Categories: Crime and Justice

Friends remember slain man: ‘If he can’t safely walk the streets of Montpelier, nobody can.’

Montpelier residents placed a bouquet of flowers next to a tree outside the apartment complex where Mark Johnson lived. Photo by Alan Keays/VTDigger

John Hyslop described his friend Mark Johnson, who was shot and killed by Montpelier Police on Friday, as a kind, timid person who hated crowds and battled mental illness.

Hyslop said he would often drive Johnson to fast-food restaurants where they would enjoy a meal. But if there were more than just a couple customers inside, Hyslop said his friend’s fear of sharing space with groups of people kept them from leaving the car.

“We’d have to use the drive-thru,” Hyslop said.

Johnson, 62, was shot and killed on the Spring Street bridge by Montpelier Police around 5:15 a.m. Friday.

Police said Johnson raised what looked like a pistol at officers, and wouldn’t put it down when ordered. A Montpelier officer at the scene, armed with his patrol rifle, opened fire, striking and killing Johnson, police said.

The weapon Johnson had been holding was later identified as a Daisy Powerline pellet gun.

News of the shooting left many residents of the 60-unit Pioneer Apartments complex where Johnson lived in disbelief, struggling to square the details of the shooting with the respectful person they knew and saw every day.

One of his friends said he believed that Johnson may have simply frozen, while another thought he might have panicked during the encounter with police.

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The incident that led to the fatal shooting began with another tenant calling police to report Johnson trying to pick the lock into his unit with a knife. Some residents said he had previously used a knife to get into his own apartment when he forgot his keys.

Johnson lived in the apartment building adjacent to the Main Street roundabout in Montpelier for many years, according to those who knew him, and his fatal shooting on the bridge took place a short distance away on the Spring Street bridge.

The Pioneer Apartments on Main Street in Montpelier. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Many residents of the apartment complex stood Friday on the lawn and in the parking lot, talking about the man they knew, the details of his death and watching police investigate the fatal scene across the roundabout.

Several spoke of knowing Johnson by his morning routine of getting up earlier in the morning, often before the crack of dawn, and going to local shops in search of a coffee.

Hyslop said Johnson’s mental health issue left him unable to work.

Police said law enforcement agencies in Barre and Montpelier had three interactions with Johnson in June. All dealt with mental health issues, and none led to criminal charges, according to police.

Robbie Hackett said he often talked with Johnson outside the building where he would often smoke cigarettes.

“Mark, he was a really nice guy,” Hackett said. “I’ve lived here five years and when I moved here he was one of the first people I met.”

He described Johnson as gentle person, who would often keep to himself, apart from a group of friends in the building.

“I wish I could have done more to help him,” Hackett said.

The side door at the Pioneer Apartments on Main Street in Montpelier. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Another resident, who didn’t want to be named, called Johnson, “a good, caring, gentle soul who didn’t have a bad bone in his body.”

The man said he recalled often seeing Johnson, who lived down the hall from him, waving at him from the other side of the building.

Johnson was more cautious than timid, the man said, adding that once he got to know a person he was more comfortable being around them.

Hyslop said he tried to help Johnson with shopping, but getting him to go inside a place as big and busy as Walmart was nearly impossible due to the crowds.

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He said Johnson was a person who followed routines, and if there was a change it would be hard for him to adjust.

“It would throw him right off,” Hyslop said.

He added that he was “enraged” that his “gentle,” “non-violent” friend was shot to death by police.

“If he can’t safely walk the streets of Montpelier,” Hyslop said, “nobody can.”

Alan J. Keays

Alan J. Keays is the former longtime news editor of the Rutland Herald. He reports on criminal justice issues for VTDigger.

View Comments

  • Nice headline, maybe a better one would be “if he can’t point what looks like a real gun at police and survive then no one can”

  • It's sad to see stories like this on so many levels, so many levels, so mahany levels. First we don't have many facts.

    The police were called in to answer a break in charge. What appeared to be an armed break-in. The suspect was armed. The suspect raised a fire arm to the police that were responding to a call, a rather quick response it might be noted.

    Should this man have been living on his own? From the description above it seems that life was a challenge on the most basic level.

    Perhaps this is more accurately a story about how we put to pasture and forget about those truly in need. Perhaps the head line mises the entire problem.

  • It's sad that out of control, violent policing has made it to Vermont. It's time to reverse this awful trend.

  • It's a terrible and very unfortunate thing and it shouldn't have happened BUT when a Police Officer commands a person to "DROP HIS WEAPON", that individual must obey immediately if not sooner. The Police Officers throughout this country were terribly hampered by President's Obama's Trevon Martin situation. Obama could not have done more to hurt every law enforcement person in America with his stance, rhetoric and unsupportive outward presentation which made every police officer in this country afraid to draw his weapon and more afraid to use it.

    Supporting our Police force no matter where is a vital consideration and even though errors are made, will be made and sometimes are NEVER made due to an armed encounter, the last thing we want is for that Officer to hesitate when a threat of life is present or it may be "Your" wife or son or daughter that never comes homes.
    We must always be careful but we can't be ignorant.

  • We can't figure out a way to de-escalte or subdue a person who May Be a threat without shooting them dead on the spot! Come on....there needs to be so much more training and thought put into how we envision police practices and prepare police officers. Let's get going.

  • A 90 year old woman in Burlington answered a knock on her door. It was a policeman. She didn't realize she still had a paring knife in her hand. She had been peeling vegetables. She thinks and talks slowly. The officer yelled "Drop the knife!!!" and for a second she didn't know what he meant or why he was upset. He threw her on the ground, and put her in the hospital. [She had been about to get a heart operation.] She got out recently. We don't even know how long ago it happened! But you see, it is not that simple! "Having a knife" and "Threatening the officer with a knife" can be very different. She testified before the City Council and got the brush-off, because she slurred her words a little and only had two minutes to speak. Justice, anyone?

  • The country is awash in guns, and we rank in our exposure to violence with countries such as the Congo and Guatemala, El Salvador, Venezuela.
    Policing is difficult, but it's immeasurably less so, particularly in a small town like Montpelier, if the police get out of their cars and get to know people. If even one cop had recognized Johnson this shooting death likely wouldn't have happened.
    Police, with military haircuts and an American flag on their sleeves, demand respect in these days of Trumpism. They are unable, often, to command it with their conduct.
    A man perhaps not quick to understand social situations is dead, shot down in the street. The police conduct, because of the pellet gun, will be sanctioned.
    These stories don't happen in isolation. Digger, a couple of days ago, posted videos of the police assault in St. Albans of a handcuffed woman--an assault by an officer dismissed recently for misconduct by another small town department, then hired by St. Albans.

  • The death of Mark Johnson is troubling indeed. We have had a much higher number of murders in Vermont in recent years and too many killings by the same police officers who are supposed to protect all of us. Now in my 70's I have had a number of police officers, particularly State Police whom I have known over the years, one I even rode with fairly often in nights when a student at Johnson State. Some ten years later I met Maj.Glenn Davis, we shared a hobby together, and grew to have a great deal of respect for Glenn as the top officer in the State Police. But that was then and this is now and I know longer trust any police officer I am not personally acquainted with because of the unsupportable number of police killings. All to often, beginning with the fellow holding a knife at quite a distance from the officers who shot and killed him in a Brattleboro church some years ago, we have had far too many deaths at the hands of police who damn well should have been a LOT better trained.

  • What support is being offered for the residents at the Pioneer Apartments who are not only grieving the loss of their friend and neighbor Mark, but are feeling the loss of security for what happened at and near the place they call home?

    In schools and churches counselors are immediately brought in to help. When tragedy occurs in shopping centers, concerts, festivals, or wherever else, it is up to the community to come together to offer support to each other. To lift each other up in order for healing to come.

    I sincerely hope that something will be offered to the community, especially the people at the Pioneer Apartments who are trying to make sense of this situation.

  • Its a sad thing that happened, but the police did their job. They had no way of knowing this mans mental background.

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