It Could Have Been Me: A Woman Wonders if She was Next …

by Dax-Devlon Ross

Part 2 in a 3-part true crime series about the life and crimes of Sisro Johnson, a Texas man charged with the brutal murder of his girlfriend Zulema McColgan.

Read Part 1 here

Author’s Note: At the subject’s request, I have changed her name in the story to protect her identity.

“Could it have been me?”

That’s about all 42 year-old Shelby could wonder as she stood outside of her office building, a cigarette in one hand,  a phone in the other. Five minutes earlier a high school friend had posted a link on her Facebook wall that had momentarily thrown her life off its axis. Now her thoughts swirled in a dark cloud of fear, anger and frustration.

The same link had been posted on my wall a day or so later. It featured a headline that read “Texas murder suspect Sisro Johnson waives extradition” along with a photo of the accused in a neon green jail-issued jumpsuit and handcuffs. The headline didn’t mean much to me. For Shelby it was a shocking wake-up call.

Tragedies inevitably leave a trail of shaken souls. The families of the perpetrators and the victims are the first that come to mind. But then there are those who by sheer luck or happenstance manage to elude a tragic encounter. Consider the  students who happened to be sick the day Klebold and Harris terrorized Columbine High or the World Trade Center workers who happened to be on vacation or away on business the day the planes collided with the towers. We all have a story about a time we unwittingly avoided a life-altering fate. A car we did/didn’t get into. For all Shelby knows one missed phone call might’ve saved her life.

—-

Shelby is a Facebook believer. She loves the site, has faith in its connective powers. By her own admission she’s on Facebook “24/7” posting questions, offering inspiration, reconnecting with friends from high school, and meeting new people through old connections. When Sisro Johnson friend requested her back in March, he said they were classmates. She didn’t remember his name, but since their circles overlapped Shelby figured their paths must’ve crossed at some point. That was good enough for her.

Fast forward to a late March afternoon. Shelby was in an inspired mood, so she decided to ask the men in her FB community what they first notice about a woman. Lo and behold, Sisro responded:

Shelby was intrigued.  “Wow,” she wrote back, “reading what you notice about a woman made me smile and gave me goose bumps! That was HOT!”

The two began firing flirty communiques back and forth. Sisro continued laying it on thick, and Shelby continued responding with exclamation marks and smiley faces. By the fourth message, Shelby was ready to get down to business:

“Where are you living and tell me a bit about yourself if that is okay! Hope to hear from you soon!”

Sisro responded with the following:

Shelby was next. She was moving back to her hometown and excited about having a fresh star now that her kids were grown. Shelby began to hone in: “So are you married? Dating? Do you have kids, if so what are the ages? What  are some of your future goals in life?”

More messages passed between them. Sisro issued one charming rejoinder after another. He was charismatic. He seemed genuine. Shelby was certain she was being wooed. “Maybe that wasn’t his intent,” she said when I interviewed her via Skype last month, “but that’s how I was taking it.” The same day they began their exchange, she took the plunge: “So here I go … going to be a bit forward …would you like to exchange numbers and talk on the phone later when I get off …?”

They talked that night. The next day Shelby posted the following message:

And so began a courtship.

“He would text me during the day,” Shelby said in our interview. “In the evening he would call.”

Sisro began opening himself up to her on these nightly calls.  He told her he’d grown up in the foster care system. He wanted to find his biological family. He wanted to know who he was. He wanted a relationship with his children. He wanted a real life. On more than one occasion he cried with her. As interested as Shelby was in their relationship, she also wanted to help Sisro find himself and reconnect with his family. He said he couldn’t wait to see her, hold her. “He would tell me I had a big heart and that I was a special person. He was glad that God brought me back into his life.” Within a month their messages were peppered with terms of endearment like “boo,” “babe,” and “honey.” Shelby even retrieved memories of Sisro from their school days.

In April Shelby took another plunge.  She invited Sisro to spend a weekend with her. The face-to-face meeting was supposed to mark the official beginning of their burgeoning romance. But because of his unpredictable work schedule they didn’t etch an exact date in stone. They figured they’d play it by ear. In the meantime they continued to speak regularly. Everything seemed fine.

But then one evening she missed his nightly call. “I don’t know what I was doing,” she said. “I didn’t ignore the call.” For whatever reason, Sisro thought she was avoiding him. He wasn’t happy. In no uncertain terms he let her know. Shelby was blindsided. She couldn’t understand how something as simple as missing a call could set him off.

The next day Sisro left a cryptic Facebook message in Shelby’s inbox:

Shelby was confused. Where was this coming from? What “relationship” was he referring to? When Sisro de-friended her she was even more confused.

The following day this message appeared on Sisro’s page.

The woman he was referring to was  Zulema McColgan, the woman he’s since been accused of murdering.

—-

After finishing her cigarette and a few calming calls, Shelby returned to her computer and re-read the messages she’d exchanged with Sisro. Surely she’d missed the signs.

“Some of the things he would say on Facebook were–” Shelby paused to find the right words. “It felt like he was finding bits and pieces off the internet from some poet.”

Why?

“Because whatever he posted in an off-line message gave the impression that he was educated and charming. But when I would speak to him on the phone it was different.”

How so?

“It was not the same talk. It was rough, non-educated.” Again, I could sense she wanted to measure her words carefully. “A lot of slang and so forth.”

Sisro had also lied to her about his criminal history. Only when Shelby checked into his background after the arrest did she discover that he’d served time for assaulting one girlfriend and had narrowly escaped  prosecution for an assault on another.

Had Sisro presented a contrived persona? Sure he had. But as I read over the messages they exchanged  I  also saw two people eager to a make meaningful, sincere connections that would steer their lives in new directions. They found each other, shared a brief online courtship and that was that.

After struggling with her emotions and wrestling down the urge to write him a letter asking, point blank, if she would’ve met a similar fate, Shelby took a sobering look at Facebook. The site invites us all to access our past through a range of seemingly harmless devices (photos and lists), but psychology and cognitive science is teaching us that memory is fallible. We remember selectively. We remember incorrectly. We gloss over details, re-mix others. We also lose track of time and, as a consequence, the change it takes us all through. In a nutshel, and is it pertains to Shelby and Sisro, the people we meet (again) are not the people we once knew.

“It feels like yesterday that we were back in school,” Shelby said toward the end of our interview. “I literally forget there’s a twenty year gap there.”

Whether she knew it or not, Shelby was talking about Vierodt’s Law. First identified in the 19th century by the German physician Karl von Vierodt, the law states that we tend to underestimate long intervals of time and overestimate short intervals of time. As a result, we tend to perceive events that happened in the recent past as more distant than they are (backward telescoping) and perceive events that happened in the distant past as more recent than they are (forward telescoping).

Where does Facebook fit into Vierodt’s Law? If nothing else, the site affirms and perhaps even exploits these encoded misperceptions. By commingling our entire histories in a disordered but readily accessible mishmash of experience,  our traditional notions of temporality are skewed beyond recognition.

Shelby also acknowledged that if seduction had indeed been Sisro’s intent, he hadn’t acted alone. In as much as he started the fire, she stoked it.

“I was  in a vulnerable stage in my life. If any man walked by me and paid any attention to me I got googly. I’d been single so long that it was a good feeling.”

Owning up to her actions wasn’t easy. She thought about her children, her family, friends–all the people who could’ve suffered.  “Now that I look back on it I get mad at myself for letting some guards down that I shouldn’t have.”

Is it embarrassing? Yes. Was she naive? Probably. Does her heart go out to the Zulema’s family? Absolutely. Is she happy to be alive? Without a doubt. But the real question I wanted an answer to was about Sisro: how does she feel about him now?

“It hurts when you want to help someone and you can’t. I can only imagine what he’s thinking in there. He’s probably beating himself up for what he’s done. As crazy off the wall as it may sound, I feel there’s something really bothering him.”

Next, More Than a Murderer: Friends, Family and the Other Side of a Man

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