U.P. shooter: ‘I have yet to feel a glimmer of remorse’

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Kingsford — Before Jason Dalton, the man charged with killing six people in Kalamazoo in February, there was Scott Johnson.

In 2008, Johnson fatally shot three teens after ambushing them at an Upper Peninsula swimming hole.

Dalton didn’t know the people he allegedly shot, and Johnson didn’t know his victims, either. And both explained the carnage in shocking ways.

Psychologists say there is no single reason people commit mass shootings, and that causes may include a need for notoriety, and feelings of isolation, frustration and persecution.

Dalton, a part-time Uber driver, believed he was receiving messages from an Uber app. Johnson compared his attack to spilled milk, saying the victims’ families just needed to get over it.

Eight years later, Johnson still feels the same way.

In a series of letters to The News, he said he hasn’t shed a single tear over the victims and their families.

“I really don’t care,” he wrote. “I don’t feel a thing. I have yet to feel a glimmer of remorse. I suspect I never will.”

If he stood in front of the victims’ families, he wouldn’t say a word, just look right through them, he said.

But that doesn’t make him a sociopath, he said.

“I blubber like a baby when I watch a sad movie,” he wrote.

When told about the remarks, the victims’ parents said they weren’t surprised.

“It shows what kind of person he is — a horrible, horrible person,” said Terri Spigarelli, who lost her 18-year-old son, Tony.

David Mort of Iron Mountain still gets emotional when talking about the death of his 19-year-old son, Bryan — and the man who killed him.

“He’s sick in the head, pure and simple,” said Mort. “I’m a Christian and believe in God, but if I had two seconds with him, I would break his neck.”

Johnson, 45, is being held at the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility, a maximum-security prison in Boscobel where he is serving three consecutive life sentences plus 295 years.

He’s in a Wisconsin prison because he was in the state during the shootings along the Wisconsin-Michigan border.

His letters to The Detroit News are the first time he has spoken extensively about the murders and what led to them.

He began writing to the newspaper last year in response to intermittent interview requests. The paper was hoping to learn why he attacked a group of people he had never met.

Johnson said the shootings were done impulsively.

The day of the gunfire, he learned police were seeking him in connection with a sexual assault the day before near his Upper Peninsula home in Kingsford.

He already was wanted in Ohio for failure to pay child support and in Louisiana on bad check charges.

Long unemployed and living with his mom, and now about to lose his freedom, he felt he had no choice but to strike out, he said.

“I took a good hard look of where I was at,” he wrote. “I was nowhere. I was now existing with no hope of a decent future.”

He didn’t explain why he felt his only choice was to kill people. He said it had to do with a lot of things but didn’t elaborate.

Court records in the homicide may provide some answers.

After his arrest, he gave police several reasons for the shootings, the records say: He wanted to use the victims as bait to lure police, who he also wanted to kill. He wanted the police to kill him. He felt he had nothing left to lose, so he wanted to go out with a bang.

James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, said it’s difficult to pinpoint a reason for a mass shooting. “It’s a matter of a very large haystack and very few needles,” he said.

A court-appointed psychiatrist who interviewed Johnson said the killer felt entitled to take people’s lives because so much had been taken from his, according to the doctor’s report.

“The people whose lives he had took represented the things he had lost,” Dr. Erik Knudson wrote in a 2009 report for the Wisconsin Department of Justice. “He has no regrets about his actions.”

Johnson told the News he nearly didn’t go through with the shootings.

After learning the police were looking for him, he sat in a Kingsford Subway for an hour deciding what to do.

Feeling empty and numb, he decided to surrender and was walking to a gas station to call the police when, a fifth of a mile from the station, he changed his mind and headed for the swimming hole.

“The cogs in my head were churning and, faced with no discernable outcome that was favorable, left little choice in the matter of what needed to be done,” he wrote.

Guilt over breakup

Psychologists who interviewed Johnson described him as pleasant, charming, a good storyteller, according to their reports in the court file.

They also said he was disaffected, defensive and a narcissist.

In Johnson’s letters to The News, he seemed preoccupied about his image, worried about appearing weak and described himself as a truth-teller.

According to the missives, a tale that ended with hatred began with love.

During his senior year at Kingsford High School in 1989, his girlfriend broke up with him after he cheated on her, he wrote. He said he was crushed.

“Can a person be too in love with someone?” he wrote. “I never forgave myself. I inherited the guilt of betrayal that still weighs on me.”

The breakup began a series of disappointments that led up to the killings, he said.

Johnson joined the Army 10 days after graduation and married an “Army brat” in 1991 after she became pregnant with their second child, he said.

He described the 10-year marriage in Louisiana as loveless, while his ex-wife, Theresa, said it was abusive, court records state.

In 1999, the couple got into an argument after Johnson left their daughter alone in the backyard, said a presentence report.

Johnson became so angry he threw the family cat against the wall, knocking the pet unconscious, said the report.

When Theresa returned from getting her daughter in the backyard, Johnson was pointing a rifle at her from eight feet away, according to the report.

“Look what you made me do,” Johnson told her.

Theresa returned to her parents in Ohio and filed for divorce.

Johnson, who had worked a string of menial jobs after being honorably discharged from the Army in 1994, stopped working in 2001 to spite his wife, he told the News. He didn’t want her to receive child support.

He said being separated from his children left him distraught.

His ‘safe’ place

After the divorce, Johnson returned to Michigan in 2001 and moved in with his mom. Jobless and friendless, he described the next seven years as a nonlife.

As his days seemed more and more hopeless, he grew progressively angry and depressed, he said in the letters.

“I wasn’t living anymore, just existing,” he wrote. “I lived in limbo. I had no real identity. My life ceased to having a purpose.”

On July 30, 2008, he sexually assaulted a friend after they rode their bicycles into the woods near his Kingsford home, according to court records.

The next day, after changing his mind about surrendering to police, he headed to another spot in the woods where, several years earlier, he had stashed clothes, weapons, a sleeping bag and first-aid kit, he told The News.

He considered it his safe space to flee if the police ever looked for him because of old arrest warrants for bad checks and failure to pay child support.

“I felt safe out there,” he wrote. “It was the only place that let me feel like I was in control.”

He changed clothes, putting on a camouflage shirt, pants and floppy hat, according to a sentencing memo by Gary Freyberg, a Wisconsin assistant attorney general.

He retrieved a .308 caliber semi-automatic rifle wrapped in plastic from a rock crevice. Hidden nearby was a box of rifle cartridges.

His plan was to find a hill with a clear view of the swimming hole at the East Kingsford Train Bridge and begin shooting people, said the memo.

Putting plan into action

With trees lining both sides of the Menominee River, which separates Michigan and Wisconsin, the bucolic spot has been a hangout for generations of kids.

Johnson, who was on the Wisconsin side of the river, was preparing to execute his plan when four teens began climbing a hill toward him, according to the sentencing memo. They wanted to jump from a large rock hanging over the water.

The barefoot teens, in shorts and swimsuits, were shocked to see a man in camouflage leap from bushes 20 feet away.

As Johnson raised his rifle and walked toward them, the teens fled down the hill, said the memo.

Tony Spigarelli was shot in the back of the head. Tiffany Pohlson, 17, holding the hand of her friend, Katrina Coates, also was shot in the head. Coates, 17, and Derek Barnes, 18, escaped.

As Coates and Barnes scampered away, they could see bark flying off trees as the shots rang out, Barnes later told authorities.

“This guy jumps up in all camouflage and he had a gun and he started shooting at us,” Barnes told a 911 dispatcher.

Johnson then turned his attention to the Michigan side of the river.

From 70 yards away, he shot Bryan Mort in the head and chest, the sentencing memo says.

In all, 17 shots were fired. He told police he would have fired more but the rifle kept jamming.

Mort and Spigarelli were several weeks away from starting college, according to their families. Pohlson had been a cheerleader who was about to start her senior year at high school.

“How could something so terrible happen in this community?” asked resident Jason Asselin.


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Twitter: @francisXdonnell