By Jon Bream, Emma Nelson and Pam Louwagie Star Tribune staff writers
May 14, 2016 — 9:32pm
He was the best man at Prince’s 1996 wedding, the drummer in his most recent band and his de facto bodyguard. She is a 26-year-old Ethiopian-born model, invited into the megastar’s world as his personal assistant just a couple of years ago.
Kirk Johnson, 51, was the estate manager at Paisley Park Studios, the go-to guy for just about everything from finances to furnishings. Meron Bekure kept track of the details, waking up every day to a long list of e-mails listing tasks for the day.
The two were the latest — and last — members of Prince’s ever-evolving, elusive inner circle. They were at Paisley Park when his body was found in an elevator the morning of April 21. Now they find themselves in the middle of a firestorm of questions about what led to the 57-year-old Prince’s apparent illnesses and sudden demise.
Johnson and Bekure have both talked with investigators, who are piecing together whether painkillers played a role in Prince’s death. But the two have kept quiet publicly, loyal to the international icon’s intense desire for privacy, even after his death.
“Right now, it’s just too painful to even speak,” Johnson said via text Friday to the Star Tribune. He declined further comment.
An attorney representing Bekure, Ryan Garry, issued a statement to the Star Tribune saying only that Bekure “is incredibly saddened” by Prince’s death. “Just like the rest of the world she was shocked, and requests privacy during this hard time.”
Prince was pronounced dead at 10:07 a.m. April 21, 19 minutes after emergency responders arrived at Paisley Park, his recording studio complex in Chanhassen. The cause of death remains undetermined, pending the results of an autopsy and toxicology tests.
A search warrant revealed that a Twin Cities physician had treated Prince twice before he died, including the night before he was found. A source has told the Star Tribune that Prince was being treated for withdrawal symptoms from his addiction to painkillers.
A California doctor specializing in pain and addiction treatment was making plans to see Prince and dispatched his son to Paisley Park to initiate contact, an attorney for the doctor’s family said. The son was at the recording complex with Johnson and Bekure when Prince’s body was found. He called 911, saying the others were “just distraught.”
Early in the morning of April 15, Johnson was on Prince’s private plane en route home from two concerts in Atlanta when it made an emergency landing in Moline, Ill. Sources with direct knowledge of the investigation have said that the landing occurred because Prince was overdosing on opioids.
Later that night, Johnson responded to the Star Tribune via text message:
“All is good. Home and well,” the text said.
“Bad dehydration. Sorry, I can’t talk right now. Hey u and 2 million others are on me, but I’m not the publicist. Sorry.”
Considered Prince’s closest friend, Johnson served as the best man at the singer’s first wedding at Park Avenue United Methodist Church. Johnson’s brother officiated at Prince’s marriage to Mayte Garcia. Their friendship stretches back decades.
Johnson, a fellow graduate of Minneapolis Central High School, had a small part in Prince’s 1984 movie “Purple Rain” as a dancer in the balcony at First Avenue. He later became a regular in Prince’s circle, programming electronic drums, producing Paisley Park Records projects for musicians including Rock Hall of Famer Mavis Staples and drumming on Prince tours and albums, including “Diamonds and Pearls” and “Emancipation.”
Over the years, Johnson wore many hats for Prince. In addition to managing Paisley Park in recent years, he coordinated tour logistics, organized concerts and after-parties, and even carried Prince’s guitar on the road. When Prince needed a doctor, Johnson made the call to his own personal physician.
A buff fitness trainer with a shaved head, Johnson invariably sported a sharp suit but not always a tie when on duty for Prince. People who know him describe Johnson as a good soldier, loyal, hardworking, resourceful, soft-spoken and polite.
“He’s able to get things done,” said veteran Twin Cities musician Paul Peterson, who played in an all-star local band called the Truth with Johnson. “He was the leader of the band. Good Lord, there were lots of egos. He was really diplomatic. He was respected. He doesn’t get heated about anything. He’s a smart, fair man. He’s a good guy.”
Prince trusted Johnson to serve as president of Love 4 One Another Charities, according to tax returns filed in 2005-07.
Johnson studied business for three years at the University of Minnesota, which he attended on a track scholarship. In addition to his work with Prince, Johnson, a divorced father of two daughters, holds a staff job at Life Time Fitness as group fitness music manager.
Johnson couldn’t be everywhere at Paisley Park, so he hired others to broker the deal for Prince’s custom-designed purple piano from Yamaha and negotiate with the Vikings for a possible Prince concert at U.S. Bank Stadium.
One outside vendor said he took his orders from Johnson. But he could tell when the thoughts were emanating directly from Prince: The e-mails would be in capital letters.
After Prince’s memorial service April 23 at Paisley Park, Johnson left for a previously scheduled vacation. He has since returned to the Twin Cities, but has not been in the building since Bremer Trust took over supervision of Prince’s estate late last month at the request of his siblings.
While Johnson had been with Prince for decades, Bekure was a newcomer to Paisley Park.
She considered her role there more than a job. In an online tribute to her boss, posted days after he died, Bekure described “an amazing and caring family” and said Prince inspired her to “think beyond limitations and eliminate words such as can’t, don’t, shouldn’t.”
Since his death, she wrote, it had been odd for her not to wake up to “a bunch of emails with hundreds of things to do for the day.”
In her role as personal assistant, Bekure performed such tasks as supplying Prince fans with CDs to sell as part of a so-called peer-to-peer distribution network, the latest in Prince’s alternative ways of marketing his music.
Friend Dena Pavlo gushed that Bekure loved her “amazing” job.
“I know that she really, really grew as a person,” said Pavlo, who had supervised Bekure in two previous retail jobs.
Bekure studied community health at St. Cloud State University from 2009 to 2013. She interned at the campus Women’s Center, helping to organize a Valentine’s Day flash mob to raise awareness about violence against women.
In 2011, she competed as Miss Ethiopia in the Miss Africa Minnesota pageant. In an interview with Zehabesha.com, she said she came to the United States when she was 12. She described a difficult transition, filled with opportunity amid the challenge of adapting to a new culture.
Asked what she would do if she won the pageant, she expressed an interest in working with young people, particularly girls.
“I dream to make a dent in this world and be the reason for the betterment of somebody’s life,” Bekure said.
As part of their 24/7 jobs with Prince, Bekure and Johnson were at the Dakota Jazz Club in downtown Minneapolis on April 19 for a concert by vocalist Lizz Wright. It was the last time Prince was seen at a public event. And his inner circle was with him.
Staff writers Dan Browning and David Chanen contributed to this report.
Jon Bream has been a music critic at the Star Tribune since 1975, making him the longest tenured pop critic at a U.S. daily newspaper. He has attended more than 8,000 concerts and written four books (on Prince, Led Zeppelin, Neil Diamond and Bob Dylan). Thus far, he has ignored readers’ suggestions that he take a music-appreciation class.
St. Paul reporter Emma Nelson joined the Star Tribune in 2014, and has covered local government beats from Scott and Dakota counties to Minneapolis City Hall. She has also been part of reporting teams that covered the aftermath of the Norwood Teague sexual harassment scandal and the death of Prince.
Pam Louwagie is a regional reporter and Duluth Bureau Chief for the Star Tribune. She previously covered courts and legal affairs and was on the newspaper’s investigative team. She now writes frequently about a variety of topics in northeast Minnesota and around the state and region. Sign up to receive the new North Report newsletter.