Some note different side of John Deng

BY ABE TEKIPPE | JULY 30, 2009 7:11 AM

John Deng.

There aren’t many people in Iowa City who were familiar with that name prior to July 24, when Deng — after allegedly stabbing a man — was reportedly shot and killed by Johnson County Sheriff’s Deputy Terry Stotler.

But some who did know the 26-year-old, or at least who had encountered him, describe a seemingly different man from the aggressive one portrayed in accounts of the shooting and stabbing — a man who, as a refugee of Sudan, sometimes struggled to communicate with those around him.

“His command of the English language was lacking in both his use and his comprehension,” said Crissy Canganelli, the director of Shelter House, 331 N. Gilbert St. Shelter House staff ranked him as a 5 out of 10 in terms of language ability, with 10 being fluent.

Deng was last a resident at the shelter in February, Canganelli has said. Since then, he had been receiving case-management services and working toward citizenship.

His apparent struggles with English raise the question: Was he able to comprehend what was said July 24?

Iowa City police Sgt. Troy Kelsay said investigators believe he was.

Police say after identifying himself as law enforcement, Stotler — who was dressed in plainclothes, typical attire for a civil deputy — drew his sidearm and repeatedly ordered Deng to drop the knife he was holding. At that point, Deng had reportedly already threatened and stabbed 63-year-old John Bohnenkamp once.

Deng ignored Stotler’s commands and moved toward Bohnenkamp while holding the knife “in a threatening manner,” according to police reports. Stotler perceived he was going to stab Bohnenkamp a second time and fired a single round that hit Deng in the left side, ultimately killing him.

Based on witness accounts of the incident, Kelsay said it doesn’t appear Deng had difficulty understanding Stotler’s orders. In fact, witnesses told investigators Deng had been speaking to Bohnenkamp in English prior to any physical altercation.

And July 24 wasn’t the first time Deng had had a run-in with law enforcement.

Kelsay said Deng had been in the Iowa City area for approximately two years.

In that time, he was charged with numerous offenses, including OWI, public intoxication, theft, and disorderly conduct, among others, online records show. His most recent charge came on July 11, and the court ordered a substance-abuse assessment.

Canganelli, who said she was not defending any of Deng’s alleged actions, acknowledged that while “there were a lot of issues he was dealing with,” the person Shelter House staff was familiar with was “quite personable,” “quiet,” and “even-tempered.”

Others in the community who had encountered Deng agreed.

“He didn’t have a lot of English under his belt,” said Cliff Missen, the coordinator of Yahoo Drummers, a group that plays on the Pedestrian Mall on Monday nights. “He had a good sense of rhythm, though; I know that much.”

In the weeks prior to his death, Deng had joined the drummers downtown, said Missen, who is also an associate director of the UI School of Library and Information Science.

He said he didn’t even know Deng’s name prior to the shooting, because they spent most of their time drumming, not talking.

“We were looking forward to seeing him on Monday,” Missen said.

Just before Missen went to the Pedestrian Mall on Monday, he found out Deng was the man who had been shot over the weekend, prompting the group of drummers to play a slow, mournful song in his honor.

Though he had only met Deng a few weeks before his death and he admitted he didn’t know him very well, Missen said his memories of the 26-year-old have resonated.

“My last vision of him was standing behind the drums [July 20],” he said. “He just had this grin from ear to ear. He said in his broken English, ‘This is happy, this is so happy.’ It gives us a little comfort that he had those moments of joy.”

Kelsay said investigators are still trying to locate any family members or acquaintances of Deng, who Canganelli said lived in Texas for seven years before making his way to Iowa.

They are also awaiting a toxicology report.

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