Bizarre behavior, firing from job preceded fatal shooting

Bruce “Zeus” Johnson II
Bruce “Zeus” Johnson II Courtesy

In the days before he fatally shot a Tacoma police officer, Bruce R. Johnson II was fired from his job at a barbershop and banned from the Tacoma Mall for impersonating a law enforcement officer.

During the run-in at the mall two weeks before Wednesday’s shooting of officer Reginald “Jake” Gutierrez, Johnson, 38, told officers “he liked police and wanted essentially to fit in with law enforcement,” according to a bulletin Tacoma police sent to Pierce County law enforcement agencies notifying them of the incident.

The day before he was fired and killed Gutierrez, Johnson was behaving strangely and “speaking in riddles” — the culmination of increasingly odd actions over the previous few weeks, said his boss, Damon Daniels, owner of Sam & Terry’s barber shop in the city’s Hilltop neighborhood.

The incident at the mall came Nov. 15, when Johnson was seen walking through the building in a hat reading “sheriff” and carrying what appeared to be a soft rifle case over his shoulder. He wore handcuffs on his belt.

It’s unknown whether a gun was inside the case.

Shortly after security officers at the mall reported the confrontation, Tacoma police sent out the bulletin notifying local agencies that Johnson was impersonating an officer.

“We put out the information because it’s a law enforcement sensitive issue,” police spokeswoman Loretta Cool said Friday.

A guest services manager spotted Johnson in the mall about 1:05 p.m. and notified security, who stopped Johnson to talk.

“The security supervisor informed Mr. Johnson to leave the mall as his hostile behavior was unacceptable,” according to the bulletin.

Johnson refused to leave, and police were summoned.

According to the bulletin, he then bought a cup of coffee and left the mall, grabbing his crotch and yelling, “See, see what they are doing to me?” as he went.

Security officers followed Johnson into the parking lot, jotting down a description of his vehicle and its license plate.

A police officer stopped Johnson on Steele Street. An unloaded 20- gauge shotgun was sitting in the front seat, records show. Police said it was legal for him to have the gun in his car.

Johnson told police he was heading to the gun range and was afraid to leave his gun in the car for fear it would be stolen.

When the officer asked him why he was impersonating a police officer, Johnson made the remark about liking police and wanting to fit in with them, the bulletin stated.

Johnson was banned from the mall for life.

Early Thursday, after Gutierrez was shot during a domestic dispute, a sheriff’s SWAT team member killed Johnson with a single shot through a window after an 11-hour standoff.

Police were unaware during most of the standoff that the man in the house was Johnson and that they’d received an “officer safety” bulletin about him weeks before.

Daniels, owner of Sam & Terry’s barber shop in the city’s Hilltop neighborhood, spoke Friday about his last dealings with Johnson.

“November, that’s when things just kind of spiraled for him in some respect,” Daniels said. “Wednesday is when I terminated him because he wasn’t there to open the shop.”

Daniels said he told Johnson of the firing by voicemail and text Wednesday morning, but got no response.

He doesn’t believe his messages led directly to Gutierrez’s death; Johnson had been deteriorating for weeks, Daniels said.

Daniels, son of the late Sam Daniels, founder of the iconic Hilltop barber shop, said he and his employees were shocked by the incident and the officer’s death.

“The officer is foremost in my thoughts,” Daniels said. “All he was doing was his job. I can’t tell you how heartbroken I am. The barbershop is in support of the community, the officers and their families.”

Johnson had worked at the shop for about eight months, Daniels said. Sam Daniels made the hiring decision earlier this year, shortly before he died in April.

“(My dad) had interviewed him before he died,” Damon Daniels said. “He thought (Johnson) would be a good addition to the team.”

At the beginning, according to Daniels, Johnson, who went by the nickname “Zeus,” was OK — but he soon fell into conflicts with co-workers. He had to be told not to steal walk-in customers from other barbers — a violation of the team approach that defines the shop.

Occasionally, Johnson called Daniels at random, or left voicemail messages that appeared to be recordings of Johnson telling customers to get out.

Earlier in November, Daniels found a shotgun shell in the back room of the shop and told Johnson it wasn’t acceptable to bring a firearm to work.

Daniels also heard a complaint from a customer who had visited the shop a week before the shooting. Johnson had started cutting the customer’s hair and simply disappeared for half an hour. The customer came back the next day, and Johnson finished the job — badly. The customer returned once more and had another barber redo the cut.

The final straw for Daniels came Tuesday, Daniels said. Johnson had been scheduled to open the shop that morning, but didn’t appear. Daniels found out and called him.

Over the phone, Johnson apologized. Daniels urged him to be honest, to just say whether he could make it in the mornings to open the shop.

“I got it,” Johnson said.

Four hours later, Johnson called Daniels again, “speaking in riddles.” According to Daniels, Johnson kept saying, “God is good, Damon. God is good.”

“I told him, ‘Zeus, I’m not sure what you mean,’ ” Daniels recalled.

“Man, man, God is good, God is good,” Johnson replied.

At that point, the call dropped. Daniels tried to call Johnson back and got no answer.

“This conversation was really strange,” Daniels said. “I never heard from him again.”

The next day — Wednesday — Johnson failed to open the shop again. Daniels left him a voicemail message, saying he’d changed the security code, that Johnson was terminated and he’d have to bring the key back.

Daniels followed up with a text message saying the same thing, but Johnson never responded.

Many details of Johnson’s actions leading up to the shooting remained unclear Friday.

A family member issued a brief statement on Facebook, asking for privacy but saying little more. Johnson’s father, listed in public records as a Tacoma resident, has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

Public records show a succession of eviction notices between 2009 and 2015 tied to Johnson and the woman believed to be his wife. The notices are linked to six addresses in Tacoma, Puyallup and Lakewood. Each notice cited accumulated unpaid rent.

Tacoma resident Kristi Croskey, owner of the house where Wednesday’s shooting took place, said she allowed Johnson and his partner to live in the house rent-free, as long as the couple paid utility bills.

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486, @seanrobinsonTNT

Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653

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