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Former Fort Bliss soldier sentenced to life in drug murder, was injured in jailhouse beating

An aerial view of Fort Bliss. (Butch/WikiMedia)
December 16, 2019

A former Fort Bliss soldier appeared bruised and injured in court Thursday as he pleaded guilty to cutting the throat of another soldier during a 2017 drug robbery.

Zachary Johnston, who wore an orange jail jumpsuit and shackles around his ankles, pleaded guilty Thursday to a lesser count of murder as part of a plea agreement with state prosecutors.

He also appeared in court with two black eyes, bruises and cuts all over his face after he was involved in a jailhouse fight.

Johnston was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in the slaying of Tyler Kaden Croke, 23, on May 7, 2017, during a drug robbery at the Cantera Apartments at 1501 Lomaland Drive in East El Paso.

Croke, 23, was in the Army and had served a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

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He originally was charged with capital murder and was facing life in prison without the possibility of parole. The El Paso County District Attorney’s Office was not seeking the death penalty.

Johnston, who was one of five people arrested in connection with Croke’s death, did not address the court other than to enter his guilty plea.

Defense lawyer Eduardo Solis said that the agreement was made so that there remained a chance that Johnston would not have to spend his entire life behind bars.

“Looking at the evidence, we thought the best path forward was to negotiate something less than life without parole,” Solis said. “This is a capital case, but they weren’t seeking the death penalty, obviously, but it was still life without parole. It is still as severe a sentence as you can get. So, whenever you can preserve some hope of freedom with the facts stacked against you, that’s what you try to do and that’s what we did.”

“We are pleased that we were able to reach this plea agreement,” Montoya said. “We feel it is an appropriate resolution to this case. … Nothing we can do can bring Tyler Croke back, but this sentence ensures that the defendant will be punished appropriately for what he did.”

The guilty plea was accepted by 168th District Court Judge Marcos Lizarraga, who also handed down the life sentence.

Jailhouse fight

Johnston was involved in an assault at the El Paso County Jail before his appearance Thursday in district court.

Limited information was released on the assault. It is unknown whether Johnston was the aggressor or the victim. It also is unclear whether it involved any El Paso County jailers.

Officials for the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, who run the El Paso County Jail and its annex, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Solis said that he had no details on the assault.

“This is the first time I heard of it,” Solis said. “Obviously, you could tell from his appearance today that he has been in some sort of physical altercation. This is the first I hear of it, so I am not sure what went down, what happened or if there are any charges pending. We will figure all that out as we go forward.”

Former Fort Bliss soldier Zachary Johnston, right, was sentenced to life in prison with a chance of parole on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019, after 168th District Court Judge Marcos Lizarraga accepted a plea agreement in the murder of Tyler Kaden Croke.

Montoya said that the plea agreement already had been reached before the assault took place.

“After we agreed to the plea, the defendant was involved in an unrelated assault,” Montoya said. “It was unrelated to this case and happened last night or the night before.”

He declined to comment further on the assault, saying that the assault will have to go through the El Paso County District Attorney’s Office before it is decided whether Johnston will face any charges.

Victim impact statement

Croke’s mother, Kjersten Croke, could not attend Thursday’s plea hearing, but wrote a victim impact statement, which was read out loud by Montoya.

“It is incredibly hard to put into words how the loss of our son, Tyler Kaden Croke, has affected our family,” the statement read. “Tyler was a son, father, grandson, nephew, brother, infantry soldier and an Afghanistan combat veteran.”

She wrote that her son was looking forward to attending school to become a psychologist, “just like his favorite grandfather whom he looked up to.”

The statement continued: “He was robbed of achieving those goals. He was robbed of his dreams and hopes, and we were robbed of witnessing our bright, handsome young son obtain a degree to help others who suffered from PTSD as he did.”

She added: “Tyler was my first born; he made me a mother for the first time. For 23 years I had the privilege and honor of calling him my son before he was brutally and senselessly murdered by five very sick individuals. As a mother, you have an inherent and sacred responsibly and duty to protect and love your children. I can’t even describe the grief I feel knowing that I could not protect my son when he begged for his life as he was stabbed repeatedly while crawling away from his attackers. He died alone and scared.”

She concluded her statement: “Your Honor, I respectfully request that you sentence this brutal murderer to the maximum penalty under the law. Because of this brutal murder’s senseless and violent actions, he has shamed his family and given up his freedom.

“If it were up to me, he would be sentenced to death. While serving a lifetime in prison will not bring my beautiful Ty back, it will prevent others from suffering the same tragedy as our family by keeping this criminal behind bars.”

Status of other co-defendants

One other person already has been convicted in Croke’s death.

Stephanie Fernandez was convicted by a jury of capital murder, which carried an automatic life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Fernandez allegedly was the getaway driver during the robbery.

The other defendants are Brandon Olsen, who was stationed at Fort Bliss at the time of the incident; and two former soldiers previously stationed at Fort Bliss, Adam Acosta and Tristan Hunter Chilton.

Their cases remain pending in district court.

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© 2019 the El Paso Times