Items have been left where Conrad Johnson was killed

Items have been left at the base of the bus stop sign near where bus driver Conrad Johnson was killed Tuesday morning. (Sun photo by Amy Davis / October 23, 2002)

They walk past police detectives combing the woods of Aspen Hill's North Gate Park for clues. They try to ignore the fluttering yellow crime-scene tape and climb onto the No. 34 Montgomery County Ride On bus. They pay the fare, sit down and try to convince themselves that things will eventually be right in the world.

But they can't.

"I have this bad feeling in my stomach, like I can't have any fun anymore," Margarita Rodriguez said yesterday, hugging herself as the No. 34 rumbled along.

That sense of dread seeped up and down the loop that used to be the territory of Conrad Johnson, one of No. 34's regular drivers and the latest victim of the serial sniper.

From the Grand Pre Road bus stop where Johnson's morning route began to the Bethesda Metro stop where it ended, co-workers and passengers remembered him as an easygoing spirit who would smile at everyone, occasionally let regular customers owe him a fare and pump out sit-ups on the floor of his bus.

And as they talked wistfully of Johnson's bright smile and big laugh, they couldn't help but wonder about their safety and whether they could ever feel safe on the bus again.

"We thought that we would be safe [here], that the only people in danger would be the ones outside or walking. But we were wrong," said Juan Garcia, a bus driver who helped fill in on No. 34.

Nervous

The impact of Johnson's death was obvious at the Grand Pre Road bus stop, a few hundred yards from where Johnson was gunned down Tuesday morning as he filled out paperwork before starting to drive his route.

A woman who lives along Grand Pre Road shifted her weight nervously from foot to foot as she eyed the road for a bus.

She considered walking up the road where she could get a better view of traffic but couldn't bring herself to get too close despite the presence of law enforcement officials handing out fliers. Increasingly anxious, she wouldn't give her name.

"I just can't do it," she finally said as she scampered back toward an apartment building, crouching as she fled.

Passengers who could bring themselves to get on the bus dodged behind bus shelters and tree trunks. Parents watched their children climb up bus steps. Driver Alphonso Banks taped a piece of cardboard to the driver's-side window to block any sniper's view.

"The first thing I did this morning when I came in," Banks said as he waited for passengers in his No. 41 bus.

'Always kid with you'

Banks had known Johnson for about a year and described the married father of two as a physical fitness buff who would use the floor of his bus as a sit-up board and playfully urge co-workers and passengers to get in shape.

Johnson, 35, who lived in Prince George's County, often referred to Banks as "Big Head" because his forehead looked large on his slight frame, Banks said. "He'd always kid with you, always try to get you to get out and shoot ball or do something active."

Banks noted that he had never played basketball with Johnson, but others along the route said they had taken Johnson's advice.

As he maneuvered the No. 34 through traffic, Garcia, who is usually off Wednesdays but was called in yesterday, said he had begun walking every day because of Johnson's prodding.

"I've lost some weight since," Garcia said with a smile.

'So much trouble'

As the bus traveled along the loop, others passengers also tried to remember times Johnson made them happy. But most couldn't shake their fear, especially because the route passes the Shell station at Knowles Avenue and Connecticut Avenue where Lori-Ann Lewis-Rivera was shot while she vacuumed her minivan Oct. 3.

"There's been so much trouble here," said Rodriguez, a Silver Spring resident who saw Johnson almost every morning.

Al Stewart III, who lives near Grand Pre Road, spent all of Tuesday inside his apartment, watching television news. When he got on the No. 34 about 8 a.m. yesterday, his smile was as bright as the electric blue tie knotted around his neck, and he proclaimed that he wasn't afraid.

But after Stewart had some time to absorb the atmosphere on the bus, his face fell a bit. He said he had spent a lot of time pacing at the bus stop and that he was a little more alert than usual.

"I'm praying a lot. That's all you can do," he said as the bus rumbled to a stop and he prepared to get off.

As he stepped onto the pavement, Stewart looked over both shoulders and then briefly back into the bus, as if looking for an old friend, before putting his head down and making a beeline for work.