Capital Gazette wins special Pulitzer Prize citation for coverage of newsroom shooting that killed five

After nine-year wait, Baltimore man cleared in killing

As far as retired homicide detective Darryl Massey was concerned, the investigation into the fatal shooting of Gary Johnson Jr. was closed in June 2003 — a simple case of a man protecting his home and family from an intruder.

But the case remained open for nine years, until last month, when current detectives asked prosecutors to give it a fresh look. Prosecutors determined, as Massey had deduced nearly a decade ago, that the shooting was a case of justifiable self-defense.

Ivan West, who was 22 at the time and called police after shooting Johnson with a registered handgun, said he had long figured he had been cleared by the authorities. Nonetheless, it was a relief to learn from a reporter that the case had been officially closed.

"It's real nice to hear," said West, now 31 and living in Delaware, where he works as a physical therapist assistant. "A few family members had been wondering, 'What happened?' I hadn't heard a thing."

The closure came at a time when the Police Department homicide unit's clearance rate has been sagging, and prosecutors say police revisited the case recently and asked them to review it.

The state's attorney's office ruled on May 29 that the shooting was a "justified" homicide, which would erase it from the total count of 270 murders and non-negligent manslaughters in 2003.

But for nearly a month, the shooting was listed by police not as "justified" but "cleared," which means police got to count the case as a solved murder. That improved this year's low clearance rate, because the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting program guidelines call for a closed case to be counted in the year it is closed, instead of the year the killing occurred.

After The Baltimore Sun inquired about the classification this week, police said prosecutors had required them to count the case as a "closed" murder. On Tuesday, however, Lt. Col. Garnell Green, commander of the homicide unit, said he spoke with prosecutors and they agreed to change the case from "cleared" to "justified."

The shooting occurred on June 23, 2003, in the 4200 block of Seidel Ave. in Northeast Baltimore's Frankford neighborhood, on a weekend during which eight people were killed. The police commissioner at the time was Kevin P. Clark; the mayor was Martin O'Malley.

According to news reports at the time, Johnson was fatally shot at about 12:30 a.m. and taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he later died. Police said then that they believed he might have been shot during a robbery.

West was living with his wife and infant child. He recalls hearing someone trying to break into his home, and grabbing the gun from a lockbox under his bed. He said he came down the steps and shot the intruder, then chased him into the street.

"He was able to run out, but he collapsed in the street," West said in a phone interview this week. "I immediately went into the house and called the police."

At the time, he was acting on pure adrenaline, he said. Later, he reflected on what had happened: "I wished it never happened. It kind of messed with me a bit."

Massey, who retired in 2010, said that there been a prior break-in at the home and that West did what any homeowner might do. He was cooperative with investigators and was always available if they had questions, Massey said.

"To me, he did everything he could to prevent any problems," the retired detective said.

Though West wasn't arrested, he was rattled, and moved his family out of the home the next day. "The first thing we had to do was get out of Baltimore," he said.

Massey said there could have been a quick resolution to the case, but prosecutors wanted to gather more evidence.

Mark Cheshire, the spokesman for the state's attorney's office, said that it was believed Johnson had an accomplice, and investigators hoped he might surface and provide more information. But he could never be located, and the case fell off the list of priorities.

"Nine years later or one year later, the facts are the facts," said Massey, who now oversees investigations for the Maryland State Lottery.

West, meanwhile, wants his weapons returned. Police seized two handguns — a .357 revolver and a .380 automatic — from him that night, both of which were registered but taken into evidence by police. West said they were gifts from his wife, and neither had been even test-fired prior to the altercation with Johnson.

Massey guessed that the guns were destroyed long ago, but police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said police have some good news for West: His guns are still in a police evidence room.

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