Suspect dies after being shot by St. Petersburg police

ST. PETERSBURG — The two men had a long-standing feud.

The dispute between John Alfred Johnson and Ben Ware had been going on for several weeks, maybe longer.

On Saturday, witnesses said, it flared up again and eventually exploded when Johnson shot Ware several times near a neighborhood grocery store at 18th Avenue S and 37th Street.

Minutes later, Johnson, 49, was shot by police officers three blocks away after authorities say he ran away and refused to drop his gun. He told officers he "was not going back to prison and told them they would have to shoot him," witnesses said.

Johnson, who worked for the city's Stormwater, Pavement and Traffic Operations Department, died at 8:11 p.m. at Bayfront Medical Center. His most recent arrest was in 1990, when he got a year's probation for carrying a concealed weapon, records show.

Ware remained hospitalized Saturday with injuries that weren't life-threatening, his 59th birthday.

"It's sad," said Joe Bryant, 55, a lifelong city resident who came upon the scene on his way to visit a friend. "It's very sad. If the guy (Johnson) hadn't brought a gun to the fight, there wouldn't have been any shootings."

Officers were sent to the first scene, 36201/2 18th Ave. S, about 2:30 p.m.

"We received a call of a fight or brawl," police spokesman Bill Proffitt said. "When the officers arrived, a shooting took place."

Corey Cohen, 40, was part of a small group that witnessed the first shooting.

He said the two men had been fighting earlier but Johnson, whose nickname is "Smoky," had walked off.

"He left and … came back with a gun," Cohen said.

Johnson threatened to kill Ware and then pointed the gun at his face, police said.

Other people in the group tried to calm Johnson, Cohen said, but he said he was "tired of dealing with it."

As police pulled up, Johnson fired a .25-caliber semiautomatic pistol. "He waited till the police came, then he shot him about three, four times," Cohen said.

After the shooting, Johnson began walking down 18th Terrace S, an alley that runs between 37th and 38th streets.

Several officers gave chase, but he didn't stop, Proffitt said. Police yelled at him to put his gun down.

"The officers gave several challenges," he said. "The man refused to respond or turn around."

As Johnson neared the intersection of the alley and 38th Street, he turned and faced the officers, the gun in his hand, Proffitt said.

Patrol officers George W. Graves, 26; Michael F. Karayianes, 26; and Michael J. Romano, 29, fired at Johnson. He was hit twice in the stomach and once in the hand, Proffitt said.

The shooting stirred tension among residents, whose opinions about the incident varied. Some were angry that an officer had shot the man. Others who were closer to the first scene said the blame belonged to Johnson.

Rico Hernandez, who saw the second shooting, said he had just stepped out of his house to smoke a cigarette. As he looked to the back alley, he saw a man being chased by police.

Hernandez, 22, said the man appeared to surrender and had both hands up just as police opened fire.

"He didn't have no gun in his hand," said Hernandez. "So they had no reason to shoot him at all. Period. Tase him or something."

Tammy Jackson's house faces the alley where Johnson was shot. Jackson said she didn't see him get shot, but she knew him. He occasionally came over and drank beer in the yard with her fiance.

"My opinion? He was a pretty nice guy," she said. "He never caused any problems that I know of."

His gun, which was recovered at the scene, had one round in the chamber and additional rounds in the magazine, police said.

Three investigations are under way. The officers who fired their weapons will be placed on paid leave for two days. After that, they will be on restricted duty until the conclusion of an administrative investigation.

"We have to really look at the situation and get the whole deal," Bryant said. "But here's the key thing: Somebody brought the gun down here to do the initial shooting."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8643.

Suspect dies after being shot by St. Petersburg police 12/26/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 26, 2009 11:17pm]

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