Perhaps it was a surge of adrenaline, or maybe just feeling that it was the right thing to do that led to a fatal decision by 84-year-old Elvis Johnson to do battle with a purse snatcher.
"It just surprised me that he would do that," said one of Johnson’s golfing buddies, Otto Frank, 74. "He was calm, cool and collected at all times."
Johnson was killed Tuesday after the purse snatcher ran over him in a dark Toyota Corolla. His wife of 62 years, Vivienne, received minor injuries in the incident, which happened in the parking lot of the Home Depot at Alma School Road and Chandler Boulevard in Chandler.
On Thursday, Johnson’s friends and neighbors in the Sunbird retirement community just south of Chandler coped with their grief and outrage over the crime.
Judy McLaren, the Johnsons’ next-door neighbor, said she and others who knew the former teacher and Marine officer were feeling a deep loss.
McLaren said Johnson was a "very gentle man," but she could imagine him trying to defend his wife.
"She was his life," McLaren said.
Police said that after the couple finished shopping about 5:30 p.m., a man parked near their vehicle and walked up and asked them a question. He suddenly lunged for Vivienne Johnson’s purse.
"There was a struggle for the purse," said Chandler police detective George Arias. "The struggle continued as the person got in his vehicle and attempted to drive away."
Arias said police have received leads in the case but have not found the assailant, who was described as white, about 30 years old and wearing a light-colored Polo-style shirt.
Neither Vivienne Johnson nor other family members could be reached. Pastor James Rentz of the couple’s church, First Baptist Church of Sun Lakes, said he tried to console Vivienne Johnson while she was being treated at a hospital.
"Her remarks to me were, ‘If I had only let go of the purse,’ " Rentz said. "She said it a hundred times."
Rentz said the Johnsons were very active members of the church; he was a former trustee and she teaches Bible study classes.
Originally from Fort Worth, Texas, the couple moved to Sunbird from Queen Creek about nine years ago. Rentz said living near a church they liked was important to the couple.
Their other passion was golf, a focus of life for many Sunbird residents whose homes cluster around the links. Despite being plagued by health problems, Elvis Johnson and his wife played about two or three times a week, friends said. Bob Schuster, 86, joined them regularly.
He and Elvis Johnson used to reminisce about how they would caddy for tournament golfers in the 1930s.
"He was just a nice fellow, a gentleman," Schuster said. "It’s a shock."