By Joe Gorman
If investigators from the police department’s Accident Investigation Unit were just a few hours slower, they may never have been able to identify a suspect in a fatal hit-and-run accident earlier this year.
Lt. William Ross, who heads the Traffic Bureau and the AIU, said he had a bad feeling when he and Patrolman Morris Lee were called out early Feb. 2 to investigate an accident on West Hylda Avenue that killed 23-year-old Robert Brown of Youngstown.
All investigators had at the scene was a piece of plastic from a car — not much on which to build a case, Ross said. “Honestly, we thought we weren’t going to be able to solve it,” Ross said.
But Ross and Lee managed to track down who they think is the driver, 24-year-old Michael J. Johnson Jr., who was indicted by a grand jury Thursday on the charges of failure to stop after an accident, tampering with evidence and aggravated vehicular homicide. He has yet to be taken into custody.
Ross did not want to say how they tracked down Johnson, other than it involved a sting operation and surveillance at a local business, and they found the car he was driving just before it was to get fixed.
“We were within hours of losing the evidence,” Ross said.
As Johnson was being questioned by accident investigators, he was also arrested on charges of driving under suspension in April in Boardman, and pleaded no contest to the charge in Mahoning County Court in Boardman. He was found guilty and sentenced to five days of day reporting and six months of probation, court records show.
Court records show Johnson was also charged with carrying a concealed weapon in 2007 and retaliation in 2008.
Ross said the case was complex and required many warrants, tests and paperwork.
“It wasn’t just one piece of evidence we investigated,” Ross said. “We needed multiple search warrants for cars. It just took a while to test everything.”
Ross also credited Lee for his work on the case.
“Morris did a [great] job of investigating,” Ross said.
Reports said Brown was killed as he was leaving a bar on Hylda Avenue and walking to his car when he was hit by a car going at a high speed that did not stop.
A week later at a vigil for Brown, a car went out of control, hit several people and also did not stop. Ross said police also have a suspect in that case.