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Why was UM-Duluth student left for dead on Lakewalk? Police, family seek answers

Walfrid David Ashlie "Dash" Johnson, seen here in 2006, was robbed, beaten and left unconscious along Duluth's Lakewalk early on the morning of May 20. Johnson's family is pleading for help in finding his assailants. (Submitted photo)

University of Minnesota Duluth student "Dash" Johnson stood out among 300 people interviewed this spring for jobs at Little Angie's Cantina and Grill, allowing him to land a job as a host at the Canal Park restaurant.

"Of all the mass interviews we conducted, he by far had the biggest personality," said Matt Baumgartner, Little Angie's service and beverage manager. "He lit up the room. He's a wonderful, wonderful guy with a lot of personality. This is extremely unfortunate."

Twenty-one-year-old Walfrid David Ashlie "Dash" Johnson was beaten unconscious and robbed of his wallet and cell phone while walking alone on the Lakewalk between the Fitger's complex and Leif Erikson Park about 12:47 a.m. on May 20.

Johnson's cousin, St. Paul police officer Charlie Anderson, came to Duluth this week seeking the public's help in trying to identify the assailants.

"Dash always has a smile for his family, friends and all whom he meets," Anderson said. "He doesn't have a mean bone in his body. Dash is such a dang good kid that he would never think that anyone would do to him, or to anyone else, what they did to him."

Johnson, who just finished his junior year in communications at UMD, and his friends were out celebrating the end of finals at UMD on May 20. He is of legal drinking age and had been drinking. Anderson said he was able to read Duluth police investigative reports of the incident and provided the following scenario:

He said his cousin and two of his buddies left Grandma's Sports Garden and started walking northeast on the Lakewalk. His friends decided they wanted to go to the Fond-du-Luth Casino. Johnson decided to go home alone.

"If you know Dash, you'd know that he will go out and have some beers with you, but he's not going to waste his money at a casino," Anderson said. "So he says, 'You guys have a great time. I'm going to head home.' One of his buddies piped up something to the effect: 'It's after midnight and it's probably not a great idea to go walking on the Lakewalk right now. Why don't you come with us?' Dash said, 'No guys. I'll be fine. I'll see you when you are done.' "

Duluth police Sgt. Mike Ceynowa, supervisor of the Violent Crimes Unit, said passersby who later found Johnson first heard vulgar threats directed toward someone on the Lakewalk. The witnesses then saw three men estimated at 18 to 25 years old biking away from where Johnson was found; he was unconscious but breathing.

It was too dark for the witnesses to get a description of the men on bikes or the clothing they were wearing, Ceynowa said.

"We're interested in any activity that went on there earlier in the evening and if any suspicious people were seen in the area,'' Ceynowa said. Anyone with information is asked to contact the Violent Crimes Unit at (218) 730-5050.

Because of his trusting nature and knack for seeing the best in everyone, Anderson believes that his cousin had no idea the danger he was in until it was too late.

"I saw the medical pictures and I couldn't even recognize him," Anderson said. "His whole head was just swollen. They had to have taken joy in whatever they did to him. I don't think he was hit with a rock or a blunt instrument because it didn't leave marks that would normally be seen. I think that he was stomped on. His head was stomped on."

After spending a week in the intensive care unit at St. Luke's hospital, Johnson was transferred to a St. Paul hospital on Wednesday.

"He had a moderate to a severe brain injury," Anderson said. "Some days he does better than others. He's able to recognize his mom, but most of what he says is incoherent and doesn't make sense. A neurosurgeon estimated the best-case scenario of six to nine months for a possible full recovery."

Johnson was also working this summer as a student intern for Visit Duluth, where he did research and helped write press releases. "He's a very personable young man and fit in with office staff very well; he was great to work with," said Gene Shaw, public relations director of Visit Duluth.

Anderson, the St. Paul cop, wants justice for his cousin and his family, and a full recovery.

"I really want to reach out to all citizens in this city and plead with them that if they saw anything or know anything, the decent thing to do would be to tell Duluth police to bring some kind of peace to Dash's family,'' Anderson said. "We just ask for everyone's thoughts and prayers for Dash's full recovery."