Correctional Officer Ronald E. Johnson South Dakota Department of Corrections South Dakota EoW: Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Photograph: Correctional Officer Ronald E. JohnsonPatch image: South Dakota Department of Corrections, South Dakota

Correctional Officer Ronald E. Johnson
South Dakota Department of Corrections
South Dakota

End of Watch: Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Biographical Info
Age: 63
Tour of Duty: 23 years
Badge Number: Not available

Incident Details
Cause of Death: Assault
Date of Incident: Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Weapon Used: Person
Suspect Info: In custody

Correctional Officer Ronald Johnson was killed by two inmates who were attempting to escape from the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls.
The two inmates were taken into custody on the prison grounds shortly before 11:00 am. One of the inmates who murdered Officer Johnson had been involved in several successful and attempted escapes before.
Officer Johnson was transported to a local hospital where he succumbed to his injuries a short time later.
Officer Johnson had served with the South Dakota Department of Corrections for 23 years and was murdered on his 63rd birthday. He is survived by his wife, two children, and six grandchildren.

Agency Contact Information
South Dakota Department of Corrections
1600 North Drive
PO Box 5911
Sioux Falls, SD 57117
Phone: (605) 367-5051
Please contact the South Dakota Department of Corrections for funeral arrangements or for survivor benefit fund information.

A veteran prison guard who turned 63 on Tuesday was killed during a failed escape attempt at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls.

Ronald E. Johnson was pronounced dead at a Sioux Falls hospital at 11:50 a.m. after an alleged assault by inmates Eric Robert and Rodney Berget about an hour earlier. Authorities won’t say how Johnson was killed and are not releasing details about the incident.

"It was his birthday today," said Jesse Johnson, Ronald Johnson’s son. "That’s kind of the gut-wrenching thing about it."

Another penitentiary employee sustained minor injuries in the attack.

The two inmates, both 48, were caught before they made it off the prison grounds and were transported to the Minnehaha County Jail.

Berget has escaped from the penitentiary in the past and tried other unsuccessful escapes. Robert has planned an escape while in prison, authorities said.

Johnson of Sioux Falls, a 23-year penitentiary veteran, was the first corrections officer killed by inmates since 1951, according to Department of Corrections records.

His friends and family knew him as "R.J.," according to his son. The elder Johnson was a proud father of two and a grandfather of six, his son said, and anyone who knew him would call him an easy-going guy.

"He loved to relax and play with his grandkids," Jesse Johnson said. "He never had a bad thing to say about anybody."

R.J. Johnson had lived through a violent riot at the penitentiary in 1993 and dealt with inmate escape attempts before. The family understood the dangers, but Jesse Johnson said his father never dwelled on it.

Officials with the Department of Corrections, Division of Criminal Investigation, Attorney General’s Office and Gov. Dennis Daugaard declined interview requests Tuesday, but Daugaard’s office released this statement:

"I am deeply saddened by Mr. Johnson’s death, and I am praying for his family and friends at this very difficult time. This incident is a somber reminder that our prison guards put themselves at risk, every day, to protect South Dakota from our worst criminals."

The penitentiary is under lockdown and will remain that way while the DCI conducts its investigation, according to the governor’s office.

"The attackers are in custody and under confinement. We will act swiftly to bring these murderers to justice and to ensure the safety of our prison staff," Daugaard’s statement said.

Berget and Robert have yet to be charged, but Minnehaha County Sheriff Mike Milstead said the men are being closely monitored at the jail and treated as risks to public and officer safety.

Minnehaha County sheriff’s deputies were the first to respond to the scene, Milstead said, and deputies and the Sioux Falls Police Department were at the penitentiary to assist DCI agents all day.

Johnson is the first law enforcement official killed in the line of duty in South Dakota since the 2009 slaying of Turner County Sheriff’s Deputy Chad Mechels by 21-year-old Ethan Johns.

"It’s heartbreaking," Milstead said of Johnson’s killing. "People are still suffering over the loss of Chad Mechels, and now we have this."

Criminal histories

Robert of Piedmont was serving an 80-year-sentence for a 2005 kidnapping out of Meade County. Berget of Aberdeen was serving two life sentences – one for attempted murder in Lawrence County and one for kidnapping in Meade County. Both convictions came in 2003.

Meade County State’s Attorney Jesse Sondreal prosecuted both men. He called Robert "one of the most potentially dangerous men I’ve ever met."

Robert posed as a police officer, pulled over 18-year-old Briana St. Clair near Blackhawk, threw her in the trunk of her own car and drove away. St. Clair used her cell phone to call 911 from the trunk. Sheriff’s deputies found her in the abandoned vehicle.

Police found rope and a shovel in Robert’s vehicle.

"But for her cell phone, she would have been raped and killed," Sondreal said.

Robert asked for a sentence modification in 2008. When Robert’s former cellmate heard news of the request, he sent a letter to Sondreal pleading with the prosecutor to oppose any reduction in sentence.

"This guy (Robert) scared him so bad that he moved out of the cell," Sondreal said. "He didn’t want him to get out of jail."

Sondreal successfully prevented a sentence reduction by citing the letter, evidence that Robert had raped a former girlfriend in Chamberlain and information indicating that Robert had planned an escape attempt during his first two years at the penitentiary.

Berget has attempted escape on several occasions. Berget pleaded guilty to escape charges in 1984 while serving a sentence for grand theft.

On May 16, 1987, Berget and five other inmates escaped through a vent in the penitentiary’s recreation building in the largest escape in state history at the time.

Berget, Kelly Briggs, Rodney Horned Eagle, Dean Nilles and Alan Schultz were captured within two months. James Weddell eluded authorities until May 1989.

Berget was released on the escape charge in 2002. His current prison sentence was imposed in connection with a June 2003 arrest after a 150-mile chase that ended in Haakon County. Berget stole a car in Missoula, Mont., shot and wounded two people in Lead on June 2, then abducted a convenience-store clerk in Sturgis before surrendering after a long standoff near Midland, authorities say. In the kidnapping, he was charged with raping the clerk, who managed to jump out of the car when law officers stopped it.

Berget’s ex-girlfriend – one of the shooting victims – said Tuesday that she’s lived in fear for eight years.

Beatrice Miranda met Berget at a Deadwood Casino and dated him for about six months before she broke up with him. Within a week of the breakup in 2003, Berget forced his way into her house in Lead and exchanged gunfire with her.

Miranda was shot in the back. Her new boyfriend, Brian Horstmann, was shot in the chest. Both survived.

Miranda on Tuesday said that she was relieved that Berget is in custody. He had tried to escape three times before, she said.

"That’s what I was always afraid of. It was always in the back of my mind," Miranda said. "I don’t leave my curtains open. I always lock the doors. People know not to knock real loud because I have real bad panic attacks."

Miranda said she’ll remain in fear as long as Berget is alive.

"I am so happy he didn’t escape," she said. "As long as he’s alive, he’s going to try and do something. I hope he gets the death penalty."

If the inmates are found to have intentionally killed Johnson, Sondreal would agree with Miranda. Under South Dakota law, killing a law enforcement officer is considered an aggravating factor in a murder charge that allows prosecutors to seek the death penalty.

Sondreal says the long and violent criminal history of Berget and the disturbing details of the Robert case easily could make the Johnson killing a capital murder.

"I think the death penalty could be appropriate in this case," Sondreal said. "Knowing their history and what they’re capable of, how could you put another corrections officer at risk?"

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