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Former star athlete slain on Falls street Drugs, crime derailed once-bright prospects for high school sports figure

A Niagara Falls man who had been a star athlete before turning to a life of drugs and crime ended up dead Friday morning on a city street, shot in the back of the head.

Niagara Falls police said they found Kareem C. Johnson, 34, at 12:56 a.m. on a curb on Ninth Street.

Johnson's face was covered with a knit ski mask, and he was carrying a large knife, officers said.

A witness told police he heard a commotion followed by gunfire, and said the shooter, wearing a gray hooded sweat shirt and blue jeans, fled north toward Ferry Avenue.

Niagara County Coroner James M. Joyce said Johnson, of Niagara Street, had been shot at close range and died at the scene.

Detective Capt. Ernest Palmer said the area around Ninth and Ferry has a history of illegal drug activity.

Johnson's criminal history, which spanned more than a decade, included burglaries, criminal mischief, grand larceny and robbery. He spent the last several years in and out of jail.

Johnson's mother, Velma Jessie, blamed drugs for her son's slide into crime. She said he was in and out of rehabilitation 50 times.

"When I tried to get help, people in rehab talked negatively to me, because they said Kareem was not trying to help himself," she said.

Johnson's father, Ronald Cunningham, who has been honored for community service to the city in housing and civil rights, said that perhaps his son's story "will save some other kid's life."

In his youth, Johnson showed great promise. The 1991 Niagara Falls High School graduate was voted most valuable player on the high school football team his senior year. He won a championship in wrestling in the Empire State Games in the early 1990s.

He attended Farmingdale State College on Long Island and Niagara County Community College, but did not graduate.

Then drugs took hold, followed by crime.

In 1995, Johnson was charged with robbing a Wilson Farms and, after a tip, was found in a local drug rehabilitation center and arrested. A year later, he was charged with burglary after being caught in a house.

He served time in Wyoming Correctional Facility for burglary in the late 1990s. He was paroled in 1999 and had been charged since with several minor offenses.

Police were trying to determine what Johnson was doing just before he was killed. They asked anyone with any information to call the department's Criminal Investigation Division at 286-4553.

In addition to his mother and father, Johnson is survived by a 10-year-old son, DiJaren; a sister, Caprice Scott; a brother, Marvin; and a stepbrother, Michael Sillmon, all of Niagara Falls.


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