Clint Johnson remembers the first time he saw Johnathan Stearns. He was a 105-pound, 16-year-old kid who was getting the crap kicked out of him by life.
Johnson owns a construction company on the Alabama backwaters that specializes in building boathouses and other lake-related projects. About six years ago, Johnson walked into what was then Beck's Grocery near the long bridge.
"He was standing outside the store and wanted a job," Johnson remembers.
The kid told him he had been thrown out of his house and dropped out of school.
Stearns was in the same place the next day.
The third day, Stearns was there with a worn tool belt and the same request. Johnson, who had been no choir boy when he was a kid, decided it was time to teach the boy an $8-an-hour lesson.
"My goal was to show him how hard working life could be and get him back in school," Johnson said.
That started an on-again, off-again relationship between Johnson and Stearns. It was part boss-employee, part big brother-little brother and part father-son.
Johnson fired him for the final time two weeks ago.
The relationship ended Saturday morning when three Lee County Sheriff's deputies shot Stearns multiple times while trying to arrest him on cruelty to animals charges.
According to reports, deputies entered a Lee Road 279 home and found Stearns lying on a couch with a pistol in his hand. Deputies ordered him to drop the weapon as Stearns reportedly raised the muzzle.
All three deputies fired, striking Stearns multiple times in the chest and legs.
Though Johnson saw the trouble coming, he held hope Stearns could be saved from himself. Johnson and others had seen the oversized handgun and offered to buy it from the man they knew as "Little John."
"I should have taken that gun from him," Johnson said Monday morning after a couple of sleepless nights.
The Lee County Sheriff's Office has turned the investigation over to the Alabama Bureau of Investigation. Sheriff Jay Jones chose his words carefully Monday.
"It's tragic all the way around," Jones said. "The last thing any law enforcement officer wants to do is use that last resort -- the weapon. But we are trained to protect others and protect ourselves."
When it came to building things, "Little John" was top notch. He was one of those kids who was made to do his math with a saw and hammer in his hand and not in a classroom.
"We were going to run him off in three days and couldn't," Johnson said. "He could build anything."
Stearns had a lot of little run-ins with the law.
"Fast car and women problems," is how Johnson explains them.
He even says the animal cruelty charges that led to Stearns' death were the result of him trying to do something good and it backfired.
"He took in a stray," Johnson said. "But he didn't take care of it. This wasn't Michael Vick fighting dogs."
Johnson wishes the deputies had handled the situation differently, but he does not blame them.
"At the end of the day, this was 100 percent 'Little John's' fault," Johnson said.
All weekend, Johnson, 54, has had a mental tape recorder, replaying his interaction with Stearns.
"You know, he was his own worst enemy," Johnson said. "Being stupid cost him his life."
Chuck Williams, metro editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org