Henry Thomas Johnson, 37, of Helena, was shot dead in 2013 while apparently ransacking a home in Lewis and Clark County. Nearly two years later, the county attorney has charged homeowner James George Stiffler with felony deliberate homicide, alleging Johnson was shot in the back while trying to escape the home through a window.
Stiffler appeared in Justice Court March 26 and was released on his own recognizance with conditions, according to court documents obtained Friday. He has a preliminary hearing set for April 24.
In an affidavit, County Attorney Leo Gallagher wrote that Stiffler called authorities to report he had shot and killed a home intruder May 22, 2013, in the 4200 block of Canyon Ferry Road. Emergency responders found him waiting outside his home. His truck was in the driveway next to a Ford Taurus. Behind the wheel of the Taurus was the lifeless body of Johnson, wearing a tie and dress shirt, with an apparent gunshot wound to the chest.
Stiffler told investigators he arrived home to see the Ford Taurus parked outside and Johnson standing inside, so he armed himself with a handgun he had in his truck before entering the home, the affidavit read. Stiffler said he stood in the doorway between the kitchen and the computer room when he was confronted by the intruder and fired a single shot toward Johnson in a westerly direction. Johnson reportedly veered to the side as Stiffler fired and Johnson then went into the sewing room and exited the window.
Stiffler said Johnson fled to the Ford Taurus and started to drive, the affidavit read. Stiffler said he exited the front door of the home to pursue Johnson and fired another shot at the vehicle’s rear tire, and the vehicle crashed over his fence before stopping.
“That scenario is not supported by the forensic evidence,” wrote state-hired William Schneck, of Microvision Northwest Forensic Consulting of Spokane, Washington, in his Feb. 15 report, the affidavit read. “… Henry Johnson was shot in the back as he was exiting the sewing room window.”
On Feb. 28, 2014, the Montana State Crime Lab reported the shirt worn by Johnson when he was shot did not have gunshot residue on it. The weapon Stiffler used to shoot Johnson would not have deposited gunshot residue on an object if it were more than four to six feet from the muzzle, the affidavit read. A bullet found in Stiffler’s driveway was consistent with bullets being fired from the handgun Stiffler said he used to shoot Johnson. On Sept. 12, 2013, the state lab reported the material collected from the bullet yielded a DNA profile that matched Johnson’s DNA profile, the affidavit read.
On May 23, 2013, State Medical Examiner Gary Dale conducted an autopsy that confirmed Johnson was killed by a single gunshot wound. The bullet entered the body in the back, left of centerline and below the shoulder, and then exited the body on the chest about nipple line and just left of the sternum, the affidavit read. The entry wound was about 55 inches above Johnson’s heel, and the exit wound was about 56.5 inches above his heel. The bullet had exited the body and it was not located on or within Johnson or his clothes.
Local investigators said the bullet should have left a mark about 55 inches on a wall or near the computer room, the affidavit read. But they couldn’t locate any defect or blemish on any wall in the computer room at that height or taller.
“Detectives began to doubt that Stiffler shot at Johnson while Johnson was inside the computer room,” the affidavit read. “Detectives hypothesized Johnson was possibly shot in the back while exiting the window in the sewing room after abandoning the property he was caught trying to steal.”
The pistol used was a 9 mm Interarms/Star model Ultrastar handgun, which was loaded with one round in the chamber and four live rounds in the magazine, the affidavit read.
Investigators did not locate any bullets inside the house. In the driveway in front of the residence, however, investigators found a recently fired 9 mm bullet like the type of ammunition found unfired in the magazine from Stiffler’s gun, the affidavit read. The bullet was found where Stiffler said he parked his truck before entering the house. The truck had been parked in the driveway during the investigators' earlier searches.
“Investigators believed the location of the bullet was consistent with where one would expect to find the bullet if Stiffler was standing in the computer room when he fired his gun toward Johnson’s back as Johnson was fleeing out the south window and the bullet exited Johnson’s body,” according to court documents.
An empty 9 mm shell casing found in the computer room was generally consistent with someone standing in the computer room and firing toward the window through which Johnson was fleeing, the affidavit read.
“As Henry Johnson approached the window he cranked it open and tore the window covering as he exited the window. The crank arm mechanism was found on the floor in the front of the window. The shot entered Mr. Johnson’s back at an angle left to right and slightly upward the moment he exited through the open window,” Schneck wrote. “There was no blood or any evidence of a bullet impacting the window, window covering or screen, therefore the window covering was already out of the bullet path before the shot was fired. If Henry Johnson was in the room away from the window when the shot was fired there would likely have been bloodstains with in the room.”
Stiffler’s front door was kicked in and most of the rooms had allegedly been ransacked. Near the back or north side of the residence, investigators located a white pillowcase containing jewelry and drugs, the affidavit read. The items were likely collected and dropped as Johnson tried to get out the door of the residence before turning and fleeing out the window.
Denelle Lee Waters was the registered owner of the Ford Taurus and her address was a mobile home on Phillips Road where investigators found two pillowcases holding items, the affidavit read. She said she was romantically involved with Johnson and they lived together, while he worked as a door-to-door salesman for Kirby Vacuums and she thought he was working earlier that day.
During searches of the Taurus and the pillowcases found at Waters' house, investigators located items and confirmed some of the property was stolen during recent daytime burglaries in Powell County, the affidavit read. Investigators said Johnson was involved in a series of daytime burglaries, which he may have committed by approaching residences as a vacuum cleaner salesman and then returning to burglarize them them when they were unoccupied.
Reporter Eric Killelea is on Twitter @EricKillelea. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.