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Bill Macfadyen: Doesn’t Make It Any Easier, But Nick Johnson Died Doing What He Loved

NoozWeek’s Top 5 also includes Joe Biden’s dollar signs, a UCSB professor’s unflattering picture, a teen’s rape and a mysterious ice-pick stabbing

There were a record 131,768 people who read Noozhawk this past week. What were your top five stories?

1. UCSB Water Polo Player Dies After Being Pulled from Santa Barbara High Pool

When it comes to our children, parents have any number of worst nightmares. What happened to Karen and Augie Johnson has to be the worst of the worst.

Their son, Nick, a 19-year-old college athlete in the prime of life, died quite unexpectedly March 24, doing something he’d done — literally — thousands of times before: swimming laps.

Nick Johnson, 19, was a sophomore at UCSB and a utility player on the Gauchos’ water polo team. (UCSB Athletic Department photo)
Nick Johnson, 19, was a sophomore at UCSB and a utility player on the Gauchos’ water polo team. (UCSB Athletic Department photo)

It was the first day of spring break and Nick, a sophomore water polo player at UC Santa Barbara, was back at Santa Barbara High School, training with former teammates at his alma mater. At some point, he sank to the bottom of the deep end of the pool, unnoticed by anyone in or out of the water.

As soon as he was discovered, he was quickly pulled out. Despite frantic efforts by lifeguards, first-responders and, later, emergency room physicians at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, Nick was pronounced dead about midmorning.

The Santa Barbara County Coroner’s Office conducted an autopsy and on March 27 declared Nick’s death an “accidental drowning.” Toxicology tests have been run — standard procedure when a young, healthy person dies, sheriff’s Lt. Butch Arnoldi told Noozhawk — but results won’t be known until next month.

Santa Barbara police Sgt. Riley Harwood said investigators have found nothing suspicious.

And that’s what makes it all the more bewildering to Nick’s grieving family and friends and to a stunned water polo community.

Described by all who knew him as a fearless competitor and relentless athlete, Nick was a runner, played baseball and basketball, competed in karate, set world records in indoor rowing and was a very popular instructor in Santa Barbara’s East Beach Junior Lifeguards program.

He was most at home in the pool, however, and he began playing water polo with the Santa Barbara Aquatics Club before moving on to the big leagues at perennial powerhouse Santa Barbara High. After graduating in 2012, he was reunited with his SBAC coach, Wolf Wigo, at UCSB.

“He’s not the biggest or the strongest, but he just grinds,” his dad told our Giana Magnoli in an exclusive interview. “He was always the first in the pool and last to leave; it’s just his nature.”

Mark Walsh, his high school coach, said much the same thing.

“His display of relentless hard work made lasting changes to the work ethic of the athletes in his class and in the classes behind him,” he told us. “Years later, when you see one of our kids jump in the pool first or a kid push himself to his limit, you’ll see a piece of Nick.”

Nick is survived by his parents, Karen and Berkeley “Augie” Johnson, brothers Sam and Cooper, and his sister, Sophie.

Although funeral services are pending, the family is working with Santa Barbara High to establish a memorial fund and with UCSB to create a scholarship program.

Meanwhile, the 39,874 readers we had on the site March 24 eclipsed the previous one-day record of 36,302, set March 11, 2011, as a tsunami raced across the Pacific Ocean in the aftermath of the devastating Japan earthquake.

Throughout that first afternoon, Nick’s story was drawing several thousand reads an hour. I’m gratified there was similar traffic for Giana’s follow-up story, in which family and friends were able to paint a more vibrant picture of the type of young man Nick was.


Sporting his trademark grin, Vice President Joe Biden pauses for some constituent service at the Santa Barbara Airport before getting his money’s worth in Montecito. (Santa Barbara Unified School District photo)
Sporting his trademark grin, Vice President Joe Biden pauses for some constituent service at the Santa Barbara Airport before getting his money’s worth in Montecito. (Santa Barbara Unified School District photo)

2. Santa Barbara Teachers Meet with Jill and Joe Biden, Tour Air Force Two

Vice President Joe Biden took the company jet to Santa Barbara on March 21 for a $5,000-a-head Democratic National Committee fundraiser at a private home in Montecito.

After landing at the Santa Barbara Airport, he was met on the tarmac by a camera-ready delegation of Santa Barbara Unified School District administrators and teachers for a brief photo opportunity. Biden’s wife, Jill, even told the educators they could take a quick look inside Air Force Two.

The Bidens then were whisked away in a motorcade of Secret Service SUVs and support vehicles, accompanied by a phalanx of buzzing California Highway Patrol motorcycle robocops. Their 24-hour visit apparently included no other public appearances.

By the next afternoon, Biden was winging it back to Washington. Shortly afterward, a massive C-17 military transport plane lumbered down the runway, taking with it all the trappings of the traveling office and the rest of Biden’s entourage.

3. DA’s Office Files Misdemeanor Charges Against UCSB Professor

A UC Santa Barbara feminist studies professor has been charged with battery after admitting she stole and destroyed a sign belonging to an anti-abortion group holding a protest on campus.

Mireille Miller-Young
Mireille Miller-Young

Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley announced March 21 that Mireille Miller-Young will face misdemeanor charges of theft from a person, battery and vandalism as a result of the March 4 altercation with several members of Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust.

The anti-abortion group filed a complaint with UCSB police and one of its members described the experience in a blog post, which includes pictures of alleged scratches from the hands-on teachable moment. According to the police report, Miller-Young and several students took the purloined poster to her office and destroyed it.

Miller-Young — an associate professor whose website lists her areas of emphasis as black cultural studies, pornography and sex work — told police that the group’s graphic images “triggered” her outburst. Her attorney, Catherine Swysen, declined comment, saying the charges would be addressed in court.

A Superior Court hearing has been set for April 4.

4. Police Arrest Santa Barbara Man Accused of Raping Teen

A transient was arrested in Santa Ynez for the alleged rape of a 15-year-old girl at a party on Santa Barbara’s Westside, Santa Barbara police say.


Domonick Alonzo Love
Domonick Alonzo Love

Sgt. Riley Harwood said officers were summoned to the Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital emergency room March 20 to investigate a rape. They determined that the girl had met with acquaintances from Santa Barbara’s downtown homeless community the previous night and that she apparently had gone to the party with one of them, a guy she knew only as “Slim.”

Harwood said the girl told police she had become intoxicated and that Slim had raped her.

Based on the nickname and the girl’s description of the suspect’s distinctive appearance and tattoos, police quickly identified the alleged perp, who is well-known to local law enforcement.

On March 24, 18-year-old Domonick Alonzo Love was spotted by a sheriff’s deputy investigating a disturbance in the 900 block of North Refugio Road in Santa Ynez. He was taken into custody without incident.

Harwood said Love was arrested on charges of rape by force, violence, duress, menace or fear, rape by intoxication preventing the victim from resisting, and unlawful intercourse with a minor less than three years younger than the perpetrator.

Emergency personnel tend to a man who reported being stabbed with an ice pick March 24 in the 200 cube, er, block of East Cota Street. (Urban Hikers photo)
Emergency personnel tend to a man who reported being stabbed with an ice pick March 24 in the 200 cube, er, block of East Cota Street. (Urban Hikers photo)

5. Man Reports Being Stabbed With Ice Pick in Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara police caught a cold case March 24 when a man reported being stabbed in the chest with an ice pick.

Sgt. Eric Beecher said the victim was “completely uncooperative” when officers arrived in the 200 block of East Cota Street.

“We don’t have a crime scene, and we don’t know where it occurred,” Beecher said.

The man, whose identity was not released, was taken to the hospital for treatment.

                                                                        •        •

Base jumping ain’t for the weak-kneed, but the rush is exhilarating — or so I’m told. Three guys who parachuted off New York City’s 1,776-foot Freedom Tower in September were arrested March 24 after police were finally able to track them down through video surveillance in Lower Manhattan. (Graphic language warning.)

(NYC B.A.S.E. Jump video)

                                                                  •        •        •

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— Bill Macfadyen is Noozhawk’s founder and publisher. Contact him at [email protected], follow him on Twitter: @noozhawk, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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