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Gunman’s Rampage Paralyzed Town for a Day, Triggered Huge Manhunt

December 11, 1991

CALIFORNIA, Mo. (AP) _ A man shot and killed a sheriff’s deputy who came to investigate a family disturbance, then apparently stalked and killed two other officers and a sheriff’s wife before surrendering, authorities said.

James R. Johnson, 42, a National Guard mechanic, listened impassively as murder charges were read to him in court today after a rampage in rural central Missouri that left residents locked in their homes in ″the grip of fear.″

The shootings, which took place over six hours, set off a house-by-house manhunt that ended with Johnson’s surrender Tuesday evening, 24 hours later after the rampage began.

Johnson, a military-trained marksman, hid for hours after the rampage in a elderly woman’s home. He didn’t threaten her and she even made him lunch before he let her leave the house and she alerted police, said Sgt. Terry Moore, spokesman for the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

Officers surrounded the house and negotiated Johnson’s surrender over the telephone. He walked out of the house and put down his guns.

Authorities wouldn’t speculate on the gunman’s motive, but Moore said ″there’s no doubt in my mind that he knew who he was after and where they were.″ One of the victims, the sheriff’s wife, was a teacher of Johnson’s stepdaughter.

Johnson was held overnight in the Cole County Jail in nearby Jefferson City and was brought to California this morning for a five-minute hearing. He wore an orange jail jumpsuit, and his hands and ankles were shackled.

Johnson sat in a Moniteau County Circuit Court room under heavy police guard waiting for the start of the hearing, then sat expressionless as Associate Circuit Judge Gary Schmidt listed the charges: four of first-degree murder and one of first-degree assault on a sheriff’s deputy who was seriously wounded.

Defense attorney Mike Williams told Associate Circuit Judge Gary Schmidt that Johnson understood the charges, which carry life in prison without parole or death by lethal injection.

Moniteau County attorney John Kay said after the hearing that he would seek the death penalty.

″I can tell you that the community and I personally remain in a state of shock,″ Kay said. ″I’m not sure we’ll ever be the same, any of us, again.‴

The shooting spree began Monday night, when police say Johnson killed Moniteau County Deputy Leslie Roark, 27. Roark was answering a domestic disturbance call at Johnson’s home near Jamestown, about 10 miles north of this town of 3,300.

While Sheriff Kenny Jones went to help Roark, Johnson went to Jones’ home and killed the sheriff’s wife, Pam Jones, 38, as she led a prayer meeting, police said.

Then, early Tuesday, Moniteau County Deputy Russell Borts, 29, was shot at his home near the jail after he returned from investigating the death of Mrs. Jones. He was hospitalized in serious condition.

And Cooper County Sheriff Charles R. Smith, 54, and Sandra Wilson, 42, a Miller County deputy who had come to help investigate, were killed when they ran out of the jail after hearing shots. Officials said the gunman apparently had been hiding behind a storage building behind the jail.

The bodies of those two officers lay on the street for about eight hours because authorities feared that anyone going after them would be shot.

John Weed, the former husband of Johnson’s wife, Gerri Johnson, said a family dispute may have triggered the violence. Weed said his stepdaughter, Dawn Becker, told him that ″this Mr. Johnson became upset because my daughter and her mom were unable to attend a church service in Jamestown Sunday morning.″

He said Johnson ″threatened them with a shotgun.″ Mrs. Johnson and Miss Becker, 17, were uninjured.

Mrs. Jones was Miss Becker’s high school English teacher. A neighbor, Lloyd Grotjan, said the girl came to his home Monday night asking to use the phone, saying, ″We just had trouble at home.″ One of the people she tried to call was a schoolteacher, he said, but he knew no details of the call.

Authorities would not comment on whether they think Mrs. Jones was killed because of her relationship with Miss Becker.

By Tuesday afternoon, about 150 officers had gone door-to-door looking for the gunman while two helicopters scoured the hills of this town about 110 miles east of Kansas City. Businesses and schools shut down for the day, the courthouse closed and residents stayed behind locked doors.

″We’re just in the grip of fear,″ said self-service laundry owner Jim Chaney, 80. ″We’ve never seen a day like this.″

Johnson, a helicopter mechanic with the Missouri National Guard, had earned an expert rating in pistol shooting, said Maj. Bill Ratliff, a Guard spokesman. Johnson, a Vietnam War veteran, joined the guard in 1977 and became a full-time employee about five years later, friends said.

After Miller and Wilson were killed Tuesday, Johnson’s car was found at the home of county detective Sonny Connell. A shotgun was in the car.

″The logical assumption was that he drove up there to shoot at me and my family,″ Connell said.

Eva Mayberry, clerk at Casey’s General Store, said it was good thing Johnson was not jailed here.

″He wouldn’t be safe in this jail,″ she said. ″Folks would kill him.″