Parents of slain Lexington man Alex Johnson sue city over response to emergency calls

Alex Johnson
Alex Johnson

A wrongful death lawsuit was filed against the city Monday by the parents of Alex Johnson, a Lexington man who was killed in December. The suit says the city's emergency call takers acted poorly in dispatching police after two witnesses reported seeing a man being beaten in a car.

The lawsuit, filed in Fayette Circuit Court by Lee and Judy Johnson of Bowling Green, lists as defendants several Lexington officials, including Mayor Jim Gray, police chief Ronnie Bastin and representatives of the Enhanced 911 center. It seeks punitive damages, awards for lost wages and for pain and suffering, and other costs.

The "911 call takers and 911 dispatchers were not properly hired, trained or supervised by their superiors" and "as a result of these failures, emergency response personnel were not able to intercept or track the motor vehicle which was used to kidnap Johnson," the suit says.

Mark Wohlander, an attorney for the Johnson family, said he filed the lawsuit after multiple attempts to sit down with city officials. Wohlander also said the city denied an open-records request for 911 tapes from the day Alex Johnson was kidnapped.

"All that we've got back from them is stonewalling," he said. "They (the Johnson family) wanted to sit down with the city. They never wanted to have to file this lawsuit."

Susan Straub, spokeswoman for the city, said she could not comment because the city does not discuss pending lawsuits.

According to the lawsuit, two people, named in court documents as "FW" and "SW," called police after seeing someone being beaten in a car that was leaving the North Hanover area.

The lawsuit said the witnesses weren't interviewed by police the day they reported the beating; rather, they were contacted by a private investigator hired by the family.

During the 911 calls, dispatchers failed to ask for a description of the victim, the assailants, whether any weapons were involved in the assault and other information, the lawsuit said.

Wohlander said the call was dispatched incorrectly.

"This was an in-progress call," he said. "You had two people calling saying that this man was being beaten to death. And on an in-progress call, you send police. You don't just say 'attempt to locate.'"

Alex Johnson, 32, a chef at the University of Kentucky, disappeared Dec. 20. He was at his apartment on the phone with his girlfriend, Lisa Horobin, that evening when he answered a knock on the door. Horobin told police she heard a man she recognized as Robert Markham Taylor tell Johnson, "Come downstairs. I've got a surprise for you."

According to a court document, Johnson told Horobin that "Mark is here" and that he would call her back.

Johnson's body was found Jan. 24 inside a 55-gallon blue barrel in four feet of water in the Kentucky River.

His disappearance grabbed local and national headlines as relatives and friends held fundraisers and built billboards to help find him.

Taylor, 28, is charged with murder, kidnapping and tampering with physical evidence in the beating death of Johnson.

Timothy Ballard, 42, is charged with kidnapping, tampering with evidence and being a persistent felon. Both have pleaded not guilty.

Last week, a judge scheduled their trial to start Oct. 5.

Ballard told officers he helped Taylor kidnap Johnson by luring Johnson into their vehicle, then "attacking and restraining him once inside the car," according to court documents. Police have told the family that Taylor killed Johnson in Taylor's basement, Lee Johnson said.

However, Lee Johnson told the Herald-Leader on Monday that his son's life could've been spared if police had been sent to the Hanover area.

"He (Alex) lived four blocks away from police headquarters," he said. "And the way the two defendants were driving they probably went right by the headquarters. You know if two guys are holding somebody ransom and beating them to death and they a met a police car and sirens and lights flashing they probably would've let him go."

Wohlander and the Johnsons said they weren't criticizing the police.

The Johnsons also said they weren't looking for a big payday from the lawsuit; they want to make sure no other family goes through what they did. Ultimately, they said, there should be changes at the E-911 center.

"The point is, and what we want to accomplish is, that we don't want anybody to be in this situation, to call 911 and nobody come to their aid," Judy Johnson said. It shouldn't have happened to us, and we hope it never happens to anyone else."

Wohlander was asked whether the timing of the lawsuit had anything to do with Tuesday's mayoral election. His daughter Caitlin is campaign treasurer for Anthany Beatty, who is running against Gray.

Wohlander said his daughter's role in the campaign "has had nothing to do with the suit since she was already working on the campaign."

Public safety has become a focal point of the mayoral race. Beatty, a former Lexington police chief, has said more needs to be done to make Lexington safe. Gray has said he has hired officers and made available the resources they need to do their jobs effectively.

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