The MAX bridge where Terell Johnson was shot on May 10.
The MAX bridge where Terell Johnson was shot on May 10. Google

Samson Ajir was expecting Terrell Johnson to be armed well before he encountered, then killed, the man on May 10.

The officer testified before a grand jury that as he was heading to the call about Johnson threatening people at an East Portland MAX station, dispatchers alerted him that Johnson might be armed with a brief message: “NOW weapons.”

“Okay, so he’s threatening people, maybe there’s a weapon involved now,” Ajir testified he thought while responding. The moments afterward would lead to Portland's third officer-involved shooting of the year.

Until today, the details surrounding a Portland transit cop's killing of 24-year-old Johnson near the 92nd and Flavel MAX station were scant. Police had said Johnson "displayed" utility knife following a foot pursuit before Ajir fatally shot him.

The man's family and friends meanwhile, said Johnson was a good person who'd fallen into addiction.

We know more now, after the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office released transcripts from the grand jury proceedings that took place last month. The grand jury declined to indict Ajir, 32, assigned to the multi-agency Transit Unit.

The 427-page transcript released today reveals some interesting and previously undisclosed information.

Notably:

•Prosecutors suggested to grand jurors that Johnson may have had an aggressive altercation with a MAX rider the day prior to his death, though the victim in that instance did not actually identify Johnson as his assailant.

•Johnson, who'd struggled with addiction, had no hard drugs in his system when he was shot, just marijuana and a low amount of alcohol. His behavior—recounted by many witnesses as bizarre and detatched—could have been a result of a mental health crisis Johnson's family has told authorities he may have been experiencing.

•Johnson was struck three times by bullets fired by Ajir as the officer fell backward—first in the right buttock, then in the right side, and lastly in the chest. He died of those wounds.

More generally, though, the lengthy transcript fills out the loose sketch of publicly known events that precipitated Johnson's death.

It indicates Johnson was at the Flavel MAX station on the evening of May 10, when he sought a cigarette from three people—a pregnant woman with her step-mother, and their 17-year-old neighbor. The group said no.

The teen headed to his nearby apartment and Johnson apparently chased him on foot. Johnson had been "mean mugging" the kid, he'd tell the grand jury, before chasing after him. That's when one of the women called police, reporting "some homeless guy" is chasing her neighbor "out of nowhere, threatening to attack him for no reason. He's crazy." She described him as a 5-foot-8-inch white male.

The 17-year-old was able to get away. He called his dad, went home, grabbed a large kitchen knife, and went back out to look for Johnson with a couple of friends. They, and the kid's father, found him on the MAX tracks and confronted him. They could see he had a knife in his hand, but he put it in his pocket.

When police officers started showing up, the group left, they said. One neighbor, Steven Alexander, arrived around the same time.

Screen_Shot_2017-07-27_at_2.10.36_PM.png

The first officer on scene, a West Linn police officer named Jacob Howell who is assigned to the Transit Division, said he arrived to find Johnson speaking with someone on the platform.

"And I, basically, told him that we had a call that he was threatening people,” Howell testified. "He told me he wasn’t.”

Another man on scene told Howell that Johnson was armed with a knife, the officer testified, which Johnson confirmed.

“Almost everyone we come across has a pocket knife, everybody carries a pocket knife, especially in that area,” Howell testified. "Lots of transients in that area carry pocket knives.”

Johnson did not appear high, suffering a mental health crisis, or “elevated in his state," Howell said, but did look over his shoulder, which the officer testified indicated to him that Johnson was thinking about running.

"I asked him if he'd have a seat, if he'd put his hands on his head,” Howell said. "I asked him several things, and he, basically, refused or just wouldn't move.”

Things escalated with the arrival of two more transit officers: Portland officer Samson Ajir and his brother, Clackamas County Deputy AJ Ajir, who are partners.

Both brothers testified they'd been on another call when dispatchers alerted them about a man possibly threatening people near the MAX station. As they were getting ready to head out to the platform, Samson Ajir said he noticed that two word addendum to the report: "NOW weapons."

They arrived to find Howell speaking with Johnson.

Samson Ajir says he heard Howell say the word “warrant”—though he wasn’t sure in what context— and saw the cop was wearing leather gloves, which Ajir believed meant Howell meant to arrest Johnson.

Want to save The Portland Mercury? Contribute here.

"I'm thinking we're probably going to be taking this guy into custody while we further investigate or detain him maybe for a weapons search because of that little blip on the call that said 'NOW weapon,'" he said.

So Ajir began to pull out his own gloves. He says Johnson looked "over Officer Howell's shoulder directly at me at the gloves, and then he looks back at Officer Howell and then he turns and he just bolts westbound.”

Ajir says he chased Johson in a circuitous route—200 yards or so—until they both wound up on a nearby train bridge. Johnson was sprinting on a small “sidewalk” along the bridge, Ajir testified, before doubling back and running along the MAX tracks toward him, actually passing Ajir again.

Then Johnson stopped, the officer testified. Here’s what he says happened next.

In that exact moment he turns around with a knife in his hand. As I'm hitting the brakes to try to deal with him, I'm thinking he's going to give up. 'Oh, shit.' Pardon my language, but I actually said that out loud. And I see it clear as day as he's slowed down to stop he turns around in a flash as I'm hitting my brakes, he's holding a knife that I have one at home. It's — I know exactly what it was the moment I saw it because it was out to the side.

As Ajir reacted he told grand jurors: "I'm starting to draw my weapon and, basically, hit reverse as fast as I can because this guy is now in that instant of spinning around has now begun slashing at me and it's in his right hand at this point, I remember that. He's slashing at me very aggressively and starts advancing on me as I'm reversing backing up as quick as I can.”

Ajir says he began to back up when his foot hit a curb.

"I thought to myself, 'Oh, fuck. I have to shoot this guy or he's going to stab me,’” he testified. "I know what that knife can do. If he hits my arm, he's going to cut through every vein and artery and muscle. If he hits my neck, I'm dead.”

Ajir says he fired the first shot at Johnson as he was falling backward and saw “his hips jar.” Though witnesses described the gunshots being rapid fire, the officer painted a slower picture for grand jurors. After the first shot, Ajir testified, Johnson was seven feet away.

"He took another step forward still holding the knife out. And I've now hit my butt, said — he's just past arm's length away from me swinging at me, I'm going to get sliced apart with this knife. So I need my bullets to work.”

Ajir says he fired three more times, and Johnson fell. Officers and medical personnel tried to render aid once the unresponsive man had been disarmed, to no avail.

In the grand jury proceeding, prosecutors also called a 35-year-old man named Anthony Bonofiglio, who told a bizarre tale of an altercation he'd had the night before Johnson was killed.

Bonofiglio said he was riding the MAX to Lents, when a man across the aisle called him a “lying bitch.” The man had bloodshot eyes, he testified, and “kind of a weird look on his face.”

Bonofiglio got off at his stop, and testified the stranger followed behind him, then began following him on his route home—stopping when Bonofiglio would turn around to confront him, then running up to close the gap when he turned around again.

"So I finally turned around, and I don't remember what I said or what he said. It may have been I was, like, 'What are you doing? What's going on?’” Bonofiglio testified. "And I looked down and he had, like, a rusty box cutter in his hand. It was weird-looking. And he kind of showed it to me almost. And at that point I just turned and took off, I started running.”

The man pursued, but Bonofiglio outran him, stopping at a bar to call the police. The stranger stopped a short way off, and eventually walked away, he said.

"I saw this guy with a rusty knife who was, like, obviously, unstable,” he testified.

Notably, Bonofiglio never once mentioned Johnson's name. One police witness suggested the assailant's clothing and weapon matched Johnson's at the time of his death.

Also notable—if only for its strangeness—is the role of a man named Alexander, the neighbor who'd gone to aid the 17-year-old Johnson had threatened. Alexander watched as Howell spoke with Johnson, and gave chase along with the officers when Johnson fled, he testified.

He was arrested after Johnson was shot, as officers tried to piece together the scene.

"As I was handcuffing him, he said something to the effect of, 'I was trying to help the police, man. I'm trying to help the cops,’” Deputy AJ Ajir testified. "And I'm just, like, that doesn't make any sense to me. I don't know what you're doing.”