Sometimes, Pacific County Sheriff Scott Johnson just opens up the closet of his new house and looks admiringly at the top shelf, an old worn hat sitting there with tussles along its brim.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever actually taken if off the shelf before,” he said, reaching for it, perhaps for the first time.
The hat — and the house for that matter — once belonged to the late Herbert Newton, the Pacific County sheriff from 1976 to 1986. Johnson purchased Newton’s old house when he saw it go on the market. Newton’s daughter encouraged Johnson to make a bid.
As a surprise to Johnson, a box full of Newton’s memorabilia was left behind for Johnson to keep. There’s Newton’s old hat, a uniform and several awards the former sheriff had in his possession.
Johnson knew the man while serving as a reserve deputy back in 1983. It was a job he had just for a year, before he went on to join the Washington State Patrol. Fittingly, he placed his old Pacific County uniform right there next to Newton’s.
Inside the box, there’s even a notebook with a familiar name on its cover — Donald Burke, a Hoquiam Police officer killed in the line of duty back in 1980. Johnson said he hasn’t really studied the notebook very much to see what significance it could have.
“But everybody knew what happened to Donald Burke,” Johnson said, trailing off, because three years ago this very month, Johnson was shot in the head while in the line of duty and left for dead. It’s a miracle he survived to not only see his shooter be sentenced to 50 years, but to recover well enough to become sheriff of the county he grew up in.
On Feb. 13, 2010, Johnson was assisting with the impound of a vehicle suspected in a drunk driving incident. It was after midnight. The tow truck noise was loud and he didn’t see a man come up on him as he was filling out his paperwork. Johnson said he felt a gun pressed up against the back of his head — and he was shot.
Dazed and bleeding, Johnson was still able to squeeze off two shots at the shooter.
On his cell phone, he shows off the X-rays of the small caliber bullet fragments that are still in his head today.
“It broke into three pieces when it hit the skull, which is amazing,” Johnson said. “After I was shot, I lost my hearing, thought I had been hit with a bullet in my temple.”
After being raced to the hospital and months of recovery, he had an MRI done, which actually made the situation worse because the bullet had some metal in it and the magnets from the MRI made the bullets move farther apart.
“There was just enough where it separated things and made things terribly miserable, but it healed up on its own,” Johnson said. “On the back of my head, the fragments are near the vertebrae in a thin band of muscle that support the head. So, to take it out, would require to cut through the muscle and, if they did that, they said my head may always hang to one side.
“You know, I’ve never felt the fragments. But, I always thought if I push hard with my fingers enough I could, but I really can’t.”
Johnson said he spent about a year going to a counselor to talk about what had happened to him.
“I wasn’t told to go to one but I would send somebody to one if they were in a shooting,” Johnson said “I went to someone who was specialized to help a police officer who had been through a shooting. It was an awkward thing to go through. I forced myself to go through one.”
Johnson said he still doesn’t know all of the evidence presented at the shooter’s trial because he was told to avoid newspaper articles and television reports about what happened to him.
“I know there are over 300 pieces of evidences and yet I don’t now what they have,” Johnson said. “The Attorney General’s Office was handling the case and they took me to a room and, surprisingly, there were organized three ring binders — just shelf after shelf — and the attorney said, ‘Those are all your case.’ And I looked and they all had my name and said ‘Scott Johnson shooting.’ Every single one of them.”
In late 2010, Johnson went to the doctor and, he says, got the “medical OK” that he could go back on the job. He also went to the State Patrol Academy, “And I asked for them to put me through the ‘Shoot, Don’t Shoot’ training that cadets go through and I asked them to put me through 10 times harder and 10 times longer, so I spent the day there to make sure I could still confront the bad guys and do what I needed to do and it eliminated any question in my mind that I was ready to come back.”
He says he has mixed emotions that he was never able to put on his State Trooper uniform and actually go back on active duty again, because in November of 2010, he was elected Pacific County Sheriff with 55 percent of the vote over then-incumbent John Didion.
On one hand, he says he was thrilled by the election results. On the other hand, he wanted to prove to himself that he could get back in his old State Patrol car and get back on the job.
It just happens that Johnson recently noticed that his old State Patrol car has been returned to duty and he often sees it patrol Highway 101.
“I know the trooper behind the wheel and he’s a good man,” Johnson said. “It was a good car that was probably held as evidence in storage for a year. It’ll serve him well.”
As it is, Johnson wears his Pacific County uniform everywhere he goes, a choice he’s made instead of wearing a suit and tie.
“I want everyone around me to know that the Sheriff is here to help them and be part of their community,” Johnson said, adding that he also wants to honor the long legacy of sheriffs in the county and is restoring the old star worn by many of his predecessors, including Newton.
“Besides being sheriff, Newton was the fire chief here,” Johnson said. “Everybody knew who Newt was. As a kid, I used to work at the Southwest stores down the hill in South Bend and he used to come down every single day, and in uniform he would sweep every aisle of the store. Then he would go to the old boat shop and he would help clean up that shop and then he would go do a loop as sheriff down to Bay Center. You would know exactly where he would be, what bank, just like clockwork. The people knew where to find him all the time to get help.”
Youngest reserve officer in the state
At the age of 14, Johnson knew he wanted to be a police officer. He would go on ride-alongs with the Raymond Police Department.
Gerald Ashley, who was police chief in South Bend for 36 years, said he had to get special permission from the state Attorney General’s Office for a 17-year-old Johnson to be a reserve officer. He became the youngest officer in the state.
“I remember he couldn’t even carry a firearm until we got a special exemption from the Attorney General’s Office,” Ashley said.
He became a reserve sergeant at the age of 18 and went through the Grays Harbor Reserve Academy. In 1983, he went to work for Sheriff Newton for a year, before resigning a year later when he decided to enroll in the State Patrol Academy.
As a senior cadet, he helped earn his keep by guarding the governor for a little less than a year and helped patrol the Governor’s Mansion and the Capitol Building.
“Every night, I would walk to the tippity top of the building where the bats are,” Johnson said “It was creepy doing it yourself.”
At a time of transition, he ended up guarding former Gov. John Spellman and his family during their last months at the mansion and former Gov. Booth Gardner and his family just as he was taking office.
“I remember when Booth Gardner ordered me to get a cheeseburger at Dairy Queen, and I was, like, ‘Sir, I can’t leave you.’ And, he said, ‘Who’s the boss around this place?’ We were always told, if you lose the governor, you’re fired.”
On July 1, 1985, Johnson became a commissioned State Patrol officer. He requested to be stationed in Chehalis, White Pass or Pacific County.
“And they chose here, which surprised me because, generally, you didn’t get assigned to where people knew you,” Johnson said. “There was a time where the Patrol would transfer people every two years because they didn’t want you to know who the judge was or have any interpersonal relationships.”
As a trooper, he found he would do more than just respond to traffic incidents. He recalls one time when dispatch had a potential home invasion in progress, and yet there was no deputy within many miles of the call.
The woman had an alarm go off and she heard somebody in her house, Johnson explained, still recalling the situation years later.
“She drug her kids upstairs in the house, pulled them in the closet, locked the bedroom door and she was on the phone with 911 and saying, ‘I hear him downstairs in my house.’ And there was no deputy anywhere close as there sometimes isn’t even today and I happened to be close to that as was another trooper. We responded. The lady could care less what color uniform we wore, she was so happy we rescued them. Well, it turned out the door hadn’t been latched and an animal came into the house. But, it was an important lesson to learn that we need to all be together in moments of crisis. We all need to work together as law enforcement because there just isn’t enough law enforcement in this county.”
As sheriff, that’s a lesson he’s helped put into practice. Down four or five deputies — depending on the list — Johnson and his new Undersheriff Todd Fosse often pull double shifts. When deputies are out sick or hurt, it’s entirely possible they’re the only ones patrolling the entire county.
The situation has gotten to the point where Johnson actually has two houses — one in northern Pacific County and the other on the south end.
“At the end of the shift, I just go to wherever is closest,” said Johnson, who is single, although he has four adult children. “Sometimes I really am living out of a suitcase.”
Johnson says he has hopes of hiring at least one new deputy soon, but says to really make a difference, two would be better.
“Everything comes down to money sometimes,” Johnson said.
There are a lot of things to deal with besides manpower — finding storage space, communication upgrades.
At the Sheriff’s Office, Johnson has been able to make a few changes at not very big costs.
For one thing, residents can no longer simply walk into the offices. He installed a barrier and glass at the entrance, noting three years ago an officer had to use a Taser on someone in their offices.
“That was a safety issue,” Johnson said.
A year ago, Johnson also helped oversee the purchase of a new digital map and tracking software so he and his dispatchers can know where all of his deputies are at any given moment. He cites his own shooting, which inspired his decision to get the software.
“My State Patrol car didn’t have anything so there were calls that I was outside the city of Long Beach, when I was really inside of it,” he said. “One call came that I was 20 miles from where I was at. We never want that to happen to our officers.”
Johnson said he’s paid for some cosmetic improvements himself, including a new conference table and painting the inside of part of the offices.
Stephanie Fritts, the head of Pacific County Emergency Management for the past 17 years, says Johnson has impressed her with his “real even-keel attitude.”
“He’s doing great,” she said. “He’s one of the kindest and most respectful people I’ve worked with. He’s not a micro-manager and I really appreciate that. I appreciate his willingness to listen. He doesn’t seem to get way upset about anything. Some people I’ve worked with over the years are a roller coaster of emotions sometimes.”
Last year, Johnson addressed the 100th Washington State Patrol basic training class graduates and talked to them about his shooting, in hopes of preparing them for the worst that could happen to them and urging them to always be prepared.
“You have to be careful and you never give up,” Johnson said he told the cadets. “The tow truck driver kept saying, ‘Give me your gun. Give me your gun.’ And they always teach you to never, ever give away your gun and if you can stand, you stand. And that was what was going through my mind. And it’s a good thing I didn’t because the man who shot me ended up coming back and that probably helped save me from something worse. Sometimes, it’s hard to imagine it was me that went through that. But I can remember it to the second and can recall it like it was yesterday and I always will. It was a short event but I remember every single thing that they did. I don’t recall how I got from one side of the tow truck to the other. I was asked that a million times in court and I don’t remember. I must have blacked out. But everything else is very vivid. …
“I, still to this day, won’t talk a lot about it,” Johnson added. “And 99 percent of the time it doesn’t bother me, but when I was talking to those cadets, I looked out and some of them were crying and then the next thing I know I had a few tears. I didn’t think it bothered me a bit, but it did. I was so sure in my mind that I wasn’t going to live and a lot of things go through your mind at that time. … You know, I gave the kid sitting in my seat, same classroom, same configuration as when I went through the academy, and I gave him a sheriff’s coin and said, ‘Be extra careful.’ It’s three years I probably shouldn’t have got.”