A former U.S. Customs agent who investigators say was involved in a head-on collision that killed his 9-year-old stepson has been released from jail on bond and will be moving to Florida with his parents while the case traverses the court system.
Clifford James Johnson is accused of first-degree murder in the June 18 wreck on State Route 90 that left his stepson dead and injured several others, including two youngsters in Johnson’s pickup and the driver of the vehicle investigators said he crashed into and that person’s 1-year-old son.
Investigators also charged Johnson with aggravated DUI wrong-way, aggravated DUI with juveniles under the age of 15, endangerment, child abuse and criminal damage. His blood alcohol content at the time of arrest was .199, more than twice the legal limit.
At a hearing Monday, Cochise County Superior Court Judge Timothy Dickerson ruled that Johnson can live in Florida with his parents after they and other family members posted his $300,000 bond. Johnson was released from the Cochise County Jail on Sunday, a booking official said.
Cochise County Legal Advocate Xochitil Orozco, who is representing Johnson, told the judge that the family had secured a construction job for Johnson in Florida.
“His parents will bring him back here for any hearings,” Orozco said. “They will be driving him back.”
At the time of the crash, Johnson was employed as an agent with U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Field Operations. But on Monday CBP spokesman Rob Daniels said, “Mr. Johnson is no longer a CBP employee.”
Cochise County assistant prosecutor Michael Powell — who was standing in for County Attorney Brian McIntyre, the lead prosecutor — opposed Johnson’s temporary move to Florida, saying that “meaningful monitoring” by way of pretrial services and alcohol monitoring would be “impossible.”
However, Orozco assured Dickerson that Johnson would have both in Florida, and that because his relatives had posted the substantial bond, they would make sure he followed though.
Powell asked that if Johnson was allowed to leave Arizona that he first sign a waiver of extradition. That means if Johnson does not appear for any of his court hearings, a warrant would be put out for his arrest. Dickerson included Powell’s request for the waiver of extradition.
The judge also warned Johnson that he would have to appear at certain hearings, and that any difficulty in traveling from Florida to Arizona would not be an acceptable excuse for missing any of the sessions.
At a bail evidentiary hearing in June, details about the crash were revealed in the testimony of an Arizona Department of Public Safety detective.
Detective Jason Procunier said that motorist Michelle East, the woman whose pickup was struck by Johnson, told troopers she tried twice to evade the oncoming motorist on SR 90, but both times he aimed his vehicle at hers before plunging head-on into the front of her Dodge Ram.
East told investigators she was driving on SR 90 to her residence in Benson when she spotted another motorist in her lane heading toward her.
“She said she moved over into the next lane and then the other driver moved over to the next lane also,” Procunier said in court. “She then moved back to the other lane and he moved back to the other lane, too.”
Procunier said a witness told investigators it looked like Johnson was “going at” East’s pickup. Another witness said she saw Johnson’s truck in the grassy median “inching along,” but then saw the truck pick up speed and drive onto the lanes heading toward Benson.
East had her 1-year-old son in the back seat of her pickup. Johnson had three children in his Ford F-150, the 9-year-old boy who died, a 4-year-old girl and an 11-year-old boy, investigators said. The surviving children are his biological children. The Herald/Review is withholding the names of the minors involved.
Before emergency personnel arrived on scene, East and her child were removed from the truck by soldiers who stopped to render aid, Procunier said.
A woman who stopped to help Johnson and the three youngsters told investigators she began giving CPR to the 9-year-old.
“He (Johnson) told her that the boy was asleep,” Procunier said. “The woman told him that the boy was not asleep and then she said, ‘You just killed your kid.’ She said Johnson told her, ‘That’s not my kid. That’s my stepkid.’ ”
The witness told investigators that Johnson “smelled of alcohol.”
The detective said Johnson and his family — his wife, Mindy Johnson, is the mother of the child who died as well as three other children who were not involved in the crash — had been at a Dave & Busters in Tucson celebrating a birthday. Procunier said Johnson and Mindy Johnson drank alcoholic beverages at the venue.
At one point, Mindy Johnson stopped drinking, Procunier said, because she knew she had to drive back to Sierra Vista with three of the six children. Johnson had driven to the facility with the other three, Procunier said.
Investigators spoke to Dave & Buster’s employees and learned the Johnsons had ordered a total of nine alcoholic drinks that afternoon. Procunier said Mindy Johnson had two or maybe three drinks. The rest — Long Island iced teas — were consumed by Johnson. A bartender at the venue told investigators that Mindy Johnson had commented Johnson was acting “strange” and she did not want him driving with the three children, Procunier said.
The bartender told investigators Mindy Johnson asked Johnson to wait while she paid the bill, but when she stepped outside, he had already gone.
Initially, Johnson was charged with second degree murder, aggravated DUI wrong-way, aggravated DUI with juveniles under the age of 15, endangerment, child abuse and criminal damage. But the charge was upgraded to first degree murder under the felony murder provision of that statute, McIntyre said.
According to Arizona law, a person may be charged with first-degree murder if a death happens during the commission of certain crimes. To prove felony murder, the prosecutor doesn’t need to show that the killing was intentional, but merely a consequence of committing another felony.
Dickerson told Johnson on Monday that if a settlement has not been reached in the case in the next couple of months, a firm trial date would likely be set. The case has been deemed “complex,” which means there is copious evidence, and attorneys will be given more time to prepare for trial.
Johnson’s next hearing has been set for Oct. 25. Dickerson said the defendant would not have to be present, but would have to call in.