Idaho News

Idaho widow files wrongful death suit against sheriff’s office in husband’s death

Two years ago, Craig Albert Johnson was shot and killed in a confrontation with Bonner County sheriff’s deputies outside his cabin near Priest Lake in North Idaho.

Now Johnson’s widow, Robin, is suing Bonner County, the Sheriff’s Office and six of its deputies alleging wrongful death, excessive force and inadequate training, according to the 48-page complaint filed Sept. 25 in U.S. District Court.

Craig, who was 50 at the time of his death, and his wife own a home in Spokane and a cabin in Coolin, Idaho. He had no prior criminal record in Idaho or Washington, according to online court records.

Kootenai County prosecutor’s review

Idaho State Police conducted an investigation into the Sept. 26, 2017, shooting and submitted the findings to Kootenai County Prosecutor Barry McHugh for review. The deputy who fatally shot Johnson alleged that Johnson had pointed a handgun at another deputy.

In an Aug. 21, 2018, letter on his findings, McHugh provided a summary of the events that led to the shooting:

On Sept. 24, 2017, Robin Johnson asked the Sheriff’s Office to conduct a welfare check on her husband because he was not returning her phone calls.

Around midnight, a Bonner County deputy went to check on Johnson, who was at the cabin in Coolin. When the deputy exited his vehicle, Johnson came out on the cabin’s second-floor deck holding a handgun and yelled for the deputy to get off of his private property. After about one minute of back-and-forth yelling between Johnson and the deputy, Johnson went back into his residence and the deputy left, according to McHugh.

The next day, the Sheriff’s Office issued a $30,000 felony arrest warrant for Johnson for assaulting an officer based on that encounter. The next morning, several deputies, including members of the emergency response team, went to Johnson’s cabin in an armored personnel carrier, called a BearCat, to serve the warrant.

Two of the deputies, Sean Deem and Ted Swanstrom, were positioned behind the cabin using bushes and trees for cover. An officer positioned at the front of the cabin used a loudspeaker and a cellphone to try to contact Johnson and order him to come out of the residence with his hands up. Johnson did not respond.

According to McHugh’s summary, Deem and Swanstrom saw Johnson leave the back of the cabin and come down the stairs. Both deputies lost sight of Johnson when he walked behind a bush.

Swanstrom told investigators that when he next spotted Johnson, he was about 20 yards away “holding the pistol by the barrel with the barrel facing towards Mr. Johnson. Swanstrom yelled ‘gun,’” McHugh wrote.

Johnson was still out of Deem’s sight, but Deem told investigators that he heard Swanstrom yell twice for Johnson to drop his gun. When Deem finally saw Johnson, he claims that he was moving toward Swanstrom with his gun pointed at Swanstrom. “Deem raised his rifle and shot Mr. Johnson twice,” McHugh wrote.

Johnson was taken by ground ambulance to meet an air ambulance to be transported to the hospital; he died en route.

McHugh stated that the other deputy on site, who was at the front of the house trying to get Johnson to come out, told investigators that he did not see the interaction between Johnson and the two deputies, but heard two “drop the gun” commands before hearing two gunshots.

“Sgt. Deem’s actions were appropriate in the circumstances to prevent the use of deadly force by Mr. Johnson,” McHugh wrote in the 2018 letter of his findings. “Sgt. Deem committed no crime in this matter.”

Widow’s review

Johnson’s widow, a Spokane attorney who also goes by Robin Andrews, sued Idaho State Police last year to gain access to public records pertaining to her husband’s case.

Her wrongful death suit filed in September alleges several problems with the sheriff’s department handling of the case, including conflicting statements from the two deputies who witnessed the shooting.

In her complaint, she provides details of and excerpts from statements the two deputies made to ISP investigators.

The deputy who shot Johnson, Deem, told investigators that he heard the other deputy yell “drop the gun” but he couldn’t “see anything because this stupid bush is right in front of me... and then I see the suspect coming right at Ted (Swanstrom).”

Deem said Johnson was pointing a gun at Swanstrom. “(H)e’s aggressing towards Ted. ... he’s not running but he’s moving pretty quickly.”

Swanstrom told investigators that when he first saw the suspect, Johnson was coming around a thicket and looking back toward the cabin. “He’s not running. He’s not doing anything. He’s not yelling. He’s at a slow walk.”

Swanstrom said when he noticed the gun, it was in Johnson’s left hand “in an unusual way.”

“Not, like, with the pistol grips in your palm, getting ready to shoot or anything,” Swanstrom said. “I believe it was backwards.”

Swantrom said he began to stand up “fully showing myself as law enforcement. .. it caused (Johnson) to stop in his tracks.” Swanstrom said Johnson moved his right hand toward his left hand, grabbed the gun and began raising it. Swanstrom told Johnson twice to drop the gun and started to pull up his own weapon. He then heard Deem “take off two shots.”

When asked by an investigator whether Johnson moved toward him, Swanstrom replied, “He did not move once I startled him. ... He did not move his feet or step toward me.”

Widow says mistakes were made

Robin Johnson states in her complaint that Johnson’s handgun that was recovered at the scene, which he allegedly held by the barrel while walking away from the cabin, had no identifiable fingerprints or DNA on it.

She alleges that the sheriff’s department mishandled the welfare check by showing up at midnight without emergency lights flashing and then followed up by issuing a felony arrest warrant the next day, even though the deputy “did not believe Craig Johnson aimed the firearm at him,” she states.

The department did not try to get Johnson to voluntarily surrender, she claims, and then used excessive force by bringing in an emergency response team and armored vehicle to serve a warrant on someone with no prior criminal record who “did not pose an immediate threat.”

Additionally, the department did not follow its own policies and complete an emergency response team threat assessment form identifying rules of engagement and use of force to serve the warrant, she claims. She also claims deputies did not utilize their body cameras during the emergency response team’s mission.

Johnson has asked for a jury trial in her civil claim, which is pending before Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald E. Bush.

The Statesman has filed a public record request with Idaho State Police for the complete Johnson investigatory record.

Idaho Statesman investigative reporter Cynthia Sewell was named Idaho Press Club reporter of the year in 2017 and 2008. A University of Oregon graduate, she joined the Statesman in 2005. Her family has lived in Idaho since the mid-1800s.