Man leads authorities on chase through two states

CJ Baker, Powell Tribune via Wyoming News Exchange
Posted 3/18/21

A man who led deputies on a lengthy chase through Park County was apprehended in southern Montana on Tuesday morning after officers disabled his vehicle and he crashed into a tree.

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Man leads authorities on chase through two states


POWELL — A man who led deputies on a lengthy chase through Park County was apprehended in southern Montana on Tuesday morning after officers disabled his vehicle and he crashed into a tree. 

Gerald L. Johnston, 56, now faces multiple criminal charges in two different states. 

Johnston had been identified as the suspect in a Saturday auto burglary in the South Fork area, but when the Park County Sheriff’s Office attempted to arrest him Tuesday morning, he fled.

Authorities say Johnston made it all the way from Cody to just outside Belfry, Montana, in a chase that lasted roughly an hour.

According to Johnston’s posts on social media, he’s been traveling the country and living out of his vehicle. 

Media reports and online records suggest this was not Johnston’s first brush with the law, indicating, for instance, that he was convicted of sex crimes in Oregon in 1990. And in 2018, Johnston reportedly led law enforcement officers in Moses Lake, Washington, on a miles-long chase when a deputy tried confronting him about outdated information on his sex offender registration. 

Tuesday’s chase began when the Park County Sheriff’s Office attempted to arrest Johnston on allegations that he broke into a vehicle at the Deer Creek Campground. Ice climbers had returned to their vehicle on Saturday morning to find someone had smashed out the driver’s side window of their truck and made off with a backpack containing a wallet. 

Eventually, the sheriff’s office concluded that Johnston — who had been staying at the campground and spoke with the climbers before they left — had taken the items and used the woman’s credit card to buy $203 worth of items at Walmart. Among other evidence, Deputy Clayton Creel noted that Johnston appeared to have listed the woman’s wallet for sale on the website OfferUp. (Asking $30, “Gerald” described it as a used but “Very nice woman’s clutch wallet genuine leather made by coach NY.”)

A couple days later, around 9:15 a.m. Tuesday, Park County Undersheriff Andy Varian spotted Johnston driving his Ford Expedition about a mile outside of Cody on the South Fork Highway. However, Johnston refused to stop, fleeing into and through the city. Both the Cody Police Department and the Wyoming Highway Patrol joined the pursuit.

As he made his way through Cody, Johnston ignored two stop lights and failed to stay in his lane, the sheriff’s office said in a news release. He reportedly hit speeds of 50 mph when he reached Big Horn Avenue, driving down the highway’s center lane as traffic pulled over to get out of the way. Johnston then headed toward Powell on U.S. Highway 14-A. 

Although multiple officers took up the chase, and set up spike strips in three different locations, Johnston was able to avoid them. He eventually made his way onto Wyo. Highway 294, passing through Badger Basin and then heading north on Wyo. Highway 120 when he reached the Clark area.

In the meantime, dispatchers with the sheriff’s office had been busy sharing information with other law enforcement agencies in the region, requesting assistance and coordinating the efforts to stop the driver.

When the man reached the state line, dispatchers secured permission from the Carbon County Sheriff’s Office for Park County deputies to continue the pursuit into Montana. Carbon County deputies were ultimately able to disable the man’s vehicle with spike strips.

“The suspect then turned off the highway into a residence, crashing through a fence and a lone pine tree prevented the vehicle from striking the house,” said Charla Baugher Torczon, a spokeswoman for the Park County Sheriff’s Office. “The suspect initially refused to leave the vehicle, but after lengthy negotiation was eventually safely taken into custody.” 

Other than the crash, no other vehicles, equipment or property were damaged during the incident.

Yellowstone County Detention Center records indicated that authorities in Carbon County, Montana, may charge Johnston with a felony count of tampering with evidence and misdemeanor counts of fleeing from police, criminal mischief, resisting arrest and driving with no proof of valid auto insurance.

Meanwhile, the Park County Attorney’s Office has charged Johnston with a felony count of auto burglary and a misdemeanor count of unlawful use of a credit card in connection with the break-in at the Deer Creek Campground. 

Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric said that it’s likely that Johnston will need to resolve his charges in Montana before he’ll be brought back to Cody. 

“Certainly we’ll be in contact with Carbon County to figure out are they going to go first or us,” Skoric said.