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Man dodges death penalty for the murder of police officer Nick O’Rear, gets 25 years in prison

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O’Rear’s flag draped casket is placed in the hearse at Gardendale First Baptist Church.. (Joe Songer | jsonger@al.com).


Carol Robinson

al.com

The suspect in the 2020 killing of Kimberly police Office Nick O’Rear dodged a potential death penalty by pleading guilty to a reduced charge of murder.

Preston Cheyenne Johnson, 39, was initially charged with capital murder in the slaying of O’Rear.

On Monday, he pleaded guilty to the reduced charge before Jefferson County Circuit Judge Alaric May and was sentenced to 25 years in prison to run consecutive with his 16-plus years in an unrelated federal gun case.

He also pleaded guilty to attempted murder of Warrior Officer Lee Glenn.

Because he was in state custody first, Johnson will serve his state prison sentence first.

When he is paroled on that sentence, he will then be taken to the Bureau of Prison to serve his federal sentence, said Jefferson County Chief Deputy District Attorney Joe Roberts.

Roberts and Assistant District Attorney Deborah Danneman prosecuted the case. Johnson was represented by attorneys Dave Simpson and Wakeisha Hazzard.

“This was a very difficult decision choosing to settle this case. The defendant was looking at the possibility of the death penalty or life without parole and in my opinion when a police officer is murdered those sentences are absolutely appropriate,’’ Roberts said.

“The murder of a law enforcement officer, in my mind, is one of the worst crimes you can commit and is always prosecuted by our office as vigorously as the evidence and law will allow,’’ Roberts said.

“Unfortunately, the main witness in this case, who was in the vehicle with the defendant when he shot and killed Officer O’Rear and shot at and attempted to kill Officer Lee Glenn, has been unreliable from the very beginning of the prosecution due to her substance abuse challenges and unstable living situation.”

Because of the witness uncertainty, he said, the State of Alabama had been seeking a settlement that would be acceptable to all parties under the circumstances.

“Nick’s parents have been very involved in every phase of the prosecution including the decision to settle the case and, under the circumstances, were satisfied with having the defendant admit his guilt and serve a 25-year state sentence to be followed by a 16-year federal sentence,’’ Roberts said.

“I do not believe this resolution is perfect justice for what the defendant did, but I have learned over my 20-plus years as a prosecutor that the system is not perfect and sometimes, we have to accept less than perfect justice to avoid the risk of a major injustice occurring at trial,’’ Roberts said.

“The defendant stood up in court and admitted to intentionally killing Officer Nick O’Rear without justification and I am hopeful that provides some help in the grieving process to Nick’s family,’’ he said.

“The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency investigated this case and did a great job, and we appreciate all their hard work. It is always sad and tragic when a police officer loses his life in the line of duty, but I know Nick’s family will continue to remember him and will work to ensure the ultimate sacrifice that Nick made is remembered as well,’’ Roberts said.

The shooting happened Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020, 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.

At an earlier court hearing, State Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Pete Acosta chronicled what happened 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.

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 Glenn – 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.

Johnson has a lengthy criminal history and federal authorities describe him as an “armed career criminal.”

“Today may not bring us peace, but maybe, maybe it can bring us acceptance and help us finally start to heal,’’ said Officer O’Rear’s mother, Kelly O’Rear.

“No parent is supposed to outlive their child. It is a nightmare that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. There are no words to accurately describe the endless ache and sudden pains that come with having to say goodbye to your child who was suddenly and violently stolen from you. Nothing can prepare you for that gut-wrenching and crippling pain.”

“My daughter not only lost her brother, but she lost her best friend and her biggest cheerleader,’’ she said.

“Nick’s beautiful children will grow up with only faded memories of their father, not influenced by him or his infectious laughter but by stories told and experiences shared through others.”

Kelly O’Rear said her son spent his whole life in service to others, starting as a firefighter, paramedic then a police officer.

“Everywhere he has been you will find someone with a story of how Nick helped them out. To quote from Nick’s funeral, ‘There’s some who bring a light so great into the world that even after they have gone, the light remains,’’’ she said.

She thanked District Attorney Danny Carr, Roberts and Danneman for their work and support of the family.

“Today we sought justice for our son, and closure and healing for our family. While we are still hurt and angry, we realize to have peace we need to find forgiveness,’’ Kelly O’Rear said.

“Not just for our family but for Johnson and his family as well.”

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