The suspect in the deadly shooting of an Alabama police officer last month grabbed an assault rifle from the back seat of his BMW and opened fire from the sedan when he realized police were in front and behind his vehicle on Interstate 65, according to an SBI agent.
Preston Johnson, 37, was in court Thursday for a preliminary hearing before Jefferson County Circuit Judge Alaric May in the February slaying of Kimberly police Officer Nick O’Rear and the attempted murder of Warrior police Officer Lee Glenn. Johnson is charged with three counts of capital murder, attempted murder and discharging a firearm into an occupied vehicle. He also has been indicted on federal gun charges.
The shooting happened Tuesday, Feb. 4, on Interstate 65. O’Rear, a 33-year-old father of two with a child on the way, was struck in the head. He was pronounced dead in early the next morning at UAB Hospital.
Jefferson County Chief Deputy District Attorney Joe Roberts and Deputy District Attorney Deborah Danneman are prosecuting. Johnson is represented by appointed attorneys David Simpson and Wakisha Hazzard.
Family members of both O’Rear and Johnson attended Thursday. Johnson’s family, who have not made any public statements about Johnson or the accusations against him, declined to comment. Johnson smiled at them when he was brought into the courtroom.
State Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Pete Acosta, the lone witness in Thursday’s hearing, testified about witness statements. That night, Glenn – the Warrior officer – was parked alongside I-65 and spotted an approaching black BMW. When the driver of the BMW – later identified as Johnson – spotted the patrol cruiser, he began to drive erratically. Glenn activated his emergency equipment, Johnson failed to stop, and a chase began.
Revealed in Acosta’s testimony today: A woman civilian was doing a “ride-along” with Glenn.
As Glenn pursued the black BMW, testimony showed, O’Rear heard the radio traffic and joined in. When he entered I-65, he was ahead of Johnson’s vehicle and Glenn was behind the suspect.
Acosta testified that a woman was with Johnson. He had picked her up and was taking her to her mother’s house. That woman told police that when Johnson noticed a police officer behind him, he told her to grab a gun. She refused. At that point, she told agents, Johnson reached into the back seat and retrieved a long gun, which court records state was a Norinco Mak-90 AK-47.
Johnson, according to the witness, fired through the front windshield at O’Rear’s vehicle and then fired through the back windshield at Glenn’s vehicle. Once they realized there were no more police officers behind them, they exited the interstate and parked the BMW behind a church. Johnson then made some phone calls and the pair was picked up by another man and woman in a white GMC pickup truck.
Johnson’s passenger told police they left multiple items in the woods near where they had left the BMW. Acosta said investigators recovered the assault rifle, a Glock 9 mm handgun, a set of keys, a military camouflage jacket, a purse, a backpack and some narcotics.
Acosta said investigators had quickly identified Johnson as a suspect because of the vehicle’s description and law enforcement’s previous contact with him. A lookout bulletin was issued first to law enforcement only, but later a Blue Alert went out statewide.
Authorities were able to determine that Johnson had switched vehicles because the wife of the man who picked up Johnson was tracking him via social media, according to court testimony. The wife said she had called her husband to see if he was coming home and he told her he had to go pick up Johnson who had either had a wreck or was having car trouble. The wife then saw news bulletins that Johnson was wanted, and she called police to tell them that Johnson was with her husband. It wasn’t clear in testimony how the woman was tracking her husband’s movements, but Acosta said it wasn’t through a phone app.
Johnson and the other man and two women were taken into custody shortly before 1 a.m. on Feb. 5 on U.S. 78 near Dora. Jefferson County deputies, Adamsville and Sumiton police were among those at the arrest.
Johnson’s passenger picked Johnson out of a photo lineup as the man she was riding with. After questioning, Johnson was taken to the Jefferson County Jail and the other man and two women were released without being charged.
Acosta testified that both police cruisers – those belonging to O’Rear and Quinn – were heavily damaged by gunfire. Additionally, O’Rear’s vehicle suffered additional damage from crashing into the interstate median after he was shot. O’Rear’s rear window was shattered by gunfire, and there was blood evidence throughout the vehicle, including on O’Rear’s headrest.
Simpson, one of Johnson’s attorneys, argued that it was premature to charge Johnson with capital murder. He pointed out that the investigation is ongoing and said that the woman riding with Johnson had not, and could not, yet be eliminated as the person who fired the shots.
“This is a bit premature,’’ Simpson said. “There is another viable suspect.” He said Johnson was under “substantial hardship” facing charges of killing a police officer.
Prosecutor Roberts, however, said there was substantial evidence against Johnson to send the case to a grand jury for indictment consideration. The judge agreed and bound the case over, ordering Johnson remain held without bond.
Johnson has a lengthy criminal history, according to state and federal court records.
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