ELKHART — When Christy Johnson heard her doorbell ring about 3 a.m. on Saturday, she thought it was her 16-year-old son returning home from visiting his friends.
“I ran to the door without even asking who it was, because I just knew it was him,” she said. “And honestly, I was going to rip him a new one because he was late and had missed curfew. I had the angry mom face on as I was about to open the door.”
Once she did open the door, Johnson said she saw two detectives standing there. The detectives came in the house and told her a parent’s worst nightmare – her son was murdered.
Jaiden Cooper was found dead just after midnight Saturday. Police say they found his body along the railroad tracks in the 900 block of Wagner Avenue. He had been shot multiple times.
Family members, friends and loved ones are now trying to make sense of their loss, remembering Cooper as a smart, outgoing, playful, and caring young man who went above and beyond to help those in need.
“My son had a really good heart,” Johnson said. “He was outspoken; he would be the one to walk into a room and introduce himself to people, spark up a conversation and ask if they were all right or needed help with something. Jaiden was a great kid.”
A native of Danville, Illinois, Cooper and his family moved to Elkhart in July last year. He went to school at The Crossing Education Center in Goshen, which is an alternative, faith-based school for students who have trouble learning in traditional school settings.
Derrick Matthews, a site leader at The Crossing, said Cooper was a leader and was well-respected by his classmates.
“He picked up on things really quick and ended up helping and training a lot of our new students on different machines we have,” he said.
Matthews said Cooper was even instrumental once in his decision on whether to hire a staff member recently.
“A couple of weeks ago, I was interviewing a new staff member and Jaiden just happened to be in the room and he took over the interview,” Matthews said. “He asked the guy some hard questions and told the potential staff member, ‘Look, if you’re going to work here at The Crossing, you got to be flexible, build relationships and be understanding.’ He just did an excellent job, and the person being interviewed appreciated Jaiden for asking him hard questions.”
Although he had attended just a year, school leaders said he had a big presence at the school, one that will be sorely missed.
“When he missed school, you could feel that he wasn’t here, but when he was here, he was a joy,” Matthew said. “He was always laughing, smiling and running around with extra energy.”
“He was a determined kid and was a leader and very hard worker,” said Crossing CEO and Founder Rob Staley. “He worked personally at my house with me. … He was a kid that was trying to find his way and discover who God was and was just an overall a really neat guy. We all really enjoyed him.”
A candlelight vigil was held Monday evening in Elkhart to commemorate Cooper’s life where several dozen people were in attendance, his mother said.
“I was surprised to see as many people as I did at the vigil,” Johnson said. “But to my understanding, with us being here for just a year, my son impacted quite a few people. The community has really extended their support and been great to me during this hard time – the school has reached out to me, my church, surrounding churches and others all reached out and showed their support.”
“This has just left a major void in my heart,” Johnson said of her son’s murder. “Jaiden was my firstborn, the first child that made me a mother that initially gave me a placing as a mother ... It’s just really difficult.”
Another void is not knowing who was responsible for her son’s murder, she said. But Johnson said she is determined to find justice and answers.
“My son was no threat. He had no weapon and, to my understanding, he was running away from the situation, which means he caused whoever’s responsible for his death no threat nor harm,” she said. “The manner in which they chose to take his life was very unnecessary and I’m hoping that justice will be served and that people step forward and talk and tell what happened to my son.”
Police said there is no update on the investigation.
Anyone with information regarding the case is encouraged to contact the Elkhart County Homicide Unit at 574-295-2821, the Elkhart police tip line at 574-389-4777 or firstname.lastname@example.org.