The profound sadness over the loss of Leslie Ann Jones and Thomas E. Johnson reaches far beyond Oak Park, just as their contributions to the greater good extended far beyond their legal work.
A married couple, both accomplished lawyers and activists, Jones, 67, and Johnson, 69, are the subject of a double homicide investigation after Oak Park police found them murdered in their Oak Park home at 7:30 p.m., April 13. According to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office, Jones and Johnson had sustained “multiple sharp force injuries.”
“They had such vitality and generosity. The world is a lot poorer place for their absence,” said Bob Burns, Northwestern law professor and longtime friend. Burns gave the sermon at the couple’s wedding in the early 1980s.
“They had the same commitment to social justice and helping disadvantaged people in all kinds of ways on the personal level as well as on the professional level,” Burns said.
Burns met Johnson in 1975, while working together at the Legal Assistance Foundation (LAF), a non-profit providing free legal services for impoverished people. The foundation has since changed its name to Legal Aid Chicago.
Johnson left the foundation after many years to start his own firm, now called Johnson, Jones, Snelling, Gilbert & Davis. Jones later joined the firm, after leaving her post as a clinical professor at Northwestern School of Law, where she taught trial practice and ethics.
Brilliant individuals, Johnson and Jones both graduated from Harvard Law School. Jones earned her bachelor’s degree from Yale University, while Johnson earned his from American University.
Throughout his career, Johnson helped to establish affordable housing in Chicago, as well as worked to reform the city’s voter registration and electoral system.
He represented numerous elected officials, including serving as campaign lawyer for Chicago Mayor Harold Washington and U.S. Congressman Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.
“I think Tom may have been the most decent person I’ve come to know,” Garcia told Wednesday Journal. “Tom was someone you could lean on during difficult times.”
Johnson served as a hearing officer for the Chicago Police Board, presiding over many high-profile police misconduct cases.
“He helped us understand how the inequity in society plays out in the criminal justice system as well,” Garcia said.
Beyond his work in politics, Johnson also represented many people within the labor movement and secured restitution for many coal miners who suffered from black lung disease.
“It’s indescribable how great he was. I almost think he’s like Abraham Lincoln because he was such a humble and yet brilliant person,” said former LAF colleague and neighbor Diane Redleaf. A lawyer herself, Redleaf credits Johnson as one of her earliest mentors.
His dedication to helping others was rooted in his faith, to which he was deeply committed.
“He lived by his faith in terms of making a difference with the poor and identifying with the least among us in our society,” Garcia said.
Jones also had an expansive legal career, specializing in zoning, federal litigation, real estate and corporate transactions. During Washington’s mayoral run, she helped his campaign organize in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.
Outside of work, Jones was devoted to the Oak Park community and making it equitable, diverse and inclusive. She dedicated much of her personal time to making Oak Park a more beautiful place, advocating for public art accessible to and enjoyed by all people.
“She developed a strong and resilient art center in Oak Park,” said Margot McMahon, an Oak Park artist.
For many years, Jones was active both as a board member and as president of the Oak Park Area Arts Council (OPAAC), championing the work of multicultural artists. As president, she led a group of board members in researching public art ordinances in other communities. She then drafted an ordinance, which was subsequently passed in Oak Park.
“Leslie’s leadership of OPAAC created the most intercultural art events,” said McMahon, who served with Jones in OPAAC. “Barriers between race were dissolved with our art community.”
The council has established a memorial fund in her name.
In her personal life, Jones enjoyed such creative pursuits as screen printing, knitting and weaving. She was also a voracious reader.
“She was so well read and so thoughtful and so insightful,” said Redleaf.
Jones and her husband were both extremely passionate about finding secure, loving homes for children in need. Jones spent many years on the board of Hephzibah Children’s Association, while Johnson coached dozens of Oak Park children in T-ball. Together, they welcomed numerous foster children into their family and opened their home to many of those who needed one most.
“They were amazing parents,” said Redleaf. “And their children are amazing people.”
They are survived in life by their four sons, three of whom are biological, and two godsons. Their eldest son, Ben Johnson, is a principal at an elementary school in southeast Washington, D.C. Charlie Johnson lives in Denver and works as a biological engineer. Their youngest son, Jake Johnson is a law student at the University of Chicago. Chris Hampton, whom they considered a son, recently had a child of his own.
“My brothers and I are beyond grateful for the support we’ve received from our family’s neighbors and close friends in Oak Park,” said Ben Johnson. “My parents always said that Oak Park was a unique place and seeing how the members of this village have come together to help our family during this horrendous time just serves as another example of the deep sense of caring and unwavering positivity of this community. We’ve never been more proud to call ourselves Oak Parkers.”
An outpouring of love and support has come from the community for Jones and Johnson. Longtime friend and Legal Aid Chicago CEO John Gallo organized a socially distanced candlelight vigil Wednesday evening to remember the couple, who lived in the house across from Gallo’s.
According to Gallo, about 200 people, many of whom wore masks, came to light candles and pay their respects from a safe distance to Jones and Johnson.
“They made you feel like you were so special,” said Jeanne Gallo, Gallo’s wife. “I felt that night, ‘Oh gosh, the way they made me feel was the way they made everybody feel.'”
The neighbors have united in support of each other and the couple’s family, despite being unable to spend time together in close proximity, due to COVID-19.
“We feel very connected, we feel very supported by each other and we’re going to continue to support the boys,” Gallo said. “We’re going to make sure the spirit of Leslie and Tom continues.”
Friends and colleagues have expressed their shock at the nature of Jones and Johnson’s deaths.
“Who would want to harm some of the loveliest and most decent people – people who have dedicated so much of their lives to the public good,” Garcia said.
Oak Park police have yet to release information as to whether they have suspects in the case or if they have found the murder weapon. West Suburban Major Crimes Task Force is assisting the department in the investigation.
According to the Gallos, officers have been “wonderful and respectful and nothing but professional.”
Social isolation and COVID-19 has made the loss of Jones and Johnson even harder on those who loved them, who cannot gather in the traditional sense.
“The first thing you want to do is embrace everybody else and the second thing you want to do is talk with everybody else in a way that’s very personal,” said Gallo.
Unable at this time to have an in-person memorial service, the family of Jones and Johnson organized a virtual memorial service the afternoon of April 19 via Zoom, a video-teleconference outlet.
The family plans to hold an in-person service in celebration of the very full lives Jones and Johnson lived once the COVID-19 crisis has subsided, according to Ben Johnson.
Despite their tremendous list of accomplishments, Jones and Johnson will be best remembered for their compassion and generosity, their wonderful senses of humor, for the good they did and the love they had for their community and all of its people.