Suspect in St. Louis school shooting had warrant

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Associated Press

Posted on January 17, 2013 at 1:00 PM

Updated Thursday, Jan 17 at 2:03 PM

ST. LOUIS (AP) — A student accused of shooting an administrator at his St. Louis business school had a history of violence and a parole violation that should have landed him in jail, but didn't.

People in the law enforcement said Thursday that it's not surprising that Sean Johnson remained at large nearly eight months after a warrant was issued for his arrest. They say the system is flooded with so many arrest warrants that police can't keep up.

"You walk up and down the street in downtown St. Louis and you're going to pass a bunch of people who have an active warrant," said David Klinger, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "I'm not at all surprised that someone who had an active warrant was out there in the community."

Johnson, 34, is charged with first-degree assault, armed criminal action and two firearms violations in Tuesday's attack at Stevens Institute of Business & Arts.

Authorities said Johnson, an on-again-off-again student at the school, got into an argument with financial aid director Greg Elsenrath in Elsenrath's fourth-floor office and shot him once in the chest.

Johnson then shot himself in the side, while the more than three dozen students, faculty and staff in the building scrambled to safety.

Both men remained hospitalized Thursday. The school said Elsenrath, 45, was expected to make a full recovery. Details of Johnson's condition haven't been released.

Johnson was wanted for allegedly violating the terms of his parole in a 2009 attack on a cab driver in St. Louis County. The driver, 53-year-old Belete Mekuria, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Johnson smelled of alcohol after he was picked up at Lambert Airport, so Mekuria asked for $60 up front.

Johnson paid, but later reached into a shoe and pulled out a box cutter. Mekuria said he caught Johnson's hand and pinned him down as the cab hit a median barrier on Interstate 70. The men were still scuffling when police arrived.

Johnson pleaded guilty to reduced charges of unlawful use of a weapon and second-degree assault. At a hearing in 2011 he was placed on probation for five years and ordered to take medication for an unspecified mental illness. His attorney, Eric Barnhart, declined to discuss the mental health issue. But he said Johnson was a productive member of society only when he was on his medication.

A judge ruled on May 21 that Johnson violated his probation — court records don't indicate why. An arrest warrant was issued three days later, but Johnson was never taken into custody. St. Louis police didn't respond to several messages requesting an interview.

St. Louis County courts administrator Paul Fox said it's not unusual for fugitives to go for months or longer without being apprehended. Police "simply don't have the manpower to go out and track down everybody," Fox said.

Every warrant is entered into a statewide database known as MULES — Missouri Uniform Law Enforcement System — which is administered by the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

Statistics provided by the Patrol to The Associated Press indicate it's getting harder to capture fugitives. In 2011, 235,322 warrants were issued statewide and 156,881 fugitives were apprehended. Last year, the number of warrants rose to 251,657, but the number captured dropped to 130,368.

Patrol Capt. Tim Hull said most police departments prioritize going after violent criminals with arrest warrants. Also, people stopped by police for even the most miniscule traffic violation typically have their names run through the system. That's how many fugitives are apprehended, Hull said.

"Timothy McVeigh was caught in a traffic stop," Hull said, referring to the man responsible for the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995.

Police were also investigating how Johnson obtained a gun. As a convicted felon, he was prohibited from owning one. Police said the semi-automatic weapon used in the shooting had a filed-off serial number, although federal agents were able to restore the number and were working to trace the weapon's origin.

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