MONTPELIER — Emotions are raw following the Montpelier police shooting-death of 62-year-old Mark Johnson in the early hours of Friday morning.
Residents of Pioneer Apartments on Main Street, where Johnson lived for about 15 years, said they were concerned police shot a mentally ill man, despite the fact Johnson pointed what appeared to be a handgun at them. The weapon turned out to be a pellet gun.
Police have not said whether it was loaded.
Over the weekend, flowers, candles and a makeshift cross were placed on the Spring Street bridge near Pioneer Apartments, where Johnson was shot and killed. Pavement tributes etched in chalk read, “You are sorely missed,” “We love you Mark” and “Rest in Peace.”
According to news releases issued from Vermont State Police, which is investigating the officer-involved shooting, Montpelier Police responded to reports at 5:04 p.m. that a man was trying to enter a residence in Montpelier Apartments by using a knife to jimmy the lock.
Johnson was killed 12 minutes later, at 5:16 a.m.
When police arrived, they said they saw Johnson leaving the apartment and heading toward Spring Street, carrying what appeared to be a handgun. The officers confronted Johnson on the Spring Street bridge, where he first climbed on one railing of the bridge and then climbed down, crossed the street and climbed onto the railing on the other side of the bridge, VSP said.
Despite efforts by the officers to get Johnson to drop the weapon, de-escalate the crisis and offer to get him help, Johnson then raised the weapon at the officers, VSP said.
VSP identified the Montpelier police officer who fatally shot Johnson twice in the torso as Cpl. Chad Bean. He has been employed by the Montpelier Police Department since February 2007. Also present at the time of the shooting was Montpelier Police Officer Chris Quesnel.
VSP said officers immediately administered first aid before Johnson was transported to Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin, where he was pronounced dead.
Johnson’s body was taken to the Chief Medical Examiner in Burlington for an autopsy where Johnson’s death was ruled a homicide.
Montpelier Police officers do not have body cameras although there is dash-cam footage from a police cruiser. VSP could not say when the video footage would be released. The Times Argus has also requested access to that footage.
When VSP concludes its investigation, it will turn over its report to the Attorney General’s Office and Washington County State’s Attorney’s Office for review.
It is the second officer-involved shooting in Montpelier in as many years, following the shooting death of former student Nathan Giffin, 32, of Essex, at Montpelier High School in January 2018. In that case, no charges were brought against the officers involved.
In the latest shooting-death, community members, including friends of Johnson, have questioned why the police did not exercise restraint because Johnson was well-known to police and had three encounters with police in June, although no charges were filed.
Some people questioned why police did not use non-lethal means to subdue Johnson, such as firing a bean-bag round from a modified shotgun, which was used recently by Montpelier Police in a similar incident at an apartment on Barre Street in March when a man wielding a knife and threatening to harm himself advanced on officers.
It is not clear why Johnson was trying to get into another person’s apartment at Pioneer Apartments, using a “small-bladed knife” to pry the lock.
Some residents said Johnson would sometimes leave his keys in his apartment and use a knife to try and jimmy the lock. There were signs of efforts to force the lock on the door of the apartment that Johnson tried to enter – the same apartment of the resident who summoned police Friday morning.
But Johnson’s apartment is on the opposite side of the hall, two doors down. Some residents said Johnson may have been confused about which apartment was his in his “deteriorating state of mental health.”
On Johnson’s door on Monday, a simple message read, “God bless.”
Residents said his death was a tragedy that should have been averted.
“He was a good friend, a hell of a nice guy – there was no need for that,” said resident Michael Barclay, as he somberly surveyed the site of the shooting Saturday morning. “Of course, (the police) don’t have Tasers – no body cameras and no Tasers, so it means they can just shoot anybody and get away with it.
“I don’t know why they couldn’t have winged him. Why didn’t they bring out the shotgun with the bean bag or the shotgun with the rubber bullets? But no, they got to blast him ... in the chest,” he added.
Police said Johnson was shot twice in the torso; residents and witnesses who heard the commotion outside said they heard three shots. Police have not confirmed how many shots were fired. The incident remains under investigation.
Barclay said he heard the escalating crisis outside, but did not actually witness the incident.
“I saw most of it,” Barclay said. “I heard it first. I could hear it but by the time I opened up (the window), boom, boom ...”
Barclay and others acknowledged that Johnson was deeply depressed but was a “quiet” and “gentle man.”
One resident who said he knew Johnson over several years at the apartment complex is John Hyslop.
Hyslop said he had been working with Johnson to help him stop buying scratch lottery tickets, and urged Johnson to quit smoking.
“We were making headway,” Hyslop said.
Hyslop also took issue with the actions of the local police and said Washington County Mental health Services also had been slow to respond to Johnson’s needs.
Asked why Johnson was carrying a pellet gun, Hyslop said he and Johnson often would do target practice together with pellet guns.
He said he believed that Johnson carried the gun when he went out in the early morning, looking for loose change on sidewalks in order “to protect himself” if he were ever challenged by strangers by being able to show he had a weapon, even if it was only a pellet gun.
Hyslop also said Johnson had been struggling with his mental illness, had difficulty scheduling doctor’s appointments, and sometimes didn’t take medication. Hyslop said Johnson had just returned from a 30-day residential treatment but was still extremely unwell.
“I believe that Mark was so sick that he was suicidal,” Hyslop said, adding that he believed that Johnson may have wanted to “commit suicide by cop.”
Anyone with information about the incident, or has video of the incident, is asked to call Vermont State Police barracks in Middlesex at 229-9191.