By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
By Jeff Balke
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
On this early Sunday morning in 1991, Sweeny's archangel of death wore no traditional black suit.
Undertaker Jay Herman Johnson was still in his pajamas, bathrobe and slippers, sitting on the rose granite bench of his son's tomb. As Johnson tended to do, he talked quietly to the 16-year-old son who had been encased in concrete for the past nine years.
That grave itself gave testimony to the tenacity of Johnson. When he claimed the body of his boy after the fatal car crash in 1982, he called in the backhoe and had the burial right there on the city easement in front of the funeral home. It didn't matter that officials in Sweeny's City Hall, 300 yards away, were appalled by the absence of permits or even applications. And nobody was willing to try to order the cantankerous Johnson to unearth the remains of this municipal wrong.
After three decades of dealing with the dead here and in Houston, Johnson answered to few higher authorities. Thousands of times in his career, the tall man with the cold stare drained the bodily fluids of the deceased. He bathed and beautified them and let them bask under the unique mortuary lighting that added to this illusion that they were alive, that they eluded the blackness brought on by death.
On this morning, nine years and one day after his son's death, Johnson again bid good-bye to his son then shuffled toward his residence in the back of the Sweeny Funeral Home. He carried the Sunday newspaper from the driveway, along with a 12-gauge semiautomatic shotgun with a hair trigger.
Johnson, 59, had grabbed the weapon and birdshot to scare away a neighborhood mongrel from his prized Akita dogs. He climbed the stairs to prepare coffee for Edwina Prosen, 57, his still-sleeping companion of ten years and the director of his funeral home.
Another service was scheduled for that afternoon. But in an instant, the routine would be broken with the roar of a shotgun blast in the tiny bedroom.
Johnson would tell and retell various versions of the shooting of Prosen. He said he took one step into the couple's bedroom and his left leg -- and perhaps his hand and trigger finger -- was seized by a sudden and painful cramp.
As he reached for his leg, the shotgun fell to the sheets and discharged, he told investigators. Johnson said he retrieved a body stretcher from his hearse and tried unsuccessfully to move Prosen down the steep plywood stairs.
He called police, sat on the bed and cried, he said.
"I loved that woman more than anything."
Prosen's mother, Mary Reuter, said the blast awoke her in her own bedroom. She went in and touched the cheek of her daughter, feeling the chill of her skin. Reuter said she stood there in shock, hearing nothing for several minutes.
She turned when she heard the footsteps of Johnson carrying the stretcher. Reuter looked at him and said, "You murdered my daughter."
The shooting started a long, bitter and bizarre legal war. Along the way, there would be allegations of theft, an arrest for corpse-stealing and a hostage standoff. The case would bring three sons back together, break Johnson and establish landmark criminal law in the state.
By the time the conclusion finally came earlier this year, no one could tell with certainty if it was the ultimate triumph, or travesty, of the justice system in Texas.
If death is an enigma, so was the man who had made his living from it.
Forty miles south of Houston, debates still flare occasionally in Sweeny cafes as the locals share the lore that has been built up about Johnson and, in some cases, by Johnson himself.
His military records indicate no more than a typical tour of duty in the Navy. The San Antonio native joined during the Korean War in the early 1950s and was discharged about two years later. But some law enforcement officers recall him talking of special covert missions as they waited with him for the drab work of escorting a funeral.
In a civil lawsuit in the 1980s, Johnson testified that he had Northwestern degrees in chemistry and bacteriology. Asked last year about his lie, Johnson said, "I guess now looking at it, I don't have any reason for having done it."
In his younger years, Johnson also worked as a truck driver. His keen awareness of his legal rights could be linked to his father, a former Bexar County state district judge. Johnson got his first exposure to the world of embalming when his father's friend, the owner of the Alamo Funeral Home, hired the youthful Johnson to help out.
His first full-time funeral-home job came in Freeport, when Johnson followed an ad in a trade publication to a job as an embalmer's assistant. "I went over there to make some money, and I thought that would be the business for me," he said in a later deposition.