'She was begging for my help'; Grandfather of woman shot by Fayetteville police seeks justice

Samantha Kummerer Image
Tuesday, July 5, 2022
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Fayetteville police said a woman appeared to have a mental health crisis and pulled out a handgun and threatened to harm herself after they responded to a 911 call about a break-in

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (WTVD) -- The Iwanskis' home in Fayetteville was supposed to be their granddaughter's "safe house."

Now, the home is haunted with memories of her final moments alive.

Rick and Maria Iwanski said their 22-year-old granddaughter, Jada Johnson, was experiencing a mental health crisis when police responded to their home on Friday evening.

Both Rick and Maria Iwanski, along with Johnson's 2-year-old daughter were inside when police arrived.

Rick Iwanski said his granddaughter had been trying to escape an abusive relationship and had become paranoid and sleep-deprived. She spent time in the hospital earlier in the week after her condition escalated on Wednesday.

Iwanski said Johnson left the hospital Friday morning but continued to show symptoms he related to psychosis. On Friday night, she was convinced that her boyfriend was going to enter the family home and harm them, which sparked the call to the police.

Fayetteville police initially responded to the home around 9:40 p.m. on Friday after they were told four men were trying to break in, but officers did not find signs of one, according to Assistant Police Chief James Nolette.

Iwanski said officers were trying to arrest Johnson for a false report, but he tried to explain that Johnson was having a mental-health crisis.

"This was not a normal situation, certainly not a criminal situation," he remembered telling an officer on Friday. "There's a health crisis here, a mental health issue,' I said."

Iwanski said Johnson believed her boyfriend had hired police officers to kill her. At one point, she agreed to go to the hospital, but Iwanski said officers canceled the ambulance.

Later, Johnson pulled out a gun and threatened to harm herself.

Iwanski said his granddaughter was only threatening to harm herself and not pointing the gun at officers.

"She was not waving it. She was not threatening anybody," he remembered.

Nolette said officers tried "relentlessly" for an hour to deescalate the situation and get her to drop the gun.

Iwanski remembered officers taking Johnson to the ground. He was also on the ground being detained by another officer across the room.

"That's when I saw her looking starry-eyed, just not looking at anything and I pretty sure she had a concussion or if they had shot or maybe it was shock," he recalled, tearing up. "It was horrible. I hope she didn't notice me there because I know she was begging for my help."

Iwanski said he didn't know where Johnson's gun was but remembers she was not fighting back against officers.

"There was no struggle. She didn't fight back. She did not do anything, just laid there and they killed her and murdered her in front of me," he said. Iwanski remembered hearing around five to seven shots get fired at his granddaughter as she lay on her stomach on the floor of their dining room.

Iwanski said he was detained in handcuffs when he was told an hour later that Johnson had died.

"Nobody was in danger here. Nobody except her," he said.

"This is a tragic situation," Nolette said. "It escalated very quickly."

As Iwanski and his family continue to process Johnson's sudden death, they are pressing for justice to be served.

"We need to find some accountability here for a death that was egregious; an egregious murder is what I'm calling it. And finally, mental illness is not a crime. It is real. And people have it," Iwanski said.

The Fayetteville Police Department did not have a response regarding Iwanski's comments.

The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation is investigating the case; a standard protocol when a law officer discharges a weapon.

The officer involved has been placed on administrative duty, pending the outcome of the investigation, as is standard procedure. The Fayetteville Police Department's Internal Affairs Unit is also investigating the incident. The department also said body camera footage is being reviewed but has not been released.

Friday's incident is not the only mental-health-related call involving police that turned fatal.

A previous ABC11 I-Team investigation found in an analysis of nearly 100 officer-involved shootings and use-of-force incidents across central North Carolina law enforcement agencies for the past eight years, at least 39% of incidents involved a person experiencing a mental health crisis or a person with a history of mental illness.

As the need for better mental health resources gains a national push, North Carolina agencies are reevaluating how they tackle these calls.

The Fayetteville Police Department recently got funding to hire a mental-health liaison officer. A spokesperson for the department said the agency does partner with a group that provides targeted mental health assistance on some calls, however in an active situation with a gun those unarmed and unsworn individuals don't enter the scene for safety.

Last week, the Durham Police Department became the first agency in the state to send unarmed individuals out to respond to calls.

Iwanski said he believes force should not be used on calls related to mental health and agencies should have an unarmed counselor on call to assist officers in deescalating situations.

He said he is not optimistic Johnson will get justice through the SBI investigation but is planning on reaching out to the FBI. As they wait for the state investigation to conclude and for more evidence to be reviewed, he hopes Johnson can get justice by agencies learning how to better respond to situations like hers.

"There are lessons to be learned here for some other person from here that may need this help. So I hope they do look at this very well and determine you know what needs to be done," Iwanski said.