There are still many unknowns surrounding last week’s car chase and shootout that left a Nashville police officer injured and another man dead Thursday night, as state agents and the city’s police oversight board investigate the actions of three officers who opened fire.
It’s also unclear why the man — a 48-year-old U.S. Army veteran — initially shot at an off-duty officer on a country road that night, or what happened in the moments before the two men crossed paths.
But while questions remain, new details shed light on the lives of both men before the encounter.
‘It’s just sad to hear something like that’
Officer Darrell Osment’s neighbor was shocked when he heard the news early Friday morning. The policeman had been shot in the shoulder while walking his dog the night before, just yards from where Mike Ridings slept.
“I saw him two days ago out in his garden. Waved at him. Just said, ‘Hey,’ ” he says. “We hadn’t talked in a while. But they are good neighbors.”
Besides the rustle of the trees and an occasional clucking rooster, Ridings says the rural community is normally quiet.
“It’s just sad to hear something like that, that close — right next door,” he says, as he sits beside his wife on wooden rocking chairs on their porch.
Ridings has known the officer’s family for decades, and they still live beside him in a sprawling property about 15 miles northwest of downtown. They watched his kids grow up and used to swap Christmas presents. And Ridings sees Osment’s parents every Election Day, when they work the polls at a community center around the corner.
Ridings says the officer has been fixing up the house next door. Property records show Osment bought the corner lot next to his parents in 2007.
The small, white ranch house with hunter green shutters is tucked behind a towering magnolia tree and piles of yard debris. The grass is a bit overgrown, and there’s an old rusty truck on the lawn. But Ridings often sees the officer working in his yard or taking a stroll with his bulldog.
“I hope he gets better,” Ridings says. “I hope he gets well and gets back to doing what he does.”
Osment joined Nashville’s police department 13 years ago. He’s currently assigned to the Property and Evidence Facility.
And his family has close ties to the department. Osment’s parents use to serve their son’s fellow officers home-cooked meals at least once a month at the East Precinct. The chief of police even honored them in 2013 with a Citizen Commendation Award for their “generosity, compassion and kindness.”
Osment’s family did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The officer told investigators he was shot “suddenly and inexplicably” while he was walking in his plain clothes just after 9 p.m. Thursday.
The shooter fled in a Ford Flex that was parked outside the Pleasant Valley Free Will Baptist Church across the street. And a countywide chase ensued.
Spike strips, high speeds and dozens of bullets
Police say officers followed the car through Bordeaux as a helicopter hovered overhead. The driver reportedly fired at them, then kept speeding forward even as they threw spike strips into the street.
The pursuit continued through North Nashville, past a police precinct, and eventually onto Interstate 440. Spike strips stopped the car in South Nashville, where officers say the driver opened his door, and they again heard gunshots.
Three officers fired back. Within moments, 48-year-old William R. Johnson Jr. was dead.
Officers Terrance Stuckey, Jacob Krispin and David Lang have been assigned to desk duty while the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation conducts an independent inquiry into the shootout. A spokesperson for the TBI says investigators discovered more than 50 rounds of bullet shells at the scene.
Police say they also found a pistol.
“Our officers faced a very dangerous and a very real threat, and they reacted appropriately,” says James Smallwood, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police. “We’re glad that they were able to protect the community the way that they’ve been trained to do.”
But Johnson’s loved ones say the story from authorities doesn’t reflect the man they knew as “Billy.”
‘I want to see how it started’
“To walk past someone and just shoot them, that was not him,” says Gwenell Bradford, Johnson’s childhood friend and the mother of his only daughter. “He was a good guy. And he loved life, he loved traveling, he loved seeing the world.”
That love of travel took Johnson from his family home in Hermitage to Florida, California and even Hawaii. He also served in Iraq as a sergeant in the U.S. Army, according to relatives and ceremonial images from Johnson’s Facebook page.
Bradford says her friend was quick to pick up and move at a moment’s notice — a wanderer who didn’t like to be stuck anywhere. He’d just returned to Nashville a few months back and hadn’t yet found a permanent place to stay.
She described Johnson as a “free spirit.”
“He was always doing something,” Bradford says. “Everybody had just learned to accept him the way he was.”
Johnson’s Facebook profile stresses the importance of individuality and staying true to oneself. It’s filled with inspirational quotes reminding friends that, “Life is now,” and, “Whatever’s good for your soul … do that.” It’s also peppered with spiritual symbols — a Buddha statue illuminated by candlelight, drawings of Hindu deities, a photo of him sitting cross-legged on a beach, hands in prayer.
But relatives say Johnson also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after going to war. And according to records from the TBI, he’d been arrested for several misdemeanors over the years — most of them related to driving.
“It never changed who he was or his love for people,” Bradford says.
Still, she wonders if something set Johnson off that night. She wants to know what happened, and why he might have fired his gun.
“I’m not even concerned about how it ended, because that was so tragic. I don’t even want to see that,” Bradford says. “What I’m concerned about — I want to see how it started.”
Strange as it may seem, Bradford is not surprised Johnson was parked at an empty rural church at 9 p.m.
“That’s normal for him,” she says. “That’s something he’d done all the time. People knew that’s what he’d done.”
Johnson’s father and brother are both preachers. And Bradford says he’d made a habit over the years of sleeping outside of churches. Because that’s where he felt most safe.
Tony Gonzalez contributed reporting. Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.