Justified ruling in fatal police shooting of man who shot deputy in eye, grazed another

The deputy who lost an eye in the shooting remains on the mend, Sheriff Rosie Rivera said Friday.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill speaks during a press announcement on Thursday, July 22, 2021. On Friday, Gill announced that a sheriff’s deputy was legally justified when he shot and killed a man in April who had just shot him and another officer.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill announced Friday that a sheriff’s deputy was legally justified when he shot and killed a man in April who had just shot him and another officer.

Salt Lake County sheriff deputies Joshua Buerke and Leland Grossett were both injured on April 10, when they went to check on a man who had been lying on the grass near the sheriff’s headquarters. The situation quickly escalated to a gunfight after the deputies tried to handcuff Joshua Michael Johnson after noticing an ammunition magazine fall from his pants when he stood up after they asked him to move.

Gill said Friday that Johnson resisted being handcuffed, and instead starting reaching for his waistband. The deputies took him to the ground and wrestled with him for about 15 to 20 seconds before Johnson pulled out a handgun and fired one 5.7x29mm caliber round at the two officers. The single round grazed Buerke’s cheek and lodged into Grossett’s eye.

“I saw the gun,” Grossett later told investigators. “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. About a second later I heard Buerke yelling and screaming. I heard another gunshot and then I heard multiple gunshots. Then Buerke was right next to me, making sure I was OK.”

Buerke shot his own handgun six times at Johnson, who died on the lawn outside the sheriff’s headquarters after being hit several times in the neck and head.

Investigators later found that there wasn’t a magazine in the FN Five-seveN pistol that Johnson fired, so he was only able to fire the single round that was already in the chamber.

“It was just by happenstance that that magazine fell out, there was not another magazine in the gun, and the one bullet that was in the chamber was the bullet the suspect was able to fire,” Gill said. “It just is a miracle that this was not an [officer] fatality.”

Gill concluded that it was reasonable for Buerke to use deadly force under the law, and said the officer was justified in the shooting.

Sheriff Rosie Rivera said Friday that the two deputies continue to recover. Buerke still works in policing, Rivera said, but for a different agency.

And Grossett, who lost his eye, is on the mend. Rivera said they’re looking forward to him returning to work.

“He’s one of the strongest individuals I’ve ever met,” she said. “He is very positive, and I look up to him. To go through something like that and still be positive and still want to come and do this profession.”

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera speaks during a press conference about two deputies who were shot in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 10, 2021.

Rivera said the shooting impacted everyone in the sheriff’s office, whose deputies generally work in operating the county jail. She said Unified police’s peer support team helped them process the event.

“It just rocked the sheriff’s office,” she said. “This is something that has never happened from the corrections side.”

Both Rivera and Gill implored the public to make sure they store their guns safely and not leave them in cars. The gun that Johnson fired, Gill said, had been stolen out of an unlocked car less than a month before the shooting, along with an AR-15 and another handgun.

“Please keep your firearms locked up,” Rivera said. “Don’t let these individuals steal them and use them. If they’re willing to use them against a police officer, they are going to use them against our communities.”