What began with a release from the Grant County Jail and a taxi fare pickup, and ended with the death of the taxi driver and a high-speed crash during a police chase, reached its conclusion in Grant County Circuit Court Thursday.
Timmy Lansing Johnson Jr., 26, Dubuque, was sentenced to 50 years in prison and 18 years extended supervision on first-degree reckless homicide, armed robbery with use of force, and kidnapping charges.
Johnson pleaded no contest Nov. 6 after the reckless homicide charge was amended from first-degree intentional homicide, which has a mandatory life sentence with a parole date set by the judge.
The six La Crosse County charges Johnson faced — three counts of first-degree recklessly endangering safety and one count each of taking and driving a vehicle without consent, felony bail jumping, and vehicle operator fleeing or eluding an officer — were dismissed but read in to the record for sentencing. Trial on those charges had been scheduled for March 12–13.
The charges are connected to the death of Merle C. Forbes, 79, Platteville, after Forbes’ taxi was stolen outside Platteville June 12. Forbes was found in the trunk of his car after it crashed into a vehicle near Holmen early June 13 at the end of a police chase that started in La Crosse.
Grant County Circuit Judge Robert VanDeHey said he would issue a “sentence that is probably going to result in your dying in prison, or is going to result that you’re going to be old enough that you’re not going to be a threat to anyone else.” VanDeHey noted the “need to protect society, and that fact probably more than any other,” adding that there was “nothing I could do to protect society other than to lock you up.”
VanDeHey said it was “very hard to believe” that Johnson would, the day he was released from the Grant County Jail June 12, smoke a cigarette laced with PCP “without his knowledge,” a drug that “in Grant County we see very, very little of … it’s not a story that is easily swallowed.”
Johnson sat at the defense table, wearing a dark suit and shackles on his feet, mostly staring at the tabletop or the floor. As he was leaving the courtroom, however, he made a hand gesture and stuck his tongue out at the media sitting in the jury box.
Johnson said he wanted to “apologize to the victim’s family and my family as well. Although I am mentally ill, I take full responsibility for what happened.” He asked Forbes’ family for forgiveness “even if it’s not today.”
Johnson claimed he was trying to kill himself the night of Forbes’ death, saying, “My goal wasn’t to run from the police, it was to kill myself in the crash.”
Members of Forbes’ family sat behind Grant County District Attorney Lisa Riniker in the third-floor courtroom. Members of Johnson’s family sat behind Johnson and his public defenders, Amanda Tisdale and Rose Oliveto. The sound of workers restoring the Grant County Courthouse could be heard outside.
After the sentencing, Janice Forbes, Merle Forbes’ widow, said “I really don’t know” how she felt. “It’s probably fair according to the court, but to me it’s not.
“I’ve got so many questions. Where was his family? … Where were they the day he got out of prison?”
Janice Forbes noted that her husband’s 80th birthday would have been one month after his death.
“This Johnson is the same age as my grandson,” she said. “What is this man doing, killing this defenseless old man who didn’t get a chance?”
Before his sentencing, Riniker noted that Johnson scored in the “highest possible risk there is” for violence and noncompliance in his pre-sentence investigation. “That is obvious from his prior criminal record,” she said, adding that Johnson was “likely to rationalize criminal behavior … blaming this homicide on this laced cigarette.”
Riniker listed Johnson’s 30 previous convictions, saying, “Even with that history, according to the defendant, he was young and dumb, and with time he will mature.” She noted the letters on Johnson’s behalf calling for a “second chance” and a “fair chance.”
“The problem is that he’s had a second chance, a third chance, a fourth chance, a fifth chance, a sixth chance. He’s had 30 different chances, not counting his juvenile record. He’s had 30 separate chances, and here we sit.”
Riniker listed the multiple stab wounds on Forbes’ head — some as deep as 3 inches — as well as beating injuries on his head and body, all done in an “brutal, animalistic way.” Riniker also said that Johnson drove Forbes’ taxi, with Forbes’ body in the trunk, through communities with hospitals — Lancaster, Boscobel, Viroqua and La Crosse — without stopping at one of them to seek care for Forbes. Riniker said Johnson told La Crosse police that “his wounds were too severe, and he knew he’d get in trouble for it.
Tisdale said Johnson was released from jail June 12 “penniless, homeless and deeply mentally ill,” and that Johnson intended to kill himself, not someone else.
“He was reckless,” she said, adding that the reason for the incident that ended in Forbes’ death “may never be answered. He said he was the one who was supposed to die, not Mr. Forbes, not anyone else.”
Tisdale said Johnson had mental illness that she called “clearly a mitigating circumstance” that didn’t reach the level of a plea of not guilty by mental disease or defect, but included depression, antisocial feelings, and “a variety of substance abuse disorders. … Drugs, alcohol and mental illness have all contributed significantly to his record.”
Tisdale called the incident “a true tragedy” and “an unintentional act, reckless, fueled by despair.”
Johnson is already serving at least 10 years in prison and 7½ years extended supervision after his probation was revoked Aug. 21 on three sets of Grant County charges from 2014 — driving a vehicle without consent and misdemeanor bail jumping, dating back to January 2014; bribery of a public official, taking and driving a vehicle without owner consent, resisting or obstructing an officer, and disorderly conduct, dating back to March 20; and felony bail jumping, resisting or obstructing an officer, and two counts of misdemeanor bail jumping, dating back to April 28.
Tisdale said those charges were “not aggravating in nature,” but were “a chance to perform on probation, and he failed instantly.”
Johnson still faces eight Lafayette County charges of felony bail jumping, as well as charges of taking and driving a vehicle without consent, and driving or operating a vehicle without consent for two alleged car theft cases in Darlington Aug. 29 and Feb. 24. A body-only bench warrant was issued in Lafayette County Circuit Court in Darlington after Johnson failed to appear for his status conference June 18, when he was in the La Crosse County jail.
The Grant County charges earlier in 2014 were for stealing a vehicle Jan. 2, taking a van from Dickeyville and driving it to Platteville March 20 and, after his arrest, allegedly trying to bribe a Grant County sheriff’s deputy. The April charge was for a disturbance in the Grant County jail.