The homicide on Jan. 12 of 79-year-old cab driver Merle Forbes was highly preventable.
Although Timmy Lansing Johnson Jr. is now serving a 50-year sentence for a reduced-level homicide charge and other related charges, it rings hollow. So does the 10½ years he is serving for sentencing after probation revocation (running concurrent). This is because of many errors and poor judgments by the following individuals and agencies:
• Timmy Johnson.
• Grant County Circuit Judge Craig Day.
• The Grant County District Attorney’s office.
• The Wisconsin Department of Corrections Division of Community Corrections office in Lancaster.
• The governments in Grant County that regulate, or should regulate, cab safety.
First, Mr. Johnson was given numerous chances in court, and continued to violate the law. He claimed he wanted to commit “suicide by car.” He could have done this without killing Mr. Forbes. He could have been committed for a voluntary 51.42 commitment if he was honest! His acts were evil and unexcused. He was found mentally competent.
On June 19, 2013, Johnson appeared before Judge Day on numerous charges. He received a fine for misdemeanor battery (reduced from felony battery by inmate). He was found guilty of two counts of resisting or obstructing an officer (misdemeanors). He received time served (a short sentence of between 30 and 40 days). The district attorney and court dismissed four misdemeanor counts of resisting/obstructing for this light sentence. All of the obstructing cases were separate cases. With a prior record of trespassing and worthless checks, this should have been a probation case. Probation, an intermediate sanction, could have provided for additional protection (if revoked for the new offenses that Johnson did).
On May 7, Mr. Johnson appeared before Judge Day, again, for numerous new offenses:
• Fraud on taxi cab driver, a misdemeanor (crime date Aug. 24, 2013), sentenced to time served, 24 days.
• Felony auto theft (crime date Jan. 2, 2014), sentenced to five years probation with 90 days in jail minus 54 days credit as a condition of probation.
• Misdemeanor bail jumping (crime date also Jan. 2, 2014), sentenced to two years probation.
• Felony auto theft with repeater sentence-enhancer (crime date March 20, sentenced to two years probation.
• Felony bribery of a public official with repeater (crime date also March 20), sentenced to five years probation.
• Misdemeanor disorderly conduct with repeater (crime date also March 20), sentenced to two years probation.
I disagree strongly with these lenient probation sentences. Johnson should have received up to several years in prison. He could have received a lengthy extended-supervision (parole) or consecutive probation to his prison term to monitor treatment and additional protection. Johnson could have received inpatient treatment in prison for his numerous problems (treatment that Grant County does not treat, nor will fund).
Most importantly, he would have been in prison on June 12 and not killed Mr. Forbes. Criminals on a “criminal run” need to be stopped, not released again and again.
Another important issue is that no presentence investigation was ordered by Judge Day. He would have had more knowledge about Johnson with this social history report that would assess his risk to reoffend and his treatment needs. The district attorney should have insisted on a presentence investigation report.
The Division of Community Corrections in Lancaster could have intervened more strongly upon Mr. Johnson’s placement on probation. Probation started May 7, and he was released from jail on June 12. My review of his records showed Mr. Johnson signing rules and being given a risk assessment tool. However, no comprehensive intake was completed (required within 30 days of intake). He was given an appointment to return on June 20 to complete this paperwork. Johnson gave the Department of Corrections a residence, not verified, so he was allowed to leave for Platteville on June 12.
The field supervisor stated that Johnson was not placed in the Temporary Living Placement in Lancaster because he had a residence in Platteville. As to Electronic Monitoring, it was not done because of his risk assessment.
Sorry: he should have been placed at the TLP due to his instability in his life, including numerous crimes, treatment issues, and history of violence. He was convicted of battery and he had a history of failing to cooperate when under arrest or in custody. He should have been placed on electronic monitoring and not allowed out on his own until some stability was established.
I feel sorry for the Department of Corrections, as they were dumped a “time bomb” by Judge Day. Johnson should have come out of prison, on extended supervision, with an approved release plan and having completed intensive treatment.
Lastly, the City of Platteville allowed Mr. Forbes to operate a cab without needed safety equipment, a protective cage, separating the seats. Mr. Forbes was pulled into the back seat from the inside of the cab.
I previously wrote a letter to the editor requesting action by city and county government. I gave a cab and transport safety presentation to Grant County in October. The Grant County Board is taking no action, according to a letter of Feb. 17, 2014 from board chair Robert Keeney. I disagree: enable legislation. Also, the City of Platteville has taken no action. Platteville needs to address cab and transport safety at once. We need protective barriers and security cameras now.
My recommendations come from my employment of 26 years with the Department of Corrections, and my professional background as a senior probation/parole agent and a certified social worker. As a Christian, I must attempt to be salt and light. This is a lot of coarse salt. My prayer is that the criminal justice system in Grant County learns from this case, and we attempt to not make the same mistakes again.
As a citizen, please contact all of the parties named in this column. They need to know that you are in favor of my recommendations. Lastly, perhaps an honest public forum of all parties should be held.