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Officers cleared in fatal northern Minnesota shooting

Michael David Johnson allegedly said he "wasn't going back to jail" and approached officers with two knives in April.

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CHISHOLM, Minn. — Two northern Minnesota law enforcement officers were justified in fatally shooting a wanted felony suspect who approached them with two knives, the St. Louis County Attorney's Office concluded.

County Attorney Kim Maki said Friday, Sept. 2, that there is no basis for any charges against St. Louis County sheriff's deputy Cody Dillinger or Virginia, Minnesota, police officer Nick Grivna, who together shot Michael David Johnson six times on April 20 in Chisholm, Minnesota.

Also cleared was St. Louis County deputy Gavin Nichols, who fired two less-lethal rounds at Johnson prior to the fatal shots.

“The authority to use deadly force is a critical responsibility that must be exercised judiciously and with respect for human rights and dignity," Maki said in a news release. "Here, while we mourn the loss of human life, we have concluded that the actions taken by law enforcement in this incident were in accordance with the ‘reasonable officer’ standard set forth in Minnesota law.”

According to Maki's report:

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Area law enforcement agencies were asked by the Morrison County Sheriff's Office to assist in apprehending Johnson, 38, of Chisholm, who had an active warrant for a felony stalking charge. Cellphone tracking revealed that he was heading toward Hibbing in the early morning hours of April 20.

Police eventually found his vehicle in Chisholm, tracking footprints to a residence at 201 Central Ave. S.

"Though he refused to open the door, law enforcement officers were able to communicate with Mr. Johnson that they were there to arrest him on the stalking charge," Maki wrote. "Mr. Johnson denied knowing anyone from Morrison County, said he wasn’t going to go back to jail, and made statements that led officers to believe he was possibly armed and might be intending to end his life that day."

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Johnson eventually ended communication with officers, retreating to the second story of the residence. Officers from multiple agencies began arriving on scene, including Grivna with his K-9.

Officers forcibly opened the door and Grivna began giving warnings that he would deploy the dog after seeing Johnson at the top of the stairs holding a knife in one hand and a gas tank in the other.

Johnson ignored commands, descending the stairs as Grivna ordered him to drop the knife. Nichols then fired two less-lethal rounds, one striking the suspect in the pelvic area, but it failed to slow his advance.

Officers began backing away from the doorway, continuing to give commands for Johnson to drop the knife. The suspect then threw the gas tank at Nichols, revealing he also had a knife in that hand.

"He continued quickly advancing toward the officers with a knife in each hand," Maki wrote. "At this point, both Officer Grivna and St. Louis County Sheriff’s Deputy Cody Dillinger fired their service weapons at Mr. Johnson, who then fell to the porch. After disarming Mr. Johnson, law enforcement officers began life-saving efforts but were unable to revive him."

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An autopsy revealed Johnson suffered six gunshot wounds to the torso.

The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigated the incident, turning its reports over to the attorney's office on July 21. Maki said evidence included body camera and squad car dash camera video footage, law enforcement reports and medical examiner reports.

Maki said the evidence "is sufficient to establish that an objectively reasonable officer in their positions would believe there was a threat of death or great bodily harm" and that their response was "reasonable" under the circumstances.

“First, we extend our condolences to Michael Johnson’s family and friends for the loss of their loved one," she said. "Second, we thank the BCA for conducting a thorough investigation of this case."

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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