JESUP, Ga. — Those close to Shannon Johnson knew him to be fearless — whether he was moving across the country to pursue love, rescuing stray animals in the path of a wildfire, or trying to shield a co-worker from gunfire during the last moments of his life.
The 45-year-old health inspector from Los Angeles received a hero's funeral Saturday in his home state of Georgia 10 days after he died during the massacre in San Bernardino, California. A colleague wounded in the attack, Denise Peraza, said later that Johnson wrapped an arm tightly around her as bullets went flying and assured her: "I got you."
Those would be his last words.
Inside Calvary Baptist Church in the rural city of Jesup, where Johnson was born about 2,300 miles from the auditorium in which he and 13 others died, a congressman gave his family a folded U.S. flag while praising him as "an American hero."
"Shannon's fearless. He's always been that way," Rob Johnson, the slain man's older brother, told reporters before the service.
"I'm sure that when he saw the young lady, he thought of his sister or his girlfriend or his former wife," he said. "That's just the kind of guy he was. He's a man of action."
Meanwhile, more funeral services were planned Saturday in Southern California for two other victims — Tin Nguyen, 31, and Isaac Amanios, 60.
At Johnson's memorial service, about 200 people filed into the church where roses, lilies and carnations sent by mourners decorated the pulpit amid strands of white lights and potted poinsettias set out for the Christmas season.
The Rev. Ed Bacon, a family relative, noted Johnson's selfless final act echoed that of his father, who died while saving another man during an industrial accident at a Kentucky paper mill in 1978.
Johnson was just 8 years old, and his father's death affected him deeply. As a boy, Bacon said, Johnson would sometimes slip away from home and spend the night at his dad's grave.
"He learned from his father's death that no one has greater love than this — to give your life for your friends," Bacon said.
Johnson was sitting next to Peraza at a holiday luncheon for San Bernardino County environmental health employees on Dec. 2 when a pair of attackers with assault rifles began spraying bullets. Peraza says she and Johnson sought cover beneath a table when he tried to shield her. Johnson was among 14 people killed in the attack. Peraza was shot in the back, but survived.
"I believe I am still here today because of this amazing man," Peraza said in a statement soon after the killings.
Johnson grew up in the Macon area, where he played baseball and football in high school, Bacon said, and drove a Honda hatchback with a stereo so loud that people could hear him coming from blocks away.
As a young adult, his love of nature — and loud music — led Johnson to live in an isolated cabin in the Georgia woods. Then he fell in love and followed the woman to California, Johnson's brother recalled, with no job and nowhere to live.
"Shannon's fearless. He's always been that way."
Johnson settled in Los Angeles. When wildfires raged in Southern California years ago, his brother said, Johnson rounded up stray pets in his pickup truck and took them to a church for shelter. Then he helped first responders dig a trench to protect the church.
Though he lived far away, Johnson kept his family as close to him as possible.
The walls of his Koreatown apartment were lined with framed photos, Bacon said. He also had tattoos for his mother, father and two ex-wives, who shared space on Johnson's body along with inked portraits of the Virgin Mary and "Gone With the Wind" actress Vivien Leigh.
Johnson's brother said that as relatives gathered in Georgia to say goodbye, their grandmother, Willie Dell Johnson, helped put the tragedy of his death into perspective.
"It's just kind of what our family does," she said. "We save people."