Monday, June 24, 2024

Miller gets life in prison for running over Trooper Johnson

The Western News | June 7, 2024 7:00 AM

Life without parole was the sentence Flathead County District Judge Danni Coffman delivered to Jason Allen Miller Wednesday afternoon in the Lincoln County Courthouse.

Miller, 42, was convicted of attempted deliberate homicide, criminal endangerment, aggravated kidnapping, possession of dangerous drugs and criminal mischief on April 19 in the Feb. 16, 2023, incident where he ran over Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Lewis Johnson on a U.S. Forest Service Road in northern Lincoln County near Koocanusa Bridge.

The incident, which nearly claimed the life of the 36-year-old trooper, followed a police chase that began in Eureka when authorities sought the convicted felon on a warrant for violating his probation.

Johnson is paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair. His injuries included multiple broken ribs, a punctured lung, a lacerated liver, a separation of the lining of his stomach, spinal cord injuries, a broken kneecap and dislocated and broken shoulder.

Johnson’s wife, Kate, also an MHP officer, gave heart-wrenching testimony about her husband’s injuries and their effects that left many in the courtroom sobbing in anguish during a victim impact statement.

“In January 2023, we began trying to conceive our second child and the next month this happened and he was injured,” Johnson said. “He will never see some of the wilderness I got to see while working as a park ranger, places we planned to see together.

“Statistically, seven years have been shaved off his life and because of the paralysis, he now faces his version of a life sentence.”

The Johnson family now lives in Chester, the home town of Lewis, and Kate serves as a sergeant for MHP out of Havre. 

“He consistently makes bad decisions, his family no longer has a husband and a dad. The night before, he chose to spend it with a woman who was not his wife and they did meth together,” Kate Johnson said. “They hide behind the cloak of Christianity, but their actions are anything but Christian.”

Following sentencing, the Johnsons said they were relieved, but continued to struggle with other feelings.

“It really hasn’t sunk in yet,” Lewis said. “I chose a life of service and there are goals I won’t be able to reach, things I won’t be able to do with my son. But, I’d be satisfied if I am that man’s last victim.”

For Kate, she said she’s relieved that Miller won’t be able to hurt anyone outside of prison.

“But it’s so hard knowing it was all preventable,” she said. “One man is wheelchair bound and another has life in prison. Is it really justice?”

Miller also received 10 years for the use of a weapon, 15 years for criminal endangerment, 15 years for criminal mischief, five years for criminal possession of dangerous drugs and 15 years for aggravated kidnapping.

According to the state Attorney General’s Office, Miller also owes the Johnson family more than $75,000 in restitution and over $1.2 million to the state for Trooper Johnson’s care, treatment and trial expenses.

Judge Coffman said Miller’s sentence takes into account, “the nature and degree of harm to Trooper Johnson and the serious danger he put his friend, Michelle Emerson, in that day.

“It also reflects his inability to get clean, the very high risk of him reoffending and his conduct while in detention.”

“The sentence is consistent with others in Montana who have attempted to or taken the lives of law enforcement officers,” Coffman said.

The sentence followed what state prosecutors Thorin Geist and Selene Koepke sought.

“Trooper Johnson, who will likely never walk again, you made his wheelchair his prison,” Geist said. “Despite what has been said, this was no accident. He rammed Warden Ben Chappelo’s vehicle, human life doesn’t mean anything to him and Trooper Johnson’s life doesn’t mean anything.”

Geist argued that while Miller had three prior non-violent convictions, he was revoked, “time and time again. He has benefitted from treatment programs the state has offered and if he is allowed to walk free again, there is nothing that can make the public or law enforcement feel safe."

Daniel Wood, Miller’s public defender, called Shannon Woody to testify on the man’s behalf. Wood sought a prison sentence that would give Miller a chance at freedom in the future.

“The similarities between Jason and my life are uncanny,” 

Woody said. “We’ve both been addicted and been violent with law enforcement. But there is something redeemable in Jason’s life. As I have, he’s completely surrendered his life to Jesus. I’m not here to tell you he’s innocent or he shouldn’t be punished, but he’s ministered to people he’s been incarcerated with.”

Miller spoke of his youth, being adopted, going to prison for drug use and learning from his birth mother that he was conceived of rape when she was 13.

“I can’t change what happened and my heart and apologies goes out to Trooper Johnson,” Miller said. “I thank Jesus every day he’s alive, but I am not guilty of attempted murder or kidnapping. If I’d simply pulled over, he’d still be able to walk.”

Lincoln County Sheriff’s deputy Clint Heintz and Johnson were the first two officers in the pursuit of Miller on Feb. 16, 2023. Heintz began life-saving measures on Johnson after he was struck by a Chevy Silverado driven by Miller. Heintz and Johnson met and became friends years before after each man joined the Montana National Guard.

According to the affidavit of probable cause filed by Lincoln County Deputy Attorney Jeffrey Zwang, county deputies learned that Miller was not reporting to adult probation and parole as required. They also learned Miller was staying in neighboring Flathead County and was allegedly using and selling fentanyl. In early February 2023, Lincoln County deputies were told an arrest warrant was issued for Miller for violating his parole.

On Feb. 16, several officers, including Johnson and county officers Clint Heintz, Bo Pitman and Scott Welchons, were on duty in the Eureka area. At about 2:30 p.m., Heintz told the other officers he had located Miller after the felon’s brother told him he was near his father’s shop in the Eureka area. Heintz said Miller refused to stop and took off in his pickup truck, driving south on Highway 37.

Johnson followed Heintz in the chase with Pitman and Welchons joining in as Miller reached speeds of between 65 and 100 miles per hour while passing vehicles he encountered. According to the charging document, Miller then turned on to Camp 32 Road, lost control of the vehicle and got stuck in a snow-covered area next to the road.

Heintz followed Miller’s truck off Highway 37 and stopped on the highway side of the truck. Johnson drove on to Camp 32 Road past Miller’s vehicle and stopped 30 to 40 yards away. Officers Pitman and Welchons waited at the intersection of Highway 37 and Camp 32 Road.

Heintz and Johnson got out of their respective vehicles with their weapons drawn and approached Miller’s truck, which appeared to be stuck. They began giving verbal commands. After several seconds of not moving, Miller’s truck began spinning out in the snow before gaining traction and drove on to Camp 32 Road. Court documents indicate Miller accelerated toward Johnson, who was standing near the rear of his patrol vehicle, struck the officer and then ran him over before fleeing up Camp 32 Road.

    Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Lewis Johnson listens to his wife, Kate, a fellow MHP officer during the sentencing hearing Wednesday, June 5, 2024, for Jason Allen Miller in the Lincoln County Courthouse. Miller was sentenced to life without parole for attempted deliberate homicide. (Paul Sievers/The Western News)