Court records and members of his family have indicated the man shot and killed by a deputy from the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) last week had a documented history of mental issues.
As Lagniappe has reported, Bernie Wade Johnson, 34, was fatally wounded after a confrontation with an armed officer in the parking lot of the Walmart shopping center in Semmes Jan. 9.
Capt. Paul Burch said MCSO personnel were called to the scene after Walmart employees reported a theft in progress at the store around 1 p.m. that day. A deputy, who was reportedly in the parking lot already, responded, immediately encountered Johnson coming out of the store and attempted to make an arrest.
According to Burch, Johnson refused to comply with the officer’s orders, and while he never possessed a firearm, he did reportedly obtain a clawhammer from somewhere outside the store. The officer allegedly used a taser on Johnson, but he continued to advance with the clawhammer — a claim consistent with what some purported eyewitnesses were saying on social media the day of the incident.
Johnson’s family has disputed the claim he was tased by the deputy before he was shot.
“The deputy told him to drop it, but [Johnson] refused and said, ‘I’m going to kill you or you’re going to kill me,’” Burch told Lagniappe. “The deputy shot him and he’s deceased. The deputy was not injured.”
Burch also said “at least half a dozen” witnesses saw the incident, including one who recorded at least part of the altercation on a cell phone and shared that footage with investigators after the fact.
Since Johnson’s death, his family members have publicly stated he had long struggled with mental issues including paranoid schizophrenia and “a split personality.” His grandmother, Rosalie Johnson, wrote on Facebook she believes he was having an episode when he was killed last week.
“When he was having a hard time with all the voices in his head, he would steal something so he would go to jail. In there, he would have a place to stay and eat,” Rosalie wrote. “He wasn’t a shoplifter; he just wanted to go to jail. He was so tired. I think he wanted to end the pain.”
Though it was posted several months before his death back in October 2019, the last thing Johnson wrote publicly on his personal Facebook page was: “I’m Tired as hell; don’t [really] have anything to do.”
Judicial records kept by the Mobile County Probate Court indicate Johnson was committed for a mental evaluation in 2015 after family members reported a pattern of “delusional” behavior and an attempt to harm himself. The same records suggest his grandmother, Rosalie, was eventually able to convince Johnson to voluntarily commit himself and seek a mental evaluation on his own.
Johnson’s treatment was later extended “involuntarily” after personnel from AltaPointe asked Probate Judge Don Davis to revoke his “outpatient commitment” and move him to one of their facilities. AltaPointe can’t discuss the treatment its consumers receive, so it’s unclear when Johnson was released.
However, Mobile County Metro Jail records indicate he had to have been released by mid-2016, when he was arrested for possession of a controlled substance and third-degree domestic violence. Over the next two years, Johnson listed various addresses and indicated to police he was homeless multiple times.
Those same intake records show Johnson was picked up by police five times between 2016 and 2018 on various petty theft charges and on one occasion for public intoxication. That pattern seems to support Rosalie’s claim her grandson would shoplift in order to make his way to Metro Jail.
Over the weekend, several members of Johnson’s family placed balloons and a small memorial at the Semmes Walmart near the area where he was fatally wounded Jan. 9. They are also raising money for his funeral expenses through donations and by selling “mental health awareness” bracelets online.
In a post to Facebook, one of Johnson’s siblings wrote: “I hope that somehow we can get more help for the mental health system.” Yet, other than claiming Johnson wasn’t tased by the responding deputy, his family has not publicly discussed the details of the shooting, which remains under investigation.
According to Burch, MCSO will review the shooting and a parallel investigation will be conducted by its internal affairs unit. Findings from both investigations will be turned over to the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office to determine whether the shooting was justifiable under the circumstances.
The deputy has yet to be identified but MCSO has confirmed he was placed on administrative leave.
The incident in Semmes last week was the third officer-involved shooting MCSO has been connected to over the past month and the fourth incident that has led to a suspect or bystander being injured or killed.
In the early hours of Jan. 11 — just two days after Johnson’s shooting — an unidentified man was fatally struck by an 18-wheeler on Interstate 10 while trying to flee MCSO deputies on foot after a high-speed chase ended with a collision near the McDonald Road exit. That suspect has yet to be identified.
However, MCSO officials have said the car they were pursuing at the time had been reported stolen.
On Dec. 9, Corporal J.T. Thornton and deputies Nathaniel Kersten and Owen Bradley shot and killed 66-year-old Terrance Edward White after he opened fire on several officers responding to a domestic disturbance at a house on Lott Road in Semmes. Local prosecutors are reviewing that incident.
Ten days later, a woman in Wilmer was shot in her own home during an MCSO narcotics operation involving multiple agencies. However, the officers who actually fired the shots on Dec. 19 worked for the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office and the Department of Homeland Security Investigations, not MCSO.
That incident, which initially left 19-year-old Ann Marie Rylee in critical condition, is still being investigated by the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.
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