Grandmother speaks out after 15-year-old killed by Coast cop
GULFPORT, Miss. (AP) — When deputies found him, the 15-year-old boy had a knife in each hand and fresh cuts on his neck, his grandmother said.
Seth William Johnson was a cutter who struggled with mental illness before he was shot to death in his own living room by a Harrison County deputy.
He lived with his grandmother, Judy Johnson, at a home on Lake Vista Drive. She’s the one who called law enforcement after he took her car the night of Nov. 20. But she never thought it would end in his death.
“He didn’t want to die that night,” she said. “He was just scared. He had a fear of being locked up.”
Seth had been in and out of mental health treatment since he was 5 years old and had recently been released from a second stay at a mental health facility, Johnson said.
She wants to know why Seth had to be killed, why deputies didn’t try something else instead of a bullet. She has mixed feelings about the deputy who shot him.
“I know he was doing his job,” she said. “I have a grandson going into a police force and if he was put in the situation I wouldn’t want him to be harmed.”
“I think what they did was unreasonable. They could have done something in another way.”
Johnson questioned why a stun gun wasn’t used instead of a gun. Peterson said a stun gun was not used because Seth was too far from the deputies.
Capt. David Dulong fired the fatal shot, Sheriff Troy Peterson said recently after a Harrison County grand jury found no criminal conduct in the teen’s death.
Seth was quiet but funny and compassionate, Johnson said, and in many ways like any other teenager.
“He was interested in 15-year-old stuff,” she said. “He rode his bike, he liked to play and collect model cars and he listened to music, sometimes very loudly.”
A sophomore at West Harrison High, Seth was fascinated with cars. He’d collected more than 350 Matchbox cars since he was a kid. “He could look at any car and tell me what kind it was and the year,” Johnson said. “And he would say the funniest things just out of the blue and it would floor me.”
But Seth had trouble understanding why he was taken from his parents, who exposed him to drugs, Johnson said.
She gained custody of Seth when he was four and his older brother was nine in 2006. She said it took until 2014 before she was allowed to adopt them. After she retired, she moved the family from Bourbonnais, Illinois, to Mississippi in May 2017 to be near her sister.
Seth was coming to terms with being taken from his parents, she said, but for years had felt like she was the “villain” or that he had done something wrong.
He became depressed in August, when he started school at West Harrison High. Seth became quieter but would not share what was bothering him, she said.
He had been unofficially diagnosed through the years with different mental disorders, including bipolar disorder, Johnson said.
His latest struggle was that he had started to recall what life was like with his parents and it bothered him. For instance, he recalled being given a shot to make him sleep, she said. His older brother recalled the two of them being taken into drug houses.
The last time Seth was hospitalized, he had sent his grandmother a text message asking her to pick him up from school. She asked why.
“I can’t hide it anymore,” his response said.
Once in the car, he rolled up his long-sleeve shirt and showed her the cuts on his arms. He told her cutting himself made him forget about his emotional pain, Johnson said.
She took him to an emergency room and he was put in a mental health facility. He was released after four days.
Before he was discharged, he was told if he came back to the facility a third time, he would be put in long-term intensive care, Johnson said.
On the day he died, Seth had cut himself repeatedly from the base of his neck to his chin, Johnson said, showing a picture taken after his death.
Seth then took her car without her permission. Johnson said she called the sheriff’s department about 7 p.m. and Seth returned home before deputies arrived.
She went outside and told deputies she wanted them to get help for Seth. Meanwhile, he locked the front door. Johnson gave a deputy her car keys and they opened her garage door.
Johnson said she heard deputies tell Seth they didn’t want to hurt him, but wanted to get him help. More patrol cars showed up to her home in the Cypress Pointe subdivision.
A deputy told her to sit in her car and warm up on that chilly night, so Johnson wasn’t able to hear most of what happened, she said.
Seth gouged holes in a wall with a knife as he stood near the laundry room while deputies, standing in the garage, tried to talk him into coming with them, according to accounts from the sheriff and Johnson.
At one point, he threatened to kill the deputies, Peterson said.
As negotiations continued, Seth, holding two knives, ran a filet knife across his neck, and deputies tried to stop him from harming himself, Peterson said. They used a less-than-lethal force, firing a bean bag to stop him. But Seth ran toward the living room and deputies fired two more rounds.
Seth had stuck a filet knife in a door near the gouges he had made. Gouges were still in the wall along with a hole when the Sun Herald visited his home. His grandmother said a hole in the wall came from the force of a bean bag.
Two deputies ran after Seth as he ran through a hall to the living room, Peterson said.
Seth, still holding a novelty knife, ran toward Dulong, who fired one shot at him, Peterson said.
During the commotion, Johnson heard what she would later learn were the bean-bag shots and she saw a deputy with a rifle kick in her front door.
She rushed in through the garage, stepping over a bean bag, and ran down the hall to see Seth lying on the living room floor in front of a bookcase.
She thought he had been stabbed.
She later learned a bullet entered his side and lodged in his chest cavity.
Peterson said two deputies were in the living room when the fatal shot was fired. Johnson wonders if a deputy was waiting there to shoot him.
She has pieced together much of what happened, but the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, which handled the case, has not told her anything about that night.
Video from deputies’ body cameras show what happened the night Seth died, the sheriff said. Peterson said he cannot release videos, citing a possible lawsuit.
The sheriff’s department bought 68 body cameras last summer, paying $450,000 with drug forfeiture money.
“Any time there’s a death involving an officer, it’s not only a tragedy for the family, but it’s a tragedy for law enforcement. The last thing we want to do is use lethal force on anybody.”
“His grandmother, who is one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met, and Capt. Dulong have taken this hard. This has hurt us a lot.”
Peterson said Dulong became a reserve deputy for the sheriff’s department in 2003 and has been a full-time deputy since 2007. Dulong is retired from the Navy and has been on the SWAT team for two years, Peterson said.
The sheriff said he placed Dulong on administrative leave until an internal investigation was completed.
Seth didn’t receive the mental health treatment he needed, Johnson said.
“These hospitals just take you in and keep you a few days,” she said. “This last time, they changed his medicine, but he needed more help than that.”
Nov. 20 wasn’t the first time deputies had contact with Seth, Peterson said. One time, deputies went looking for him in woods after a suicide attempt. Another time, a deputy picked him up and drove him home after he had walked a couple of miles to a store.
“He was a wonderful boy, but he was a troubled boy,” Johnson said. “He was a scared boy who had had mental issues since he was taken from his parents. I did everything I could to get him the treatment he needed.”
The sheriff said the mental health system let Seth down. The teen wasn’t provided adequate treatment, he said, referring in part to a lack of bed space in mental health facilities.
“The sad truth is that mental health care in the state of Mississippi has yet to become prioritized and viewed as a true necessity. Based on the mental health analysis reviewed and received only after this shattering event, it only further shows the true need for these resources to be made available.”
Having sufficient resources would provide opportunities to save lives “instead of failing another person and their family, Peterson said.
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