Rowan County deputy cleared in June shooting

Published 6:59 pm Monday, December 19, 2022

The Rowan County District Attorney has determined a shooting by a Rowan County sheriff’s deputy following a motor vehicle accident in June was justified, according to a detailed statement released Monday afternoon.

The deputy shot and killed a man who was wielding a knife and threatening both nearby residents and the deputy following a motor vehicle accident. 

We have concluded that the evidence supports that the deputy acted lawfully and did not violate any criminal laws,” wrote District Attorney Brandy Cook. “Pursuant to N.C.G.S. 7A61, my office has reviewed the investigation surrounding the death of Mr. Steven Ray Johnson that occurred on June 23, 2022. The purpose of this review was to determine whether the conduct of a Rowan County Sheriff’s Office deputy was unlawful. Agents with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (NCSBI“), an independent agency, conducted an investigation into this matter.” 

Cook outlined both the details of the incident itself and of the investigation into the shooting.

Details of the Incident

On June 23, Rowan County Emergency Services received a 911 call reporting that a vehicle had hit a tree in a yard on Rock Spring Drive in Salisbury. Fire personnel and EMS were dispatched to the scene. The driver of the vehicle, identified as Steven Ray Johnson, initially refused to unlock the doors or get out of the vehicle so that emergency personnel could assist him

When Johnson eventually opened the door, he had a knife in his hand. Emergency personnel backed away and called for the police. A deputy with the RCSO, in uniform and driving a marked patrol car, responded to the scene. Upon arrival, a firefighter told the deputy that Johnson had a knife and was running toward people on the porch of a nearby residence

The deputy immediately called to Johnson to “get back here.” At that time, Mr. Johnson turned around and began running quickly toward the deputy with his arm raised. The deputy yelled, Drop the gun!as Johnson continued to approach the deputy, at which time the deputy fired his service weapon approximately two times. Both the deputy and Johnson fell to the ground. Johnson then got up and came rapidly toward the deputy again, at which time the deputy yelled, Get back!before the deputy fired again. Johnson fell again, and a firefighter was then able to take the knife from Johnson. The deputy began administering life saving measures for Johnson until emergency personnel took over. Johnson was taken to Rowan Regional Hospital were he was pronounced dead

Details of the Investigation

In the course of the investigation into the shooting, statements were taken from a number of involved parties.

A firefighter told investigators that emergency personnel were sent to a medical emergency on Rock Spring Drive. He told them one of the firefighters saw Johnson had a knife, which caused all responders to back away. Once the deputy was on the scene, the firefighter said he saw Johnson raise the knife and run at the deputy, who then fired his weapon.

Another witness stated that around 8:30 p.m., she heard a loud boom in the back yard and noticed a car had a struck a tree. She stated that Johnson asked her to go get his wife, who lived a few yards from the scene. Johnson’s wife arrived at the scene and tried several times to get him to get out of the car. When Johnson eventually got out of the car, the witness confirmed a firefighter began walking away because someone saw Johnson with a knife. The witness stated that Johnson began running toward a house when officers approached him. She noted that the officers tried to defuse the situation

Johnson’s wife stated that sometime after 8 p.m., neighbors came to her house and informed her that her husband had been involved in an accident and hit a tree. She stated that she immediately went to the scene. She observed her husband sitting in the driver’s seat and he said he felt like he was going to have a heart attack. She stated that Johnson would not open the driver’s side door and appeared to be panicking. When he eventually opened the door, she saw his folding knife in his hand. She stated that fire personnel backed away and she told them Johnson had a knife. She stated that she tried to calm her husband down. Johnson’s wife stated that when the police showed up, Johnson began walking toward the neighbor’s residence. She observed an officer run toward Johnson’s location and heard about six gunshots. She stated that she only saw Johnson fall to the ground and she did not hear the officer give him any commands. She stated that if Johnson would have just sat down or chilledthen she was not sure how this would have turned out, but he was still panicking. She did not think Johnson was thinking clearly and believed it could have been his diabetes/low sugar causing him to act like he was. When she was asked if Johnson had used illegal drugs and if that could have contributed to his mental state, she told the SBI Agent that she preferred not to answer the question

A second firefighter stated that when he approached the vehicle, Johnson was conscious and said, Don’t hurt me and go away.Once Johnson got out of the vehicle, his wife told firefighters that he had a knife or a blade. The second firefighter saw Johnson walk back and forth between the driveway and the car. The firefighter stated that once the deputy arrived, Johnson took off running toward a house where there were people on the porch. He stated that the deputy tried to get Johnson to stop and calm down. He then observed Johnson turn around and run toward the deputy with his hand up. The firefighter believed Johnson was ten to 15 feet away from the deputy when shots were fired. He stated that after the shots were fired, the deputy tripped and fell on his back. The firefighter stated that after a one second pause, he heard additional gunshots, but he had turned away from the shooting

A third firefighter stated that Johnson’s wife advised he was diabetic. He could tell something was wrong based on Johnson’s reaction. Once Johnson began opening the driver’s door, the firefighter saw a knife in his right hand, and Johnson said, Back away and leave me alone.The firefighter said he then called for police, and that all fire department personnel moved to a safe location. He stated that when the deputy arrived, he told the deputy Johnson had a knife

He then saw Johnson run toward the house with people on the porch and heard the deputy try to get him to stop. The firefighter stated that Johnson then ran directly toward the deputy with the knife in his hand. He stated that he heard gunshots and both the deputy and Johnson fell to the ground. He stated that Johnson then got up and charged the deputy again when Johnson was less than ten feet away from the deputy

A fourth firefighter said that he heard everyone yelling about a knife. He stated that he saw Johnson running around with a knife, which was dark and had a blade of approximately 3.25 inches. He believed Johnson was under the influence of some substance because of the way he acted

A neighbor told investigators that she heard a crash. The driver asked her and another neighbor to get his wife. The neighbor stated that she went to the driver’s house and spoke with his wife. The neighbor said that Johnson’s wife was crying, and she (Johnson’s wife) said that Johnson had used drugs earlier that day

A fifth firefighter said that Johnson’s wife told everyone to back up and that he had a knife. He stated that Johnson had a folding knife in his hand with a blade of approximately two to three inches in length. The firefighter grabbed an axe for protection and went behind a fire engine. He observed Johnson walk back and forth in the yard and Johnson appeared to become angry. The firefighter stated that when the deputy arrived, he yelled at Johnson to stop. He stated that Johnson ran toward the deputy with the knife in his hand and the deputy yelled stop. He stated that the deputy fired, and both the deputy and Johnson fell on the ground. The firefighter stated that Johnson got up and ran toward the deputy a second time, when the deputy fired again. After Johnson fell to the ground again, the firefighter was able to secure the knife

A sixth firefighter stated that Johnson was agitated and in distress. He stated that Johnson had no noticeable injuries from the vehicle collision. He said that Johnson’s wife yelled that he had a knife. He stated that once Johnson got out of the vehicle, he was swinging the knife around and pacing back and forth. The firefighter stated the deputy had his blue lights on and was in uniform. The firefighter said he saw people standing outside a house at the scene, and that emergency personnel had told the people to go back inside the house, but they had not. He stated Johnson was walking toward the house with a knife and the deputy told him to stop. The firefighter stated that Johnson turned around with the knife in his hand and chased the deputy. He observed the deputy pacing backwards and pull his weapon. He stated the deputy gave Johnson commands to drop the knife. He then heard two to three gunshots, and said Johnson was eight to ten feet from the deputy when the shots were fired

A seventh firefighter stated that he could see Johnson had a knife in his hand as he was walking around, and noted Johnson was becoming progressively agitated, and started going toward a residence where people were standing. He stated at that time, the deputy arrived and yelled for Johnson to stop, at which time Johnson started running toward the deputy and had the knife raised above his head. The firefighter stated as Johnson got approximately ten feet from the deputy, the deputy fired. He stated the deputy and Johnson fell. The witness stated Johnson got back up with the knife and started toward the deputy in an aggressive manner. The deputy then fired two or three times. He stated the deputy started administering aid to Johnson until fire personnel took over

The deputy stated that he was wearing his patrol uniform, along with his vest that had “Sheriff” printed on the front and back. He was driving a fully-marked Rowan County Sheriff’s Office vehicle and kept his blue lights on when he arrived at the scene. He stated a firefighter pointed at Johnson and said he had a knife. The deputy observed Johnson running up the driveway toward a house where there were residents on the porch. He stated he immediately yelled for Johnson to stop, then he ran toward Johnson to stop him from getting to the people on the porch. He said Johnson changed direction and began running downhill toward him. He saw a long, sharp, pointy object in Johnson’s hand. The deputy stated that Johnson was approximately 30 feet away when the deputy reached for his Taser, but said Johnson closed in on him faster than he could use his Taser. He stated he began backpedaling to create distance while yelling to Johnson to stop. He holstered his Taser and then drew his firearm and once Johnson was approximately ten feet away, he fired approximately two to three times. The deputy stated that Johnson fell to the ground and he (the deputy) tripped and fell on his back. He stated that when he sat up, Johnson was lunging toward him with the knife in his hand. He stated he then fired approximately four to five shots. He stated after this, a firefighter grabbed the knife out of Johnson’s hand. The deputy stated he felt compelled to shoot because Johnson charged at him with a deadly weapon in his hand and he did not want to get stabbed. He stated he fired more than once to effectively stop the threat at such a close distance 

At the crime scene, a black, open, pocketknife was found, which measured 6 inches overall with a blade of two and a half inches. The knife handle also included a sharp end for breaking glass. Five .40 caliber S&W shell casings were recovered from the scene. The vehicle Johnson was driving was searched. Agents located a glass tube on the driver’s floorboard, which appeared to be a device commonly used to ingest controlled substances. Agents also located burnt mesh, in the same shape and size as the glass tube, along with a piece of twisted plastic cellophane in the center console

The medical examiner determined Johnson’s cause of death was multiple gunshot wounds. Five projectiles were recovered during the autopsy. There were no signs of fractures from the vehicle crash. According to the medical examiner, toxicological testing of Johnson detected cocaine metabolite, THC (marijuana), and ethanol metabolite

“In general, a law enforcement officer, or any other person, is justified in using deadly force if the officer or person reasonably believed that he or another person was in imminent danger of great bodily injury or death from the actions of the person who is shot,” said Cook.It is lawful for an officer to take action before it is too late to repel a deadly attack. Under North Carolina law, the burden of proof is on the State to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person did not act in selfdefense.” 

“Our office has a duty to objectively analyze the totality of the evidence and circumstances,” she continued. “Our office has reviewed the NCSBI investigation and consulted with the investigating SBI agentsBased upon the investigation, all of the credible, available, and believable evidence supports the conclusion that Mr. Johnson was armed with a knife and was going in the direction of a residence where people were located outside. The deputy gave Mr. Johnson commands; however, Mr. Johnson began running rapidly downhill toward the deputy with the knife raised in his hand. Per review of bodyworn camera footage, Mr. Johnson was in close proximity to the deputy and as a result of this immediate threat, the deputy discharged his firearm. The deputy and Mr. Johnson fell; however, Mr. Johnson got back up and charged toward the deputy a second time with the knife, at which time the deputy discharged his firearm again to stop the immediate threatWe have concluded that the evidence supports that the deputy acted lawfully and did not violate any criminal laws.”