Death Settlement

The city and Southwest Ambulance agree to settle with daughter of Tyrone Johnson

For days last spring, Ashley Johnson sat in an uncomfortable and imposing courtroom in U.S. District Court and listened as lawyers said awful things about her dead father.

Her dad, the team of lawyers said over and over, was a bad man. He was a drug user. A negligent father. A criminal. Ashley Johnson, who turned 15 during the four-week trial, thought she'd heard it all. But Daryl Audilett, the lawyer representing the city of Tucson and its police and fire department paramedics, saved the worst for last. Glorifying the cops who beat and repeatedly pepper-sprayed Tyrone Johnson on a scorching August morning in 1999, Audilett used a line from philosopher Edmund Burke, a man Ashley Johnson and most teenagers have never heard of, to tell jurors that Tyrone Johnson was "evil."

Tyrone Johnson was not "evil." A one-time football star at Pueblo High School, Johnson saw his dreams of a Division I college career burst when a freak hit in practice ruined a knee before his senior year. Friends and family have said he was a big, fun-loving guy who coached youth football. But he had trouble with drugs.

The city this week paid $70,000 to settle the lawsuit that the lawyer for Ashley Johnson brought against the city and Southwest Ambulance in the wrongful-death case that ended in a hung jury last May. Southwest Ambulance reached a settlement in January. Terms of its payment in a trust fund for Ashley Johnson were not disclosed.

The Tucson City Council approved the city's settlement in closed session on Feb. 1, later publicly voting 6-0 only to "direct the city attorney to proceed as discussed" in the secret session. By then, the city had paid Audilett more than $277,000 in fees and expenses for its defense in the Johnson case. (Republican Fred Ronstadt was absent. He missed the entire meeting and thus avoided a potential conflict of interest, because Ronstadt once worked for the family-owned predecessor to Southwest Ambulance.)

City Attorney Mike Rankin, who revealed the settlement this week, said, "We still do not believe the Tucson Police Department and Tucson Fire Department did anything wrong."

The settlement, suggested by U.S. District Court Judge John M. Roll, averts a replay of a brutal trial and, for Rankin, the risk that jurors could be convinced that Tucson police officers Eric Murch and Floyd Ginn used excessive force when they ran Johnson down, beat him and pepper-sprayed him after they responded to a call, from an off-duty colleague. The only thing amiss was the leaking gas tank of a borrowed Cadillac that Johnson was trying to fuel.

A new jury also will not hear evidence, including from Dr. Randall Bennett, a former longtime paramedic and chief of emergency medicine at St. Joseph's Hospital, that Tucson paramedics and Southwest Ambulance did not meet the community standard in caring for Johnson, an asthmatic who died as the ambulance was en route--at speeds slower than permissible--to Kino Community Hospital from near East Golf Links and South Craycroft roads.

Rankin said what jurors revealed in post-trial interviews, plus Southwest Ambulance's decision to settle, propelled the city to propose the $70,000 settlement. It is structured, Rankin said, so Ashley Johnson's trust account receives $60,000, while $10,000 goes to the Johnson family lawyer, Stanton Bloom.

Bloom said he could not comment. The Southwest Ambulance payment is said by those familiar with the case to be similar in structure. Brenden Griffin, an attorney for Southwest Ambulance, did not respond to a call from the Weekly.

Southwest's legal costs also are expected to far exceed its settlement. Southwest also deployed Foster Robberson, a Paradise Valley lawyer and failed Republican candidate for state attorney general in 2002, to battle Bloom and to portray Tyrone Johnson as a habitual drug user who contributed to his own death on Aug. 8, 1999, by getting high. Griffin and Robberson are members of Lewis & Roca, a top Arizona firm.

Bloom, a longtime sole practitioner who is one of Tucson's fiercest criminal defense lawyers, also had to overcome Arizona law applicable in federal court that negates any court award if someone's drug use contributed at least 50 percent to their demise. An autopsy revealed a slight amount of cocaine in Johnson's system.

Ray Thompson, off duty and awaiting golf partners, summoned Murch and Ginn in separate cars to the Circle K, 5501 E. Golf Links Road, when he saw Johnson and the leaking gas tank.

Bloom showed that Thompson was hardly a bystander who noticed gas dripping from the Cadillac. Tapes revealed that Thompson told Murch that Johnson was "one of his bad guys." Bloom also showed that Thompson had Johnson under surveillance for 150 days at Johnson's South Park Neighborhood home; that surveillance ended just three weeks before the fatal encounter. The surveillance was fruitless. And Bloom showed in court that the area's top drug-fighting agency, the Metropolitan Area Narcotics Trafficking Interdiction Squads, spurned Thompson's pleas to target Johnson.

Testimony showed Johnson was genial and relaxed while with Murch, though he initially gave the name Tim--his brother's name. Johnson also had taken steps to catch the dripping gas and to have the Cadillac towed. Then Ginn, according to his testimony, found a crack pipe on the front seat of the Cadillac. The pipe was never produced at trial. Police say it was destroyed.

Johnson bolted when he feared being arrested. He hopped a short wall before the athletic Murch caught up with him, with the aid of pepper spray and a metal baton that he continued to use even after Johnson was down on the hot pavement of a driveway.

Neighbors testified that they did not believe Johnson was a threat and that he was exhausted and gasping for air. Tucson Fire Department paramedics responded, but did not administer oxygen or carefully monitor Johnson's heart and breathing, testimony showed. Johnson complained he could not breathe and that he had asthma. Paramedics called Southwest Ambulance.

Bloom and his experts said that Johnson should have been in an advance life-support ambulance with oxygen and heart monitors. Hands clamped behind his back, Johnson was placed on a gurney face down, then turned partially to his side in the ambulance that could have been, but wasn't, driven at Code 3 with sirens and lights and at speeds on uncongested Golf Links of 60 miles per hour to Kino hospital, a little more than five miles away.

Johnson's heart stopped and he quit breathing when the ambulance was a minute and a half away from Kino.