Around 9:15 Friday night, Joshua Johnson said goodbye to his wife and stepson and set off for an overnight shift at UPS.
By the time he returned the following morning, a fire had ripped through the family's apartment in the Roseland neighborhood, killing Millicent Brown-Johnson, 28, and her 8-year-old son, Jovan Perkins.
"I got home from work and they were already gone," Johnson, 29, said Sunday afternoon as he stood outside the three-story apartment building in the 11200 block of South King Drive. The lawn was still stained with ashes from the blaze, which started just before 2 a.m. Saturday.
Brown-Johnson died early Saturday after suffering smoke inhalation. Jovan suffered third-degree burns and died later that night.
Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said the extra-alarm fire was determined to be "suspicious" and, while he declined to go into detail about why foul play was suspected, he said it was "based on evidence they found on the scene and the way the fire acted."
Officials on Sunday were investigating a gasoline can that was found in a trash bin across the street from the family's apartment but would not discuss their investigation. Neighbors said that it was the third fire in the building over the course of about a year, but fire officials were unable to confirm that Sunday.
People who knew the Johnsons said they could think of no reason why the family would be targeted for such a crime.
"I just can't imagine," said Alethia Travis, who taught Jovan from when he was 15 months old until he was 5 years old at Happy Holiday Nursery & Kindergarten. "They were such nice people."
Brown-Johnson "was a nice, quiet, working woman who goes to work, comes home and cooks dinner for her family and does it all over again the next day," said Michelle Jackson, Brown-Johnson's sister, who also lived at the apartment but was out of town at the time of the fire.
"She was a young mom but she was so responsible," Travis said. "She was always involved."
From the moment Jovan was born, his mother was devoted to giving him the best life she could, sometimes working two jobs, Jackson said.
"Her life she breathed for her son," Jackson said. "There was nothing too big or too small that she wouldn't do."
Brown-Johnson had enrolled Jovan at a charter school, about 20 miles northwest of their home, where he was placed in an advanced level class. The family had plans to move into a single-family home on the West Side, closer to Jovan's school, and Brown-Johnson was planning to go back to college for a degree in management, Johnson said.
Jovan's prospects for going to college seemed like a sure thing to relatives.
His uncle Chris Johnson was already lobbying for Jovan to apply to Ohio State University, and his teachers were charmed by his positive attitude at school.
"He could have really been whatever he wanted to be," said Jovan's second-grade teacher, Ashley Whittington. "That's what was so great about him. … No matter what subject it was, no matter what we were learning, he loved it. He just really loved school, and he really loved to learn."
Even as a baby, Jovan made an impression on his teachers, Travis said.
"We used to call him the little preacher," she said. "He was just such a little man." Travis had imagined that Jovan would grow up to become a minister.
A neighbor, Mardi Lane, said he did not know the family well but would wave to Jovan as his mother walked him to the nursery in the mornings.
"I'd say, 'Hey little man,' and he'd say, 'Hey Uncle Mardi,'" Lane said. "I'm so hurt that baby (is) gone."
Jovan's 8th birthday was Tuesday, and the family had celebrated with a feast of his favorite foods — Alaskan crab legs and baked potatoes — Jackson said. They were supposed to continue celebrating over the weekend with a trip to Navy Pier.
Tribune reporter Jennifer Delgado contributed.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun