Burlington Township murder-suicide: 'If something ever happens to me, it's going to be Ruben'

20160810_inq_jfamily10-c
Daughter LoraVon Johnson (left), parents Ruben Johnson Jr. and Mashanda Johnson, and son Ruben Johnson III in a Facebook photo.

Several years ago, Mashanda Johnson began warning a childhood friend that "if something ever happens to me, it's going to be Ruben."

Her worst fears came true Monday night in a quiet Burlington County town.

Police say Ruben Johnson Jr., 50, fatally shot his wife, 48, and their son, 10, in the couple's Burlington Township home, and then turned the gun on himself.

Moments before, Ruben Johnson had called his brother and said, "I just killed my family. I'm about to kill myself."

Their bodies were discovered when police went to their home on Sunflower Circle around 10:15 p.m. after a relative asked that someone check on them, the Burlington County Prosecutor's Office said Tuesday.

A possible motive for the murder-suicide was not disclosed by authorities.

But close friends painted a picture of Mashanda Johnson as a loving mother of two who tried for years to leave a troubled marriage and had recently made plans to move out.

Ruben Johnson, 50, was unemployed and had become a recluse after he was diagnosed with insulin-dependent diabetes several years ago, friends said. He recently regained his vision after cataract surgery.

"He was depressed," said Angela Smith Teal, who grew up with Mashanda Johnson in Montclair, N.J. "She encouraged him to get help, but he refused."

Several years ago, Mashanda told a group of childhood girlfriends that Ruben had placed a gun on a table in the couple's home and threatened to kill her, recalled Teal.

"We were very concerned for her. We were nervous," said Teal, 47, of Durham, N.C. "She would say, 'If something ever happens to me, it's going to be Ruben.'"

The killings stunned residents in the community, where the family had lived for about 10 years. Neighbors were awakened around 4 a.m. by police knocking on their doors to ask questions.

A neighbor, Christian Wagner, 18, said the Johnsons' son, Ruben III, known as "Tre," played basketball and rode his bike down the street with other neighborhood children.

"The kid was always outside, playful, happy," Wagner said. He said he saw no signs of trouble with the family or the boy, whom his 11-year-old sister also knew.

The couple also have a daughter, LoraVon, 23, who traveled from her home in Florida to New Jersey. She posted a statement on her Facebook page:

"Last night my world completely froze. I want everyone to tell me [it's] just a bad dream. I want to be able to call my family. I lost my two best friends. I lost the biggest part of my heart. I not only lost my brother and mother but my father as well. I know my family is with me right now but my heart is broken. Please send your love and prayers to me and my family."

She started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to pay for funerals for her mother and brother, saying, "They were both taken far too soon and so senselessly."

The couple were struggling to stay afloat financially, friends say. Ruben Johnson began selling valuables from the house, including artwork, Teal said.

The Johnsons' home was scheduled for a sheriff's sale in October, according to a list of the county's foreclosure sales. An attorney involved in the foreclosure case did not return a call Tuesday.

The neighborhood features two-story homes with green, black, and blue shutters, and basketball hoops facing the street.

A swing set could be seen in the backyard of the Johnson home. The house's outdoor lights were still on Tuesday afternoon.

Another neighbor, Leesa Branch, spoke positively about Mashanda Johnson. "She was a great mother, a sweet person. She cared for her children greatly. She was so proud," Branch said.

Ruben Johnson Jr., who grew up in Piscataway, N.J., and Mashanda Rollins met at a North Jersey nightclub. He graduated from Grambling State University in 1988, according to his Facebook page.

He mostly worked at businesses owned by his father, Ruben Sr. He was most recently employed as a manager at Bogie's, a nightclub in East Orange, N.J.

"He was a good guy. He gave a lot of people jobs, opportunities," said Barry Malone, who worked at the nightclub for about seven years as a bouncer and photographer.

With good looks and an outgoing personality, Mashanda Johnson was very popular and had a large circle of friends, Teal said. The only girl in a family of four children, she graduated from Montclair High School in 1987 and worked in department stores, she said.

"She was a beautiful person, always had this big, gigantic smile," said Scott Bonds of Greensboro, N.C., another childhood friend. "She was just a pleasant person."

In recent social media posts, Bonds said Mashanda seemed happy, so he believed she had worked out recent marital problems that she had shared with him.

At a class reunion last month, Bonds said, Mashanda gave him "a strange" look.

"She looked at me like it was the last time she would see me," recalled Bonds, a hair salon owner. "It's so ironic that it would turn out that it was the last time I would see her."

Teal said Mashanda was a spiritual person and was very private. She tried to keep her problems from the close circle of girlfriends she took a trip with annually, she said.

But she said there were signs that something was amiss in the Johnson marriage, Teal said. Ruben was controlling and jealous, she said.

"As the years went by, she started standing up for herself. She started doing her own thing," Teal said. "We thought everything was getting better. We thought she was safe."

Recently, Mashanda had began packing her belongings and was planning to leave Johnson, Teal said, adding, "I think that's what triggered it."

Teal said she wanted to share Mashanda's story so that "hopefully, it will help others. You hear things like this but you don't think it's going to hit you this close."

The deaths mark the second family murder-suicide in Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey in the last week. In Berks County, a father, a mother, and their three young children were found dead in their home over the weekend. Authorities have not said which of the parents was the shooter.

mburney@phillynews.com

856-779-3814@mlburney