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October 22, 2018

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Sheriff: Facebook post led to search for Kentucky lawmaker

FRANKFORT, Ky. — An ominous Facebook post from a Kentucky lawmaker facing sexual assault allegations is part of what prompted his family to report him missing, a sheriff said Thursday.

Republican Dan Johnson made the post Wednesday before he shot himself to death near a road in a secluded area. In the post, he asked people to take care of his wife and said "heaven is my home." A day earlier, he had defiantly denied the sex assault allegations.

The accusations came amid a sexual harassment scandal involving other Republican lawmakers at the state Capitol. Nationwide, a growing number of celebrities and politicians have been accused of sexual misconduct in recent months, leading many to lose their jobs or resign.

Bullitt County Coroner Dave Billings said Thursday Johnson died of a single gunshot wound to the dead and officially ruled the death a suicide.

Bullitt County Sheriff Donnie Tinnell said police recovered a 40 mm pistol next to Johnson's body. Johnson's family had reported him missing because they could not reach him after he posted the Facebook message about 5 p.m.

He asked for people to take care of his wife and wrote that PTSD "is a sickness that will take my life, I cannot handle it any longer. It has won this life, BUT HEAVEN IS MY HOME." The post appears to have been removed.

Tinnell said a neighbor found Johnson's body and dialed 911.

Johnson was elected to the state legislature in 2016, part of a wave of Republican victories that gave the GOP control of the Kentucky House of Representatives for the first time in nearly 100 years. He won his election despite Republican leaders urging him to drop out of the race after local media reported on some of his Facebook posts comparing Barack and Michelle Obama to monkeys.

The pastor of Heart of Fire church in Louisville, Johnson sponsored a number of bills having to do with religious liberty and teaching the Bible in public schools. But he was mostly out of the spotlight until Monday, when the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting published an account from a woman saying Johnson sexually assaulted her in the basement of his home in 2013.

Police investigated the allegations at the time but did not file charges. After the story, Louisville police reopened the investigation.

On Tuesday, Johnson held a news conference in the pulpit of his church, which he began by leading friends and family in singing a portion of the Christmas carol "O Come All Ye Faithful." The 57-year-old said the allegations against him were "totally false" and part of a nationwide strategy of defeating conservative Republicans. He referenced Republican Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, who faces accusations of sexual misconduct from multiple women.

Michael Skoler, president of Louisville Public Media, which owns the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, said everyone at the organization is "deeply sad."

"Our aim, as always, is to provide the public with fact-based, unbiased reporting and hold public officials accountable for their actions," Skoler said. "As part of our process, we reached out to Rep. Johnson numerous times over the course of a seven-month investigation. He declined requests to talk about our findings."

Other Kentucky lawmakers have recently faced sexual misconduct accusations. Former Republican House Speaker Jeff Hoover resigned his leadership position after acknowledging he secretly settled a sexual harassment claim with a member of his staff. Three other lawmakers were involved in the settlement, and all lost their committee chairmanships.

"I am very sad over the passing of Rep. Dan Johnson. Over the past few weeks in some of the darkest days of my life, he reached out to me, encouraged me, and prayed for me," Hoover tweeted .

Republican Gov. Matt Bevin tweeted that "my heart breaks for his family tonight."

"These are heavy days in Frankfort and in America," Bevin said in the post. "May God indeed shed his grace on us all. ... We sure need it."