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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Parents of man shot by Spokane police feel helpless in getting mental health assistance for son

Hotel manager Melissa Gunion stands in the room where Aaron D. Johnson was staying at the West Wynn Motel on Tuesday, May 3, 2016, in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Hotel manager Melissa Gunion stands in the room where Aaron D. Johnson was staying at the West Wynn Motel on Tuesday, May 3, 2016, in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

The parents of Aaron Johnson watched a computer monitor Wednesday morning as surveillance footage appeared to show the 32-year-old pursue a running police officer on the second floor of the West Wynn Motel.

“There he is, right there,” said Anthony Altizer, one of the motel’s residents who said he heard officers fire, as the video’s time stamp approached 3:20 p.m. Monday. Altizer gestured to a jacketed man, pointing what appeared to be a gun in the direction of a police officer who’d sprinted down the second-floor corridor moments before.

Sharon Johnson identified the jacketed man as her son. He stopped in the middle of the corridor, the apparent firearm raised at shoulder-level. Moments later, he twisted and crumpled to the ground, his body blocked by a waist high wall between the roof-mounted camera and the hallway. The officer who fired was not in the frame.

“He was doing good,” Sharon Johnson said, referring to her son’s improved mood and prospects at finding a job and place to live.

“It was a normal day,” Altizer interrupted.

“He was really trying,” Johnson said.

Investigators confirmed Wednesday they found a fake handgun near Johnson following the officer-involved shooting, the third police shooting involving Spokane Police Department personnel in five days. Jim McDevitt, the city’s law enforcement director, joined Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich at a news conference Wednesday calling for state legislators to increase funding for mental health services.

“I hold our state government responsible for this,” Knezovich said. “It is time that the state government takes mental health seriously.”

Johnson, like the two other men shot, had been in and out of mental health treatment, McDevitt said. But the officers responding to calls of domestic violence Monday afternoon at the West Wynn did not know the caller was Johnson, or that he’d been shot by Spokane police outside the Truth Ministries shelter in January 2014.

“I don’t think they even knew his name,” McDevitt said. “You don’t have to give your name when you call 911.”

That contradicts a news release from the Spokane Investigative Regional Response Team, which is investigating the shooting.

The news release said that Johnson identified himself when he first called police to the scene.

“Dispatch informed responding officers, after conducting a computer check of Aaron D. Johnson’s name, that Johnson had an active misdemeanor warrant for his arrest, was a convicted felon, and a previously violent offender,” the news release said.

Authorities said Johnson called emergency responders three times Monday afternoon, just hours after Sharon Johnson and her husband, Geri, had taken their son shopping for food at Wal-Mart. The family was told Aaron Johnson said he was being threatened by someone named Brian in his calls to police, which his mother said could have been a symptom of his diagnosed schizophrenia.

“That could have been in his head,” Sharon Johnson said. “They all have names.”

Once he was well enough for release from Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center following the January 2014 shooting, Aaron Johnson was committed at Eastern State Hospital, his mother said. He was released from there, without an explanation to the family, Sharon Johnson said.

Late last year, Sharon and Geri Johnson received a filing from a state appellate court case involving their son. Aaron Johnson, identified in the documents by his initials, had been considered “gravely disabled” under legal definitions, because he exhibited schizophrenic behavior including religious delusions and hearing voices inside his head.

His symptoms led one mental health professional, Laura Seymour, to urge that he be kept at the institution in Medical Lake.

“Ultimately, Dr. Seymour testified that based upon A.J.’s current symptoms and his illness that she did not recommend discharge from (Eastern State Hospital),” the filings read. But Aaron Johnson was released from the hospital under conditions imposed by the court.

A stint in a halfway house followed, but that, too, ended in discharge. He moved on to a Motel 6 motel near his parents’ home, then on to the West Wynn, where he’d been living for several weeks.

“A person like him, it’s really hard to find housing for,” Sharon Johnson said.

Melissa Gunion, manager at the West Wynn, said she was not told by Johnson’s family about his mental illness, nor the January 2014 shooting, when they booked him a room.

“I had no idea, my housekeepers had no idea,” Gunion said.

The security camera that captured Monday’s shooting is just one step Gunion said she’s been taking to make the West Wynn a safe place for people in transition to stay. She showed off one of the rooms, on the same floor where Johnson was shot, that is undergoing renovation. Fresh, bright blue paint covers the walls, and a new carpet sample sat ready to be installed on a side table.

Gunion said her staff can only do so much to ensure customers pose no threat to employees or other guests.

“She did tell me he was kicked out of Truth Ministries,” Gunion said. “But she didn’t tell me anything about his history, or any of those things. I think that would have been helpful for me. But when we rent rooms, we don’t really have a list of questions. We have a list of rules.”

Sharon Johnson said it would have been preferable to house her son in an apartment building, but all his applications were turned down, based on his history with law enforcement. She and her husband said they’d lost track of the assault charges Aaron Johnson faced that were put on hold in the courts while he received mental health treatment.

“They kind of, just go away,” Sharon Johnson said. “I suppose they’d all be dredged back up if there’s reason to.”

“If there’s something really serious, if he hurt somebody real bad,” Geri Johnson said.

Johnson potentially faces a third-degree assault charge in the West Wynn incident, according to court documents. He’s in stable condition at Sacred Heart, police said.

Johnson’s parents said they were uncertain if their son posed a risk of violence. He has periods of lucidity, followed by outbursts prompted by confrontations, his father said.

Both parents, like in January 2014, said they haven’t been allowed to visit their son in the hospital because he’s under guard by police. Their information is coming piecemeal through other people, including mental health counselors and law enforcement. Altizer told her Wednesday he’d been shot in the legs, based on the bandages he saw Johnson wrapped in when medics took him from the scene.

She wondered if the cycle of her son being arrested, committed for awhile then released to the streets could be stopped. Ideally, Sharon Johnson said, he’d be housed at Eastern for the rest of his life.

“Seriously. How many times does he get shot, before it kills him?” she said.

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