As he does every year on the anniversary of his mother’s killing, Steve Johnston finds himself reliving each detail of that day.
June 17 marked 40 years, but it sadly has remained fresh in Johnston’s mind for a reason beyond his personal loss.
His mother was taken by a mass shooting in Rhode Island at a time such crimes were an aberration.
But now each one, from Columbine to Parkland to the Annapolis newspaper attack, brings him flashbacks. It is a common burden, Johnston says, of all loved ones left behind.
But he also holds vivid memories of his bubbly, outgoing mother, Dorothy Johnston. He describes her as a cool, blond single mom who shaped him to accept everyone, enjoy simple pleasures like burgers and become a musician, professionally for years and in spirit for a lifetime.
Steve Johnston was only 18 when she died at age 38 in a multiple murder all but forgotten even in Rhode Island although it happened in Warwick.
It had the ingredients of many mass shootings today — a deranged killer able to legally buy a firearm, in this case at a K-Mart only 11 days before the attack.
It took place at a Chinese restaurant called Lee’s Cathay Terrace on Post Road, opposite Green Airport.
At 6:20 p.m. the Saturday night of June 17, 1978, a cook named Gan Fong Chin, 48, with a history of mental illness, took out a powerful lever-action hunting rifle he’d brought to work in a gift-wrapped box. Around 50 people were eating at the restaurant as he began to shoot coworkers he preposterously claimed had poisoned him.
He killed co-owner Robert Lee, 51, bartender John O’Dell, 40, maitre d’ Danny Linn, 48, and finally, waitress Dorothy Johnston.
Steve Johnston is now 58, a former professional musician turned FedEx big-truck driver living outside Los Angeles in a town called Canyon Country. He will say you can take the boy out of Rhode Island but not the opposite. So there in California, he begins each day reading The Providence Journal online. A few weeks ago, he expected to see a mention of the shooting’s 40th anniversary.
After seeing nothing for days, he wrote to us to ask why we hadn’t noted it. Indeed, it had not been on our radar, but we soon saw the importance of it.
The Lee's Cathay Terrace shooting was an early case of what’s now a mass-shooting trend. Johnston’s message — of a pain still keen 40 years later — was a reminder that the victims are more than numbers.
Johnston got his musical genes from his dad, Kenneth, a country-western performer who toured military bases with the USO, but his mom, Dorothy, nurtured Steve’s passion for it.
She took him to his first concert in 1971 when he was 11 — Creedence Clearwater Revival at the old Rhode Island Auditorium on Providence’s North Main Street.
She had him watch The Beatles on Ed Sullivan as a toddler, and when Bruce Springsteen released “Born to Run,” Dorothy told him, “You have to listen to this guy.”
“She was cool,” Johnston told me.
She and Steve’s dad divorced when he was 5 but despite some acrimony, when he turned 10, she had him live mostly with him for a male influence at a critical time.
Dorothy taught him life skills, too, having him and his sister count her tips after a night of waitressing, then setting aside half for savings and using the other half for burgers or a day at Rocky Point.
She also bought him his first guitar, a Fender Stratocaster.
Two years after the murders, Johnston moved to Los Angeles to get space from it, but also, with guitar in hand, to pursue a music career.
He took on the stage name Steve Stone, slugging it out in clubs and going on the road with his band.
In 1989, he got a record deal, his main single named for something his mom taught him. Be careful who you hurt, Dorothy used to say, or one day when you’re down on yourself, you’ll see their “faces in the rain.”
In 1990, Steve Johnston turned “Faces in the Rain” into a music video and to record it, came back to the house on Randall Street in Cranston where he and his sister, Susan, lived with their mom. In the video, an actor playing his mom gives the actual Stratocaster to a boy playing Steve.
Later, after Johnston’s life on the road led to divorce and a record deal fell through, he hit a low and had to pawn all his musical equipment.
But not that guitar.
“It’s part of her,” he says today. “I’ll never get rid of it. Until the day I die.”
Being in California helped Steve start to heal, but six years after his mom was killed, something reopened the wound. In July 1984, a gunman walked into a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, California, and killed 21 people.
Then in 1999 came Columbine, and in 2007 Virginia Tech, and then Sandy Hook and San Bernardino, and now it seems to Steve there’s a mass shooting every few weeks.
“It brings the past to the present,” he says. “All that mayhem each time, people scrambling, not knowing where to run. I think of my mother and all the other victims and the past always comes back.”
It’s part of why Steve Johnston relives the Cathay Terrace shooting on each anniversary.
As he lay in bed in California on this year's anniversary, his mind went back to 1978, first to the night before the Warwick shooting. He was at his mom’s apartment on Dyer Avenue in Cranston having dinner with her — pork chops. She said goodbye to him before he headed out.
“Love you, Mom,” Steve said and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
“Love you, too,” Dorothy told him.
Steve remembered June 17 as a normal Saturday. He went to his dad’s house on Vinton Avenue, in Cranston, helping him cut the grass, then practicing chords and scales on his guitar.
A friend came by and the two did teenage things together, going to the Wein-O-Rama for lunch, then driving around Roger Williams Park.
A few hours later, mid-evening, Steve was on his way to a movie with the girl he was dating when he saw police lights in his mirror.
He pulled over. An officer came up and asked if he was Steve Johnston.
“Just follow me, please.”
The police car led him to Kent County Memorial Hospital. The place was mayhem. A nurse brought him into a room and then his dad came in. Steve could see he’d been crying. That’s when his father said it.
“Your mother was murdered.”
An aunt came in and told him someone with a gun killed four Cathay Terrace employees and his mom was one.
All Steve could say was, “Why?”
Then he was told the killer’s name.
“No, the cook?”
Sometimes, his mom would invite him to come by the restaurant’s back door, and she and the cook, Gan Fong Chin, would give Steve his favorite meal — pork strips and fried rice with everything. Steve remembered him as others did — quiet, introverted and a bit odd but nice enough.
And now this.
After the killings, Gan Fong Chin was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic — he’d once barricaded himself in his house, also saying he was being poisoned.
He was held in a state psychiatric hospital for eight years before being declared fit for trial. He pleaded insanity but the jury found him guilty of four counts of murder. Chin was never charged with the death of a fifth victim that night — Cecilia Bagley, 66, a customer who died of a heart attack during the shooting.
Chin was given life. A year later, at age 57, he died of lymphatic cancer.
I wanted to get one other look-back on this story, so I reached out to the retired Warwick officer who made the arrest that night.
His name is Joseph P. Silvia, then a lieutenant and detective. Chin had fled the scene, but Silvia testified at the trial that he found him nearby holding the rifle. He and other officers approached Chin with weapons drawn. Chin dropped the rifle.
After a career in law enforcement, I expected Silvia would be comfortable talking about this. But he politely declined, a reaction that spoke more powerfully about mass shootings than anything he might have said.
“I’d like not to relive it again,” he told me, “even after 40 years.”
I had one other question for Steve Johnston: Has all this shaped his views on gun control?
“I support the right to bear arms,” he said, “but they need to do more of a background check, do something. People like this can’t just be allowed to buy guns.”
Today, Johnston lives with the mom of his third daughter, having had two girls with his first wife. Some of his hardest times are Mother’s Day and his mom’s birthday.
“I can’t buy her a card,” he says. “I have three daughters who never got to meet their grandmother.”
But those same two days are also healing because of something else Steve does to mark them.
He’ll sit alone in his spare bedroom and take out the treasured guitar Dorothy Johnston gave him.
Then, for a long time, he’ll just play, and play some more, feeling his mom is with him again.
Mark Patinkin’s columns run in the Journal on Sundays and Wednesdays.
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