standing steven johnson westerly police

Westerly Police Capt. Steven Johnson. Sun file photo

STONINGTON — A off-duty Westerly police captain who fired one shot at a suspect's car during an incident in Pawcatuck was responding to an active threat and "his actions were justified," according to New London State's Attorney Michael Regan.

Capt. Steven Johnson, a longtime Westerly police officer, was cleared of any wrongdoing last week after a lengthy investigation through Regan's office. The findings were detailed in a letter sent to the Stonington Police Department and shared with the Westerly police on Feb. 1.

"We are satisfied with the findings and happy that the investigation showed what we knew that day, which is that Steve had reacted appropriately given the circumstances," Westerly Police Chief Shawn Lacey said.

Johnson, who was a lieutenant at the time, declined comment.

Lacey said he received a copy of the letter on Feb. 1, and the Stonington police also returned Johnson's police firearm. The weapon was seized as evidence on Memorial Day, the day of the incident, and had been stored during the course of the investigation.

According to Regan's report, Johnson was on Downer Street on May 28 when his brother, Eric, told him that a stolen SUV was parked on the street. The vehicle was being sought in connection with an investigation of several incidents, including one that happened two days earlier, in which a clerk with the R.I. Harvesting Company in Ashaway had received minor injuries.

Stonington police were notified and Johnson approached the SUV in hopes of holding the suspects until local officers could arrive.

Regan's report stated that Johnson, as he approached the driver's side window, "had his Westerly Police Department photo identification in hand and advised the operator that he was a police officer."

Johnson told the driver, later identified as 26-year-old Jonathan Ilarraza, of Rhode Island, to put his hands on the wheel, but the driver did not comply with several requests. The driver accelerated in Johnson's direction, forcing him to backpedal to avoid being struck.

"Lt. Johnson, in fear that he was about to be struck by the motor vehicle, raised his handgun to shoot the driver, but having second thoughts, lowered his handgun and discharged his handgun into the motor vehicle," the report said. The bullet was recovered from the rim of the driver's side rear wheel.

The SUV continued east on Downer and then turned onto Garden Street and hit a stone wall. Ilarraza and a second man fled on foot and were later apprehended. A woman, Jan Poirer, was asleep in the back seat and was also taken into custody.

Lacey said his department still had questions as to whether the state's attorney's findings should lead to additional charges against Ilarraza.

Ilarraza was charged with failure to drive right, evading responsibility in a crash, and driving without a license. He was released after posting a $1,000 bond and never returned to New London Superior Court, records show. A rearrest order was issued in July.

In the meantime, Ilarraza is being held at the Adult Correctional Institutions in Cranston. He was convicted in September after pleading no contest to charges from the R.I. Harvesting theft and other offenses across the state. He was sentenced in October and is not eligible for released before Sept. 9.

"If it was found that he did charge at Steve, should there be assault or attempted assault charges related to that?" Lacey asked Wednesday afternoon. "We believe he should face the consequences for unnecessarily putting an officer, and others, at risk."

jvallee@thewesterlysun.com

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