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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Celebrating a connector of people

Oliver Johnson memorial photo gallery
 •  Bacteria draw attention of UH scientists

By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Staff Writer

Friends and family of Oliver Brandt Johnson enshrine his surfboard at a memorial service for him at Sherwood Forest in Waimanalo one of his favorite surf spots. About 100 people gathered yesterday to bid farewell and share stories about the mortgage broker and Florida native who died Thursday night from septic shock after landing in the Ala Wai Boat Harbor.

DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Oliver Johnson

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John Johnson, right, carries flowers to the water at the end of his brother's service. Johnson, 39, flew in from Texas with his family.

DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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The search for answers was put on hold yesterday long enough for family and friends to say goodbye to Oliver Johnson in a memorial service at one of his favorite picnic and surfing spots Sherwood Forest in Waimanalo.

About 100 people attended the service, where Johnson was described as a "connector of people" and a "wonderful soul."

"We know we'll hear a good joke from you when we meet again someday," said Leonard Johnson, Oliver's oldest brother, looking toward the sky.

People touched by Oliver Johnson gathered at the breezy beach, many dressed in white, to tell their favorite stories of the man who "left too soon." Johnson's ivory-colored surfboard stood upright in the sand with a single maile lei draped around it a reminder of where Johnson felt happiest and most at peace, said his friend Zobel Dela Cruz.

Fran Miller, another friend of Johnson's, told the crowd about a day she went to his apartment and found him nursing a baby bird back to health in a shoebox.

"He was feeding it noodles because he said it was the closest thing to worms he had," Miller said. "That was so Oliver. ... Now you can take care of all the birds you want," she said.

The gathering came hours after the family's attorney, Jim Leavitt, disclosed new steps taken in his investigation of the events that led to the death of the Florida native turned Hawai'i mortgage broker and surfer.

Leavitt said an independent pathologist has been hired to review findings by the Honolulu medical examiner's office about the cause and manner of Johnson's death.

And a wallet used by Johnson the night he ended up in the Ala Wai Boat Harbor that may hold the same bacteria he encountered will be sent to investigators at the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Leavitt said at a news conference.

Johnson died Thursday night, a week after he apparently got into a fight and ended up in the sewage-tainted Ala Wai Boat Harbor. Within two days he had three different bacterial infections that left him hospitalized with complete organ failure and on life support.

The medical examiner said Johnson died of multisystem organ failure due to septic shock brought on by a Vibrio vulnificus bacterial infection. He also suffered from chronic alcoholic liver disease, which contributed to the flesh-eating infection's ability to take hold, said the medical examiner's office. No new autopsy findings were released yesterday.

Police continued to investigate whether Johnson fell or was pushed into the Ala Wai Boat Harbor. Detective Roland Takasato said investigators are working on some leads. Last week police talked to a man who said he was in a fight with Johnson on the night he ended up in the harbor.

Speaking at yesterday's news conference, Johnson's mother said she just wants to find out what happened to her son and she felt that might be "difficult to do without a lawyer."

"I want to know the truth," said Friederike Boszko, 61, of Boca Raton, Fla., "Maybe I want answers too fast."

Boszko said she is grateful for the media attention her son's case has received.

"I think because of Oliver, people are aware what is out there in this sewage-tainted water," Boszko said.

The family made it clear they believe that bacteria in the water led to Oliver's death. However, health experts differ about whether Johnson's plunge into the harbor might have caused or contributed to his death.

A state health official has said it's unclear whether the 48 million gallons of raw sewage that poured into the Ala Wai Canal beginning March 24 contributed to Johnson's medical condition. But University of Hawai'i scientists have said the sewage could have played a part.

Leonard Johnson, Oliver's 41-year-old brother, said he can't help but point the finger at the sewage-tainted water.

"If there was an altercation, whatever happened, that's not what killed my brother," he said.

Oliver Johnson's other brother, John Johnson, 39, of Grapevine, Texas, arrived over the weekend. He said his family expects to remain in Hawai'i at least for another week.

The family has not yet decided whether to take legal action, said Leavitt.

At yesterday's memorial, Dieter Giblin, a close friend, recalled how Johnson would help anyone in need, even people he never knew.

The last time Johnson and his friends visited Sherwood Forest was in late January for a barbecue and picnic. When the friends were packing up to leave that evening, Giblin recalled seeing Johnson wrapping up a plate of food.

Johnson took the plate over to a homeless woman sitting off to the side on a blue tarp, said Giblin.

"That's just who he was," he said.

Reach Loren Moreno at lmoreno@honoluluadvertiser.com.