At 110 pounds, 54-year-old Sheila Johnson was thin but tough.
“She was a firebrand, a lightning bolt. She had just a huge amount of spunk,” said Bob Crowder, who has run the 4A Good Auction business in south Fort Worth with Beverly Carter and Johnson for 14 years.
“She was extremely strong. She would outlift — outwork — the football players that would come from O.D. Wyatt that we worked with getting ready for auctions,” Crowder said. “She looked thin as a rail but was strong as an ox. She could move a refrigerator by herself. She was just unbelievable.”
So when the auction barn at 3921 Mansfield Highway started being targeted by burglars in December, Johnson would sometimes sleep at the business or make late-night visits.
“She took that on herself,” Crowder said. “… She had a house two blocks away so she would go back and forth or come over and check in the middle of the night. We were really under a lot of pressure from the criminal element here.”
Late Saturday or early Sunday, Crowder suspects, burglars returned and got into a gunbattle with Johnson.
Alerted by a man that Johnson wasn’t answering the door at the auction barn Sunday morning for a scheduled appointment, Crowder and Carter rushed there.
Carter found Johnson dead near the auctioneer lectern. She’d been shot multiple times in the torso, according to the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office.
“She was an extremely brave girl,” Crowder said. “The policeman told me she emptied a clip from a .22 rifle so she fought back, but they had a larger-caliber gun.”
No arrests had been made by Tuesday.
Fort Worth homicide Sgt. Joe Loughman said he could not comment on whether investigators suspect robbery as the motive.
The business, described on its website as a “country auction barn in the city,” hosts live auctions twice a week where people can buy or bring things to sell. In light of Johnson’s death, this week’s auctions have been canceled.
Carter said that with the exception of a rare vacation or day off, she and Johnson had “been together every single day for the past 10 years.”
“It’s just really difficult for it to sink in,” Carter said. “It’s like as time goes by, it’s more real.”
A passion for auctions
Originally from Leavenworth, Kan., Johnson was an “independent soul” who loved theater, said her older sister, Pamela Johnson.
She was interested in electronics and production, and served in the Air Force from 1986 to 1990. She had a radio program during the Persian Gulf War and also served in Bosnia, her sister said.
Though she preferred to be more behind the scenes, Johnson surprised even family members when, while stationed in Stuttgart, Germany, she hosted her own daily English half-hour TV show, Guesthouse.
“She interviewed famous people who came through like Alex Trebek,” Pamela Johnson said.
But more recently, it was organizing auctions that excited Sheila Johnson.
When Crowder opened up the auction business in 2000, she jumped in to help.
“That’s what she wanted to do. Even though she had another job at that time, she started helping out and doing what she could,” Carter said. “It just evolved from there.”
Johnson was vice president of the corporation-owned auction house.
“It’s a real shock for us,” Crowder said. “I’m trying to retire. I’m 68. She was the youngster scheduled to take it over but now this happened.”
A string of break-ins
When the recession began, thefts followed, Crowder said.
He said thieves previously stole diesel fuel and batteries from trucks at the business and items like copper and air conditioners from outside the building.
But Dec. 29, he said, marked the first time the thieves broke into the business, which sits on the far end of the city’s central division boundary. He said audible alarms and security monitors did little to stop the break-ins.
“We’ve been burglarized four times since December,” Crowder said. “We don’t get any protection down there.”
On Feb. 22, Johnson called police to the business shortly before midnight, reporting a burglary in progress.
According to a police report, Johnson told officers she was asleep inside the business when she was startled awake by a loud crash. On the security monitors, Johnson spotted the thieves running away, she told police.
Though the thieves did not enter the building, police found a broken piece of cinder block near the shattered front door.
Johnson told police she believed that the thieves were “casing the business,” and she said they had broken into the business repeatedly.
On Sunday morning, Crowder said, he and Carter were immediately alarmed when they could not reach Johnson by phone and got a call from a man saying no one was answering the business’s door despite an 11:15 a.m. appointment. A truck that is usually parked at night in front of the glass entryway had also never been moved, the man told Crowder.
“We said, ‘We’re coming over as fast as we can get there,’ ” Crowder said. “We didn’t think that was right. Something was wrong.”
On Tuesday, Pamela Johnson and another sister were in Fort Worth, making preparations to take their sister back home to Kansas.
“We loved her very much. This is a horrible, senseless tragedy and we are heartbroken,” Pamela Johnson said. “We are sorry for the loss for her friends and the community that she made here. We’re really grateful for the work that’s being done to find who did this so it cannot happen to another family.”