Crime

Man who shot at Bellingham cops at Villa Inn sentenced

Local law enforcement officers respond to a shooting at the Villa Inn on Samish Way, Monday, Aug. 26, 2013, in Bellingham. Alexander Warren Johnson, who shot at police and was then hit by return fire, has been sentenced to more than 11 years in prison.
Local law enforcement officers respond to a shooting at the Villa Inn on Samish Way, Monday, Aug. 26, 2013, in Bellingham. Alexander Warren Johnson, who shot at police and was then hit by return fire, has been sentenced to more than 11 years in prison. The Bellingham Herald

A mentally ill man must spend 11 years in prison for firing a shotgun at two Bellingham police officers in a Samish Way motel room, a Whatcom County judge ruled this week.

Alexander Warren Johnson, 56, of Bellingham, had been staying in Room 22 of the Villa Inn, 212 N. Samish Way, when a mental health worker came to check on him and get him to take his medications Aug. 26, 2013.

Johnson acted “extremely violent and threatening” to her, and seemed delusional, according to charging papers. She dialed 911 to have him taken to the hospital for an emergency mental health evaluation.

Two police officers, Chris Johnston and Steven Moyer, reached the motel around 5:20 p.m. Another man let them in the room and then left. A blanket was strung up at the bathroom, and Johnson stood behind it, his head poking out. Police ordered him to show his hands. Johnson, police said, bared his teeth and spoke in a “loud, angry manner.”

Suddenly he swung open the blanket to reveal a sawed-off pump shotgun. He fired once. The shot passed between the officers and broke out the front window of the room. Officer Johnston returned fire first with his Glock sidearm, then Moyer fired.

Johnson retreated into a bathroom, and police kept shooting at him through the wall.

Officers Johnston and Moyer rushed outside to radio for backup. More officers arrived. They moved in as Johnson begged for help on the floor. The gun, a 12-gauge Remington Wingmaster 870, was found dropped by the bathroom doorway.

Johnson suffered “a number” of gunshot wounds, the charges state. He survived.

Past doctors had prescribed Johnson lithium, anti-anxiety drugs and Abilify, an anti-psychotic. At the time of the shooting, however, he had gone off his medications and started using street drugs, said Prosecutor Dave McEachran. Johnson told one forensic psychologist he’d been using methamphetamine to treat his sleep apnea. Meth was present in his bloodstream when he was admitted to St. Joseph hospital on the day of the shooting, court records show.

Johnson first started having symptoms of mental illness — “thoughts that are not mine,” he said, and “visions and stuff … too scary to talk about” — around the age of 16, according to public court records. He lived all over the country, in Boston, Seattle, California, Alaska, before he moved to Bellingham. He’d been getting treated for schizo-affective disorder in Whatcom County since at least 2007.

In the months that followed the shooting his public defender, Jon Komorowski, visited him at least 10 times in jail. In February 2014, he filed court papers saying Johnson’s mental state was “decompensating rapidly,” and that he needed to be forced to take his medications.

After a two-month stay at Western State Hospital, doctors found him competent enough to stand trial: “His ability to form and interpret concepts and abstractions appeared adequate. His insight was fair as he acknowledged the need for psychiatric medications,” a forensic mental health report reads.

For the next year the case remained in limbo while Johnson recovered from the gunshot wounds that ravaged his digestive system. He’s now able to get around without a wheelchair.

In the meantime Komorowski and McEachran negotiated a plea deal.

Johnson changed his plea Wednesday, July 5, to guilty to two counts of assault in the second degree while armed with a deadly weapon and — due to a felony burglary conviction from 1981 — one count of unlawful possession of a firearm in the first degree.

Superior Court Judge Charles Snyder approved the plea deal to put Johnson in prison for 11 years and 8 months.

Both police officers supported the sentence, McEachran said. The prosecutor had found their use of lethal force was justified in an announcement less than a month after the shooting. This week he praised their actions.

“It just gives you an appreciation of the dangers our officers face,” McEachran said. “They have to make these decisions in microseconds.”

Reach Caleb Hutton at 360-715-2276 or caleb.hutton@bellinghamherald.com. Read the Dispatcher blog at bellinghamherald.com/dispatcher-blog and follow him on Twitter at @bhamcaleb.

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