DRAPER — The motive of the man who shot and killed Draper Police Sgt. Derek Johnson “was to kill a uniformed police officer in a marked automobile,” Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder said Monday.
“That’s what I believe we’re facing here,” he said, adding that the “why” is still unknown.
Winder would not identify the suspects, whom he described as “transient in nature” with local roots. They remained hospitalized Monday and had not been interviewed. The sheriff said releasing their names to the public would compromise the ongoing investigation.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill promised Monday to "spare no effort and spare no resources" seeking justice on behalf of Johnson.
Johnson, 32, was pronounced dead Sunday at a local hospital after being pulled from his mangled police car, which had crashed into a tree. Johnson had sustained multiple gunshot wounds and was treated at the scene by multiple emergency responders.
Police said Johnson had come across a silver Volvo parked in an unusual manner at 13200 S. Fort Street shortly before 6 a.m. Sunday. The couple, Winder said, had been living out of the car. The car had been seen in several locations in Salt Lake County.
A man and a woman, ages 35 and 34 respectively, were with the vehicle when Johnson stopped to investigate. Earlier, the car had been in an accident at about 13800 South and 900 East.
As Johnson approached the vehicle, he was met by gunfire — “gunned down in the seat of his patrol car,” the sheriff said. He “never drew his weapon.”
Johnson was hit by a bullet and drove down the street as the gunman continued to fire at him. The officer's car ran off the road and hit a tree about three blocks north on Fort Street.
The transient couple may have been in the midst of a domestic dispute, according to Winder, but neither had been interviewed and no one else knows for sure what transpired before Johnson was shot.
Investigators initially said the man was believed to have shot the woman he was with and then fired the weapon at himself. Once police located them, both were taken to a local hospital in critical condition.
Winder said the woman in the car is believed to be a victim, but he added: “I want to stress this is an evolving situation.”
The slain officer’s father, Randy Johnson, said his family will sorely miss him.
"What a man he was and is," he said. "We're so thankful that we had him for the years that we did."
Randy Johnson said his son’s approach to law enforcement was to treat people with respect. He said his son would say, “Even if people are in a compromised position or have done something potentially wrong, if I treat people with respect, I’ll receive that respect.”
A large contingent of Johnson’s family, law enforcement officers and Draper officials gathered in front of Draper City Hall for an afternoon press conference Monday. The building was ringed with American flags and draped with yellow, blue and black ribbons.
A makeshift memorial of flowers, candles, flags, stuffed animals and notes were placed at the entryway.
Flags flew at half-staff elsewhere in the city and the community showed its support with public messages such as the sign at a fast-food restaurant that said "May God Bless Sgt. Johnson and his family."
Draper Police Chief Bryan Roberts thanked the community for its outpouring of concern and compassion. Some 1,200 people attended a vigil at City Hall on Sunday night that had been organized by the community.
"We are doing everything we can to maintain the integrity of this case and have a solid case to present to the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office for prosecution," Roberts said. Earlier, the chief described the shooting as an "ambush."
Gill said officers from the Unified Police Department and the Draper Police Department are working with attorneys from his office to conduct an "expeditious and thorough" probe of the events that resulted in the sergeant's death. His homicide team attorneys have also been writing warrants as part of the case.
"We're trying to gather as much information about what happened, who was involved. As they finish their investigation, we will work toward accountability," Gill said Monday.
Gill said the events were "an absolute tragedy. From our perspective, our heart goes out to the officer's family and to his community."
Johnson is the first Draper police officer to killed in the line of duty. Gill said his death illustrates the dangers police encounter on a daily basis.
"This young man was a professional who was well-respected and well-loved in his community. He was well-known in the community, out there doing the job he loved to do and doing it honorably and professionally. To be struck down in this sort of way is just an absolute tragedy and a loss for that man's family, the community and everyone," he said.
Johnson is survived by his wife and a 7-year-old son.
Anyone who may have seen the silver Volvo Saturday night or Sunday morning is asked to call Unified police at 801-743-7000.