw the fracas and began helping, trying to calm Johnson even as he and Bishop Smith attempted to remove him from Cooper.

Inside, Father King was meeting with Msgr. Gerard O’Connor, director of the archdiocese’s Office of Worship. Out the window, the two men saw the attack and hurried out to lend aid.

Father King, a former military officer and chaplain, attempted to stop Johnson’s punches and lost his footing, falling to the ground. Johnson hoisted Corrado and slammed him to the pavement. Father King returned to his feet and got a firm hold on Johnson’s wrist so the other men could restrain him.

Police arrived within minutes and took Johnson into custody.

The entire incident, from the time Johnson snuck into the building to when police arrived, was about 15 minutes.

Cooper sought medical attention several days later and was diagnosed with a mild concussion and a pulled muscle in his leg. Corrado and Bishop Smith suffered only scraped hands. 

“I am grateful nothing more serious happened,” said Cooper.

Police planned to file an assault charge but Cooper decided not to press it when he learned that a trespass charge would allow the archdiocese to call authorities if Johnson returned.

“Luckily no one was seriously injured, but the incident was very concerning,” said Jo Willhite, chief administrative officer at the pastoral center. “We will be reviewing our security procedures in the upcoming days and may offer some suggestions for increasing security for our employees and guests.”

Delia Wilson, director of property and risk management for the archdiocese, sent an alert to pastoral center workers with Johnson’s photo. Wilson asked staff to call police if they see him on pastoral center property. 

“This incident is a reminder to all of us to be cognizant of our building security procedures and to be aware of our surroundings at all times, particularly when entering or leaving the Pastoral Center,” Wilson said.