Jada Elizabeth Johnson was shot 17 times in the back by a Fayetteville, North Carolina, police officer while she was experiencing a mental health crisis. (Family photo)

Last summer, Jada Elizabeth Johnson was shot in the back 17 times by a police officer after she was disarmed and pinned down by another officer during a mental health crisis, according to a federal lawsuit.

The lawsuit, filed April 7, provides more details about what happened inside her grandfather’s Fayetteville, North Carolina, home on July 1, 2022. A Cumberland County judge barred the release of the police body camera footage, and a gag order was issued to anyone who watched it.

Nearly a year later, her family is calling for more transparency and accountability. But they also want the public to understand how a young mom’s life was spiraling in the days before her death, and how she struggled throughout her short life because of years of abuse and trauma.

The confusing details leading up to the 22-year-old’s death reveal “the egregious nature, the insidious behavior of those officers,” her grandfather, Rick Iwanski, told Worldacad. “Now all the lies they’ve been saying can get cleared up.”

Johnson was killed in front of her grandparents and her 2-year-old daughter.

Early reports last year initially said officers shot an armed suspect after hours of negotiating, and the officers involved were placed on administrative duty. But local reporting revealed conflicting narratives.

What happened

According to the lawsuit, Johnson had previously called police on June 29 to file charges against her abusive ex-boyfriend. During the interview with police, she “expressed heightened distrust and anxiety towards” the officers handling her case, and it triggered her to experience a mental health crisis.

Johnson grew increasingly anxious throughout the day. The responding officers initially drove her to the courthouse to file charges, and at some point she went to victim’s services to get help and request housing. All the while, she kept calling 911. Police and EMS showed up at the social services’ office and transported her to the hospital, where she was involuntarily admitted.

Johnson was released from Cape Fear Valley Medical Center around 11 a.m. on July 1. Knowing that her ex-boyfriend wasn’t arrested, Johnson made multiple calls to 911 again and said she feared for her life.

Fayetteville police officer Zacharius Borom, Sgt. Timothy Rugg, and other officers arrived at Iwanski’s house around 9 p.m. with the intention to arrest Johnson for misusing 911 calls.

When they arrived, Johnson was also in possession of a gun. She did not point the gun at anyone or lift it above her waist, according to the lawsuit, which based the account of what happened on police body camera footage and eyewitnesses’ testimony.

Johnson showed the officers text messages from her abuser making threats, but when they didn’t believe her, she became even “more distressed.” As another officer tried to talk Johnson into putting down the pistol, Iwanski and Rugg went into a separate room, where Iwanski told Rugg about Johnson’s mental health crisis and her recent release from the hospital.

It’s unclear if Johnson was ever diagnosed with a mental health disorder, but she was visibly anxious, Iwanski said.

Rugg, who is white, admitted to Iwanski that he knew of Johnson and her previous 911 calls. Borom, who is Black, was also present for Johnson’s previous calls for help, the lawsuit read. Rugg then took over negotiating with Johnson as she began to verbally express suicidal thoughts and asked to be readmitted to the hospital.

Johnson’s grandparents also tried to talk their granddaughter down with their great-granddaughter nearby, to no avail. When EMS arrived, Borom and Rugg didn’t allow them to come into the home even though Johnson’s threats to take her own life continued, according to the lawsuit.

At some point, Rugg tackled Johnson to the ground and disarmed her. Suddenly, Borom shot Johnson six or seven times in the back before stepping away to call for backup, according to the lawsuit. As Johnson laid in a pool of her own blood, Rugg secured her arms as Borom sprinted into the room and fired an additional nine or 10 shots into her back, according to the lawsuit.

Jada Johnson was just 22 when she was killed by a Fayetteville, North Carolina, police officer. Her family says she experienced abuse and trauma in her short life. (Family photo)

Johnson’s daughter and grandmother ran out of the house as the police handcuffed Iwanski, who was “inconsolable.”

“It took me an hour to get myself together,” Iwanski told Worldacad as his voice began to crack. “There’s got to be reform. They can’t go around killing people like this anymore for being mentally ill.”

After witnessing Johnson being gunned down and hours after being questioned by the police, Iwanski learned she died. The entire family has undergone mental health treatment.

The family is suing the city and the officers involved in her death as prosecutors decide if anyone should be charged. The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation reviewed the case and provided its case file to a special prosecutor appointed by or associated with the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys in November. The officers were placed on administrative leave while an internal investigation is being conducted.

Borom and Ruggs’ attorneys have not been listed, according to online court records. Worldacad has reached out to the Fayetteville Police Department for comment.

Denied real help

Johnson’s life leading up to the days before her tragic death was difficult.

Since she was 4 years old, she was raised by her grandparents, and when they briefly split up, she bounced back and forth between their homes in Virginia and Fayetteville. During that time, Johnson played sports, was an above-average student and earned a red belt in taekwondo.

But it was during Johnson’s teenage years when “disaster struck,” her grandfather told Worldacad.

She survived an attempted rape at 13. The attacker was a juvenile who didn’t go to jail or prison after pleading guilty. A few years later, she saw the boy in school — and that drove her to drop out, her grandfather said.

This seemed to be the catalyst for her mental health struggles with attempted suicide, and she began to hear voices, according to the lawsuit.

Without a high school diploma, she worked random jobs in the food industry and retail. In 2019, Johnson was overjoyed and shocked to learn that she was pregnant after being told that she wouldn’t be able to conceive. When she gave birth to her daughter, her grandparents reconciled, and Johnson’s biological father — Iwanski’s son — came back into her life. But in 2020, her father died from fentanyl poisoning.

Iwanski says Johnson began dating a man who was physically abusive and once knocked a tooth out of her mouth. By June 2022, Iwanski said, Johnson was fed up with the toxic relationship. She wanted to get away from him, but was afraid.

“Jada was also denied her real, total mental help. She wasn’t at the hospital long at all; she needed to stay longer at the hospital. So right there that already stopped her getting treatment,” said Kathy Greggs, co-founder of Fayetteville Police Accountability Community Taskforce. “She should have gotten the right treatment at the time. So why did we let someone go when they weren’t ready to go?”

Greggs says that North Carolina’s policies and judicial system prevent the public from knowing information about police officer’s misconduct.

“It’s all suppression,” Iwanski said.

“It’s not just the police. We’re talking about all the systems that need to be reevaluated, dismantled and redone, and no one should ever be discriminated against because they have mental health issues because everybody suffers from some type of mental health and that is scientifically proven,” Greggs said.

Borom and Rugg were not trained in crisis intervention, Greggs said they found through their own investigation.

Greggs and Iwanski are retired members of the military and said they know all too well how law enforcement hides bad behavior.

“That’s why we argue having a civilian police oversight authority with a citizen’s review board, because that will give us our own attorney, two investigators, and an auditor,” she said. “Other states are moving forward with getting rid of qualified immunity, and yet North Carolina hasn’t moved — there’s still no reform here.”

Iwanski said he didn’t need to watch the body camera video because he, his wife, Maria, and his great-granddaughter were eyewitnesses to Johnson’s death.

“The whole thing took 45 minutes from start to end, 45 minutes. They spent maybe 15 minutes trying to talk to her … then they say a weapon was discharged but didn’t say it was 17 times in the back,” he said.

This story has been updated.

Christina Carrega is a criminal justice reporter at Worldacad. Twitter @ChrisCarrega