Far be it from us here to blame someone for having a panic attack. They come on without warning, last for minutes and sometimes hours on end, and are terrifying for those who are experiencing it. But when the person having a panic attack is a police officer, and he discharges his weapon in the middle of the attack, and then his department blames innocent citizens, we must address the story head-on.
Deputy Justin Johnson is a Sevier County Sheriff’s Office deputy. Johnson was called by paramedics to a Sevier mobile home park where Brian Keith Mullinax, 41, and his girlfriend, Tina Carrie Jo Cody, 37, live. Cody’s mother, Robin Sutton is their landlord. Sutton lives in one mobile home while the couple lives in another. Sutton claimed her daughter and her boyfriend stole her purse. Johnson was called to investigate.
Upon arrival, the officer approaches Cody and gives her two conflicting commands, “Walk over here!” and “Don’t move!” Apparently not knowing what to do, she took off running. Johnson chased her down, grabbed her by the shirt, and threw her to the ground. His breath can be heard on his body camera. He was breathing heavily and may have been struggling to catch his breath. Cody said her mom told her to run. She later told the officer she just got out of a mental health facility.
As officer Johnson was attempting to get Cody in handcuffs, he must have believed he saw Mullinax with a gun—he was unarmed. He wheeled around, with his Glock drawn, pointed it at the man and opened fire in a volley of seven shots.
That may have been the start of his panic attack. He ran downhill to the far end of the field away from the mobile home, abandoning his suspects, the paramedics, and the citizens he fired upon.
His breathing became more rapid. He radioed dispatch:
Get me help, shots fired, get me help!
He radioed in again:
I’ve got a guy with a gun. I need some help. Shots fired!
Johnson’s voice seemed to be tightening and increasing in pitch and intensity. As he waited for back up, all the while he was yelling profanity-laced orders for everyone not to move and to “shut the fuck up.”
While paramedic Blake Gregg continued to attend to Cody, who may have been going through her own psychiatric episode, that’s when it happened. At around the 5:30 minute mark in the nearly 10:00 minute recording, Johnson lost it completely. He had a full-blown panic attack, sounding as if he was crying, he remained frozen in place, gun drawn, arms extended.
It’s almost certain the paramedics knew something was going wrong with the whole scene. Not only did they not run away when Johnson opened fire, one brave paramedic, Michael O’Connor, moved in to disarm the officer who was noticeably and audibly out of control.
Keep it together man! Pull it together man. Give me your gun sir give me your gun I’m with the ambulance service sir give me your gun….easy buddy I’ve got it. It’s under control. Easy buddy. Calm Down. You’ve got this…easy buddy it’s okay. it’s a stressful situation.
The calm, cool, and collected paramedics and their demeanor stood in stark contrast to the officer who could not keep it together. But what happened next some are calling a travesty of justice. Cody was charged with resisting arrest while Mullinax was charged with assault, even though no gun was found, the only shots fired were those from Johnson’s gun, and the man never laid a hand on the officer. In essence, the couple was charged for the officer’s own panic attack.
Cody kept telling the officer they had no gun. She even asked the paramedics to get her away from Johnson as he was “crazy.” According to the Knoxville News Sentinel:
The video showed Mullinax obeyed Johnson when – after Johnson had fired seven shots and ran away – the deputy ordered him to the ground, and he never moved from that position during or after Johnson’s panic attack.
Even still, with eyewitnesses present, the couple went to jail for 42 days as they were too poor to be able to bond out of their incarceration. Worse still, the law required for them to get a hearing within 10 days of being jailed, but they did not get their hearing. Now, they’re arguably being charged for crimes they did not commit. The Knoxville News Sentinel stated Mullinax is set to appear in court on Tuesday on charges he assaulted the officer.
Mullinax is set to stand trial in Sevier County Criminal Court on Tuesday on a charge that he assaulted Johnson. A lower court judge already dropped felony charges against both Cody and Mullinax, and a grand jury refused to indict Cody for causing the panic attack. She remains charged with resisting arrest.
From Johnson’s police report, a clearer picture may be emerging describing what was going through the officer’s mind when he opened fire. Noticeably (and some might say predictably) absent from Jonhson’s police report was any mention of a panic or anxiety attack. He wrote:
I heard a male voice coming from a short distance behind me shout, ‘I’ve got a gun’, (expletive)…I turned to notice (a suspect) pacing wildly on the porch of a nearby mobile home and then squat while aiming an object at me that appeared to be a firearm in his hand. I immediately discharged my weapon.
SCSO Detective Johnny Bohanan added to the police report and described why he decided to charge Mullinax with aggravated assault. He wrote:
Because of the assault on Johnson and the fact that he was taken to the hospital with injuries and may have suffered some type of cardiac event as the result of this assault by both the male and female and all the statements and evidence, I charged [mullinax and Cody with aggravated assault].
Attorneys John S. “Stan” Young III and Cameron Bell are doing their own investigation to determine if there is enough evidence to warrant a civil suit against the officer, the department, and presumably the county.
It remains unclear if prosecutors will continue to seek charges against the couple now that the truth of what happened on that December 2016 day has been revealed. Mullinax contends he was yelling that he had his cell phone camera and was recording Johnson’s treatment of his girlfriend. And for that, he nearly lost his life, spent 42 days in jail, and may end up going to prison if cooler heads like those of the paramedics don’t prevail.