The mood today is overwhelmingly somber.
Media cameras pack the halls and there is a line in front of the courtroom to claim media passes. Any extra seats are given out in a lottery to members of the public. Today is the much anticipated testimony of Plaintiff Dewayne Lee Johnson.
I feel tacky even writing about the tragedy that has so personally struck this sweet family. However, it is important for anyone interested in using Roundup, or those who have fought to protect the use of Roundup, to understand that the implications can be devastating beyond measure. I believe that I even saw Monsanto counsel looking extremely grim. I wonder again what that legal team really believes in their deepest soul.
TESTIMONY OF ARACELI JOHNSON, PLAINTIFF’S WIFE
Araceli Johnson smiles shyly and nervously at the jury as she takes her seat in the witness box at the front of the courtroom. Araceli is originally from Mexico and her family settled in Napa when she was eleven years old. Mr. Dickens asks how she she met Lee.
Araceli first laid eyes on Lee Johnson in a pre-algebra class at Napa Valley College. She saw him walking into class late one day and thought he was incredibly attractive. She didn’t have the courage to approach him. Fortunately, her sister was also in the class, and managed to set them up. Sisters are so great that way. Thirteen years later, they are married and have two darling boys.
Their lives together have been rich with family, love, education, and adventures. They enjoyed snowboarding, exploring San Francisco and attending their boys’ sports games. Lee was “happy, sexy, and liked music, playing sports and going out for walks.” The Johnsons built a life of beauty and low stress. Things were perfect. Yes, that is past tense.
As Lee listens to Araceli describe their courtship and home life, he alternates between looking up with an adoring smile to looking down to the ground with pensive gravity. I sense a bittersweet quality in his reflection of the memories that Araceli recounts.
Anyone who has experienced a significant loss of health, either their own or someone they love, can immediately relate to the stories that are shared following Lee’s decline. In fact, Araceli’s description is so vivid and so real that it feels as though we have been living this nightmare together.
With remarkable composure, Araceli shares calamitous details of Lee learning of his diagnosis. Her delicate voice is melodic and soft, and I hear it competing with the lump in her throat as she tells her story. Over the last couple of years, Lee has cried at night when he thought everyone was asleep, taking brief respites from the positive attitude he has displayed for his family’s benefit. The overwhelming physical and emotional pain from both the NHL and treatment side effects has stolen their lives. And it is permanent.
Araceli tells Mr. Dickens that “life was beautiful and simple. Now I have to carry the cancer on my back.”
TESTIMONY OF LEE JOHNSON
Think of a person in your life who routinely brightens your day – that charismatic, hard-working guy who always has a smile and kind words to share. We all have one. I can think of a few – the gregarious security guard at my first job, the enthusiastic groundskeeper at my elementary school, and the chatty assistant at the vet who carries my jumbo sized dog food out to my car. These people make my day measurably happier and improve my opinion of innate human nature.
That person is also Lee Johnson.
Johnson takes the stand looking sharp. He wears a sleek tan leather jacket and his complexion looks considerably less damaged than some of the media pictures that I’ve seen. He states his name into the microphone and reveals a rich, calm, and deep voice that seems surprising in someone with such a severe illness. His manner is warm, intelligent and honest.
Johnson describes his family, proudly sharing the strengths of his two sons. The older one is a gifted athlete and the younger wants to be a chemist. In fact, the younger son made him a potion in the kitchen to “cure his cancer.” Johnson published two books – My Opinion and a second that he cannot immediately recall. He is frustrated by his lack of memory and shares that forgetfulness is frequent after all of the cancer treatments. His current book-in-progress, Face Value, poignantly reflects on how people may judge you based on looks. He shares (that in the absence of NHL): “Not to brag, but I really have perfect skin. 100% beautiful skin.”
Mr. Dickens questions Johnson about his career path that ultimately led to his job as the Benicia School District Integrated Pest Manager. He amusingly lists the animals that he caught and relocated, including an accidental squirrel (which made him feel terrible). He is proud of his work and posted a video on Facebook to inspire people when struggling with unemployment. In his video, Johnson makes Pest Management cool, joking that “Mickey got snatched this morning.” He finishes the video: “To have a job, I feel real good man… day in the life of Lee.”
Johnson walks through the elaborate steps he took to protect himself while spraying because “‘cide means kill”, and he was not interested in taking any risks. He would always wear a protective Tyvek suit, hat, goggles, gloves and boots when handling Ranger Pro. In addition to the two large exposure accidents, he regularly had excess spray land on unprotected parts of his face. Johnson sprayed 20-30 days/year, averaging 3-6 hours per day. He treated all of the school fields, baseball fields, football fields, and anywhere else that had weed overgrowth. The distributor of Ranger Pro taught him that it is “safe enough to drink” but “don’t drink it.”
Johnson used to work in the kitchen at Applebee’s. At Applebee’s, the policy states food preparers always should refer to the recipe book, even if they’ve prepared a dish numerous times. He used that same process when mixing Ranger Pro, water and anti-foam chemicals, and calls the finished product “The Juice”. There is an instruction booklet that he always carried, following specific “recipes” of chemical proportions pending on the hardiness of the target weed.
The mode of application was primarily from a large truck-mounted sprayer. When spraying an elementary school in early 2014, the hose became detached and Ranger Pro shot out of the engine, covering everything around with chemicals. Concerned that the chemical could flow to the drains, he dove into the truck and pushed a power button on the spray engine. His body was drenched through his clothes and down to his waist. When he returned, Johnson changed his clothes and wiped off his face and back at the work sink.
After Johnson was diagnosed with NHL, and several doctors told him that he could keep spraying Ranger Pro because of the no risk safety profile, he had a second spill accident. He used a backpack sprayer two times during his job because the truck-mounted sprayer was malfunctioning for some time. While spraying with the backpack, his back suddenly drenched. The Ranger Pro had penetrated through the tyvek suit and two shirts.
Johnson’s anxiety heightened as his skin had an “uncontrollable situation.” No one knew what was causing this explosion of aggressive NHL, and he seemed to be the only one to suspect it to be Ranger Pro. “If they had told me that it could cause cancer, I wouldn’t have continued spraying Ranger Pro on a school or anywhere.”
The physical pain Johnson has endured is unfathomable. At times, the sores are so painful that he can only tolerate the pressure of very light fabrics. Laying down can be excruciating and at times he can’t wear shoes. The courtroom is shown photos of the weeping lesions and plaques covering his body.
Dickens quietly asks, “What is it doing to you?” I can barely listen because I think I know the answer.
Johnson appears to be hold back tears and shares that he has missed so much. He can’t volunteer on his son’s football team because of post-chemo neuropathies and mandatory sun avoidance. He can’t go to the beach without covering his whole body and can’t trust that the ocean water is safe to swim in with his lesions. At a hotel, Johnson doesn’t go into the pool because he knows that the other swimmers will worry when they see his deformed skin. He is irritable with his wife, and thankful that she has stuck with him. He feels great sadness that he can no longer provide for his family because Johnson took significant pride in working hard and providing a nice life for his wife and kids.
While Johnson has tried to maintain an attitude of beating the cancer, seeing the media coverage of this trial on TV makes everything so much more real. He feels scared because next month he goes back for more chemo but he may not get better. Johnson describes his life like a “roller coaster that never stops.”
There is immense sadness penetrating the courtroom. We all feel it. Several people are wiping away tears. How this charismatic, responsible, moral and loving man could be a victim to this poison is well beyond my scope of comprehension. I don’t like to be overly dramatic, but the murdering MUST stop. It HAS to stop. This tragedy is just too much to accept.
Ms. Edwards quietly walks to the podium. Her tone is appropriately gentle and friendly. A few points:
- Johnson took a year to pass the test to earn his Qualified Applicator Certification. It involved a challenging test that was only offered sporadically.
- Edwards asks what percentage of Ranger Pro Johnson used to spray the hearty cheese weed. Johnson says he truly doesn’t remember and always used the guidebook.
- Edwards questions Johnson on the timing of the rash appearance, hoping for it to be in 2013. Johnson says that it was after a car crash. Edwards wants to continue discussing the timing question but pushes the subject very gently.
- Johnson’s doctors all seem to say the same thing – Dr. Pincus and Dr. Kim – that they don’t have scientific evidence about the cause and are just focussed on treating the cancer.
TESTIMONY OF DR. OPE OFODILE
Dr. Ofodile actually testified first thing this morning, but it didn’t seem appropriate to start today’s entry with her testimony. The day was about the Johnsons. Her testimony, however, was compelling, clear and intelligent.
Dr. Ofodile is a sophisticated, accomplished dermatologist who was Johnson’s primary treating doctor at Kaiser in Vallejo between 2014-2016. In undergrad, she studied Bio Sciences at Spelman College. She studied medicine and public health at Duke University and UNC Chapel Hill, completing her residency at University of Washington and internship at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
Wisner sensibly guides Ofodile through a detailed chronology of Johnson’s appointments and medical records. In October of 2014, he was referred to her from oncology as a patient with “diffuse melanoma,” which thankfully it was not. However, he did have a relatively recent rash that presented differently from that of his NHL. She eventually biopsied, diagnosed and treated that rash as Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC). The timing makes sense because he was undergoing phototherapy for his NHL at the time, a known cause of SCC.
Ofodile estimates that she saw Johnson over 25 times over the course of two years. During that time, she witnessed his worsening of lesions and progression into large cell transformation. (1) Because his NHL was progressing rapidly, she referred him to Stanford to pursue some clinical trials.
Following his second large glyphosate exposure in February of 2015, Johnson asked Ofodile whether Roundup could have caused his cancer. She searched PubMed and didn’t find any solid evidence pointing to that possibility. In March of 2015, Johnson emailed Ofodile, writing: “I’m feeling a little foolish spraying chemicals given my condition.” Following that email, Ofodile wrote a letter to the school board requesting that he not be exposed to any airborne allergens that could exacerbate his condition. (Like Ranger Pro)
Monsanto graciously thanked Dr. Ofodile and had no questions for a cross-examination.
TESTIMONY OF DR. DANIEL GOLDSTEIN
It takes mammoth effort to watch the continued video testimony this shady man – Monsanto’s Medical Sciences and Outreach Lead – Daniel Goldstein. After everything that we’ve heard today, I am even more incredibly disheartened to hear his callous responses in internal emails. It is fatiguing to witness his absolute claim that there is no viable evidence to suggest that glyphosate causes NHL.
I’ll be back in court. The fanfare will dissipate and I suspect the viewing party will return to attorneys, three other journalists and me.
© 2018 Kelly Ryerson ALL RIGHTS RESERVED