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State’s attorney: Westerly police officer ‘justified’ in off-duty shooting

February 5, 2019

Stonington — New London State’s Attorney Michael Regan will not be pursuing criminal charges against Westerly Police Lt. Steven Johnson in connection with a Memorial Day incident in which the off-duty officer fired a shot into an SUV carrying two larceny suspects in Pawcatuck.

In a Feb. 1 letter to Stonington police Chief J. Darren Stewart, Regan wrote that, based on his review of the investigation casebook submitted by police, “I have concluded that under the circumstances at the moment when the shot was discharged, Lt. Johnson reasonably believed that the actions of the operator of the motor vehicle, (Jonathan) Ilarraza, posed a deadly threat and therefore, Lt. Johnson’s actions were justified and no further action by the Division of Criminal Justice is warranted.”

If Regan had not found that Lt. Johnson believed Ilarraza’s actions posed a deadly threat to him, he could have been charged with offenses ranging from reckless endangerment and unlawful discharge of a firearm to attempted assault.

Police, who released Regan’s letter Tuesday afternoon, had turned over its investigatory materials to Regan to decide if Johnson should be arrested and charged. Stonington police informed Johnson of Regan’s decision Monday and also returned his Westerly police issued handgun, which he had used to fire the shot. It had been seized as part of the investigation.

Regan wrote in his letter that the investigation revealed that about 2:30 p.m. May 28, 2018, Johnson had been advised by his brother Eric Johnson, a former Stonington police sergeant and current Westerly emergency dispatcher, that a stolen SUV involved in two recent larcenies in Rhode Island was now parked on Downer Street, where Steve Johnson has a home. Eric Johnson had arrived at his brother’s home for a Memorial Day gathering when he noticed the car.

Two days before the incident, Hopkinton, R.I., police said that Ilarraza of North Kingston, R.I., and Jan Poirier of no certain address had stolen a $1,900 chainsaw from a Rhode Island Harvesting store. The store manager tried to stop them by opening the driver’s side door of their stolen SUV. Hopkinton police said Ilarraza then backed up, striking the store owner with the open door and knocking him to the ground. The store owner suffered hand, wrist, leg and knee injuries.

Regan wrote that Lt. Johnson was aware of the Hopkinton incident in which the store owner was struck. Eric Johnson then called 911 to alert police about the location of the stolen SUV. Before Stonington police officers arrived, Lt. Johnson and Eric Johnson approached the vehicle.

Regan wrote that Lt. Johnson approached the driver side of the SUV and observed only the driver. As he approached, Lt. Johnson had his Westerly police photo identification displayed in one hand and advised the driver that he was a police officer.

“He commanded the operator multiple times through the open window to place his hands on the steering wheel. The operator looked at Lt. Johnson and failed to put his hands on the steering wheel and started reaching around inside the motor vehicle,” Regan wrote.

“During this time period, the operator started the motor vehicle. Lt. Johnson pulled out his Westerly Police Department issued handgun and commanded the operator to stop,” Regan continued. “The operator ignored Lt. Johnson’s commands and accelerated towards Lt. Johnson forcing him to (backpedal) as the motor vehicle approached. Lt Johnson, in fear that he was about to be struck by the motor vehicle, raised his handgun to shoot the driver, but having second thoughts, lowered his handgun and discharged the handgun into the motor vehicle.”

His letter states the bullet from Lt. Johnson’s handgun was recovered from the left rear rim of the SUV.

Regan clarified Tuesday that Lt. Johnson had to backpedal because the SUV was positioned along the right side of the street and he approached the driver’s side window on an angle from the middle of Downer Street. This could have placed Lt. Johnson in jeopardy as Ilarraza pulled away from the curb.

Ilarraza then drove east on Downer Street and lost control of the SUV when he turned south on Garden Street and struck a fence and a concrete wall, according to police. Ilarraza ran away from the crash. This prompted police to issue an Everbridge alert for nearby residents to shelter in place because the suspects could be armed.

After searching the area, police took both Ilarraza and another man, Robert W. Abercrombie of Providence, into custody, as well as Poirier, who Regan wrote had been sleeping in the back of the SUV as Lt. Johnson approached. No one was injured in the incident. Regan wrote that Poirier and Ilarraza have admitted to drinking and smoking crack cocaine for three days before the incident.

Ilarraza, who has an extensive criminal record in Rhode Island, was charged with evading responsibility, driving without a license and failure to drive right in connection with the Pawcatuck crash. Those charges are pending in New London Superior Court. He was not charged with trying to run down Lt. Johnson. He was charged with felony assault and battery and shoplifting in the Hopkinton case. Ilarraza is incarcerated in a medium-security facility at the Adult Correctional Institution in Cranston, R.I., and is scheduled to be released in September.

Poirier pleaded guilty last August to second-degree threatening and received a suspended one-year prison term and a one-year conditional discharge. Abercrombie pleaded guilty last July to interfering with a police officer/resisting arrest and was sentenced to one year in prison that was suspended after serving 30 days. He also received a two-year conditional discharge.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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