The woman whose truck was slammed into head on by the intoxicated driver of another pickup in a crash that killed a 9-year-old boy and injured three other children told troopers she tried twice to evade the oncoming motorist on State Route 90, but both times he aimed his vehicle at hers before plunging into the front of her Dodge Ram.
That was one of the many disturbing details that emerged Tuesday morning at a hearing in which a judge had to decide whether Clifford Johnson, charged with first degree murder among other offenses, should be released on bond while his case winds its way through court.
At the end of the 35-minute session, Cochise County Superior Court Judge Timothy Dickerson decided that Johnson, who was driving with a blood alcohol content of .199, more than twice the legal limit, is not a threat to the community or to the victims of the wreck. He set Johnson’s bond at $300,000 and prohibited the defendant from contacting his wife, the other motorist or any of the children who survived the fatal crash that killed Johnson’s 9-year-old stepson.
Johnson, who is employed as a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent with the Office of Field Operations, is not allowed to drive, drink or take any narcotics, Dickerson said.
The fatal wreck occurred on June 18 just before 6:30 p.m. on SR 90 between Sierra Vista and Benson, said Department of Public Safety Detective Jason Procunier.
Michell East, the driver of the Dodge truck that Johnson is accused of ramming into, 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.
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.”
Cochise County State Attorney Brian McIntyre, who was handling the prosecution Tuesday, asked Procunier where Johnson and the three children were coming from when the crash occurred.
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.
“She tried calling him to get him to stop,” Procunier said. “She was unsuccessful in getting him to stop.”
Procunier said the child who died suffered injuries to his head, neck and chest cavity as well as internal damage. The 11-year-old boy had a broken sternum and the 4-year-old girl had a broken leg. Procunier said the latter was placed in a cast from the waist down. East suffered a broken elbow and her toddler had minor injuries. Johnson had some cuts and bruises.
McIntyre wanted Johnson held on $750,000 bond, but defense attorney Joshua Jones argued that such a high amount was akin to no bail. Jones said Johnson’s relatives would assure that he appears at his court hearings.
No one from Johnson’s family attended the hearing Tuesday. It was held at the same time the 9-year-old victim was being buried, a court official said.
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.
Johnson, who sat handcuffed and motionless for the entire hearing, staring mostly at the floor, was arraigned after the session and entered a plea of not guilty.
His next hearing is scheduled for Aug. 2 in front of Dickerson.