Recently released documents shed more light on the criminal life and family troubles of Dion Johnson, whose fatal shooting by a state trooper in May sparked protests attended by thousands in the streets of Phoenix.
Drawing from police reports, the documents detail domestic problems with Johnson's mother and brother, Donovan, who was arrested and accused last month of murdering a Phoenix towing business owner.
Among other things, the reports show that Dion Johnson threatened to go "demon" on his mother, Erma Johnson, during a family disturbance two months before Cervantes shot him in a fight on the freeway. The violent behavior he exhibited in the two years before his death, some of which has already been detailed by Phoenix New Times, included another incident in which he accused his mother of taking money from him and began breaking things in her home.
Dion Johnson's shooting by Department of Public Safety officer George Cervantes occurred on the same day that George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. While Chauvin was recently found guilty of murder in that case, in September, Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel cleared Cervantes of criminal charges in the Dion Johnson shooting.
Back in May 2020, Cervantes had found Johnson passed out in his Toyota Prius in a freeway gore area with a pistol in the car. After he secured the pistol, he claims, the 28-year-old Black man 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 said he then shot Johnson.
No one but Cervantes knows whether he was truly justified in firing his gun. He claimed that he feared for his life — that Johnson was going to push him into the freeway traffic. Cervantes didn't have a bodycam, and his police motorcycle wasn't equipped with a dashcam. But freeway video shows Johnson on the ground, writhing in apparent pain as a trooper uses a boot to stop him from rolling.
Last month, the county attorney's office released the complete file to New Times that had been used to decide whether Cervantes should be charged, revealing more about Johnson's life prior to his fatal confrontation with Cervantes.
The DPS also released a document last week stating that its internal investigation of the shooting showed no "issues or deficiencies" in policy or procedures, training, or equipment had been involved. DPS tells Phoenix New Times that Cervantes is on "industrial leave," but the agency refused to say what that meant. Cervantes' record on the force is not without blemish. He has been written up for 13 violations in his 15 years as an officer. He once used a stun-gun on his puppy for "training" and has been accused of bruising a girlfriend during an argument that turned physical.
Janelle Wood of Black Mothers Forum, a critic of the shooting and Johnson family supporter, said she was aware of Donovan Johnson's recent arrest and ascribed the family's troubles to "trauma" experienced by "certain communities."
"What is going on when we start to have these things in a community?" she said. "What brought all of this on?"
Family FightsErma Johnson did not return a message from New Times. She has never talked about her son's history of violence and said at an anti-police-brutality demonstration this past Friday that Dion was her "rock."
After the shooting last year, Erma described Dion as someone who would never attack a police officer, as Cervantes had claimed he did. She repeatedly told the news media that her son was a gentle soul, and local reporters published those claims without looking into Dion's past. So did the NFL, which recognized Johnson on its Instagram page and included glowing quotes by Erma that were reprinted in the Arizona Republic: "He was so brilliant, he had a heart of gold, was so kind and gentle and was a gentleman with his music on the way up."
"He wasn't a violent person," civil rights activist and organizer Pastor Warren Stewart Jr., who led Johnson's funeral, told New Times last summer.
New Times revealed the omitted facts in a September article about Johnson's history of violence, substance abuse, and criminal behavior dating back, tragically, to his pre-teen years. Jocquese Blackwell, an attorney who previously represented the Johnson family regarding Dion's death, said he was totally unaware of violence in Dion's past.
Though Dion Johnson's criminal history doesn't reflect directly on what happened with Cervantes, the public was misled about his background. And as the newly released files show, there are additional troubling episodes that haven't been brought to light until now.
According to a police report, at about 2 a.m. on March 8, 2020, Erma called Avondale police on Dion after he broke down the front door of her apartment. The officer who arrived to investigate knew her from "prior contact." Dion wasn't there, but Erma explained that she'd been home when Dion came over and started banging on the door, asking to be let in.
Erma told police that Dion grew angry and threatened to break the door down unless he let him get his "stuff." While the officer took photos of the damage, Erma's phone rang. It was Dion. The officer listened in: "Dion advised he was upset and was going to go 'demon' on her," the report states. "I then identified myself to Dion and Dion ended the phone call." Erma declined to press charges.
Family fights were common at the address; a police service history for Erma's Avondale address, where Dion sometimes lived, shows 14 police calls in the two-year period before Dion's May 2020 death. Four days before the door incident, police had been to the apartment because of a fight between Dion and Donovan. Dion's brother had "obvious injuries to his face," but refused to cooperate with police, who took Dion to jail for a misdemeanor warrant.
On July 13, 2018, another report shows, Erma told police that Dion had accused her of taking money from him and was drunk, "aggressive," and had broken a mirror and TV remote controls in the apartment. Dion had been released from prison a few months earlier after completing a seven-year sentence for robbery and burglary.
Erma "said her son had recently moved in with her," and while he didn't get "physical" with her, she "stated she was afraid and called 911 after Dion began breaking items." Dion was arrested, but not prosecuted. Days later, he was stopped for running a stop sign and found with a silver revolver. He refused to give his name until unnamed family members arrived on the scene. Even then, he took off running in an attempt to escape. After he was caught at gunpoint he was "non-compliant" and "leg restraints had to be applied" to get him in a squad car, according to police.
Three months later, as New Times previously detailed, Dion delivered a horrific beat-down to a woman he knew in her friend's apartment. One fresh detail in the newly released reports: The friend, who witnessed the attack, estimated that he had punched the woman "about 30 times" in the face and "tried to slam her head into the floor." The victim didn't cooperate with the prosecution, but the incident landed Dion back in prison for several more months.
The newly released files contain another police case from October 19, 2019, not long after that prison term ended. Tucson police had gotten a call at about 8 p.m. about people arguing and a gun going off near a Circle K. Police found Dion, Donovan, and Donovan's girlfriend, Shatara Duncan near the store.
"It appeared to me that Dion was the aggressor in the argument, as he was yelling and screaming at Donovan and Shatara," one officer wrote. A Walmart bag next to the store was found to have a 9mm handgun in it. Duncan said the bag was Dion's, and Circle K video showed Dion walking in with the bag. But a nearby shell casing found by police was .40 caliber, not 9mm. Prosecutors declined the case as being un-prosecutable.
An additional new detail in Dion Johnson's shooting symbolizes his hard-edged lifestyle as much as any: The autopsy report released in the prosecution files noted that several weeks prior to being shot by Cervantes, Johnson had been treated at a local hospital for a human bite to one of his fingers.
Mom's Car at Murder Scene?One year after his brother's controversial killing by Cervantes, Donovan Johnson is being held in jail on a $2 million bond, charged with first-degree murder.
In a five-page supplement to his initial appearance document, Phoenix police describe how Donovan claimed ownership of a Mercedes that was being towed on March 31, then convinced a tow-truck driver to tow a second vehicle, telling the driver he would trade that vehicle for the cost of towing the Mercedes. He went to AZ Metro Towing at 3570 East Van Buren Street a day later and met with the owner, John Weeks, who explained that the business had already released the Mercedes to its owner. Donovan allegedly told Weeks to give him another car from the lot as compensation for his troubles. When Weeks refused, Donovan yelled loudly that he would be back and Weeks should remember his name.
A surveillance video from the towing business showed that Donovan had arrived at the tow yard that day in a dark-blue Hyundai Sonota. Cops soon determined that Erma Johnson owned such a car. They learned "from several police reports" that Donovan had been living with his mother at her new apartment near 32nd Street and Baseline Road. It's not clear from the court record who drove the Hyundai to the murder scene, since Donovan left the yard in the Impala.
Police caught Donovan three days later in a stolen truck. At first, he denied everything, including signing a form at AZ Metro Towing or being in his mother's car.
"He stated his mother was dead and had never been in her car and did not know what kind of car she had," the report states.
With a photograph of John Weeks in front of him that cops had put on the interview table, Donovan reportedly confessed to the crime, police say, admitting that he "snapped" during the confrontation with Weeks and had felt disrespected. He said he felt bad about shooting Weeks, but "then switched back" and began denying everything again.
Donovan's public legal advocates wrote in a court filing on April 29 that the defense needs more time before a planned challenge of the grand jury proceedings.
'Formative Years Were Difficult'As New Times reported in September, Dion Johnson had an exceptionally troubled childhood that involved multiple referrals to juvenile authorities and serious substance abuse. His brother, who's two years younger than Dion and was the youngest of five children in the family, was apparently spared no part of the rough upbringing.
He was sentenced in 2011 at age 18 for a convenience store robbery he'd committed with Dion. In 2013, Donovan received another prison sentence for another robbery. He admitted that "he was previously affiliated with the West Side City Crips and related that he still had family members in the gang but stated that he was no longer a member of the gang."
At an early age, Dion and Donovan were taken from their family and made to live in a "shelter," Donovan Johnson told probation authorities in 2013. Their father was "in and out of prison." Donovan said he'd seen physical abuse between the adults in his home and that his "formative years were difficult," but he didn't want to elaborate. He said he could neither read nor write. He was found to have mental health issues.
Donovan, who like Dion had a child, expressed a desire to change. But a probation officer wrote that he posed a "significant threat to the community" and that efforts to rehabilitate him "would be futile at this time."
The men have three sisters: They've written letters to judges pleading for lesser time in Donovan's major offenses and advocated for Dion after he'd been shot.
One of the sisters, Camille Landrum, told the media in June that she believed Cervantes "fabricated" his entire story of how Dion attacked him.
"It is not true. That is not my brother," she said on June 5. "I don't care what they say about his background... When you know somebody, you know their background. You know them and their character. He is not going to assault or fight an officer."
New Times was unable to reach Landrum to ask about her family's life.
Cervantes could potentially have avoided having to shoot Dion Johnson, who had been disarmed before their battle began. But Johnson was a dangerous gang member feared by his own mother, intoxicated, and had been caught with a weapon he wasn't legally allowed to have. His past, his family life, his recent violence, his substance abuse — it all came together the moment he met Cervantes on the freeway.