A 79-year-old Platteville man died after a taxi theft in Platteville Thursday night and police chase in the La Crosse area early Friday morning.
Merle Forbes was pronounced dead by La Crosse County authorities after his taxicab was involved in a crash near Holmen at the end of a police chase that started in La Crosse Friday around 1:10 a.m. Forbes’ body was found in the trunk of his taxicab.
Forbes’ funeral arrangements are pending at Melby Funeral Home in Platteville.
Timmy Lansing Johnson Jr., is in the La Crosse County Jail after La Crosse County Circuit Judge Todd Bjerke found probable cause for charges, including reckless driving causing great bodily harm and death. La Crosse County prosecutors said Forbes was beaten and stabbed, and that Johnson robbed Forbes.
Johnson, 25, had just been released from the Grant County Jail after serving a jail sentence as part of five years probation on felony bail jumping, bribery of a public official, felony driving and operating a vehicle without consent, misdemeanor taking and driving a vehicle without consent, misdemeanor bail jumping, disorderly conduct, fraud on a taxicab operator as a repeater, and two counts of resisting or obstructing an officer.
As of Tuesday morning, Johnson had not been formally charged in either Grant or Lafayette counties. La Crosse County Assistant District Attorney Jessica Skemp said Johnson could face homicide charges in either Grant County or La Crosse County, though prosecutors hadn’t decided where yet.
Johnson’s next scheduled court appearance is Thursday.
According to Forbes’ family, Johnson’s conviction for fraud on a taxicab operator as a repeater was for not paying Forbes for a fare.
Forbes and his wife, Janice, operated a taxi service for 31 years.
“He was a nice guy,” said Janice, adding that he’d take people in their taxi and “If they didn’t have any money, he’d say pay me when you can. And they usually paid.”
“He’d help anybody,” said Forbes’ son, Michael. “He always helped us out.”
Forbes’ daughter, Lynda, said Merle Forbes was held up in Dubuque earlier this decade, and “If he wanted his stuff he’d have given it to him.”
Around 5 p.m., said Janice, “He said I got a couple guys at Rountree Commons who wanted to go to Lancaster.” She said, however, that video from Rountree Commons revealed only one person to be picked up.
“Twenty minutes later, they got a call from Sam and Dan Lane that this green car had sped down this road, and a few minutes later came speeding back there,” she said.
“My dad did not drive like that,” said Forbes’ daughter, Lynda.
Around 7:15 p.m., Janice said they realized Merle was late to return from the call. Calls to Merle’s cellphone were not answered.
“Police in La Crosse wanted to know if we knew anyone knew Jamal,” she said. “He called someone named Jamal.”
Later, officers went to the Forbes house with items belonging to Merle, including papers from the taxi cab’s glove box with blood on them, she said.
“We spent the whole night looking under bridges and in ditches,” said Lynda. “One thing we would like to know is where were they from 5 until a quarter to 2 in the morning.”
The Grant County Sheriff’s Office issued a Missing and Endangered report for Forbes and his taxi Thursday evening. The vehicle was found by a La Crosse police officer Friday around 1:10 a.m. with a driver who did not match the description of the missing man. After the officer tried to stop the vehicle, the vehicle sped off through La Crosse on Wisconsin 35 into Onalaska and toward Holmen. The vehicle then was involved in a crash with another vehicle and rolled over, according to La Crosse police.
After the crash, authorities found an elderly man’s body in the trunk and tried to revive him, but he was pronounced dead at the scene. Police said the victim appeared to have injuries “consistent with the victim being assaulted” before the crash.
An autopsy was conducted Friday.
Three people in the vehicle hit by the taxi suffered minor injuries.
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. Johnson is due for a status conference in Lafayette County Circuit Court in Darlington today at 10 a.m.
In chronological order of alleged events, according to court records, Johnson was accused of:
• Defrauding a taxicab operator Aug. 24. According to court records, Forbes picked up Johnson in Darlington and took him to Boscobel, where Johnson said he needed to get fare money from an apartment. After 20 minutes, Forbes called police.
• Taking a vehicle without consent in Lafayette County Aug. 29.
• Taking a vehicle in Grant County Jan. 2.
• Taking a minivan parked at the Super 8 motel in Darlington and driving it to Platteville Feb. 24.
• Stealing a vehicle from a Dickeyville business, where its owner had parked it, and driving it to Platteville March 20. While being transported to the Grant County Jail in Lancaster, Johnson “attempted to bribe the deputy into letting him go, including offering him a large amount of money,” the sheriff’s office said.
The resisting charge was the result of an incident at the Grant County Jail when Johnson covered up the viewing port of his cell, according to the Sheriff’s Office. Corrections officers moved Johnson to another cell, during which Johnson did not cooperate, requiring additional officers.
On Monday, public defender Tom Locante said Johnson has been under watch in the La Crosse County Jail. Johnson’s attorneys said he has “unresolved mental health issues” and did not receive his medication while in the Grant County Jail.
La Crosse police, the Grant County Sheriff’s Office, Platteville police, the Wisconsin State Patrol, the state Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation, the La Crosse County District Attorney’s office and the La Crosse County Medical Examiner’s Office investigated the incident.
Chris Hubbuch of the La Crosse Tribune contributed to this story.