A small-town cop staged a shootout. Then his story — and his life — fell apart

Bryan Johnson was on the cusp of realizing his lifelong dream of becoming a full-time police officer. One September afternoon, he fired three shots into his cruiser, sparking a series of events that ultimately led to his suicide.

Surrounded by reporters, former Millis police officer Bryan Johnson left court in September. Less than a month earlier, he was on his way to becoming a full-time police officer. —Scott Eisen for The Boston Globe

Inside an interrogation room at the Millis police station, the two state troopers had finally gotten at least some of the truth from Bryan Johnson.

Police had spent the last two days searching for a madman who’d brazenly shot at the small-town officer, then escaped without a trace. Schools were closed that September day as a precaution after a bomb threat was called in hours before the shooting.

Into the second day of questioning, Johnson’s story fell apart. He admitted that it was all a lie: There was no shooter. There was no danger. He had shot at his own cruiser, radioed in the phony call. He made the whole thing up.

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He had only one word to describe why he did what he did.

“Attention.’’

The written transcript — part of the 104-page investigative file on the incident — is the only thing that records Johnson’s words that day and details the two detectives’ attempts to draw the truth out of the officer as his narrative disintegrated.

The file sheds light on the gradual breakdown of Johnson’s lie, but little about why, on Sept. 2, 2015, he fired three shots into his own cruiser and set into motion a series of events that would end with his own suicide months later.

His former chief thinks it is a fool’s errand to look for rational answers where there aren’t any.

“We’re trying to make sense of something that doesn’t make sense,’’ Millis Police Chief Keith Edison said.

A promising officer

Seventeen days before he sat in that room with those investigators, Johnson stood in front of the town selectmen at town hall across Main Street, wearing a dark suit and purple tie.

That night, Edison praised the young man born and raised in the town of 8,000 people he now wanted to serve. A civilian dispatcher for almost a year and a half, then a part-time officer, here was his break to become a full-time cop.

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Johnson approached the podium, a smile spreading on his face.

“I couldn’t be happier to be up here at this moment,’’ he said.

Johnson stood in front of the Millis board of selectmen in August as they approved his hiring as a full-time police officer. —Video Still

The selectmen approved his full-time employment — subject to the completion of the police academy. Before he stepped away, he thanked his parents, his brother and the chief for helping him get to where he was.

“Twenty-four years old, to have a position like this in this town, it’s a blessing,’’ he said.

Johnson graduated from Millis High in 2009 and went to Western New England University in Springfield, where he majored in criminal justice and grew from a baby faced teenager to a square-jawed young man who looked like the cop he was about to become.

He never made it to the academy.

A normal day

On the last day that Bryan Johnson would work as a police officer, he began his shift at 7 a.m.

It was the first day of school. He stood outside the joint middle and high school, working traffic enforcement. His day was supposed to end at 11 that morning, but after two different threats were called into the high school, he was asked to stay on.

At some point that day, he came up with a plan. The idea had been percolating for a few days, he later said.

He wanted to figure out how to change the conversation about him back at the station.

“All I know is I’ve been dealing with some negative things around this place for about three weeks due to the fact that I had the relationship with this girl,’’ Johnson later told the detectives.

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He and the girl, who is now a senior at Millis High, had known each other about a year. It was casual, he said, and romantic. They went to Patriots games and the beach together, he said.

But the relationship was a source of discomfort for Johnson. A sergeant told him he should knock it off, that it didn’t look right to be dating a high school girl, the chief later said.

“So this [plan] may have been to elevate your status, for lack of a better term, here in the PD?’’ Trooper Brian Tully, one of the lead investigators with the Norfolk County District Attorney’s office, later asked Johnson.

“Correct,’’ Johnson said.

An unprovoked attack

The call came over the police radio just before 2:30 p.m.

“Four-eight to control, my cruiser’s been shot at,’’ Johnson told the dispatcher. His voice was firm but slightly frantic. “It’s gonna be a dark maroon pickup.’’

Fellow officers sped to the scene at Forest Road and Birch Street, the gunning of their cruisers’ engines heard over the radio.

When they arrived, Johnson’s cruiser was in flames. He was out of breath and upset.

The story came forth in a jumble of confusing details: He was driving west on Forest Road when he saw a pickup truck stopped in the roadway, facing him. A black handgun was pointing out the driver’s window. Then, suddenly, two shots pierced the cruiser’s windshield.

Johnson told them he sped past, then tried to turn his cruiser around, but hit the gas instead of the brake and crashed in the woods. He fired three rounds at the truck, but the driver sped away.

By the time most of the investigators arrived, the cruiser was toast. Only the “DIAL 911’’ decal was still readable.

Johnson’s cruiser, as photographed by investigators documenting the scene. —Norfolk County District Attorney’s office

Johnson was sent off to Norwood Hospital as a precaution. An officer took his duty weapon.

The officer didn’t know about the 9mm handgun, stashed in Johnson’s duty belt.

When the lead investigators showed up from the district attorney’s office, Johnson agreed to go to Forest Road and show them what happened and where. He was descriptive and articulate, the investigators later wrote.

The violent driver in the maroon truck was nowhere to be found.

A witness

It was a mailman who first started to unravel Johnson’s story.

Delivering mail that afternoon on Forest Road, the postal worker heard a few gunshots, but wasn’t alarmed. Sometimes that happened out there in the woodsy part of town, he recalled thinking.

He continued on his route, he later told investigators, taking a turn off the main road and heading down a long driveway into the woods, where a house was set back far from the road.

About 70 yards away, he saw a Millis cruiser parked on the side of the dirt road with an officer kneeling beside it. He’s probably just taking a leak, the mailman thought.

He didn’t think to call the police — until the entire town heard about a driver who attacked a cop.

Hours after the shooting, with the mailman’s statement in hand, Trooper Tully and his co-investigator, Lt. Gerard Mattaliano, brought Johnson back in, this time for a harsher interrogation. They asked: Why would a mailman have seen a Millis cruiser deep in the woods, a half-mile away from where Johnson said the shooting happened?

There’s no transcript of this interview, but Tully wrote in his report that, at this point in the conversation, Johnson’s demeanor changed.

He denied being anywhere near where the mailman saw him, started giving one-word answers, and was “occasionally confrontational,’’ Tully wrote.

He asked to talk to his union representative alone. The troopers ended the interview and let Johnson go home.

Everything falls apart

The next day, Johnson returned to the police station with a new story.

This time, he admitted he’d been in the woods near where the mailman saw him. He had stopped to pee, eat a protein bar and check his phone, he said.

He saw the truck and heard a gunshot after he’d gotten back in his cruiser, he told the detectives.

Then he told a complicated story about accidentally putting the cruiser in reverse, shielding himself from gunshots and trying to pursue the truck. He never turned on his lights and siren or radioed dispatch about what was happening.

Johnson drew a map for the detectives, showing where he supposedly saw the truck in the woods off of Forest Road in Millis. —Norfolk County District Attorney’s office

Tully and Mattaliano seemed dubious. Was he just trying to fit the evidence they’d used to confront him? Why would he pause and look both ways before pulling onto Forest Road, when he was in the middle of a pursuit? How could he remember so much detail about some things, but couldn’t describe why he made other decisions, like not radioing in the shooting?

“So you expect us to believe, after you gave us a completely detailed story [the day before], from the minute it started to the minute it ended, that [what] actually happened was completely different,’’ Mattaliano said.

Johnson said he was afraid of getting in trouble because he didn’t follow protocol “procedurally,’’ he said.

“I’m scared of losing my job,’’ he said. “I don’t want to lose my job. I was panicking about that yesterday. This whole situation is just, it’s a f—ed up thing that happened.’’

A slug from Johnson’s department-issued Sig Sauer pistol, found near his cruiser and marked with an evidence letter. —Norfolk County District Attorney’s office

More than once, Johnson tried to explain away his confusion by blaming the adrenaline of the experience. He asked the troopers if they’d ever been involved in a shooting themselves.

“I can’t tell you what I was thinking,’’ Johnson said. “Have you ever experienced being shot at in a car before? I can’t describe that feeling. Like I can’t tell you what it feels like. I can’t explain like the emotion behind [it to] know how to explain it.’’

“Well, you’re a very descriptive person,’’ Tully said.

Mattaliano took the role of tough cop, pressing Johnson on details and challenging him when he claimed he couldn’t remember.

“You’re foggy, your brain is traumatized … you don’t put your lights on but yet … you’re fabricating this complete story about what happened yesterday,’’ Mattaliano said. “To people who work with you as a brother — we had a couple hundred people out here. Assets all over the place yesterday.’’

“I don’t understand your ability to come up with the detailed lie to your fellow law enforcement people that are here and trying to help you,’’ he continued. “This is where we have a problem with you.’’

He didn’t believe this new story either, he told Johnson.

“I think you’re making a big mistake,’’ Mattaliano said.

Johnson again asked to talk to his union rep, and the detectives left him alone.

An admission

Twenty minutes later, they were back.

“I fired the shots at the cruiser,’’ Johnson told Tully and Mattaliano.

He did it with his 9mm personal weapon — the same gun he claimed to have sent off to the manufacturer for repair weeks earlier. Investigators would later find it hidden behind a cabinet in his garage.

In the woods, he shot the cruiser three times, twice in the windshield and once in the rear, he told them. He picked up one of the bullets, but didn’t bother with the other two.

He got back in the cruiser and took a left onto Forest Road. Crashing wasn’t part of the plan. He must have blacked out, he said. When he woke up, he discovered he had hit a tree.

That’s when he made that radio call and fired his weapon three times down the street, toward the phantom truck.

He struggled to explain why he did it.

“You’re trying to impress people,’’ Tully suggested to him. “So let me ask you this, was it something related to the fact that you’re a new officer and you love the business, you want to prove to people that you’re not new, is it something related to that or is it something totally different?’’

“I guess that’s a good way to describe it,’’ Johnson said.

Mattaliano pressed, and asked him to describe his motivation in his own words.

“Attention,’’ Johnson finally said.

That’s all the explanation they’d get.

Chief Edison doesn’t believe it. It doesn’t make sense. None of it does.

“If it were … to make himself look better or as a hero or looking for attention, it’d certainly be a very poor way of doing that,’’ he said.

Even as Johnson seemed to be admitting everything, he was still holding back. Tully asked if Johnson called the threats into the school.

“No, sir,’’ Johnson said.

“Don’t [gyp] yourself,’’ Tully warned him. “You’ve come this far.’’

They dropped it and moved on to other issues. But Johnson was still lying to them.

Investigators later discovered that he did make those threats to the school. At 10:39 a.m., while standing not far from the school entrance, he dialed the school secretary from an iPhone he’d taken from the police dispatching center that morning.

“The f—ing police are going to be busy today! Better lock your doors,’’ the secretary heard an angry young man say.

And when his tour was extended past 11 a.m., he called again at 11:31 a.m., this time telling her there was a bomb in the school, and that the police better hurry up.

The end

The following afternoon, Millis police announced the hoax to the public.

Johnson was charged with misleading a criminal investigation, communicating false information to emergency services, malicious destruction of property, and unlawfully firing his gun.

The town fired him. He went for treatment at an undisclosed facility.

Sgt. William Dwyer, who was the acting chief that week, said something was obviously wrong with Johnson. But that didn’t change how he felt about him.

“When he gets the help that he needs, you know what?’’ Dwyer told reporters at the time. “I will still be his friend.’’

A week later, when Johnson showed up at Wrentham District Court to face the charges, reporters mobbed him. He was wearing the same suit and tie he’d worn before the selectmen that evening in August.

He pleaded not guilty, paid his $10,000 bail and went home with his parents with a GPS monitor on his ankle.

Johnson leaving Wrentham District Court in September. —Scott Eisen for The Boston Globe

Johnson’s parents and many of his friends declined to talk about him for this story. His attorney also declined to comment.

In mid-November, Johnson was indicted. Decades in prison were on the table.

On Thanksgiving morning, he hanged himself in his bedroom.

There was a private funeral, but no obituary.

Johnson’s death certificate was stapled to a notice dismissing the charges, and the thin files holding the case against him were tucked away.

It’s a tragedy, Chief Edison said now. Johnson had destroyed the life he’d long hoped for, but his life wasn’t over.

“For anyone to be in a place where they felt killing themselves was the solution,’’ he said. “I guess that’s the most tragic part of all.’’

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