Police: Street racing between father, son blamed for pedestrian death in Kennewick

Tri-City HeraldApril 9, 2014 

— A motorist might have been racing his teen son on a busy Kennewick street Tuesday when the father’s car slammed into a pedestrian, according to police and witnesses.

Michael S. Johnson, 46, of Kennewick, is held on $100,000 bail for killing Nina Howard while allegedly driving at an excessive speed. Johnson told police he likely was driving more than 50 mph before hitting Howard as she crossed West 27th Avenue, west of the Ely Street intersection.

However, Johnson couldn’t give an exact speed because he said the speedometer doesn’t work on his 1966 Chevy Nova, court documents show. The posted speed limit on that section of 27th Avenue is 40 mph, with two eastbound lanes and one westbound.

Johnson’s son, Aaron, 18, estimated the Chevy was going 60 to 70 mph when he heard his father “come off the throttle and brake hard,” documents said.

Aaron Johnson said his father had just picked up the Chevy from an auto shop and they were traveling east on 27th after coming from Highway 395. The son was behind the wheel of a 1989 Ford Mustang. He initially reported going 40 to 45 mph in the Ford, then later admitted he was driving 55 to 60 mph, court documents said.

Three witnesses traveling in the same direction as the Chevy and Ford reported that the cars appeared to be “street racing,” with the Ford revving its engine behind a slower-moving wood chipper truck before accelerating into the right lane to pass it. The Chevy followed the Ford then, once in front of the truck, changed lanes on its own into the left lane, documents said.

That’s when the Chevy hit Howard, 52, of Kennewick, who was not in a crosswalk. She was pronounced dead by Kennewick paramedics.

Howard was heading to the LAO Buddhist Temple on 27th Avenue when she was hit, said Xaysy Bounxou, her boyfriend of two years. She routinely took the bus to a nearby stop and crossed the street while walking to the temple.

Buddhist monks told the Herald that Howard went to the temple daily to pray between 4 and 5 p.m.

Michael Johnson stopped at the scene and was interviewed by police. He was booked into jail at 10:42 p.m. Tuesday, and appeared in Benton County Superior Court on Wednesday morning.

Judge Vic VanderSchoor found probable cause to hold him for vehicular homicide, and set the bail amount. He also told Johnson that if he posts bond, he is to follow any recommendations from his mental health provider.

If charges are filed against Johnson, he will return to court April 17.

Court documents state that Johnson suffers from bipolar disorder.

He told Kennewick investigators on Tuesday that he takes lithium a few times a day and last took it two hours before the 4:06 p.m. crash. He also admitted using medical marijuana in oil form, and said he last smoked it on Monday night, documents show.

An officer reported Johnson as being “very lethargic and unemotional” after the fatal wreck.

Johnson likely was heading home at the time. He lives on West 28th Avenue, east of Vancouver Street.

One motorist described the Chevy — which has collector vehicle plates — as “reckless” before it hit Howard, court documents said.

That witness said he saw Howard cross the street from the north to the south and reach the center of the road before turning back to the north, documents said. He said the Chevy then moved to the left and struck her.

A driver and passenger in another truck reported that the Chevy and the Ford were not signaling, and “were pulling away from traffic that was going approximately the speed limit,” court documents said.

Kennewick officers are still investigating what led to the collision, but their preliminary conclusion is that skid marks, damage to the Chevy and Howard’s injuries all are consistent with “high speed impact,” documents said.

Johnson is on two years of supervision after being sentenced Feb. 27 in Benton County Superior Court for loading a shotgun and making comments to his wife that she took as threats to kill.

Police were called to the family’s home by the wife on Dec. 16. She said the two had been arguing earlier that evening about marital issues, then later she heard Johnson loading a gun in their son’s room, court documents said. The wife went into the room to make sure her husband didn’t hurt himself.

Johnson didn’t point the gun at his wife but, when she tried to take it away, they struggled over it and he said, “Is it going to be you or me first?” documents said. He reportedly took the phone away from her when she called 911 the first time.

Police found two rounds loaded in the shotgun.

Officers tracked down Johnson, who initially denied making the statement, then admitted he did it intending to scare her. He also claimed that he had the gun because he’d talked about going hunting with his son, but Aaron Johnson told police they never had that conversation and he doesn’t hunt with his father, documents said.

Michael Johnson pleaded guilty to misdemeanor harassment with a domestic violence allegation.

In his plea statement, Johnson wrote that he “was upset and depressed and not thinking straight. I was arguing with my wife and grabbed a shotgun and said things to my wife about using the gun on me or her. She was in fear that I might use the gun.”

He was sentenced to three days in jail with 361 days suspended, and given credit for having already served the time while awaiting trial.

Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; kkraemer@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer

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