Dion Johnson Death Lawsuit Focuses on DPS Trooper's Dishonesty | Phoenix New Times

'Sadistic Penchant for Violence': Dion Johnson Lawsuit Focuses on DPS Trooper's Dishonesty

The events that led to Johnson's death were "consistent with Cervantes' prior history," the suit alleges.
Trooper Cervantes places a boot against Dion Johnson's body to prevent him from rolling after he was shot.
Trooper Cervantes places a boot against Dion Johnson's body to prevent him from rolling after he was shot. Screenshot
Share this:
A lengthy lawsuit filed by Dion Johnson's mother alleges that state trooper George Cervantes started an unnecessary fight on the freeway before shooting Johnson, who was just defending himself.

The suit, filed in Maricopa County Superior Court by Erma Johnson with the help of Phoenix attorneys David Dow and Jennifer Ghidotti, focuses heavily on Cervantes' documented previous misconduct and dishonesty. (You can read the 65-page document below.) It names as defendants the state, Cervantes, and unnamed people or entities who may be involved.

Johnson's death on May 25, 2020, became another infamous case of alleged police brutality, occurring on the same day that Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, and sparking demonstrations in Phoenix attended by thousands of people. After Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel cleared Cervantes of criminal charges last September, a previous lawyer for the family, Jocquese Blackwell, said that the family planned to submit a notice of claim.

The lack of bodycam or dashcam video in the case has been a sore point with Johnson's family and the public. A preliminary state budget now being considered by lawmakers would add $6.9 million to provide all state troopers with bodycams.

The fresh lawsuit alleges a federal civil rights violation for denying due process to Dion Johnson; wrongful death due to negligence; wrongful death due to assault and battery; and loss of consortium.

The suit seeks damages and attorneys' fees. Erma Johnson did not return a message. The DPS declined comment, as usual for any pending lawsuit.

click to enlarge
A mural depicting Dion Johnson on Seventh Street, north of McDowell Road.
Lynn Trimble
Previous investigative reports on the shooting have provided a basic outline of the shooting:

The morning of the fatal encounter, Cervantes, who had been with the DPS more than 15 years, noticed Johnson's Toyota Prius stopped in the gore zone on the Loop 101 near Tatum Boulevard in Phoenix and parked his motorcycle behind it. He found Johnson unconscious. A .45-caliber handgun was on the passenger seat. After he took the handgun to his motorcycle and went back to the car, Cervantes claims, Johnson woke up and began fighting with him. Cervantes said he feared that Johnson would grab his gun or push him into traffic, and fired his Glock 9mm twice, hitting Johnson in the stomach. Johnson died soon after at a hospital.

Cervantes didn't know at the time that Johnson, 28, was a violent gang member whose record included resisting arrest and attacking correctional officers. The lawsuit states that because he knew nothing about Johnson, he should have treated the unconscious man with "dignity" and tried to get him help for a possible overdose or alcohol poisoning. Instead, Cervantes acted aggressively toward Johnson and woke him up, the suit claims.

With little but Cervantes' own words to go on, the lawsuit adds some speculation to what might have occurred. Though Cervantes claims he waited at his motorcycle momentarily for backup to arrive and only went back to the car because he saw movement inside, the lawsuit states that Cervantes "woke up an unconscious Dion, which may have prevented Dion from recognizing Cervantes as a state trooper."

Cervantes had trouble taking the Prius' ignition key, which "would make him frustrated and angry, which is consistent with his prior behavior as a Trooper...

"Dion woke up to a man in a helmet standing in his door. Upon information and belief, Dion woke up confused and afraid, and possibly failed to recognize Cervantes as law enforcement," the lawsuit says. Cervantes then "forcefully" moved to slap on handcuffs.

If only Cervantes "had simply talked to Dion and asked about his well-being, Dion would still be alive," the suit goes on. "Instead, Cervantes' series of aggressive, unnecessary and dangerous actions caused the 'struggle' for which Cervantes was the initial aggressor... To the extent that a struggle ensued ... Dion was protecting himself from a hostile encounter with an unknown person inside his vehicle."

Having set the scene with Cervantes firmly as the aggressor, the lawsuit paints the trooper as a liar with a sordid past who should have been fired long before the day of the shooting.

"Consistent with Cervantes' prior history," the suit states, "this event was reflective of Cervantes' continued impulsive behavior, poor decision making and sadistic penchant for violence against defenseless people and animals."

As previously reported, Cervantes' past at the DPS includes numerous violations of department policy, including using his department-issued taser as a training tool on his puppy, abusing a girlfriend, and threatening the life of his ex-wife's new husband. The lawsuit goes to lengths to detail his offenses, arguing that his past relates directly to what happened when he confronted Johnson.

The lawsuit also notes a problem with Cervantes' story. Cervantes claimed that after he secured Johnson's gun, he went back to the car, tried to get the ignition key out, then walked back to his motorcycle to wait for backup. But another trooper monitoring the situation from an Arizona Department of Transportation freeway camera reportedly never saw Cervantes do that, the suit states.

A few pages later, the suit relates how statements by an eyewitness seem to contradict Cervantes' claim that Dion pulled him into the car, causing one of his feet to leave the ground.

"Thus," the lawsuit asserts, "at the time of the shooting, Cervantes was not 'sucked' inside the vehicle nor was Dion's hand on Cervantes' arm. Cervantes had complete control of his weapon at the time he executed Dion."

Pain in his right wrist from carpal tunnel syndrome also caused him to "execute" Johnson, when it flared up as Johnson allegedly grabbed his arm, which made him fear Dion would snatch the gun he held, according to the suit.

The plaintiffs claim that the DPS failed to update its use-of-force policies since 2012, and that Cervantes' superiors failed to properly discipline or terminate him or other officers that violated policies. The suit also notes several other cases of DPS discipline, or lack of it (see pages 43-45).

click to enlarge
Erma Johnson
Close to half of the lawsuit, from pages 18-42, detail Cervantes' on-the-job misconduct. He's reportedly had 29 documented instances of misconduct or poor performance, of which "approximately" 21 were sustained, his conduct found "not reasonable," or were "inappropriate" driving accidents.

Highlights, some of which have been reported previously, include:

* In 2007, Cervantes told his ex-wife he fantasized about killing the man who became her new husband. He said in a recorded conversation that he had friends who were willing to help do things for him. The friends "get off on this stuff" and "of course it would be other cops, who else would be demented like that?"

The new husband told investigators he feared that someday Cervantes would pull him over "and then it will be 'his word verses [sic] my word'."

Cervantes was given a 40-hour suspension without pay and required to attend counseling.

* In 2012 and 2013, Cervantes stalked an ex-girlfriend, putting a note on her car at one point stating, "I see you. I know where you live," which launched an investigation by Phoenix and Peoria police. He later violated an order of protection that prohibited him from communicating with the ex-girlfriend's son.

He received 40 hours leave without pay, which the lawsuit calls "another slap on the wrist."

* He had domestic violence incidents on his record, including a 2011 incident in which he prevented his girlfriend, a Phoenix police officer who is now his wife, from leaving her home. He held her arms, bruising them, knelt on top of her, and caused her to hurt her foot while trying to free herself. He apparently expected to be arrested over the incident, but was not.

He was suspended from duty for 80 hours for those and the puppy incidents, the suit says.

The lawsuit also describes a more recent incident in which Cervantes and his wife were investigated for placing handcuffs on their daughter's ankles during a fight over what the girl was wearing.

* An open investigation from 2020 alleges that Cervantes struck a person's vehicle, then "screamed at him" and kicked the person's vehicle.

* The lawsuit describes "numerous" instances that Cervantes was found to be dishonest on the job, like misreporting his location when he stopped at a Dunkin Donuts outside his "area of responsibility," and how he "lied" about an incident in which he should have handcuffed a suspect.

Finally, the lawsuit slams the DPS not just for keeping Cervantes employed, but for failing to obey a 2006 court order to "make good faith efforts" to install cameras "in all patrol vehicles as soon as is reasonably possible.”

The failure to do so by now "leads to the inevitable conclusion that the state of Arizona does not want this incriminating video and audio evidence," the suit says, adding that the state prefers "he said, she said" testimony, "which in situations like this results in a "He said, He's dead" situation."

The Johnson family lawsuit is packed with damning information about Cervantes and DPS culture, arranged to persuade. What's lacking is any new information about precisely what happened in the short seconds that Cervantes met Johnson and began fighting with him. That could make it difficult for the jury to determine whether Cervantes was truly in the wrong.

(Update May 27: The state of Arizona released the notice of claim on Thursday that preceded the lawsuit. In it, the plaintiffs say they will settle the case for a total of $220 million. We've embedded the notice of claim below the lawsuit:)

Can you help us continue to share our stories? Since the beginning, Phoenix New Times has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix — and we'd like to keep it that way. Our members allow us to continue offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food, and culture with no paywalls.