Arsonist, jail escapee among those cops seeking
Just days before a Clifton man was to be sentenced by a judge to life in prison last fall, he mysteriously slipped out of Mesa County Jail. Shane Johnson, 40, has not hit law enforcement’s radar since performing the ruse in the early morning hours Sept. 10. ¶ “He’ll be caught,” assured Heather Benjamin, spokeswoman for the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department. “It’s just a matter of time. That case is very much being worked on.”
Johnson’s case, like a handful of others in Mesa County, represent some of the year’s more highly publicized unsolved cases.
When the temperatures were a bit warmer this year, someone either acting alone or with others kept homeowners on edge in the downtown core, setting fire to a number of garages and outbuildings. While authorities believe they have a suspect, no one has been arrested in the case.
In another unsolved case, someone last summer targeted seven area convenience stores in the early morning hours, fleeing only with cigarettes. Also, police said, an employee or employees of local restaurants used customers’ credit cards to withdraw $150,000 in cash in an elaborate fraud scheme.
At about 10:30 p.m. Sept. 9, longtime Mesa County Jail inmate Shane Johnson stayed behind while others left a covered exercise yard. At about midnight, Johnson escaped the yard, but jail staff didn’t realize he was missing until three hours later. Items were placed in Johnson’s bed to make it appear he was sleeping there.
Johnson, who was notorious for burglarizing homes and stealing guns, vehicles and valuables in Mesa County, was facing a life sentence in prison. He would have been sentenced by a judge about a week later. Police issued a nationwide warrant for his arrest.
Mesa County Sheriff’s Department officials at the time said they were investigating whether Johnson, who is known as a charismatic person, was assisted by other inmates or jail personnel.
Johnson, who is 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighs approximately 180 pounds, was known to have contacts in Colorado Springs, Nevada and California. Johnson has blue eyes and short brown hair.
At least until Johnson is arrested, no further details about the escape will be released, Benjamin said.
“It remains an active and open investigation,” she said.
Local law enforcement officials thought they caught a suspect after a string of arson fires terrorized residents of downtown Grand Junction last spring. After arresting homeless man Phillip Marshall, authorities let him go when his alibi checked out.
Now, fire investigators are waiting for the results of fingerprinting matches and other evidence from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to connect them to a person they suspect set some of the fires, Grand Junction Police Department spokeswoman Kate Porras said.
The latest suspect is believed to have started some of the fires in the downtown area, but not a series of fires that were reported at 1229 Grand Ave., Grand Junction Fire Department spokesman Mike Page said.
After Marshall was cleared, investigators started over, developing an arson task force that helped them solve a few of the department’s other cold arson cases.
For now, authorities are waiting on the results of evidence before naming a suspect.
“We don’t want to charge someone we’re not confident we can prosecute,” Page said.
It must have been one heck of a nicotine fit. In September, someone took more than $10,000 worth of Marlboro cigarettes from seven convenience stores around the Western Slope. The suspect, a white male, 6 feet tall and about 175 pounds, hit the stores in the early morning hours between about 1:30 and 4 a.m., when the stores were closed. Early in the morning of Sept. 28, the thief nabbed cigarettes from two convenience stores in the Redlands and one store on Patterson Road.
The first break-in occurred on Sept. 7 and similar burglaries occurred in Fruita and Gypsum.
The burglar used a signature style, smashing through the stores’ glass front doors. Porras said police still are working on leads in the case, and no new information has surfaced.
CREDIT CARD THEFTS
About 40 local residents patronizing local restaurants unknowingly parted with about $150,000 when thieves used their credit cards. The crime is called skimming, and it occurs when customers hand over their credit or debit cards for payment. The cards are scanned on a person’s portable card reader in addition to being used to pay for purchases.
Each local victim lost at least $2,000 in the scheme, but all of the victims have been reimbursed by their banks, police said. Information from the scanned credit cards were used to make new credit cards. The new credit cards were used in Las Vegas casinos to purchase casino cards that were traded for cash, police said.
Police haven’t received any local cases of skimming since it was discovered in June. The case has been turned over to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service in Grand Junction, which said the investigation is ongoing.
HELPING THE POLICE
Police said information from the public and cooperation among law enforcement agencies often helps solve cases more quickly. But, investigators may be slow to tip their hand to the public as they attempt to build a case.
Local law enforcement this year connected Grand Junction man James Jones to a series of bank robberies.
While officers from the Grand Junction Police Department were called to the scene of double homicide of Terry Fine and Flo Gallagher, deputies with the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department located and cornered the suspect, Stefan Urban, in his vehicle. Urban took his own life.
Officers also quickly apprehended Lonnie Herrera in the shooting death of his girlfriend, Anna Macias. Herrera is serving a life sentence in prison for the murder.
Mesa County Sheriff’s investigators also spent about six months building a first-degree murder case, using circumstantial evidence against Miriam Helmick, 51, for the murder of her husband, Alan Helmick, 62.
“Each case is different,” Porras said. “It’s hard to say why one takes longer to solve than another. Rather than rush, we take our time and do it accurately. We’re just one part of the puzzle when it comes to taking a case to trial.”