She was the little girl whose vocabulary burgeoned as she devoured book after book, and the student who earned a degree and went back for one more. She was the woman who children flocked to and teens turned to for mentoring or tutoring or to be spoiled with clothes and sneakers.
And time and again, Saferia Johnson was the fast friend, who followed a chance encounter with an outflow of kindness that ensured would-be strangers instead lived lives forever intertwined.
There was a confounding story that would be told about Johnson that ultimately would upend her life, but those who knew her have others they want heard: Of a Georgia woman so generous, of an old soul wise beyond her years, of someone whose goodness seemed to have no limits.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of an ongoing series of stories remembering people who have died from the coronavirus around the world.
Tywanna Floyd met Johnson at training for a customer service job and before long, Johnson was so key in the life of her new friend’s 3-year-old daughter, she was like a second mom.
“That smile,” she says in awe, trailing off as she hints at the magnetism of her friend.
James Moye was adjusting to life as a single father, sitting in a stairwell at his apartment building, trying to braid his daughter’s hair when Johnson happened to pass by. She took over the girl’s hair and soon was watching her on weekends, helping her with schoolwork and signing her up for gymnastics.
“You don’t find genuine love like that,” he says.
Nikki Brown met her in their college dorm and by the time she fretted about being pregnant a few years later, there was no one besides Johnson she’d want accompanying her to the doctor. After the child arrived, she was the ever-present godmother, showering the baby in gifts.
“The smartest girl I’ve ever known,” she says. “The sweetest soul.”
And so it repeated: Glowing words of the Thomasville, Georgia, native as a churchgoing, mild-mannered woman who had been a motherly figure to so many and who now doted on two of her own.
Until the U.S. government had words of its own.
The indictment came just before Christmas four years ago. Prosecutors claimed Johnson, her boyfriend and another man ran a fraud scheme, filing fake tax returns and collecting the refunds.
All told, the government would eventually claim, it was scammed of nearly $1.5 million, with almost $500,000 going to accounts in the names of the three defendants.
Johnson told few what she was accused of and to those she did, it seemed puzzling.
Her mother, Tressa Clements, wondered how it could be true, when she was helping pay her daughter’s bills and she had to rely on a public defender because there was no money for another attorney. Floyd thought of her friend’s beat-up car, of the modest home she rented, how she never spent lavishly on clothes or wore a ring on fingers she complained were too chubby.
“It just didn’t make sense,” Floyd said.
Johnson didn’t absolve herself completely from the charges, her friends and family say, but maintained she wasn’t guilty of everything. More than anything, she felt she’d been conned by the father of her children. For their sake, she saw one path forward.
“The only way I’m going to get beyond this is to plead to this and get it over with,” her mother said she told her.
She entered a plea agreement that brought a 70-month sentence. A woman whose mother called her Rabbit and who neighborhood children knew as Ferry now would be known as Inmate #00313-120.
When she arrived at prison in Marianna, Florida, one other new inmate awaited processing and Johnson again made a new friend. Scarlett King remembers the anxiety that day, how Johnson introduced herself and conversation bloomed.
King, too, had never been in trouble before getting caught up in a fraud scheme with her boyfriend. She spoke of a daughter she’d just dropped off at college; Johnson told her of two young sons she left behind. Johnson talked of her work with juveniles in the justice system. They both expressed fear about what came next.
Johnson grabbed her hand and held it: “We’re going to be fine,” she said. “It’s going to be OK.”
When the process was over, the two learned they were bunkmates and, through subsequent transfers that brought the women to two other prisons, they remained close friends.
Johnson prayed at Sunday services and showed up to Bible studies and prayer sessions and worked prison jobs as an orderly and in the laundry and in a warehouse driving a forklift.
She stayed in touch with those she mentored and found ways to make sure they felt her love, even enlisting another inmate to knit baby clothes she sent to an expectant mother. She helped tutor some inmates pursuing high school diplomas and scurried to help others when they needed a hand carrying a heavy load from the commissary.
Johnson even came to peace with the man she blamed for her incarceration, writing a letter to the father of her children that King said expressed forgiveness for what had happened.
When the pandemic began, Johnson worried what could happen knowing her diabetes and other medical issues could add to her risk. She told her mother she applied for compassionate release but was denied by the warden. She tested positive on July 19 and filed paperwork 10 days later seeking an attorney to pursue her release. By then, she was hospitalized and worsening.
On August 2, her mother stood outside the window of her ICU unit. A nurse took pity on her, sneaking a cell phone in a surgical glove inside so she could speak to her only child. She told her Rabbit she loved her. She prayed to God she’d be healed.
By morning, Johnson was dead at 36. When the news reached King, she fell to her knees. Clements went home to her two grandsons, 5-year-old Kyrei and 7-year-old Josiah, and told them their mother caught the virus and was going away to be with the Lord. At the funeral, Moye brought his two daughters to the gravesite and they stayed late, sobbing.
All of them think of what might have been for this woman who dreamed of her release, of earning a doctorate, of rebuilding what was broken and, more than anything, returning to her boys to be the mom they deserved.
“Her life was gonna be beautiful,” Clements says.
Sedensky can be reached at email@example.com and https://twitter.com/sedensky.