Johnston distraught but non-threatening, friend says
Wendy Woods stood next to her blood-soaked carpet Monday morning and cried for the loss of her close friend, Eric Byron Johnston, who was shot and killed 24 hours earlier by a Coeur d’Alene police officer.
“He was so funny, so sweet – the most reliable friend in my life,” Woods said. “And for them to just come here and shoot him dead like that? It’s sickening.”
Other friends and family members reacted with shock and anger over the Sunday morning shooting inside an apartment at 1422 E. Young Ave., north of Sanders Beach.
“Eric was like the backbone in my company,” said Charles Ray Larsen III, who owns Ray’s Rooftop Moss Removal in Coeur d’Alene. “Eric was the kind of person that wouldn’t step on an ant – a quiet, gentle soul.”
Johnston, 35, who lived in Dalton Gardens, was shot multiple times from about 10 feet away as he clutched a serrated kitchen knife shortly before 8 a.m., according to police.
The Idaho State Police, which is leading the investigation, has not released details on the shooting. An autopsy of Johnston was to be conducted Monday.
Woods said her friend was distraught after smashing his pickup truck into a utility pole a short time earlier and feared he would be sent to jail, where he had been before for drunken driving. But she said Johnston was holding the knife to himself, not in a threatening manner, when the officer arrived at her front door looking for him in connection with the collision.
She said she stepped outside and was thrown to the ground by a second officer as the first officer fired his gun into her apartment from the front door.
“He just immediately pulled out his gun. I heard, ‘Eric, drop the knife!’ ” she said. “Then boom, boom, boom, boom.”
Johnston collapsed across the room next to a sofa and died at the scene. When she was allowed to return Monday morning, Woods found her carpet stained with his blood and a bullet hole in a wall she shares with a neighbor.
“He was a good kid, never hurt nobody. It’s not like he was beating me up,” she said. “He was just upset that he’d have to go back to jail.”
Johnston had been in trouble with the law repeatedly over the past 20 years, according to court records. He had four convictions for driving under the influence – in 1999, 2004, 2007 and 2008 – and spent some time in jail. He also had been arrested for controlled substance violations and cited for traffic offenses over the years.
Larsen, who is close to Johnston’s family, said the use of lethal force does not seem warranted.
“It’s insane. Since when do they shoot people that have a knife that’s not even coming after them?” he said.
Police caught up with Johnston at the apartment within half an hour after he slammed his truck into an Avista Utilities pole, knocking it over, at South Dollar Street and East Lost Avenue. Woods was in the truck at the time and said the two of them quickly returned to her apartment about a block away.
They had been out drinking late the previous night and stayed at a friend’s house, but Johnston couldn’t have been intoxicated at that hour, she said. Still, he became agitated that he’d be arrested for the accident and grabbed a steak knife, threatening to do himself harm, Woods said.
“ ‘I’m going to kill myself, I’m going to kill myself.’ That’s what he kept saying,” she said.
Johnston also worked as a mechanic at Complete AutoCare in Dalton Gardens. David Larsen, a close friend and co-worker there, said he escorted police to inform Johnston’s family of his death Sunday. He heard authorities tell the family that Johnston had been holding the knife when the officer shot him.
“From what I understand Eric was trying to kill himself and got shot four times,” David Larsen said.
The news has hit the shop crew hard, he added.
“We shut the shop down. We’re closed for two days to a week,” he said. “We’re trying to get to the bottom of this. I mean somebody has got to speak up for Eric. That was really unjust in my opinion.”
Ray Larsen said Johnston was “the hardest worker I’ve ever had. Always had a smile on his face. That boy loved to eat bacon.”
He said as a kid Johnston loved the Moss Man action figure from Masters of the Universe, and that was the inspiration for Larsen’s business logo. “Eric finally made the Moss Man status,” he said.
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