Dion Johnson Died as He Lived, in a World of Crime and Harsh Punishment

A mural on Seventh Street north of McDowell Street memorializes Johnson.
A mural on Seventh Street north of McDowell Street memorializes Johnson. Lynn Trimble
The same day a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd in Minneapolis, an Arizona Department of Public Safety trooper killed Dion Johnson in Phoenix. 

The trooper, George Cervantes, had found Johnson, a 28-year-old Black man, passed out in his Toyota Prius in a freeway gore area. He claims Johnson woke up, fought him during an attempted arrest, tried to kick him into oncoming traffic, and attempted to pull him into the Prius and grab his service pistol. Cervantes shot Johnson twice. Freeway video shows two troopers near Johnson, on the ground and writhing in pain, while an EMT vehicle sat on the sidelines, unable to help until DPS declared the scene secure.

In the wake of the killing, local and national news reporters scrutinized nearly every angle of the case: the protests that followed, the family's grief, the police investigation, the social context. In mid-July, revelations about Cervantes' long record of troubling behavior came to light — he had intimidated an ex-girlfriend and tased his own puppy — and raised questions about whether his account of the fatal shooting on the Loop 101 Freeway could be believed.

click to enlarge Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel declined to file criminal charges against the DPS trooper who shot Johnson. - JOSH KELETY
Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel declined to file criminal charges against the DPS trooper who shot Johnson.
Josh Kelety
This week, Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel cleared Cervantes of criminal charges. But Erma Johnson, Dion's mother, and her attorney, Jocquese Blackwell, remain convinced that Cervantes committed "murder." Blackwell said at a press conference Monday that with no body-cam or dash video of the shooting, there's "no way possible you can objectively determine if Officer Cervantes' statements were accurate." Blackwell plans to file a notice of claim against the state on behalf of Johnson's family. "It's a one-sided story," he said.

Yet despite all the public interest, the media failed to look into one very important aspect of the case: Dion Johnson's background.

Local news media reported, almost uniformly, only that Johnson had served some prison time — listing a couple of the charges but leaving out all the details, denying the public a more complete look at Johnson's background.

Family members described Johnson in glowing terms to unquestioning reporters, acknowledging only that he had had some troubles. The reporters either didn't investigate what those troubles were or, if they did, decided not to relate them to readers and viewers. Erma Johnson told the media that Dion was a loving son and a big help to her and others. He was described as one of five siblings, a "mama's boy," polite, a music lover, and a person who was liked by most people he met. He was also the father of a 14-year-old daughter. Family members told AZFamily.com (Channel 3, KTVK-TV), that Dion was "turning a new leaf" and had recently gotten a job.

Cervantes had no idea who Johnson was before their fatal encounter. According to Cervantes, Johnson attacked him and resisted arrest after waking up. But was Johnson really the type of person who would attack a police officer?

Police and court records suggest that he probably was. They depict Johnson as a violent man whose history includes attacking correctional officers, attacking inmates, resisting arrest, and, in 2018, delivering a horrific beating to an ex-girlfriend.

The records also reveal that his childhood was a tragedy, putting him on course for a lifetime behind bars. Johnson was locked up repeatedly before adolescence, thrust into a system that seemed to take no pity on him. Systemic racism may indeed have played a role in his death. But it also affected Johnson long before May 25.

Blackwell, who objects to the information that follows being made public, told Phoenix New Times to remember that such documents may not be completely accurate. But he didn't dispute any aspect of the details New Times informed him about. He denied knowing about Johnson's previous violence, but warned that some readers may use the details to argue that Johnson "deserved to die." New Times is publishing those details — the same information Maricopa County judges used, several times over the years, to determine the length of Johnson's prison sentences — in the interest of bringing about a more complete public understanding of this high-profile case.

Childhood Gone Wrong

Dion Johnson grew up in the college town of Tempe with his siblings and mother, who was a single parent.

New Times interviewed Valley resident Ashley Winters about Johnson's early life. She lived a block down from where he lived near McClintock Drive and Broadway Road and knew Dion and his brothers well.

"We were always hanging around," she said. "He's very respectful to his mother. They went to church together. We were pretty much kids, riding bikes, playing ball."

As a teen, she dated his older brother, Donovan. She remembered once when Dion came home from juvenile detention.

"What drove them to that life, I'm not sure," she said. "Once they get into it, it's hard to get out of it."

Dion Johnson's first referral to juvenile corrections came at age 8; records don't list the charge.

He began using alcohol at age 11 and was the victim of unspecified childhood domestic violence, he would later report. Before he was 16, Johnson had been referred to juvenile corrections authorities 25 times, with juvenile prosecution occurring in 11 of the cases. Some of it was kid stuff — shoplifting and running away from home. But he was also found with weapons, stolen goods, and assaulted someone with "intent to cause injury." Two of the cases were for attacking juvenile corrections officers. When he was not incarcerated as a child, he spent his school time in special-education classes, the result of an undiagnosed learning disorder.

By 16, Johnson had been drinking nearly every day for two years. He preferred hard liquor.

One day in October 2007, Johnson, his brother Donovan, and two other boys approached a group of four people in a QT gas station who were fixing a trailer and asked them for money. When they were told no, the boys began yelling and cursing. Dion showed the group the 9mm he had tucked in the front waistband of his pants, telling the victims "he could use the weapon."

Police showed up quickly to the scene but were only able to capture Johnson. His gun, it turned out, had been stolen from Arizona Firearms Collectibles and Pawn in Tempe two days earlier. Johnson denied he had stolen it. He became "extremely uncooperative and began yelling and screaming." (The other three boys were arrested soon after.)

After pleading guilty, Johnson received a 2.5-year prison sentence. The probation department noted the teen's "history of violence" and that he was on juvenile parole at the time, recommending in his presentence report that Johnson receive a "significant punitive sanction ... to impress upon the defendant the severity of his actions."

Johnson's daughter was 1 at the time. He told the court that a 2.5-year sentence was appropriate because "he will not miss that much of his daughter's life."

He'd be there for her when he got out and turned 18, he promised.

'Violent in Nature'

Johnson had a girlfriend in Tempe after being released from prison in 2011. He routinely visited her at her Orange Street apartment. But to Johnson, crime was a way of life. When he wanted something, he took it. One day, a few months after he was released, he and a few friends broke into one of his girlfriend's neighbor's apartments and stole a TV and an X-Box. Witnesses saw the men take the items to the girlfriend's apartment. When police investigated, they found the stolen items and took Johnson and a man named Troy Combs into custody.

Combs apparently went quietly. Johnson reportedly did not.

An officer placed Johnson in handcuffs and walked to him a patrol vehicle.

"At this time, Johnson violently pulled away from the officer, twisting the handcuff and cutting the officer's hand," a report states. "The officer then put Johnson in a control hold, where he then pushed into the officer's torso with his shoulder. Johnson also fell to the ground several times in attempts to delay going to jail."

Johnson had no income and no expenses, records show. He was released from jail on a $5,000 bond. Four months into dealing with this criminal case, in September 2011, Johnson and two other men walked into a Phoenix-area Circle K. Simulating a gun under his shirt, Johnson told the clerk that "if he did anything, he would blow his head off." He shoved the clerk hard, but didn't injure him. He went behind the counter and snatched a few packs of cigarettes while a friend stole some beer. For this pathetic yet violent crime, Johnson was sentenced to seven years in prison.

click to enlarge Protesters circled the Department of Public Safety headquarters on Sunday, June 7. - BRENDON KLEEN
Protesters circled the Department of Public Safety headquarters on Sunday, June 7.
Brendon Kleen
He received another 2.5 years for the apartment burglary. The sentences ran concurrently, but it was still Johnson's longest stretch in the joint. Prison workers and certain inmates may not have been happy to have him back. He had been disciplined for 14 infractions during his previous incarceration, nine of them "major." Upon his return, he proceeded to rack up two dozen more, with most occurring in 2016. Prison officials disciplined him three times for fighting, four times for threatening people, and two times for assaulting inmates, among other things.

He finally got out in 2018, but found it difficult to avoid probation violations. He spent a couple of days in jail for a violation that July, and a week in jail for another one that September.

Johnson had a romantic interest at the time named Ashley Winters. They had an abusive, tumultuous relationship. At some point, she told them they were done for good. But they would see each other once more. On October 6, 2018, Johnson followed Winters and one of her friends, who he reportedly didn't know, to the friend's Avondale apartment. As the women were walking through the front door, Johnson surprised them and forced his way in.

Johnson "elbowed" the friend and began searching rooms for Winters, who had locked herself in a bathroom. Johnson broke the bathroom door in and began beating Winters. The friend yelled at Johnson to get out, later telling authorities he hit Winters in the head and face several times with closed fists. The friend yelled at Johnson that she had called the police, and eventually Johnson ran out of the house. Winters had "significant" injuries and was taken to the hospital. But she told police she didn't want to press charges and would not cooperate with their investigation.

Winters' friend, however, told police she had never seen anyone get beat up that bad before, and that it was "traumatizing" to her and her kids.

"What he did 'was fucked up and he needs to do some time,'" the woman said in a probation officer's court report. "The defendant has no regard for other humans and their property."

Johnson was arrested 10 days later at the same apartment complex.

Before Johnson's sentencing for the crime, his probation officer wrote that he was at high risk of reoffending, remarking that "his offenses are violent in nature."

"Probation has not been effective in behavior change or protecting the community from his crimes," the officer wrote in March 2019, just before Johnson was sentenced to a year in prison. Receiving credit for his time in jail before sentencing, Johnson was released from prison in November 2019.

For a while, he did seem to be turning over a new leaf. But as the probation officer also noted, Johnson's mental health, criminal behavior, and employment situation had never really been addressed. By 2020, he was driving with a pistol in his car, again gripped by substance abuse.

Officer-Involved Shooting

It was 5:20 in the morning on Monday, May 25, Memorial Day. The world would soon be stunned by a video of George Floyd, a Black man in Minnesota, dying horribly later in the day of asphyxiation beneath the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin.

Scottsdale Detective Ashley Yunck was driving eastbound on the Loop 101 near the Tatum Boulevard exit when she noticed a Toyota Prius driving at a "low rate of speed" come to a stop in the gore area, the marked-off triangle that separates freeway lanes from entrance and exit lanes. She thought the situation might be hazardous and slowed down, but kept going when she didn't see anyone get out of the vehicle. Minutes later, she heard word of shots being fired at the scene and turned around to help.

Just after Yunck saw the Prius, Cervantes stopped behind the vehicle in his DPS motorcycle. A veteran of more than 300 DUI stops with 15 years on the force, Cervantes stepped up to the passenger side door and opened it. Inside, Johnson was in the driver's seat, unconscious. He reeked of alcohol and had urinated on himself. The car key was in the ignition, and a .45-caliber handgun was on the passenger seat. Cervantes put the gun in his motorcycle, called dispatch, and went back to the car to grab the ignition key and begin the process of arrest. That's when, he claims, Johnson woke up and began fighting with him, grabbing at the passenger seat as if he expected the .45 to be there.

Cervantes, as he related to investigators later, pulled his own gun. "Stop resisting or I'm going to shoot you!" he yelled.

"You ain't gotta do all that! You ain't gotta do all that!" Johnson yelled back. He "then relaxed his body and placed his feet on the sill of the driver door," according to Cervantes' version in the Phoenix police report. "Feeling the imminent threat had diminished, Trooper Cervantes retracted his handgun and planned to place it back in his holster."

Then Johnson grabbed the trooper's vest and reached toward Cervantes' gun, clutching Cervantes' right wrist, and using his feet as leverage to pull Cervantes into the vehicle.

click to enlarge ADOT footage of the aftermath of Johnson's shooting, preserved by AZFamily.com. - AZFAMILY.COM/ADOT
ADOT footage of the aftermath of Johnson's shooting, preserved by AZFamily.com.
"In fear for his life," Cervantes fired a shot at the suspect, who was "six inches away and still grasping his wrist." Cervantes fired a second time. One of the shots hit Johnson in the abdomen.

Several motorists were passing by at the time, and later said they witnessed part of the struggle. One described "the trooper bent halfway into the vehicle with his feet on the ground." She heard the trooper yell "stop, stop, don't, don't," and, believing he was in distress, called 911.

Another trooper showed up seconds after Johnson was shot. He heard Cervantes telling Johnson to get out of the vehicle, and Johnson responding, "No, man... leave me alone... you just shot me... get off me."

The second trooper told Johnson to "stop resisting," and both troopers took Johnson out of the vehicle. That's when the freeway camera video, later aired by AZFamily.com, caught the two troopers near the writhing, dying Johnson, one trooper using his shin to stop Johnson from rolling. The standing trooper's attitude in the video seems to be one of utter indifference. It was not a good look for the DPS. Johnson, like Floyd, became another powerful symbol for Black Lives Matter and the fact that Black men face disproportionate use of force by police in the United States.

As people took to the streets in protest, the agency was also soon criticized for not releasing Cervantes' name and other information about the incident as quickly as some wanted. In the interest of transparency, the DPS eventually released Cervantes' disciplinary record. The document threw Cervantes' trustworthiness into doubt.

In his 15 years with the DPS, he'd been written up for infractions no less than 13 times. Besides admitting to using his department-issued taser to repeatedly shock his dog for "training" purposes, Cervantes had even more disturbing incidents on his record. An ex-girlfriend accused him of restraining her by the arms during a fight, leaving bruises. And in June of 2012, he left a note on his former girlfriend's car in a public parking lot, stating "I see you. I know where you live."

His ex-girlfriend, also in law enforcement, had no idea Cervantes was responsible for the note. Spooked, she reported the incident to Phoenix police. The department's Homeland Security unit conducted a threat assessment and had Peoria police monitor the woman's home, as a July 16 Arizona Republic article about Cervantes' background related.

"This event was also reflective of Officer Cervantes' continued impulsive behavior and poor decision making," the disciplinary report says.

Cervantes was given 80 hours of unpaid suspension but allowed to stay on the job.


Who's telling the truth — the man who lived to tell what happened, or those who speak for Dion Johnson?

Through her attorney, Erma Johnson declined to be interviewed for this article.

"She said she didn't believe it was relevant to talk about his past," Blackwell told New Times.

At Monday's press conference following Adel's announcement that Cervantes wouldn't face criminal charges, Erma Johnson said, "I still feel George Cervantes is a monster and needs to be arrested for my son’s murder. Period."

click to enlarge Jocquese Blackwell, the attorney representing Johnson's family, speaks at a September 21 press conference on Adel's charging decision. - JOSH KELETY
Jocquese Blackwell, the attorney representing Johnson's family, speaks at a September 21 press conference on Adel's charging decision.
Josh Kelety
Blackwell and others believe Adel should have put Cervantes' story to the test before a jury, and let the jury decide if it's believable. If Cervantes had faced criminal prosecution, defense attorneys likely would have pushed to introduce Johnson's background to the jury, but little if any of it would have been admitted as evidence, Blackwell said.

Jennifer Liewer, spokesperson for the county attorney's office, agreed that a criminal defendant (like Cervantes would be, if he had been charged) would not typically be able to bring up a victim's criminal history as a defense. Likewise, the county attorney's office didn't take Cervantes' background into consideration while deciding whether to charge him. Liewer said the office is receiving criticism for that, "but it's important as prosecutors to look at what we know will be allowed into a criminal trial. In making the decision in this case, we really did focus on the events leading up to the struggle, along with all the corroborating witnesses."

Still, the background of both men is "probably relevant for the general public," she said.

On Monday, Adel said at her presser that Cervantes had the right to defend himself under Arizona law, and that based on the facts, it would have been impossible to prove at trial that the trooper didn't act in self-defense.

Blackwell grew defensive this week when asked about Johnson's background, and said police and court reports are unreliable. He said New Times should write a story about the trooper instead, claiming "nobody's written an article about George Cervantes."

Johnson was "calm" during the arrest, so why would he go for Cervantes' gun? Blackwell pondered.

"It doesn't make any sense," he said of Cervantes' story. He also said it's "not plausible" for Johnson to have had his body in the position described by Cervantes and still grab the trooper's right wrist.

Asked if Johnson was the type of person who might attack a cop, Blackwell said "no," adding that Erma Johnson said her son "respected the police."

Blackwell said he didn't know about Winters' beating and other aspects of Johnson's background, but didn't think it mattered. Cervantes' past, on the other hand, he said, should definitely have been considered by Adel's office when deciding whether to charge the trooper.

Johnson's childhood friend Ashley Winters — a different Ashley Winters, she told New Times, than the one who was assaulted by Johnson in 2018 — said she simply never saw the side of Johnson that the other Ashley Winters reportedly endured, or any other sign of violence in him. She was floored, she said, when she first saw the news of how Johnson died, and the accusations by Cervantes.

"I wouldn't think he would do anything like that," she said. "He was really sweet." The trooper's story sounded suspicious to her, and so did the lack of camera footage.

click to enlarge The aftermath of the shooting was captured by the bodycams of officers who arrived to help. - CHANNEL 12 SCREEN GRAB
The aftermath of the shooting was captured by the bodycams of officers who arrived to help.
Channel 12 screen grab
Police brutality has gotten out of hand, she said. "It's a worldwide problem."

Reverend Jarrett Maupin, a civil rights activist with his own problematic background, said he thinks the Dion Johnson case is a "very sad thing and tragic... But this is an example of a narrative that was bullshit."

He said Johnson had a gang affiliation (New Times has been unable to confirm this) and that his long history of criminal behavior indicates it's quite plausible that he instigated the fight with the trooper. Maupin, who has led protests and brought numerous brutality cases to light, said community activists should be "mature enough" to examine a situation in its entirety.

Adel's decision was the "right call," he asserted. Cervantes "was not only trying to do his job, but was lucky to be alive."

Black Lives Matter Phoenix Metro, and Black Phoenix Organizing Collective, two of the groups that organized marches on behalf of Dion Johnson, did not return messages from New Times.

Another local civil rights activist and organizer, Warren Stewart Jr., founder and lead pastor of the Church of The Remnant, said the trooper's past "absolutely" is relevant to the case, as is the officer's "mental health."

Johnson's past? "Not relevant at all."

Stewart Jr. led Johnson's funeral service in June. He said he didn't know Johnson, but after speaking with many of his family and friends, he doesn't believe Johnson would ever attack a police officer, especially after waking up intoxicated.

"That is not who he was," Stewart Jr. said. "He wasn't a violent person." He added that he would be surprised to learn Johnson had a history of violence.

Yet even if Johnson was guilty of attacking Cervantes, the response by Cervantes should not have been to shoot Johnson, Stewart Jr. said.

"Unarmed Black people are being killed at the hands of police," he said, "and it isn't justifiable."
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern