ST. PETERSBURG — A driver fleeing from a traffic stop early Friday shot a police dog rounding a corner then a deputy sitting in his car before taking his own life, police said.
The violent sequence of events began around 2 a.m. and centered on a four-block stretch of 3rd Avenue S, from 30th Street S east to 26th Street S.
Pinellas County Sheriff’s Sgt. David Stang Jr. was shot twice in the shoulder and was listed in stable condition Friday at Bayfront hospital. Stang, 51, has worked more than 17 years with the Sheriff’s Office.
“These are always the calls you dread,” Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said in a news conference Friday. “The only thing that’d be worse is if he was in worse shape.”
Titan, with the St. Petersburg Police Department K9 division, was hit in the front left paw and was recovering from surgery Friday at a veterinary clinic.
No shots were fired by law enforcement officers during the incident, police said.
The body of the man described as the shooter, 23-year-old Elijah Johnson of St. Petersburg, was found with what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound, police said.
Johnson has been arrested more than 15 times, starting at age 12, largely on drug charges and most recently last month, according to state records.
But grieving family and friends, waiting at a hospital in hopes of seeing his body, said Johnson had been turning his life around recently and questioned whether he died by suicide.
“It makes no sense,” said Tierra Jones, a friend of Johnson’s. “He took responsibility for his actions, even if he knew it meant going to jail. He’s not the kind of person to take the easy way out.”
The Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner’s Office had no information Friday about a cause or manner of death.
Police had stopped Johnson for a traffic violation, but details about the offense and the car he was driving were not avialable Friday.
Because of his criminal history, including charges of driving without a license, he was known to St. Petersburg police, said spokeswoman Sandra Bentil. Johnson had a current driver’s license, according to state records.
Police gave this account of the incident:
Johnson was pulled over at Third Avenue S and 30th Street S by members of the Violent Crimes Task Force. He initially stopped, then drove off, abandoning the vehicle near Third Avenue S and 26th St. S.
Officers didn’t pursue Johnson, but aerial surveillance and a K9 unit were called in.
Officer Greg Shone was following Titan’s lead as the dog rounded a corner near the intersection and was hit once by a bullet. Shone, who was not injured, pulled the dog close and administered aid.
Meantime, Stang had joined the search in an unmarked cruiser with emergency lights on when Johnson fired into the car near Third Avenue S and 27th St. S, police said.
"Whether the bad guy charged the car and shot or whether he shot at a distance, that’s something the investigation will have to reveal,” Gualtieri said. “I wouldn’t go as far as to say it was an ambush, but it was that type of a situation. It appears he was caught by surprise."
Johnson was found dead shortly afterward, but police did not say where.
Johnson was arrested in March 2015 for fleeing and eluding a police officer and sentenced to up to 180 days in jail. He also was sentenced to 20 months in state prison in July 2016 following an arrest on charges of possession of synthetic marijuana and cocaine.
In 2016, he was arrested in connection with celebratory gunfire.
Johnson’s mother, Kijuangila Johnson, said she was on the phone with her son the night before his death and they were planning to attend an upcoming family reunion in Fort Pierce.
She said Johnson had been working hard to overcome mistakes he’d made and was proud to have saved the $4,000 required for him to have his license reinstated.
“He made bad choices, but everyone makes bad choices,” Kijuangila Johnson said. “He was growing from them, trying to get a head of the system. It took him time to be able to do better. Everyone is entitled to that.”
She said her son worked in the kitchen of Stillwaters Tavern on Beach Drive and had his own business restoring clouded headlights. The restaurant confirmed Johnson was an employee there.
Johnson also had completed his GED and enrolled in trade school for cosmetology, his mother said.
“His arrest record isn’t him,” said his father, Andre Johnson. “He made good choices too, but they don’t have that splattered up there.”
Johnson’s uncle Rodney Jenkins said his nephew grew up and died in a south side neighborhood where it’s tough to be a kid.
Now, the family will be pressing to learn whether the police who hunted for Johnson son might have fired their weapons after all.
"We just want clarity,” Jenkins said. “We want to know exactly what happened."
Times Staff Writers Divya Kumar and Carl Lisciandrello and Senior News Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Daniel Figueroa IV at [email protected] Follow @danuscripts.