The blue balloons Justin Johnston’s family released over his gravesite were drifting into the white-clouded sky when the lawyer’s email from Costa Rica hit.
Everyone watched John Johnston’s face as the father looked at his phone.
They had gathered, some 20 family members, at the St. Lawrence Cemetery in Leavenworth County on what would have been Justin’s 18th birthday.
It was March 27. The email could have come any day. They’d already waited seven months since a three-judge tribunal in Costa Rica had convicted a hotel security guard and sentenced him to 15 years in prison for shooting Justin while he was on a Spanish club educational trip in June 2011.
As far as they knew, they could have had to wait several more months to find out whether the appellate court had upheld the verdict.
But this was the day it had come. This was the moment.
The court has ordered a new trial.
“We were shocked and devastated,” said Justin’s mother, Wendi Johnston. She was speaking from their McLouth, Kan., home north of Lawrence last week before the family left again for Costa Rica for the retrial that begins today.
Justin’s parents, four younger siblings and other family members talked about a traumatic year for a family that has tried to will some purpose out of so much pain.
They have started a scholarship fund with earnest community support for other McLouth teenagers to pursue the college dream that Justin had lost.
And they have lent their voices and support to the ClearCause Foundation’s campaign to warn parents and schools of the potential dangers in international education trips.
They talked about the trial in August 2012 — how they wandered scared in Costa Rica’s unfamiliar criminal justice system but saw it through to a verdict and sentence they thought was just.
Most of all, they remembered Justin.
Wendi had worried about rain the day they let the balloons go, but the sun was peeking through the clouds in the late afternoon sky. The balloons carried messages to Justin they had penned in marker.
They’d just decided they should eat dinner at Justin’s favorite restaurant in Lawrence when John noticed the lawyer’s email.
“We’d been through so much financially and emotionally,” Wendi said. “How could we do this again?”
The retrial — and the reasons for it — brought back to the Johnstons all the circumstances that had gone wrong.
Justin and a friend had had to stay in a room in a separate building of the hotel, away from the rest of his high school group. The family has since learned that the hotel the Costa Rican tour company arranged for them was in an area that had crime concerns.
Justin and his friend had left the rest of their group and were returning late at night to their room when Justin was shot by a hotel security guard.
The guard was convicted of a murder charge equivalent to manslaughter based largely on testimony from Justin’s friend, who traveled with the Johnstons back to Costa Rica for the trial.
It seemed the end of a tortuous road to justice for the Johnstons, who had to scramble for passports, spend a week gathering facts, work with prosecutors, untangle the errors of unreliable interpreters — all while mourning their oldest son’s shocking death.
On appeal, however, the court ruled that the trial judges had not established in the court record their finding that the guard had fired the gun with intent to kill. There would have to be a new trial.
“There are all these horrible stories out there,” said Sheryl Hill of Minnetonka, Minn., who started the ClearCause Foundation after her 16-year-old son, Tyler, died six years ago in Japan while on a student ambassador trip.
Companies in the U.S. and abroad that provide educational and cultural exchange trips for high schools and colleges make up a $20 billion industry, Hill said, “profiting on exotic overseas trips that promise you your child will come back forever changed.”
Parents like her and the Johnstons — who believe in the opportunities children can enjoy on international experiences — want a safer, more monitored and sanctioned industry bringing the trips to life.
They want parents and students to know the dangers, understand precautions, know whom and what to avoid.
“Education abroad can be amazing, and it is for most,” said Mindy Shane of Olathe, whose 21-year-old son, Joshua, died in Thailand in 2012. “But it has to be made safer.”
The foundation accumulates advice atclearcausefoundation.org
— sharing many ways to check trips and sponsors, prepare students to protect themselves and practice emergency preparedness.
To Wendi, justice for Justin means not only persisting in the criminal case against the man on trial in Costa Rica, but joining the effort to help other families avoid the loss of a child and years of painful second-guessing.
“I wish we had our passports before (Justin went on his trip),” Wendi said. “I wish we had him take his phone.”
And if they had known the concerns surrounding the hotel where the school group was staying, she said, they wouldn’t have sent him at all.
At Washburn University in Topeka, 18-year-old Ally Bristol stepped out of her radiographic exposure class and paused to think about Justin.
He probably wouldn’t be here at Washburn. He loved the Jayhawks and probably was bound for the University of Kansas, his parents said.
What he’d be studying is more of a puzzle. The 16-year-old Justin was still wide open on that. He loved baseball. Was interested in the military. Intrigued with criminal justice.
If she could ask him how he’s doing, he’d give Ally a “thumbs-up,” probably two.
“I’m honestly thankful that the way he’s remembered is his joy for life,” she said.
She can’t replace him. Nor can any of the three other McLouth graduates who have been awarded the first four Justin Johnston Memorial Scholarships.
But they feel like they’ve become part of the Johnston family.
The whole community around McLouth has supported the family, both in their struggle for justice and in their mission to give their son a lasting legacy.
When the scholarship committee holds its regular fundraisers, it seems most everyone is there. The next one is the annual golf tournament Sept. 29 at Dub’s Dread Golf Club in Kansas City, Kan., and organizer Leanne Hoobler expects they’ll get about 120 golfers again.
The support channeled through the web pagerememberingjustin.com
They take care of the scholarship winners, too, Ally said. The scholarship pays $1,000 a year for up to five years, but it gives much more.
She gets phone calls checking on how she’s doing in her quest to become an ultrasound technician. When she’s back in town, they will tell her how proud they are.
Most of all, she’s carrying the love of Justin’s family. She can’t talk about it without tears.
“Every time I think about how much Justin loved them and how they supported him,” she said. “Now they support me like that. I get to be part of their family forever.”
It feels good, Wendi said, to help students who could be successful, students around Justin’s age.
“We’re trying to do something,” she said. “It’s emotional for us. A way to keep Justin’s memory alive.”
The rising students and their scholarships carry their own messages for Justin — like the balloons that his family launched with their hand-written notes.
Wendi’s message was simple:I miss you.