Neighbors stunned by shooting
ST. MATHIAS — Neighbors spoke of a man who was growing increasingly fearful, nervous and agitated recently, but said they never expected a shooting.
The Crow Wing County Sheriff’s Department did not release the name of the suspect who was shot and killed after 5 p.m. Wednesday after he reportedly fired on deputies. A veteran deputy was shot in the arm.
The drama unfolded throughout the afternoon along a quiet country road south of Brainerd.
Seventeen-year-old Austin Gapinski was back at his St. Mathias Township home and heard a gunshot about noon but didn’t think anything of it. It might have been someone target shooting. Gapinski was home for lunch between football practices. Later a deputy appeared at his door, advising him to stay inside and lock the door. They asked him if there were trails leading through the woods to the Johnson property. There was one, leading to a deerstand in a tree.
Brian Gapinski said when his son called him at work with the story he thought it was a prank. But the events were actually unfolding next door to the Gapinski’s Sleepy Hollow Road home. Crow Wing County lists Donald P. Johnson as the taxpayer of record for the home where the shooting took place.
“He was always quiet, friendly, nice,” Brian Gapinski said of Johnson. They’ve been neighbors for two years. They’d talk about yard upkeep and exchange friendly waves. Gapinski put up a deerstand on Johnson’s property but remembered Johnson being concerned about guns and the distance an arrow could travel and seemingly timid on climbing the stand once.
Gapinski said Johnson lived alone with a cat for a companion and mostly kept to himself.
“This weekend he was nervous and agitated,” Gapinski said.
Dewey Tautges, who lives nearby, said his wife heard someone on a bull horn say “come out of the house right now.”
“I heard two shots at a quarter to five,” Tautges said.
Johnson was someone Tautges often saw in St. Mathias, as often as three times a week. Johnson, he said, was a former Potlatch employee who previously worked at Best Buy and drove a bus for Palmer Transportation. He also worked maintenance for a lab in St. Cloud. Neighbors described Johnson as bright and said he was taking college classes. They thought Johnson would be the last person to own a gun.
“I never ever figured something like this would happen,” Tautges said.
On Monday night, neighbor Jeannie Maurer was at Johnson’s house. She went to ask if he’d help look for two horses that got out of the fence. Maurer said Johnson was talking with his mother on the phone.
“He said ‘I’m very scared right now,’” Maurer recalled, but she said Johnson told the person on the other end of the phone he thought he was safe with Maurer.
“He said ‘there is a bomb impeached in this area and you are in my circle,’” Maurer said. Johnson told her to Google .4729. Maurer said Johnson was very precise when he told the number and to be sure to use the dot before the numerical sequence. She asked if he had taken any medication that day. Maurer said Johnson said he talked about being fearful regarding an article he wrote for a newspaper.
“He said ‘I’m really afraid right now,” Maurer said. She met Johnson about eight years ago. She didn’t believe there was a bomb and suspected Johnson was going through some mental illness.
“He didn’t want me to leave,” she said.
Brian Gapinski said Johnson stopped by his house three times this past weekend.
“He was convinced Obama was going to be impeached by (Wednesday),” Gapinski said. “He was worked up.”
As shadows stretched into the late summer afternoon and a nearby farmer was baling hay, deputies stood watch at the end of a long, twisting gravel driveway. Eventually vehicles left the scene — Baxter’s K-9 unit and investigator, the Minnesota State Patrol, Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
Deputies at the end of the quiet road were left with the sound of crickets and the wind through the popple trees.