Disgrace, End of Army Career Haunted GunmanJuly 19, 2016 |
by Frank Bajak, Garance Burke, Reese Dunklin and Juliet Linderman, Associated Press
DALLAS — He was disarmed in the middle of a war zone and placed under 24-hour escort. The most humiliating part was that everyone in Micah Johnson’s unit in Afghanistan knew why: He was accused of stealing a female soldier’s panties.
Johnson’s aspirations to a military career were over. Now he faced removal from the Army. The well-liked, easygoing young black man whose friendships were described as colorblind was suddenly deeply shamed and ostracized.
People who knew him, both before and after, say he was never the same.
Authorities have described Johnson as a loner who shot and killed five officers in downtown Dallas during last week’s peaceful protest over police shootings nationwide. President Barack Obama, at a memorial for the victims, called him “demented.”
But in multiple interviews with The Associated Press, the Mississippi-born, Texas-bred 25-year-old was remembered by friends, comrades and acquaintances as a gregarious, even “goofy” extrovert.
Johnson wasn’t the best marksman, a fellow Army Reserve buddy recalled, and his former squad leader described him as less than motivated during training. But in Dallas, he showed striking tactical effectiveness, video from the scene shows. He moved stealthily, used columns for cover and swiveled his head to watch corners for threats.
Such was his skill that police initially thought they were taking fire from multiple snipers.
Retired Army Sgt. Gilbert Fischbach, Johnson’s former squad leader in Texas, said the Johnson who craftily changed locations to confuse his enemy was not the same soldier he trained.
“He didn’t seem to be motivated or enthused to learn those types of tactics,” he said. “These are things he was trained on but never seemed to really care about.”
Struggled in School
As a boy in a Dallas suburb with friends of all backgrounds, Johnson dreamed of being a police officer or a soldier, relatives said.
His school transcripts show he struggled academically when he changed school districts a decade after his parents’ 1996 divorce. He failed some courses but graduated in 2009 with a 1.98 grade-point average, ranking 430 out of 453 students in his class.
But in ROTC, he was serious, said Latisha Boyd, who enrolled in JROTC with Johnson in 2009, when she was a freshman and he a senior.
“He was really friendly and passionate about the Army,” she said. “I wasn’t really into it, but he was. If I had a problem or needed help with an exercise, he’s the one I’d go to.”
Other close high school friends also described a different Johnson than the shooter in the shadows.
“He was the goofy guy. He always had something funny to say. He didn’t have a care in the world,” said Stanlee Washington, who now lives in California. Johnson cared deeply about his friends and family, especially his younger brother who had autism, Washington added.
Johnson would sometimes try to talk politics, said Jake Hunt, who became friends with Johnson shortly after transferring to Dr. John D. Horn High School in Mesquite when he was 17.
“We weren’t big partiers. We just hung out with each other,” he added. “If something happened in the news, he’d try and talk about it. But we tried to stay away from it.”
Toward the end of Johnson’s senior year, he became friends with a classmate, Justin Garner, who was assigned to the same skill trade, carpentry and masonry, in the same Army Reserve unit, the 284th Engineer Company of the 420th Engineer Brigade. The pair often worked out together to prepare for the Army’s physical tests. Afterward they played Xbox, Garner said.
“I loved him to death, but that guy was not really a good soldier. There were certain technical skills you need as a soldier that he was lacking, like shooting, if you can believe it,” Garner said.
Johnson did poorly in the required rifle test, scoring the lowest rank of “marksman” after shooting at silhouetted targets from as far away as 300 meters, according to Garner, who said he got the highest ranking.
They soon bonded with other young soldiers in the Army Reserve in Texas and formed a clique of mostly white and Latino reservists.
He recalled an incident in spring 2010 that gave him pause about Johnson. It was around 2 a.m. and Johnson called him from a party at a friend’s house, asking to be picked up.
Johnson told him, “’I was about to get into it with this guy, and I felt like I was going to do the wrong thing so I needed someone to get me out of there,’“ said Garner, who calmed him down.
“It kind of freaked me out a little bit,” Garner added. “I didn’t think this guy was off the deep end, but I felt like I didn’t want to be on the wrong end of his sword.”
Fischbach said Johnson developed a crush on a squad mate when the two met in 2009 in Texas. They became best friends, but she made it clear that it would not grow into anything more intimate, he said.
“They were very good friends. Pretty much inseparable,” he said. “We even had to break them up a few times” because it was distracting others.
Johnson’s mother, Delphene, recalled that the young woman had visited and stayed overnight at the family’s house in Mesquite numerous times over two years. Johnson and the woman even “slept in the same bed,” his mother told TheBlaze, a news site founded by conservative talk show host Glenn Beck.
But the relationship took a sharp turn after she filed a sexual harassment complaint against Johnson while they were in Afghanistan.
The AP is not identifying the woman because of the complaint, but it has made repeated efforts to talk to her and Johnson’s family.
“She bought me gifts, birthday and Christmas gifts,” Delphene Johnson said in the only interview she has granted.
The two deployed to an area of Afghanistan that had seen heavy combat but that was relatively quiet when the 284th arrived in November 2013, said Fischbach, who left the unit just before it deployed. He said he had been in frequent contact with members of the unit since the shooting, and was speaking to the AP on their behalf because they were either under military gag order or did not wish to speak to the media.
The unit built a gym for Special Forces and was largely confined to base, Fischbach said.
At one point, the base lost access to potable water and went nearly five weeks without laundry or showers. Afghan contractors did the wash, and Johnson took the woman’s laundry along with his to be washed, but when it came back, some panties were missing, Fischbach said.
At first, the woman thought it was the Afghans. But they denied it. So the soldiers’ quarters were searched and, according to Fischbach, Johnson was caught red-handed trying to dispose of her dirty underwear.
“She was just torn apart,” he said. “Not only had her best friend betrayed her trust but had done something that was extraordinarily out of character.”
Fischbach said he thought the incident revealed “something deeply rooted in him that was wrong.”
The woman filed a complaint against Johnson with the Army in May 2014 and sought a protective order against Johnson “pertaining to myself, my family, home, restaurant and any other place of residence I may reside at,” according to a military lawyer assigned to the case. She also asked that Johnson receive “mental help.”
Johnson’s mother gave a different account of the fractured relationship between her son and the woman. Once overseas, the woman had done “things that she should not have been doing with someone in a higher ranking. He called her out on it,” the mother said in TheBlaze interview.
Fischbach said he knew of no evidence to substantiate that claim.
Once Johnson was accused, per protocol, he was disarmed and assigned a non-commissioned officer to accompany him 24 hours a day – to the bathroom, to the shower, everywhere.
“It prevents him from committing suicide if he’s suicidal,” said Fischbach, or striking out at others.
In July 2014, Johnson was sent home from Afghanistan.
Johnson originally faced removal from the Army altogether, said Texas-based defense attorney Bradford Glendening, which was “highly unusual” since sexual harassment cases typically wind up with a soldier receiving counseling. The case ended in September 2014, when Johnson signed paperwork agreeing to receive a “less than honorable” discharge from the Army, Glendening said.
But Johnson wasn’t discharged until April 2015, and Glendening said last week he was told Johnson had received an honorable discharge. Glendening is no longer discussing the case, saying he could face military prosecution for violating orders not to talk about it.
U.S. officials on Friday said the Army Criminal Investigation Command had reopened the sexual harassment case against Johnson to see if documentation was properly handled. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case publicly. The Army has refused to discuss it.
Fischbach called the decision “damage control” and said he did not believe Johnson ever received the psychological evaluation the complaint requested. “Right now it’s just a smoke screen until they can make up another story,” he said.
Johnson returned home deeply changed, his mother told TheBlaze. His father, James, said he “became a loner” and “didn’t like people.”
He sought medical care from the Veterans Health Administration for a back injury, but got no help after filling out forms and going to meetings so he “just finally gave up,” his mother said.
VA spokesman James Hutton told the AP Johnson accessed care three times at Dallas VA Medical Center, for the last time in September 2014.
Johnson began receiving payments from the state to help care for his disabled younger brother through a company called Touch of Kindness, which has a contract with the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services.
By April 2015, Johnson headed to the streets of downtown Dallas for a protest that brought many anti-police brutality groups together over the death of Freddie Gray, who died after his neck was broken inside the prisoner compartment of a Baltimore police van.
Yafeuh Balogun, who helped found the Dallas-based Huey P. Newton Gun Club, said he met Johnson there through a mutual friend, but that they didn’t discuss much beyond the day’s protest. The gun club presses for accountability reforms at the Dallas Police Department and has carried out armed citizen patrols of Dallas neighborhoods, Balogun said.
Balogun came away with an impression that Johnson was a “cool, level-headed person” who was exploring contemporary black nationalism.
“When you are in the beginning phase of consciousness, you go to a lot of lectures because you are looking to find someone to follow,” he said. “That was what Micah was doing.”
But Johnson never joined the gun club, Balogun added.
Incident with Police
In May 2015, a month after Johnson was discharged, he and three other men were questioned by police in suburban Richardson responding to a “suspicious person” report while they were sitting in a black Chevrolet Tahoe, according to a police report.
Johnson explained he was waiting for his dad to arrive to pick up his brother, the report shows, and that he’d “just gotten out of a class at a nearby self-defense school.”
The school, just a few doors down from where he was stopped, touts courses that include special tactics such as “shooting from different positions,” ”shooting around barriers” and “speed & tactical reloading.”
Justin J. Everman, owner of the Academy of Combative Warrior Arts, said Johnson took hand-to-hand combat classes but “did not train any firearms with us” and “didn’t learn any tactics from us.”
Johnson’s father recalled conversations with his son about police brutality, the distrust he had of officers and injustice he perceived in the world. But neither of Johnson’s parents said he talked about killing police.
“My message to him,” his father said in TheBlaze interview, “was that there’s good and bad in everybody, every race. But law enforcement is the law, and ultimately you have to obey it.”
As videos of black men killed by police under suspicious circumstances continued to surface, authorities said, Johnson made plans for an assault, keeping a journal of combat tactics and gathering bomb-making materials.
By late May, Johnson went to a vibrant festival at the Pan-African Connection Bookstore in Dallas celebrating Malcolm X’s birthday, where he met the shop’s owner.
“He said he’d never seen anything like this. He was glad to be here, to know there was a place like this to come and learn,” said owner Akwete Tyehimba, whose shop promotes global unity of African people and disavows violence. He gave “no indication that he would even have this train of thinking. He was just a nice, handsome, polite young man.”
Then, on July 5 came the death of 37-year-old Alton Sterling, as two white officers pinned him to the pavement outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, one of more than 500 fatal police shootings by on-duty officers in 2016, according to The Washington Post.
Sterling’s death was followed the next day with a Facebook livestream video of 32-year-old Philando Castile being shot and killed by an officer during a traffic stop in suburban Minneapolis.
On the evening of July 7, a diverse crowd of hundreds of protesters gathered in downtown Dallas for a Black Lives Matter march, just blocks from where President John F. Kennedy was slain in 1963. Johnson left his home at some point before the rally, his mother said in TheBlaze interview. She asked what he was protesting and he mentioned the shootings, telling her, “Mom, you’ve got to listen to the news.”
“I told him to stay out of trouble … and he said, ‘I will,’ “ she recalled. His last words were “I love you.”
Authorities said Johnson arrived downtown in a black Chevrolet Tahoe, parked and took up sniper positions. He wore a protective vest and carried a Russian-made Saiga semi-automatic rifle and two handguns, they said.
As the protest march was winding down, Johnson opened fire. Panicked protesters fled, as additional police rushed in.
Hours later, on the morning of July 8, authorities isolated Johnson on the second floor of the El Centro community college downtown and began negotiating with him. Johnson insisted on speaking with a black police negotiator, police said, laughed at authorities, sang, talked about killing whites and asked how many officers he had shot.
“We’re convinced that this suspect had other plans and thought that what he was doing was righteous and believed that he was going to target law enforcement – make us pay for what he sees as law enforcement’s efforts to punish people of color,” Dallas Police Chief David Brown said in a lengthy interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday.
The standoff ended when police sent in a bomb-carrying robot. Johnson died in the blast. In all, he killed five police officers and wounded nine others and two civilians.
Police later questioned Johnson’s mother about whether he hated cops or ever spoke about killing officers, she said. When she learned what had happened she was stunned.
“I was like, you know, you’ve got to be lying,” she said. “Not my son. He got upset when we ran over a squirrel.”
Associated Press writers Nomaan Merchant and Will Weissert in Dallas and AP researchers Monika Mathur in Washington and Rhonda Shafner and Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this report.