SEAVIEW — The way tow-truck driver George Hill remembered it, the gun that nearly killed Trooper Scott Johnson went off with a “pop,” rather than a “bang.” Either way, it was the sound of lives changing, instantly, and forever.
Nearly eight years later, Johnson is serving his second term as Pacific County sheriff, with a bullet still lodged in his head. Former Seaview resident Martin Jones is serving a 50-year prison sentence for attempted murder, and still insisting he is innocent. His wife, Susan Jones, is adapting to a radically changed life, and still fighting to exonerate him.
Sealed as their fates may seem, the case is far from over. In May, Seattle defense attorney Lenell Nussbaum asked the state Court of Appeals for a new trial, saying that virtually everything we know about the Feb. 13, 2010 shooting is wrong.
Nussbaum’s petition and the nationally published Associated Press article that followed have stirred up complex emotions for the people closest to the case. In candid May and June interviews, Johnson and Susan Jones shared their memories of that terrible night and everything that followed.
This is a two-part story. This week, we’ll look at Nussbaum’s theory of the case, and hear Johnson’s recollections of the shooting, and the surreal, and often frustrating experience of being a cop who is also a crime victim.
Next week, we’ll look at what the case might mean for each party, and hear from Susan Jones about what it’s like to be at the center of a high-profile case, how her life has changed, and why she still believes in her husband.
“The person that shot me is the person that was arrested. I can’t say it more simply than that,” Johnson said in May. “I talked to him. I looked at him. I have no question in my mind that it was Martin Jones.”
Johnson says he has watched a mental slideshow of that night a zillion times. A few frames from the immediate aftermath are missing, but others are rendered in sharp detail. At about midnight, Susan Jones got pulled over for speeding, and then was arrested on suspicion of DUI. He went to the scene, near 13th Street South, to help Hill prepare Jones’ van for towing.
Around 12:30 a.m., a man approached Hill. They talked for a moment, but Johnson couldn’t hear over the roar of the tow truck. Johnson says he asked the man if he needed anything as he passed. The man said “No,” and left. Later, Johnson would say there was something “off”; something “creepy” about the man.
He and Hill went back to making an inventory of the van’s contents. The man came back. In an instant, his arm was around Johnson’s chest and the gun was pressed against the back of his skull.
“It just happened that suddenly,” Johnson remembered. “I felt like I was hit in the head with a crowbar as hard as could be.”
Investigators surmised that after learning of his wife’s arrest, Jones went to the scene and tried to kill Johnson.
“Some people just lose it and commit a crime,” Johnson said.
Two wayward brothers and a missing gun
Afterwards, there were a lot of questions. Could a man who’d just been shot in the head really know what he’d seen? Why would a guy with no criminal history suddenly try to murder a trooper in front of a witness? And what happened to the gun?
The missing gun plays a central role in the case Nussbaum assembled with help from retired cop and private investigator Winthrop Taylor.
At the heart of the story are drug-dealing brothers Peter and Nick Boer. Currently, Peter Boer is in a state prison, and Nick Boer says he is clean and living in Aberdeen, according to AP reporter Gene Johnson’s May article. But at the time, both were Peninsula residents with drug habits, long criminal histories, and friends with names like “Shroomy Joe.”
Nussbaum says Nick Boer shot Johnson — possibly with a German World War II-era pistol he stole from Peter’s friend, Eddie Davis — and then confessed to Peter, and asked him to dump a sack of gun parts in a Seaview drainage creek. Nussbaum alleges that Johnson framed Jones to cover up his attempts to extort Nick Boer.
In 2012, Peter Boer’s friend Mike McLeod told his father he thought Nick Boer was involved in the shooting. His father called Jones’ lawyers, but by then, Jones was going through the appeals process, and new evidence wasn’t a priority. McLeod didn’t give a video interview until 2014.
Witness statements that Nussbaum filed with the petition are fairly consistent on a few key points: Eddie Davis thought Nick stole the gun, which took .22 “shorts,” the type of casings recovered at the scene. Shortly after the shooting, Nick Boer hinted to several people that he shot Johnson, supposedly because he was tired of Johnson demanding “taxes” on his drug-dealing profits (The petition provides no evidence of Johnson’s alleged corruption, and some people thought Boer was joking). McLeod still maintains that on the night of the shooting, Peter Boer dumped a sack in a Seaview creek when they went there to get high. McLeod also said Boer continued to talk about his suspicions about his brother for a couple of years.
A reputation on trial
Johnson feel like he is once again defending some of his most deeply-held values and beliefs.
“My integrity is everything,” Johnson said. “I have worked a whole lifetime to get a good reputation.”
Undersheriff Ron Clark jokes that his boss has been a cop for so long that his first service weapon was a musket. In fact, when Johnson became a cadet at 17, he was too young to carry a handgun or do service calls in bars. He eventually joined Washington State Patrol, however, and by the time of the shooting, he was a decorated trooper who had conducted thousands of traffic stops.
Johnson, whose public persona is soft-spoken, earnest and impeccably polite, doesn’t like it when his deputies use even mild curse words. He says Nussbaum’s allegations of corruption are especially painful to him. If he knew anyone in Nussbaum’s petition at all, he said, it was never more than a passing acquaintance.
“There’s nothing true about the part between Mr. Boer and I,” Johnson said. “I’ve never shaken anybody down. That’s preposterous to even think that would happen.” Nick Boer also denies the allegations.
A bloody year
Johnson never imagined that after seven years of interviews, investigations and repeated scans to prove there is really a bullet in his head, he’d still be under scrutiny.
“I’ve heard people say I couldn’t have gotten a good look at him,” Johnson said. “I watched him come up the sidewalk. It was a Saturday night. It was late into the morning — not when people were generally on the sidewalk.”
From his perspective, it all makes more sense if you understand that at the time, Washington cops felt like they were under siege.
To be a cop is to be on intimate terms with fear. Every officer must embrace the suffocating proposition that any stranger could be an adversary, and any given breath could be their last.
That was never more true than in the year leading up to Johnson’s shooting. At that time, it was perhaps the bloodiest period in history for West Coast cops. In March 2009, a gunman murdered four Oakland police officers. On Oct. 31, Seattle police officer Timothy Brenton was fatally shot while sitting in his patrol car. Less than a month later, an Arkansas man executed four Lakewood, Washington police officers in a coffee shop. In December, a gunman critically injured one Pierce County deputy and fatally shot another in the town of Eatonville.
“Every single one of us was on heightened awareness. When we went to work, every single one of us was asking, ‘Which one of us is next?’” Johnson recalled. “I think that night I was being more careful than ever. To see someone coming up in the dark in an area where there was no pedestrian traffic caught my attention immediately. ‘Who is this, and why are they here?’”
Incredibly, he never lost consciousness. His training kicked in. He took cover behind the tow truck, and fired off two shots, which didn’t hit their targets.
“I remember wondering how I was still alive,” Johnson said. Feeling something wet, he reached up to touch his forehead.
“I pulled my hand away. Blood. I had lost my hearing at that point. I had a loud, loud ringing in my ears,” Johnson said. “The blood, in my mind, confirmed that it exited my forehead.” He thought he was dying. Hill called for help.
Later, people would say Johnson filled in details that he couldn’t possibly have seen; that he convinced himself Jones was the shooter after thinking it over, and looking at photos in the hospital. But Johnson says that, fearing he would die before the ambulance arrived, he desperately tried to give a description to a dispatcher. In her rush to get medical help, the dispatcher ended the call before he finished.
Johnson doesn’t blame the dispatcher, but he does wish that moment had played out differently.
“It totally was just devastating to me,” Johnson said. “Dispatch is our lifeline. To be disconnected from them — I felt like, ‘Now my help is gone.’”
Awake and alert
A Long Beach officer threw Johnson in his patrol car and made it to Ocean Beach Hospital in two minutes flat. Later, he was transferred to Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland. He chatted with the medic on the way. According to trial documents, he told the medic he “didn’t get a good look” at his shooter.
“I remember every bump in the road and how bad the suspension in the ambulance was,” Johnson recalled. “I remember the guy in the ambulance telling me we were surrounded the whole way to Portland with patrol cars.”
At OHSU, police set up a command post, and everyone from local officers to WSP Chief John Batiste visited him. Again and again, the visitors were amazed to find Johnson alert, and even able to crack jokes.
Investigating from a hospital bed
Johnson answered investigators’ questions, and asked repeatedly to see a picture of Martin Jones.
“I had written Jones’ name and number on my hand,” Johnson remembered. “The cop in me was — you know, ‘You have to look at all potential suspects.’”
That detail has come back to haunt him. According to the trial transcripts, a person who was inexperienced with investigations showed Johnson a paper copy of Jones’ drivers license photo. Without knowing that Johnson had seen the picture, a forensic artist worked with him to create a sketch of the shooter.
Johnson felt that part of the story was “very much mis-characterized.” In his memory, the image he saw was so poor that he couldn’t make anything out.
“It’s very important for me to state this: the sketch artist drew based on my recollection,” Johnson said.
The confusion over the sketch illustrates one of the most unique and troubling aspects of the case: Everyone, from Johnson, to the investigators to the defense team, has, at times, found it difficult to separate Johnson the Cop, from Johnson the Victim. Did he, in fact, notice more details at the crime scene than a civilian would have noticed? Did investigators approach the case differently, or share things with him that they would not have shared with someone who was not a member of the brotherhood? Did people later blame Johnson for flaws in the investigation, even though he was not responsible for seeing that it was conducted properly?
Johnson wishes people would remember that at the second the bullet lodged in his skull, he became a patient and a crime victim.
“I’ll take my lumps when I deserve them, but I don’t deserve to have people say these things about me,” Johnson said.