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click to enlarge OFFICER JOHNSON: Shot in the woods.
  • OFFICER JOHNSON: Shot in the woods.

It was kind of inevitable that Malvern's small-town rumor mill started humming almost as soon as word of the shooting of a then-unnamed police officer hit the front page of the Malvern Daily Record. From the bare-bones perspective afforded the press and public about most any ongoing police investigation, the story told by 25-year-old patrol officer Brian Johnson does seem like a pretty big pill to swallow.

Just after 1 a.m. on the morning of Friday, April 18, Johnson — bleeding from what turned out to be a superficial gunshot wound to his left shoulder — called for help from a secluded road just outside of town, a dead end in a network of neatly paved streets and cul-de-sacs created for a yet-to-gel subdivision, all of it tucked back in the woods near the Ouachita River. There had been vandalism and thefts at some of the construction sites there. The Malvern Police Department had resolved to make more patrols in the area, especially at night.

The reason the rumors were inevitable is because after investigators arrived at the scene, Johnson told them a story that sounds more like a violent nightmare than a real event. Though Johnson has not responded to requests for an interview forwarded through the Malvern Police Department, according to the original incident report, Johnson said he was on routine patrol when he caught a glimpse of a man dressed in head-to-toe camouflage, crouched in the ink-black woods off the edge of the road. By Johnson's description, the stranger was formidable — 6-foot-3 or -4, 240 pounds; a broad, scruffy, mountain-man type with a full beard and armed with a compound bow.

Nonetheless, Johnson — who, according to his personnel file, barely tops six feet — jumped out of his cruiser and gave chase into the woods. Johnson caught up to the fleeing suspect and a struggle ensued. In the midst of the altercation, the man took the officer's sidearm — a Glock semi-automatic. In the report, the account of that moment reads like something out of a bad dream, inexplicable and instantaneous. “(T)he Officer noticed the suspect had a gun,” the report states. “When (the) officer reached for his weapon, he realized the suspect had his duty weapon.”

Johnson said the man aimed the pistol at him, but he was able to push the muzzle away just before the gun fired so that the bullet only grazed his shoulder. Before the man could shoot again, Johnson was somehow able to find and press the Glock's magazine release, dropping out the clip and the majority of the gun's shells. The assailant managed to fire once more with the cartridge that remained in the chamber — a bullet that went wild into the trees. At some point — though not specifically spelled out in the report — the pair must have tumbled to the ground, with the suspect landing on top of Johnson. Even then — shot, losing blood from a wound he had no way of assessing, no doubt blinded by the muzzle flash, struggling in the dark with a much larger opponent and with the full weight of the 240-pound mystery man pressing down on him — Johnson pulled off the seemingly impossible feat of reaching into his left front pants pocket (Johnson is reportedly right-handed), finding his folding knife, opening it with one hand, and stabbing his attacker in the right side, breaking off the four-inch blade in the man's ribs as Johnson “tried to use the knife as leverage to roll the suspect off him.”  After that, the assailant somehow located his bow and fled into the woods. At this writing, the only physical object the Malvern PD will admit the suspect left behind is a single hair, found clinging to Johnson's uniform.

Meanwhile, Officer Johnson staggered back to his patrol car to call for help. Though Malvern Police Department and Arkansas state troopers soon cordoned off a perimeter, a thorough search failed to find the suspect or his body. Five days after the shooting, dogs trained to track the smell of blood followed a trail leading away from the scene, through a rugged, abandoned rock quarry, and ending a half mile from where Johnson was shot at a narrow dirt lane just off Interstate 30, where a fresh tire track was collected.

After the shooting, the Malvern Police closed ranks around Johnson, steadfastly refusing to release his identity to the press, claiming that — with his attacker still on the loose — revealing his name might make him a target.

 

Days passed. Though the Malvern PD had every available investigator their small force could spare working the case hard, the early, golden hours — the time crucial to solving a crime before the trail grows cold — trickled by.

Then, a week after shooting, just as it looked like the case might pass into the ranks of skeletons every little town seems to have lurking by the courthouse steps, something fairly amazing happened — not a break in the case, but something almost as valuable in terms of leads. On April 22, a massive reward for the suspect's capture materialized: $500,000, put up by a wealthy Dallas businessman named Joe Beard. In addition to an apartment development company called Westdale Asset Management, Beard owns a summer home in Hot Spring County. He told the press that his wife was formerly involved in law enforcement and that his only interest in posting the reward was to see the guilty party brought to justice.

While the sentiment was understandable, almost no one could say the same for the amount of cash Beard was willing to put on the line. The offer was so incredible, in fact, that for the first few days after it was announced, spokesmen for the Malvern PD refused to acknowledge that the reward fund had grown past $2,000 — $1,000 put up by the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, and an additional $1,000 reward offered by the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in response to the news that the suspect was reportedly spotted while night hunting. Verified and deposited in escrow at a local bank, however, the funds were eventually recognized by police and tips began pouring in.

Sean Rock is a case manager at a juvenile counseling agency in Malvern (a job that he admits with a laugh includes acting as one of the town's truancy officers). Rock said that word of the half-million-dollar addition to the reward fund spread through town like a brisk wind.

“People were talking about it,” Rock said. “Of course, people were always making jokes about how they're ready to go try and find the guy. They'd say, well, it looks a lot like so-and-so. I had heard people say that there are areas out there along the river where they're building that subdivision where people have been living off the land — kinda like our equivalent of mountain men that lived out there before. Maybe this guy is one of them.”

Rock said that soon after Johnson was wounded, rumors began spreading that — for whatever reason — the officer had shot himself and staged the whole thing. Then again, he said, it's like that with nearly every story in a small town: in lieu of other entertainments, people will find something to talk about, even if they have to make it up. Rock gave as an example the stories recently making the rounds about a teenage boy who drowned while swimming in a water-filled mining pit in the area.

“People try to make a mystery out of everything,” Rock said. “Then you start hearing these rumors that he didn't really drown — that he had gotten into some criminal trouble and had faked it, and was out in California now. Maybe it's just small-town boredom, where they turn everything into a conspiracy.”

 

While Dallas businessman Joe Beard's big reward and the tips it brought in suited the police just fine, Beard's motives for offering the reward turned out to be a little more complicated than a desire for law and order. Beard has stopped communicating with the press on the matter, telling the Arkansas Times through an intermediary that he wants to “put it all behind him.”  But at the time the reward offer was made, Beard confirmed that his wife, Sherri, is the aunt of Holly Johnson, the wife of Brian Johnson. What's more, in a twist bordering on the bizarre, it turns out that the Beards and the Johnsons are entangled right now in an ugly bit of legal action. In a civil lawsuit filed April 4 in Hot Spring County, the Beards claim that they wrote checks to Brian and Holly Johnson or their creditors totaling just over $32,000 in July and August of 2007 — money the Beards claim they were never paid back. What's more, according to Beard, Brian Johnson was served with papers in the lawsuit only a few hours before clocking in to work on April 17 — a shift which ended with him being shot in the Malvern woods the morning of April 18.

All this — Johnson's seemingly wild tale; the apparent lack of physical evidence; a $500,000 reward, put up by someone who less than a month before had filed a civil lawsuit against the officer; the fact that Johnson had been informed of the lawsuit, for all intents and purposes, on the same day he was wounded  — quickly brought skeptical minds both in Malvern and abroad to an obvious theory: That Beard was willing to risk a half million dollars because he doesn't believe there's any risk he'll have to pay it. If he believes that, the theory continues, he must also believe there was no assailant in the first place.

Reached at his Dallas office back in April and asked that very question more than once, Beard danced around the issue, never quite saying Johnson had fabricated the incident but also repeating that he found the story to be “incredible.” He made the reward offer, he said, to make sure justice was done, and to make sure that the story stayed in the news.  

“The $500,000 is an amount that everybody is going to look at and realize that, if there is a person out there, this is going to bring that person to justice,” Beard said. “I was afraid earlier in the week that this was just going to go away and there wouldn't be anything else said about it. ... Let's ask the questions. Where is this guy? He didn't come from New Orleans to go hunting up in Malvern. He had to be a local individual, if he exists.” Beard also noted the lack of physical evidence that has turned up so far. “Now they're saying that he was able to evade police, make it out through a rock quarry,” he said. “He's got a four-inch knife shaft in him, and he's carrying a compound bow, but he doesn't drop a hat, an arrow, a lighter, any personal belonging.” Above all, Beard said, he hoped the incident would stay in the news until the whole truth is known. “I hope that people like you will write about it, will look into it, will look into the police procedures,” Beard said. “It appears that the Malvern Police believe this story entirely.”

 

In the long run, the problem for Beard may be that the Malvern Police have every reason in the world to believe Brian Johnson's story at this point in the investigation.

Johnson's personnel file reads like an application for Eagle Scout. A former orderly at the Hot Spring County Medical Center's mental health unit, Johnson was hired by the department in February 2006 — the only blip in his background check a teen-age arrest for minor in possession of alcohol. His evaluation reports consistently rate him at very good or excellent. Johnson has no disciplinary actions listed in his file, and has twice been issued commendations by the Malvern City Council: The first for his part in helping track down and arrest two Little Rock residents suspected of involvement in the kidnapping and torture of a Malvern man; the second for arresting three people wanted in connection with a local theft.

Even at that, the lingering doubt about Johnson's story still blowing through town as gossip must have finally gotten the better of the Malvern PD. Possibly to try and settle the issue, they brought in Hayden Baldwin, a retired Illinois state trooper and crime scene reconstruction expert, for his take on the case.  After reviewing the evidence, surveying the scene of the crime and the evidence collected there, Baldwin said that he believed the crime occurred just as Johnson said it did. What's more, according to a source with close access to the case who has asked not to be named in this article, Johnson has since been subjected to a polygraph test. Although the Malvern Police Department will not confirm or deny that, our source said the test found that Johnson wasn't fabricating his account, with the examiner saying he believed the officer's version of the altercation to be “100 percent truthful.”

What's more, the source says that in recent weeks, a witness came forward to identify a prime suspect: a hunter from Louisiana with a full, bushy beard who regularly travels to the woods along the Ouachita River outside Malvern to poach deer. In addition, the same source said that just prior to the witness coming forward, the suspect had been arrested in Louisiana on an unrelated weapons charge, at which time his DNA was taken, and he was found to have a stab wound on the right side of his torso. Currently, our source says, the suspect's DNA is being checked against the hair found on Johnson's uniform at the FBI crime lab — which has the ability to extract mitochondrial DNA from hair shafts. In response to our inquiries about the possibility that a suspect has been identified in Louisiana, a spokesman for the Malvern Police Department said they couldn't discuss details of the ongoing investigation. As for Johnson's story, the leaders of the Malvern Police Department say they have been steadfastly behind him from the beginning.

“There's never been a doubt in my mind,” said Malvern Assistant Police Chief William Ross. “It happened exactly the way the officer told us it happened. … That's how we balance this, when we look at what an officer tells us. The first thing we look at is, what is consistent, and what is inconsistent? Everything the officer has told us is totally consistent with the crime scene. There are questions, which is normal, but there are no inconsistencies.”

While Ross admits that Johnson's story sounds wild on paper, it makes more sense when you see where it happened. A sticking point for skeptics has always been: How did Johnson manage to see a camouflaged suspect crouched in the woods, in the middle of the night, from a moving car?  A visit to the scene tells you how: Coming from town, the road Johnson was driving along takes a wide, 90-degree bend before heading into a cul-de-sac several hundred yards further on. In the dark, the lights of a car on that road would shine deep into the trees beyond the shoulder of the pavement. Directly off the bend of the curve is where Johnson claims he spotted the suspect. While it might have been foolhardy for an officer to chase an armed suspect into the dark without backup, you can easily see how it all might have gotten started.

Too, Ross said, there is simply a lack of motive — no real reason why Johnson would have shot himself and fabricated his account of events. “No one has shown me anything the officer could possibly gain by making this story up,” Ross said. “You hear that the guy (Beard) thinks that it was made up to have something to do with a pending lawsuit, but you just can't show me where — you know, if I'm being sued by someone, me shooting myself isn't going to change anything in that lawsuit whatsoever, so I don't understand the logic behind that.”

Though both Ross and Malvern Police Chief Donnie Taber said they were initially shocked to hear about the size of the reward posted by Beard, they quickly added that they're grateful for it, no matter what the motive behind it. Thanks in part to the reward and a sketch of the assailant created in cooperation with the Rogers Police Department, the Malvern PD has received almost 100 tips in the shooting of Johnson.  

The investigation is slow going at this point, with other cases — rapes, aggravated assaults, property crimes and a recent homicide — drawing the department's three full-time investigators away from the search for Johnson's assailant, and waiting to hear from the FBI crime lab on the results of the mitochondrial DNA test on the hair found at the scene. Even so, Taber said he believes that the case will eventually be solved.

“I feel confident that it will be answered,” he said. “We haven't tracked down all the leads yet, but we feel confident there's going to be a resolution.”

For now, they‘re working leads, and hoping the lure of the $502,000 reward fund brings some reluctant witness out of the woodwork. “It's like any other investigation,” Assistant Chief Ross said. “We felt really close a couple of times. We thought we had our guy, just to have him eliminated for one reason or another. The next thing you know, the next lead looks good and we start chasing it down.”



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