By Calvin Trillin
The New Yorker 85.22 (July 27, 2009): p32. (4476 words)
Scott Johnson sees himself as one of those guys who never caught a break. “Seems like whatever I did was never enough,” he told the police in one interview. “It seems like whenever I was almost at the point of obtaining something or getting somewhere, seems like something would happen and take it away. You know, it seems like it’s been like that way through my whole life.” The people who were affected by the crimes he committed see things differently. One of them has said, “Scott Johnson wanted to blame everyone and everything for his pathetic life.” At the time of the crimes, the summer of 2008, Johnson’s life would have indeed struck many people as pathetic. At thirty-eight–a healthy and fit and presentable thirty-eight–he was living with his mother in Kingsford, Michigan, having retreated in 2001 from an increasingly unsuccessful decade in Louisiana. Kingsford is just across the Menominee River from northern Wisconsin, at the mainland edge of what people in Michigan call the Upper Peninsula, or the U.P.–a vast, underpopulated, heavily wooded landmass that extends into the Great Lakes. In growing up in Kingsford and in the contiguous city of Iron Mountain, Johnson could claim to have been shortchanged when it came to fathers–his biological father left when Scott was an infant and his stepfather could apparently be a violent drunk–but his mother seemed devoted to him. Years later, after the crimes, she still talked about his smile and the twinkle in his eye. “I thought I was the luckiest mom alive to have a son like Scott,” she said. Johnson actually had some pleasant memories of his childhood, particularly of hunting in the woods and target shooting. “He said that by the age of nine he received his first weapon, a single shot 20 gauge as a gift from his mother,” one of the court-appointed psychologists who examined Johnson reported. “Later, he received from her a 30/30 rifle. He described these gifts as not inconsistent or unusual among his peer group or within the rural culture of upper Michigan.”
Johnson got to Louisiana through the Army. Shortly after graduating from Kingsford High School, where he’d finished in the top half of his class, he left for basic training, and he was eventually assigned to Fort Polk. At a Baptist church, he met a young woman named Theresa, whose father was also in the Army, and in 1991 they were married. “That appears to be when everything started to go bad,” the judge in Johnson’s case later said. You could indeed see Johnson’s marriage as the beginning of his problems or you could see it as a sort of canvas on which his problems became visible. The first year or so was fine, his wife later said, but he became controlling and abusive, particularly after he finished his Army hitch and they moved to Shreveport. By 1994, he’d begun to threaten to kill her. “Mrs. Johnson related that the defendant would constantly remind her of how stupid and worthless that he thought she was,” the pre-sentence report on Scott Johnson said. When Theresa Johnson was five months pregnant with their daughter–their first child, a boy, had been born five years before–he pushed her down because she had failed to mail some Christmas cards when he wanted them mailed. The last straw came in 1999, when she confronted him about leaving their daughter in the back yard alone. According to the report, he got so angry that he threw the family cat against the wall hard enough to render it unconscious. When Theresa Johnson returned from the back yard with the daughter in her arms, he was pointing a rifle at her chest from approximately eight feet away. Although her memory of the incident is almost blank after that moment–she has surmised that she must have been in shock–she remembers one remark by her husband: “Look what you made me do.” She and the children left for Ohio, where she had family, and she filed for divorce.
After his discharge, Johnson had held a succession of jobs. He worked in a V.A. hospital. He worked in a center for troubled adolescents. He worked as a shuttle driver for a Ramada Inn. He worked at a convenience store. His stories about how his various types of employment came to an end tend to involve some sort of altercation brought about by the unfairness of his employer. According to one psychologist, Johnson’s stories in general tended to involve “the ways in which he has been mistreated by others and about his own superior assets and virtues.” That was true of what he said about the National Guard, which he had joined after his active-duty Army service was over. He’d enrolled in Officer Candidate School, but eventually washed out. By his account, he’d taken two days off to attend his grandmother’s funeral and “they got pissed off and fucked with me a lot after that. It was very unprofessional.” When his wife divorced him, he was in the final year of a five-year apprentice plumbing program, but he dropped out without getting a plumbing license.
After 2001, he no longer saw his children. By the next year, he had begun skipping child-support payments. Theresa Johnson reported some phone calls threatening violence. He had passed some bad checks at a gun-and-knife show–one of them as payment for a .308 semi-automatic rifle. “I was depressed and drinking a lot and smoking pot,” he told one of the psychologists. “I was self-destructing. I quit my job, wrote some bad checks, and ran before they could catch me. . . . I got a passport and planned to leave the country but then I went up to Kingsford to see my mom before I left and then it just got easy to stay in Michigan. . . . I couldn’t work because they’d catch me, so I did a couple of little jobs or got money from my mom and brother. I just leeched off of them.”
That arrangement lasted for six or seven years. Jobs were not as easy to find as they had once been in the part of the U.P. which borders Wisconsin–the iron ore that left names like Iron Mountain and Iron River and Vulcan played out decades ago; the forest-products industry has not been in a boom–but Johnson didn’t try. In his view, the way to avoid the burden of child support and the threat of arrest for check-kiting was to “go off the grid.” His only form of work was maintenance on his mother’s house, a modest bungalow not far from the Menominee River. He stuck to himself, gradually not even eating meals with his mother and an older half brother, who also lived there. He did a lot of exercising. By his estimation, he ran eight to ten miles a day and rode his bicycle thirty miles a day. Sometimes he swam in the Menominee, at a swimming hole known locally as the train bridge.
Less than a mile from Johnson’s mother’s house, Skidmore Drive begins as a regular street but then turns into a gravel road. At the end of the gravel road, a footpath continues through the woods. After half a mile or so, the path veers sharply toward some railroad tracks that lead to a railroad bridge crossing high over the Menominee River. Side paths lead down to the riverbank. The Menominee is wide and slow there. Tall trees grow on either side, so that someone on the river’s bank has a feeling of total isolation. Even by the standards of the U.P., where no one lives far from sylvan beauty, it’s a gorgeous spot. For generations, people from the Iron Mountain and Kingsford area, particularly young people, have come to the train bridge to swim and to drop into the river from a rope that hangs from the bridge’s superstructure and to drink beer in a place where there is nobody asking for your proof of age. On the Wisconsin side, there’s another mile or so of woods between the river and the town of Niagara. It was in those woods that, around 2004, Scott Johnson secreted some supplies–a sleeping bag, clothes, a knife. In the fissure of a rock, he hid the rifle he’d bought at the Louisiana gun-and-knife show. To police detectives, he later explained this preparation with a maxim: “If you fail to plan, you can plan on failure.”
Johnson’s routine was not the sort of routine that led to a lot of contact with women. Shortly after his return, he had lived with a woman briefly, but by the summer of 2008 he had not been with a woman in six years. The previous winter, at the Family Dollar store in Kingsford, he’d met a young woman who lived near him, and they had been in each other’s company for several months in a platonic way. (“He knew that I don’t even like being touched,” she later said.) He stopped at her place now and then to chat or to help her with her garden. They sometimes took walks or bike rides–including a couple to the train bridge, which she had somehow never visited before. Then, on July 30, 2008, he asked her if she wanted to go for a bike ride. They went to the train bridge. “We went for a bike ride together in the evening,” the young woman later wrote in a statement to the authorities. “We walked into the woods in East Kingsford and crossed the train bridge into Wisconsin. We were alone. He led me into the woods that was off of one of the trails and that’s when he put his hands under my tank top and shoved me to the ground and pulled my pants and underpants off and he forced himself into me. I begged him to stop, but he wouldn’t. I said ‘NO’ several times as he was on me but he wouldn’t listen.”
Johnson later offered another version of the event–in his version, he did not manage to complete the act–but he didn’t deny that a sexual assault had taken place. He has said that, particularly because he didn’t consider the young woman in question nearly as attractive as some of the women he’d known when he had a job and money, he became enraged when she rejected his advance. Apparently, he pleaded with her not to phone the police. He said that she could punish him anyway that she wanted, including beating him with a baseball bat. As he saw it, if she went to the police he’d be wanted in Louisiana for passing bad checks and in Ohio for failure to provide child support and in Wisconsin for sexual assault. He dreaded the thought of being sent to jail as a sex offender. That night, he stayed in the woods. When he went by his mother’s house the next day, she told him that the police had been by and wanted to speak to him. He said he would straighten everything out after he had something to eat, and asked for ten dollars to go to Subway. “I went and got something to eat so I could sit down and think about it,” he later said. “What am I gonna do? Am I gonna turn myself in or do the shoot ’em up thing? What am I gonna do?” By late that afternoon, he was walking over the train bridge, noticing the teen-agers who had taken advantage of a beautiful summer day to go swimming in the river below. He walked to his camp, on the Wisconsin side of the river. According to a sentencing memo prepared by Assistant Attorney General Gary Freyberg, the lead prosecutor in Johnson’s case, “He put on camouflage pants, a camouflage shirt, and a camouflage floppy-brimmed hat. He exchanged the tennis shoes he was wearing for boots, and placed camouflage field bandages in the pockets of his shirt. He retrieved his disassembled .308 caliber semi-automatic rifle from a gun case stashed in a jagged rock outcropping, put the pieces together, and cleaned the rifle.”
Johnson has offered several versions of what was going on in his mind as he settled into a spot that gave him a good view of the teen-agers on the Michigan bank of the river. “I’m thinking, do I go out with a bang, you know,” he said in one police interview. “I got nothing to lose . . . the only power I have in this life is to take.” At times, he seemed to imply that his plan was to shoot people at the train bridge in order to attract police and first responders so that he could kill as many of them as possible. (“My initial plan was to use those people as bait.”) At times, he has implied that what he was planning was what is sometimes known as “suicide by cop,” by putting “police in a position where they had to put me down.” At times, he’s said that what he contemplated doing was “balancing the scales,” so that people could understand the pain he’d been through. At times, also, he has said that he had doubts that he could “really go through with this,” and that he was about to dismantle his weapon when he heard people approaching.
“Tiffany Pohlson, 17, Anthony Spigarelli, 18, Katrina Coates, 17, and Derek Barnes, 18, swam across the river to Wisconsin in order to jump off of a large rock overhanging the river located west of the defendant’s firing position,” Freyberg’s sentencing memo says. “In swimsuits and shorts, they walked barefoot in a staggered line on a rough trail through the woods toward the rock face where the defendant waited with his assault rifle. Anthony Spigarelli was in front chatting with his best friend Derek Barnes. Tiffany Pohlson and her best friend, Katrina Coates, followed closely behind. As he waited in ambush, the defendant heard the teenagers coming toward his position. He could tell by their voices that there were two males and two females. The defendant became afraid that he was ‘trapped,’ that he would be discovered, and that someone would have a cell phone and he would be ‘busted.’ When the group was about 15 to 20 feet away, the defendant jumped up from his position. The teenagers were startled and confused by the sight of a man in camouflage and they stopped on the trail. When the defendant raised his rifle and advanced toward them, all four teenagers turned to run. As they fled, the defendant opened fire. Anthony Spigarelli was shot in the back of the head and died instantly. His body rolled down the hill toward the river until its descent was stopped by a small tree. Tiffany Pohlson was holding the hand of Katrina Coates when she was struck by a bullet to the back of her head, killing her instantly.”
Johnson fired some shots at the other two teen-agers, who were fleeing through the woods. Then he turned his attention to the swimming hole and sprayed bullets at the people who were on the Michigan bank. Bryan Mort, nineteen, was seriously wounded. A teen-ager who had taken cover at the base of the bridge phoned 911 on his cell phone; as sirens approached, Johnson faded back into the woods. He had fired at least two dozen rounds.
No one knew the identity or the precise whereabouts of the shooter. Soon there were a hundred law-enforcement officers in the vicinity of the train bridge. A perimeter was formed around the woods on either side of the Menominee. Nearby houses were evacuated. It wasn’t until eight in the evening that officers were able to reach the bodies of Anthony Spigarelli and Tiffany Pohlson. By then, Bryan Mort had been moved by boat to a ramp that was accessible to an ambulance, but he was pronounced dead at the hospital. Scott Johnson spent the night in the woods. The next morning, he dismantled his rifle, walked out of the woods near Niagara, and surrendered.
Several months later, Lisa Hoffman, of the Iron Mountain Daily News, wrote a series of articles recalling the teen-agers Johnson had killed. Tony Spigarelli, an outgoing young man from Iron Mountain who played soccer and hoped to study aeronautics someday, had been three weeks away from entering college. Tiffany Pohlson, who was from Vulcan, about ten miles from Iron Mountain, had been due to start her senior year in high school in the fall; her goal was to become a surgical technician. Bryan Mort, who dreamed of opening an auto shop with his brothers someday, had dropped out of school at seventeen but, after working for a while, had gone back to get his diploma. On the summer day when he happened to go to the train bridge to swim, he was two weeks away from becoming the first member of his family to go to college. The shock caused in the community by the murders of three innocent teen-agers–the mixture of disbelief and grief and rage–was intensified by the contrast between the horrific act and the tranquillity of the setting. Almost a year later, Terri Bianco-Spigarelli, as if still finding the events at the train bridge hard to believe, said of her son, “He was just going swimming.”
That statement was made during Scott Johnson’s sentencing hearing, this spring. Johnson had never expressed any interest in an insanity defense–what he called, in a letter from jail to his mother, “playing the coo-coo card.” In one interview with a court-appointed psychologist, he said, “You don’t have to be crazy to do what I did, just angry.” The specialists who examined him agreed. They were unanimous in believing that he did not lack the capacity to understand the wrongfulness of his actions. In March, 2009, Johnson had changed his plea from not guilty to nolo contendere, which has the effect of a guilty plea, and the circuit-court judge, Tim Duket, had scheduled a hearing at which victims as well as Johnson would have an opportunity to speak before a sentence was imposed. No matter what was said, Johnson was expected to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, the most severe penalty the state of Wisconsin has to offer.
For the family of Bryan Mort, that wasn’t enough. Through a petition signed by local residents and the support of their congressman, the Morts pressed for a federal prosecution of Scott Johnson. Under a federal law passed after 9/11, acts of violence on railroad property–which is where Mort was, since the railroad’s right-of-way extends fifty feet on either side of the train bridge–can be prosecuted as acts of terrorism, with sentences that include the death penalty. Four days before the sentencing hearing, friends and family of Bryan Mort gathered at the Iron Mountain cemetery on what would have been his twentieth birthday. In the Iron Mountain Daily News coverage of the event, the quote from Bryan’s father was succinct: “The Bible says ‘an eye for an eye.’ ”
The sentencing hearing was held in the county seat of Marinette County, a city that is also called Marinette, about an hour and a half from the scene of the crimes. The audience sat in a large, panelled room that is ordinarily used for meetings of the county board. In the earlier days of the courthouse, before an annex was built, it had been used for trials–“Equal Justice for All” is still carved over the door–and it had been temporarily changed back into a courtroom to accommodate those who had a personal stake in the outcome of Wisconsin v. Scott J. Johnson. Except for lawyers, just about everyone was dressed informally, even those who were there to speak. Two people were wearing T-shirts that said “Spigarelli Excavating.” Five women in one row, including Bryan Mort’s mother, Sylvia, were wearing T-shirts that said on the back “Bryan W. Mort 1989-2008” and on the front, under Bryan’s picture, “Always in our hearts.” Judge Duket began by reminding people that they were, in fact, in a courtroom, temporary or not, and that outbursts would not be tolerated. To back that up, more than a dozen officers from the sheriff’s office were stationed around the room. Before the Judge began the proceedings, another employee of Marinette County–a woman responsible for the care of crime victims and their families–had handed out boxes of Kleenex and packages of hard candy.
Nine months had passed since the events at the train bridge, but there was no expectation that the anger felt by the families of those killed by Johnson had dissipated. From the release of documents like police interviews, it had become clear that he was not inclined to express remorse or to beg their forgiveness. (“What do other guys in my position tell ’em? They’re sorry? What does that do for them?”) In fact, in a jailhouse interview with the Associated Press, Johnson had said that being upset over the death of the teen-agers was like being upset over spilled milk.
Given the anger at Johnson, who sat at the defense table in an orange prison jumpsuit, it was not surprising that a lot of what was said in the Marinette County courtroom seemed designed to wound him rather than to describe the loss and suffering that his crimes had caused. Tiffany Pohlson’s uncle called him a “useless piece of garbage.” Johnson was regularly reminded that he had failed at everything he’d ever attempted–including even his horrific crime, since he’d apparently intended to kill even more people than he had managed to kill. David Spigarelli, Tony’s father, concluded his statement by saying that prison would give Johnson “a chance to finally achieve something for the first time in his life, when his cellmate, Bubba, says ‘bend over I’m ready to lay this pipe.’ He will finally have achieved his master plumber’s status. . . . Me and Tony will be laughing our asses off, Scott Johnson.” Most of what Terri Bianco-Spigarelli said, through tears, seemed designed to memorialize her son rather than to excoriate the defendant, but she said that Johnson would burn in hell, because God forgives only the remorseful. “I never hated anybody,” she said. “I’m a people lover. I get along with everybody. I hate him, and I could kill him.”
Scott Johnson read a prepared speech. At the start, he said that the points he would make were based on a maxim that he’d devised when he was twelve: “The truth of the matter at hand is that the truth doesn’t count anymore. It is the quality of the lie that endures.” He had any number of complaints to make about police-interrogation quotes being taken out of context or psychologists being biased or the press getting the facts wrong, particularly about whether he had planned the shooting in advance. He reiterated his belief that no purpose would be served by saying that he was sorry for what he’d done. (“If I showed a hint of remorse, what would people say then? ‘Oh, he’s lying. Oh, he’s faking.’ “) He said what he did regret was that he had to live among people who were liars, gullible, arrogant, and brainwashed. The audience controlled itself through most of the speech, but, when Johnson implied that money donated to the victims’ families for funeral expenses exceeded the costs of the funerals, there was shouting in the courtroom. Sylvia Mort stood up and, before the Judge could react, said, “Let me out of here!” As she stormed out, she said, loudly enough to be heard throughout the room, “Fuckin’ piece of shit!” When order had been restored, Johnson finished his remarks, closing by quoting two verses of the Louis Armstrong standard “What a Wonderful World.”
“These families have you pegged perfectly,” Judge Duket said to Johnson, when it came time to impose a sentence. He portrayed the defendant as someone who blamed others for his constant failures, who thought that he was smarter than everyone else, who craved attention, and who responded to his own problems by murdering innocent children. In addition to the harm Johnson had done to his victims and their families, the Judge said, he’d brought great suffering to his own family. Johnson’s mother had said, “The pain is so bad I wanted to die. This is like a living death,” and the daughter he professed to love, now twelve, was, according to Theresa Johnson, terrified that Scott Johnson would get out of jail and come to Ohio to kill her. “If ever there was a constellation of criminal activities that called out for maximum consecutive sentences, this would be the case,” Judge Duket said. What the prosecutor had asked for, after enumerating the cases of murder, attempted murder, and sexual assault, was three life sentences without the possibility of parole, to be served consecutively, plus two hundred and ninety-five years–a sentence that sounded as if it required something beyond longevity, in the direction of reincarnation. On the subject of sentences that can obviously not be fulfilled, Judge Duket quoted a Wisconsin Court of Appeals decision holding that such sentences can, among other things, “properly express the community’s outrage.” The Judge imposed everything that the prosecutor had asked for. Outside the courtroom, Sylvia Mort, who vowed to keep pursuing the death penalty, said of the sentence, “It’s a beginning.”
Near where the path through the woods to the train bridge begins, there is now a memorial to the three teen-agers killed in what the inscription calls “a senseless act of violence.” A small section of ground has been bricked over, and on it two benches face each other, on either side of a rectangular granite monument that has pictures of Tony Spigarelli and Tiffany Pohlson and Bryan Mort on it. The monument is also inscribed with the first verse of a William Cowper hymn, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” Other than the memorial, the train-bridge swimming hole is unchanged from the time the three teen-agers pictured on the monument went there to swim a year ago. It remains idyllic–a scene that could be a calendar painting depicting lazy summer days in some bucolic patch of the upper Midwest.
The young woman who was assaulted by Scott Johnson had mentioned the beauty of the spot when, to the surprise of everyone involved, she showed up at the sentencing hearing to deliver a victim’s statement about how Johnson had betrayed her with an act that still haunts her every day. The train bridge was also mentioned in the speech that Johnson made before he was sentenced. “The train bridge has been washed in the blood that I spilled,” he said. “The beauty of that place has been cursed by my actions. My memorial is made of iron and concrete.”