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SALT LAKE CITY — A Salt Lake County sheriff's deputy who engaged in a gun battle outside the county jail — resulting in the gunman being killed and one deputy losing an eye — was legally justified in using deadly force, the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office concluded Friday.
On April 10, deputies Joshua Buerke and Leland Grossett, while doing a routine security check, came across Joshua Michael Johnson, 31, sleeping on the lawn outside the sheriff's office and jail complex at the corner of 3300 South and 900 West in South Salt Lake.
Johnson claimed he was waiting for a bus. The deputies asked him to move to the bus stop nearby and told him he couldn't lay on the lawn, according to the district attorney's report of the shooting. Grossett said Johnson agreed to move and seemed "calm and collected."
But when Johnson stood up, the deputies noticed a handgun magazine on the ground which may have fallen from Johnson's pocket, the report states. The deputies then attempted to handcuff Johnson until they could make sure "everything was safe," but he resisted.
As Johnson started to reach for something in his waistband, the deputes grabbed him and pulled him to the ground where a struggle ensued, according to the report. The deputies attempted to pull Johnson's hands out from under him so they could place him in handcuffs. Johnson was lying face down on the ground with his hands under his stomach.
"During the struggle, the man produced a handgun and fired it, shooting the left side of deputy Buerke's face and deputy Grossett in the eye," the report states.
As Buerke continued to fight with Johnson and hold onto his gun, he managed to unholster his own gun, "kneel up" and shoot Johnson multiple times, according to the report.
"I saw the gun. I turned my head to say 'gun' and then everything went black. There was ringing in my ears. I couldn't hear anything. I couldn't see anything," Grossett told investigators.
A second later, he heard Buerke "yelling and screaming," followed by more gunshots, according to the report.
Investigators found that Johnson fired a single shot — the only one in his gun — that first grazed Buerke and then struck Grossett. Buerke's injuries were not life-threatening. Grossett had a bullet surgically removed from his eye and sustained a complete loss of vision in that eye.
During a press conference Friday announcing the results of shooting investigation, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said it is unbelievable that the injuries to the deputies weren't worse.
"This is just a miracle we're not talking about a fatality," he said.
Gill said the angle of the shot and the fact the bullet was slowed by grazing Buerke first, likely saved Grossett's life. Additionally, he said the fact that the magazine apparently fell to the ground when Johnson stood up, leaving only a single round already in the chamber, likely changed the outcome.
"I cannot underscore enough, my takeaway from when we went through this was, but for the fact that magazine fell out ... we would have seen multiple (shots) from that gun at those officers. It's just by happenstance that that magazine fell out, that there was not another magazine in the gun, and the one bullet that was chambered in the gun was the one that he suspect was able to fire off," Gill said.
Buerke fired six or seven shots, the report states. An autopsy determined Johnson was shot at least five times. Three slugs were recovered from his body.
Several golfers across the street heard the commotion and witnessed the shots being fired. The witnesses noted the fight with officers before seeing a gun "swing around," according to the report. After the first shot, witnesses saw Gossett roll on the ground. That was followed by several more shots as Buerke appeared to gain control of the situation, the golfers observed.
Although Buerke declined to be interviewed as part of the district attorney's investigation, Gill determined that Buerke reasonably believed that deadly force was necessary to prevent death or serious injury to himself or more serious injuries to his partner.
Investigators say Johnson's gun was determined to be stolen during a vehicle burglary in Salt Lake City about a month earlier. In fact, Gill said the gun actually came from the same vehicle that Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera talked about during a press conference on Wednesday in which an AR-15 was stolen during a car burglary. Gill said a total of three guns and multiple rounds of ammunition were stolen from the same vehicle, which had been left unlocked.
"I am imploring to our lawful gun owners out there, please secure your weapons," Gill said.
"If (criminals) are willing to use them against a police officer, they're going to use them against our community," Rivera added, saying gun owners can help keep the community safe by securing their weapons.
Rivera also gave updates on both Buerke and Gossett on Friday, both of whom had been in law enforcement less than five years when the confrontation occurred.
She praised both officers for being so resilient. Buerke has since moved on to another police department where he works in patrol. Rivera said for him to do that after experiencing what he did and knowing how dangerous a seemingly routine questioning can become, is to be commended.
Grossett is still struggling to recover physically, the sheriff said. But she met with him about a month ago and he told her he still wants to eventually come back to work.
"I'm telling you, he's one of the strongest individuals I've ever met. He is very positive. I look up to him. To go through something like that and still be positive and still want to come and do this profession, I just hand it to him," she said.