The deaths of Deputy Jason Garner and Community Service Officer Raschel Johnson in a vehicle crash Saturday have shaken the men and women of his department to their core, Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson said Monday.
“While we are focused on the Garner family and the Johnson family, we also are focused on our own family in the department,” he said, speaking also for his command staff. “I’m overwhelmingly concerned about our team. This is the sixth time in the last five years we’ve dealt with a death of a member of our family, and our team is under a lot of stress right now.
“I don’t want the community to think that our organization is anything other than healthy and strong, because it is.” The department has “great things” happening in terms of projects and community relations, and enjoys tremendous support from the people it serves, the sheriff said.
But the deaths of Garner and Johnson, especially coming just six months – to the day – after the fatal shooting of Deputy Dennis Wallace, make meeting the related mental health care needs of department personnel an utmost concern, Christianson said. Peer support and other services are being offered, he said, and critical-incident debriefings have been held.
Anytime anybody in public safety loses a life, it’s a tragic thing. You’re prepared for that, but you can never understand why things happen. It’s difficult to speak about.
Sheriff Adam Christianson
Plans are being made for department funeral services for Garner and Johnson, the sheriff said. The only solid details available Monday were that Garner’s will be May 23, and Johnson’s May 24.
“The accident itself, we don’t know the cause,” Christianson said. “We’re grateful to the Highway Patrol, whose Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team came up again from Fresno. I say ‘again’ because they’ve helped us out before,” he said. The MAIT investigated when off-duty Sgt. Jeremy Fielder was killed in a head-on crash near Hughson in December 2015 and when crime scene technician Mary Ann Donahou was struck by a car on Santa Fe Avenue while on the job in Hughson in December 2011.
Saturday, Garner and Johnson were on their way to a burglary call. Garner was driving north on Crows Landing Road approaching Seventh Street, with Johnson riding as a passenger, when for an unknown reason the patrol vehicle left the road and crashed on the Modesto Auto Wreckers property on the west side of the road, according to the CHP. The vehicle somehow ended up atop a Dumpster, where it caught fire.
“It’s a complex investigation,” Christianson said, “and it will take time for them to provide us with the information they find.”
Wallace’s, Fielder’s and Donahou’s deaths are three of the earlier department deaths referred to by the sheriff. The other was that of Deputy Robert Paris, gunned down with civilian locksmith Glendon Engert during an eviction in April 2012.
The single biggest asset the Sheriff’s Department has is its employees, Christianson said, and “I’m just concerned because the staff is working under extraordinary circumstances. We’re still critically short-staffed, not because we don’t enjoy the support of the Board of Supervisors, and not for budgetary reasons. It’s a struggle to recruit and retain employees. We’re mandating people back on overtime to meet the demand for services. And yet another line-of-duty death shakes the force to its core.”
To compound the pain of Garner’s and Johnson’s loved ones and colleagues, criminals set up a bogus gofundme account to steal donated money, the Sheriff’s Department reported Monday. Detectives are working to learn who set up the account, the sheriff said.
“Nothing makes me angrier than opportunistic criminals that want to exploit this tragedy,” Christianson said. The people these thieves aimed to steal from are honest, hard-working locals looking to do something good, he said. Typically, those committing the fraud are living out of the area, perhaps out of the country.
But if it’s their bad fortune to also be local, the sheriff said, “they will sit in my jail.” If they are in his jurisdictional reach, he said, he will be “intensely focused” on seeing the arrested and prosecuted.
He said those who want to help need to “be careful and validate and verify” before donating. “(Neither) The Sheriff’s Department, nor any other group, association, or organization is collecting money or donations via phone call from community.”
There is an approved Gofundme account established by the Johnson family; it’s at www.gofundme.com/memorial-fund-for-cso-johnson.
Also, the Stanislaus Sworn Deputies Association is establishing a memorial fund for Garner and Johnson. Once established, the information will be shared on the Sheriff’s Department’s Facebook pages and at www.scsdonline.com.
Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327