Among the fatal police shootings in the Denver area that have received relatively little attention over the past year was the September 20, 2019, slaying of Scott Johnson, a popular and successful dentist who was killed by Lakewood Police Agent Chris Hoeh while in the midst of a mental health crisis near the city's Cultural Center — and the police department. Johnson was struck in a so-called sally port through which Lakewood cops routinely transfer prisoners.
Moments before he was shot, Johnson had been holding a handgun. But his wife, Michelle Johnson, who was with him at the time, maintains that he'd disabled the weapon and set it on the ground before Hoeh opened fire. Moreover, a man who phoned the Lakewood Police Department said he'd seen the same thing and even captured video of the tragic encounter. Problem is, the caller didn't identify himself, and while attorney Craig Silverman of Springer & Steinberg, P.C., who represents Michelle Johnson, is desperately trying to track him down, there's no indication that the Lakewood cops are interested in doing likewise.
Earlier this year, Silverman served the Lakewood Police Department with a notice of claims — a precursor to a possible lawsuit over the incident, which the document maintains would justify damages in excess of $5 million. "Because of pending litigation, we are unable to comment on this case," notes Lakewood Police Department spokesperson John Romero, who points out that in April, First Judicial District District Attorney Pete Weir determined that criminal charges against Hoeh weren't justified.
More insight into the events is supplied by a video of the shooting obtained by Silverman. The footage reveals that the normally even-tempered Johnson, who'd recently switched to a new migraine medication with potential side effects that include suicidal ideation, was threatening to harm himself; he even put a handgun in his mouth for an extended period.
But in the video, Michelle Johnson appears to have successfully calmed her husband before Hoeh and fellow Agent Edward Baggs, one of the officers at the scene of a brutal police canine attack against Spencer Erickson that resulted in a separate suit last year, enter the frame. The clip doesn't contradict Michelle's assertion that Johnson had put down the gun and was sitting quietly when Hoeh shot him four times; one of the sally port's concrete walls partially blocks the view.
Here's the video:
Hoeh, who admitted during a subsequent interview that he feared the sally port could be used for a sneak attack on the police department, insists that he fired only after seeing a silhouette of Johnson's arm moving suddenly, with the gun in his hand. But there's no body-camera footage to provide additional clarity, since the Lakewood Police Department didn't require its officers to wear such devices at the time of the shooting. (Body cameras are now required statewide as a result of police accountability legislation signed into law by Governor Jared Polis last month.)
This frustrates Silverman. "We should not have to rely on Agent Hoeh about what happened in regard to that gun, which we submit was down on the ground," he says. "His body camera should have been on, but Lakewood made the conscious decision not to have body cameras — and we know why departments make those decisions."
For her part, Johnson's widow is angered by the narrative pushed by the police that Hoeh fired to protect her from being injured in an episode of domestic violence. "The way this has been portrayed is that we were in some sort of physical struggle, and that's not the truth," Michelle says. "I think Agent Hoeh just reacted and shot him, and now he's lying and saying Scott pointed the gun."
In the hours before the shooting, Johnson gave little indication that he was a danger to himself or others. Michelle says the two of them enjoyed a leisurely dinner in advance of a planned rendezvous with friends to see a presentation at the Cultural Center, and she stresses that even though "we had happy-hour drinks, it wasn't like we were drunk" — though in retrospect, she thinks the alcohol might have sparked a bad reaction to Johnson's migraine meds. His tone was sharper than usual during a conversation with a waitress, and when they were running late for the show, his behavior escalated in a way that was definitely out of character, she says.
The situation grew tenser from there. During a back-and-forth in their car, located in a nearby parking garage, Johnson grabbed a handgun from his glove compartment, exited the vehicle and started walking. Michelle raced to follow him and heard him having an animated conversation with his son on his cell phone. She caught up with him by the sally port.
There, the Johnsons spoke for what Michelle estimates was eight minutes — a span that isn't included in the video, to her chagrin. "He was saying to me, 'You need to leave. You don't want to see what I'm going to do,'" she recalls. "I kept telling him, 'Put the gun down. Stop.'"
Once the video starts, she notes, "You can see he walked out of that cove, and he actually jacked the magazine out of the gun. He was pulling the gun apart, and I was trying to grab the pieces of the gun. I think he realized, 'This is getting to be a dangerous situation, and I need to get the magazine out of the gun.' That's when he put the gun in his mouth, but the gun was basically inoperable from that point — and my husband was a gun expert."
Shortly thereafter, Michelle heard "a faint voice saying, 'Ma'am, come out,' and I did go out. I yelled, 'I'm okay, I'm fine. I'm going to stay with him until the police get here.' I didn't realize they were already in the garage until I saw the video. And Scott, in my opinion, was spent. He knew he needed help. And he just crumbled in the cove. He got down on the ground and he was crying, he was upset."
The next thing Michelle heard, she says, "was someone saying, 'Step back.' I was in front of him on my knees, and Scott was sitting on his bottom with his back up against the wall, and he wasn't holding the gun. I turned to say, 'No,' and when I turned, they started shooting. I looked at him, and he fell over."
To put it mildly, Hoeh's memories are very different from those voiced by Michelle. But in the decision letter, Weir explains away the contradictions. "As is frequently the case and as documented in scientific literature, individuals in high-stress events such as a shooting may experience wide-ranging emotions and perceptual distortions," he writes. "It is not unusual for those involved to have incomplete recollections and for witness accounts to have some inconsistencies." None of these variations, he notes, "are relevant to my determination of criminal culpability."
The same can apparently be said for the recording of that call to the Lakewood police in which a man claiming to have witnessed the shooting supports Michelle's version of events. "Yeah, we saw that shooting go down last night at the Cultural Center," the caller says in an audio file Silverman managed to track down. "And we're just a little bit concerned, because we saw you guys shoot that guy, and he didn't have a gun in his hand. He was just sitting down."
Here's the recording. Note that the caller declines to identify himself because "I'm afraid of the cops. You guys have fucked us over before."
The recording isn't mentioned in the decision letter, and Silverman subsequently discovered that investigators dismissed it after supposedly tracing it to a woman who frequently made false sex accusations against police officers. But according to Silverman, the number was actually tied to a now-disconnected line associated with the Lakewood municipal court system. He's now trying to locate the caller himself — particularly given the man's mention of a video. (If you have information, you can reach Silverman via email or at 303-861-2800.)
In the meantime, Silverman has commissioned an independent analysis of the shooting. "Our police use-of-force expert and his team came and saw the shooting scene in person last week, and they have reviewed the evidence, including the video," he says. "Our experts strongly believe the Lakewood PD handled this sad situation inappropriately, and Dr. Johnson should not have been shot dead."
Michelle Johnson couldn't agree more. "There are so many things about this that aren't right," she says. "I've been truthful the entire time, and I don't believe the police have been that way at all."
Click to read the Dr. Scott Johnson shooting notice of claims, the transcript of the interview with Lakewood Police Agent Chris Hoeh, and the decision letter determining that no criminal charges would be pressed.