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DEATH OF A DEPUTY

Carpenter Wants Killer of Officer Executed

Shooting: Michael Johnson, a man with a long criminal record who was believed to be rehabilitated, is suspected in the slaying of Peter Aguirre Jr.

July 19, 1996|DARYL KELLEY and SCOTT HADLY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The day after a sheriff's deputy was slain while intervening in a domestic dispute near Ojai, Sheriff Larry Carpenter said he will ask prosecutors to seek the death penalty against the alleged killer--a repeat criminal who ran naked from his house firing at officers with two semiautomatic handguns.

"I want the death penalty," Carpenter said, after praising rookie patrol officer Peter John Aguirre Jr., 26, a former religious studies student who died Wednesday evening, an hour after Michael Raymond Johnson, 48, is suspected of gunning him down.

Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury said prosecutors will file first-degree murder charges with a special circumstance, which allows him to seek the death penalty if he chooses. That decision will not be made until Bradbury has fully analyzed the case, including the suspect's criminal history.

As the Sheriff's Department reeled in the aftermath of Aguirre's death and set up a scholarship fund for his 3-year-old daughter, his family and friends began to plan for yet another funeral for a Ventura County law enforcement officer.

Aguirre was the fourth officer killed in the line of duty since 1993.

Oxnard Police Officer James Jensen Jr. was accidentally killed by another officer in March. Simi Valley patrolman Michael Clark was fatally wounded when he approached the home of a distraught substitute teacher last year. And Oxnard Officer James O'Brien was gunned down by an out-of-work computer engineer on a deadly rampage that killed four in 1993.

Carpenter would not detail Johnson's criminal history, citing a state law that prohibits such disclosures by police. But sources said that the suspect was first convicted 28 years ago and that he has been sentenced to state and federal prisons for narcotics sales, burglary, armed robbery and use of a firearm after committing crimes in at least three states.

In 1987, he was sentenced to nearly six years in state prison for robbery and assault with a deadly weapon in Santa Monica, a burglary in Van Nuys and the burglary of an Ojai hardware store, records show.

Sources said Johnson's first conviction was for a 1968 theft in Georgia. He was arrested on drug charges in East St. Louis, Ill., in 1973. A 1974 conviction for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine resulted in a three-year sentence that began at the federal penitentiary in Marion, Ill., considered one of the toughest in the nation, a source said.

His record also includes an arrest on drug charges in Las Vegas and an arrest for receiving stolen property in San Diego, both in 1985, sources said.

Prosecutors said Johnson, who was shot in the rib cage by a deputy before being arrested outside the Meiners Oaks house he sometimes shared with his estranged wife, is scheduled for arraignment today. He remained in intensive care at Ventura County Medical Center on Thursday, but was in fair condition.

Carpenter said there was no indication that Johnson, a recovering alcoholic, was intoxicated by drugs or alcohol when he allegedly shot Aguirre three times in the head and shoulder. The officer had just stepped inside Johnson's small house after responding to a complaint of a man holding his wife hostage with a gun.

Johnson, who was showering when four deputies arrived, then ran nude from the house--firing eight to 12 rounds at officers as he fled, Carpenter said. Deputy Jim Freyhoff, ducking behind a tree, returned fire, shooting Johnson once in his rib cage, Carpenter said.

News that Johnson is accused of engaging in a gun battle with peace officers surprised people who have worked with him at drug and alcohol centers in the last year; they said he has attempted to turn his life around and become a professional drug counselor.

Johnson had excelled as a student in drug counseling classes at Oxnard College in 1994, and had worked at two drug and rehabilitation centers as a volunteer counselor since then--a Salvation Army center in Carpinteria and as a resident manager at Tiber House in east Ventura for the Turning Point Foundation.

Bob Holts, director of rehabilitation at the Salvation Army center, called Johnson one of the best interns he had ever worked with.

"The quality of his counseling was extremely good," Holts said. "I am sitting here hoping and praying that there has been some sort of macabre misidentification."

But Carpenter told reporters at a news conference Thursday afternoon that there is no doubt who killed Aguirre, a rookie patrol officer he described as one of his department's most promising.

"He was a good deputy, very well thought of . . . and very, very sincere about helping those who were not as fortunate," he said.

Aguirre had considered becoming a priest and wanted to be a teacher, but went into law enforcement instead, Carpenter said. "He decided he could be of more assistance in the law enforcement field," he said. But some relatives worried because of the current "craziness on the streets."

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