In the days following , friends and relatives of Michelle Johnson and Paul Aldapa are still trying to piece together what happened to their loved ones.
Although Johnson's coworkers at the were well familiar with the girl they called "Shelley," no information on Aldapa was available from his Coast Guard unit at press time. Neither did many of Johnson’s friends or co-workers know much about the boyfriend who reportedly took her life before ending his own.
Since then, thoughts and prayers for the late 22-year-old serviceman have come pouring in from those close to him. Universally, they echo with the same thought: disbelief.
That the handsome young man they knew as the little bouncer who never fought, the little brother who couldn’t be provoked, could have come to such a despairing and violent end.
That two young lives, which held the promise of greater things yet to come, would be shortened in an instant.
'You couldn’t push his buttons'
The Aldapas are a multi-generational military family, said Paul’s brother, Tony, 24. The Vacaville, CA-based clan traces its roots to grandfather Manuel, an Army Air Corps officer.
Tony Aldapa is a U.S. Navy Petty Officer, 2nd Class, and a combat veteran who served in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. He is currently stationed in Pearl Harbor, HI.
Mutually heavy workloads and a six-hour time difference kept the brothers apart, communicating infrequently and rarely encountering one another in person. They teased each other as only brothers can, their rivalry fueled by the healthy competition shared among members of every branch of the U.S. military.
“I tried to push his buttons,” Tony said. “Can’t push ‘em. Every single time we’re together, I’d try to push his buttons and nothing.
“If anything, I was the one with anger issues” acclimating to civilian life after Afghanistan, Tony said.
“He was a great kid, he came from a loving family and had more friends than anyone I've ever known.”
When Manuel died in January, at the age of 93, Paul was the glue who held the family together, Tony said.
“He was the one who told the jokes, he was there when people were sad, and he could make you laugh,” Tony said.
“The only time I’ve ever seen him angry was wrestling; he was a high school wrestler,” Tony said. “He never got angry; I’ve never seen him yell, nothing.”
Paul’s enlistment period was about to conclude in September, and he planned to enter a career in law enforcement. In fact, Tony said, Paul had chosen the Coast Guard over the Navy because he thought it would give him a better chance of making the police academy.
Sadly, it was not to be.
'You just can’t believe it was him'
“Before any of this happened, I would have said he was a kid you wanted your daughter to date,” said , 43.
Pietropaula hired Paul Aldapa as a doorman at the Old City bar, The Plough and the Stars, where Aldapa eventually also became a bouncer. The pair worked together for two years, and Pietropaula said staff at the bar can’t remember Aldapa being involved in a single fight in that time.
“It was almost to the point that he was adorable,” Pietropaula said. “I would tap him on the top of the head like he was my kid.”
Aldapa was beloved of the staff at the bar, he said, the owner of which provided a glowing reference on Aldapa’s behalf when she was contacted by the Baltimore Police Department, with whom he had applied to work
“I couldn’t possibly have said a negative word about the kid,” said Pietropaula, who left Plough and the Stars last year. “I was planning to hire him at my place.”
Pietropaula said he couldn’t remember seeing Aldapa with Johnson, and had no comment on their relationship.
“When I was with him, he wasn’t really into one particular girl,” Pietropaula said. “He was always kind of picking up girls. He was a good-looking kid. He never came in alone.”
Pietropaula said he didn’t know Aldapa to have a problem with alcohol or substances, either.
“He came in and drank like any 22-year-old kid. I’ve never seen him bombed or carried out of a bar,” he said.
All those factors considered Pietropaula said, it doesn’t make the news of Aldapa’s apparent suicide any easier to comprehend, much less the thought of him allegedly taking Johnson with him.
“Obviously if I was the father of the daughter, it’s inexcusable,” said Pietropaula, who has a 21-year-old daughter. “But you just can’t believe it was him. Just the thought of him taking his own life would have been stunning.
“The shame of it is that 22 years and every bit but the final 20 seconds of his life, he was a phenomenal kid,” Pietropaula said. “To me, a kid like that, it’s not the way it’s supposed to be.”
Pietropaula said that his personal connection to the event has made him far less dismissive of other tragedies he encounters even in passing. He remarked that it’s softened him because if something like this could involve a guy like Paul, then it involve anyone else.
“When you pass, all you have is what they say about you, and it’s a shame that all they’re going to say about him is nothing about how he lived but those final 20 seconds,” Pietropaula said.
“I can’t look at him that way,” he said. “I guess if it was my daughter, I guess I would, right? But I haven’t gotten to that point.
“This whole thing taught me I can’t jump and judge that quickly,” he said.
'These were people like us'
If anything is made of Aldapa’s and Johnson’s deaths, perhaps it is the thought that two people so dearly beloved by their respective friends could have struggled under the weight of a relationship that might have been a bad fit, bad timing, or just bad luck.
A final remembrance of Paul Aldapa was shared by a Patch reader with close ties to his Coast Guard unit. We have removed the name of this individual from his or her remarks because the U.S. Coast Guard still considers the investigation to be ongoing, but the tale they tell is powerful.
This source described Aldapa as “a 22 year-old who seemed to have his act together.” Like Pietropaula and Aldapa’s other coworkers at Plough and the Stars, the circumstances surrounding his death were unbelievable to his fellow servicepersons.
“I thought I knew what domestic violence looked like, and the people who carried it out and the people who were the victims of that,” the source said. “Paul doesn’t fit with what I saw of that.”
Yet the source said that Aldapa was known to exhibit a temper “over things that others would let pass by,” and confirmed that Aldapa had been enrolled in anger management classes, which it was believed would be “helpful.”
“He was a young guy who reacted to stuff, but people would tell him ‘Paul, blow it off, and he would,’” the source said.
The Coast Guard provided Aldapa with stability and structure that kept him free of disciplinary action, and his fellow enlisted men had no concerns that he was uncontrolled or a liability of any sort, the source said.
But when it came to Johnson, “Paul once stated that he and Michelle were probably too similar, and knew how to push each other's buttons.
They were young, the source said. Potentially alcohol was involved, and “Paul made a horrific decision obviously.”
But neither he nor Johnson deserves to be “reduced to a stereotype,” the source said.
“These were not ‘people like that’,” the source said. “These were people like us. I'd like their situation to be a learning point for other people.
“People need to learn to manage their emotions. People need to learn when to walk away. Something useful needs to come of this senseless incident that robbed two families of their children.
“If you could educate even one person on this, perhaps something of value comes out of this,” the source said. “At this point, it is just a horrific, pointless, painful incident.”