He's A Civic Leader, 'Family Man' And Murder Suspect

Posted: September 16, 1988

They all remember the butterfly.

It was black with royal blue and white spots. It seemed to come out of nowhere to land on the hand of community leader Gus Johnson.

It stayed there for a while. Long enough for one neighbor to take the Sunday incident as a sign that he was a special man.

But yesterday, many neighbors felt that their special man was lost to them. Gus Johnson, 37, stood accused of murder.

Police charge that he shot Shamar Pittman, 37, of Syracuse, N.Y., Wednesday in a dispute about money.

Community leaders said the neighborhood was reeling from the shooting.

"My phone has been ringing since 7 o'clock this morning," said Vickie Gleim, president of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association, of which Johnson was a member of the board of directors.

"People feel a sense of loss," Gleim said. "Gus is a family man, he has three kids. . . . He's a respected community member and a good neighbor."

Neighbors said Johnson is a longshoreman who worked hard both at his job and at renovating two houses he owns on Poplar Street near Lawrence.

He and his wife send their oldest son, who is 7, to a private school, Friends Select. And they said Johnson was planning to become a Cub Scout leader.

Police said witnesses heard Johnson arguing loudly with Pittman over money Pittman owed him. Neighbors said Pittman often borrowed money from area residents.

Police said Pittman was sitting in his car, a red Yugo, at Lawrence and Poplar streets, when two shots rang out and one struck Pittman in the head.

Johnson's wife, Michelle, said last night she had talked with her husband by telephone. He is being held without bail charged with murder and a firearms offense.

He said Pittman had told him to come to his car and he would give him the money he owed, she said.

She said her husband told her that Pittman pulled a gun on him and that her husband was trying to take the gun away from Pittman when the gun went off.

But according to Homicide Lt. James Henwood, witnesses said Johnson had the gun and that before he shot Pittman, he hit him in the face with it. A spokesman for Pittman's relatives declined comment.

Michelle Johnson said Pittman was never a tenant of theirs, as had been reported yesterday. She said she and her husband do not have tenants. She said Pittman had lived with his cousin in a house two doors from the Johnsons a year ago.

Neighbor Laurie Simeone described Johnson, a tall, husky man, as a "gentle giant" who often mediated neighborhood disputes.

"He listened to both sides and brought people together," Simeone said.

Richard Mitchell, another board member of the neighbors association, said the butterfly incident occurred during a neighborhood flea market on Sunday.

He said Johnson had brought his wife and three sons, aged 7, 4 and 20 months, to the flea market, an annual fund-raising event for the neighborhood association.

"Little Gus was selling pretzels; it was his first experience selling," said Gleim.

This summer, one neighbor said, Johnson worked 12 hours a days on the house he is renovating. He and his family live in the other house they own and neighbors said it too had once been a shell before Johnson fixed it up.

Neighbors, stunned by the murder charge against their friend, wondered if there is more to the shooting that has been made public.

"It had to be something else," said Pedro "Pete" Barez, one of the owners of a neighborhood deli.

"He had too much at stake," continued Barez. "He had three beautiful children, a beautiful wife . . . "

Others in the neighborhood said that Pittman was in town after burying his mother in New York State last week.

They said he had driven his cousin, who still lives two doors away from Johnson, back to Philadelphia after the funeral. They said Pittman was supposed to return to New York on Sunday, but had remained here.

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