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Police officers, witnesses testify about fatal shooting

DEE GOODIN • Apr 19, 2007 at 11:12 AM

BLOUNTVILLE - After eight days in the courtroom, both prosecutors and defense attorneys hit the ground running in the first-degree murder trial of a man accused of killing a Bristol police officer.

Mark Vance, 30, had been a full-time officer for 18 months when he answered a domestic disturbance call at a Belmont Avenue residence on Nov. 27, 2004. Shortly after entering the residence, Vance was shot in the face with a .357-caliber Magnum pistol.

Second Judicial District Attorney General Greeley Wells is seeking the death penalty in the case of Nikolaus L. Johnson, 28, of Bristol, Va. Jim Bowman and Stacy Street are Johnson's court-appointed attorneys.

Thursday morning, the jury listened to opening arguments by Assistant District Attorney General Barry Staubus and Bowman, then witnesses began testifying.

The first witness was Walter Mitchell, father of Britney Mitchell. Then 17, Britney Mitchell had called Johnson to discuss her pregnancy, which prosecutors say started in motion the events that ultimately led to Vance's death.

Mitchell, an over-the-road truck driver, had just left on his first run following the Thanksgiving holiday when he said he got a call from his daughter, who informed him of her pregnancy and said the father of the child was at their residence threatening her with a gun.

Mitchell relayed that information to a 911 dispatcher, and Vance went to Belmont Avenue.

Vance's supervisor, Eric Senter, a shift lieutenant with the Bristol Police Department on Nov. 27, 2004, was the first to take the stand.

The second officer to arrive at the location, Senter testified he was walking toward the home when, through an open front door, he saw a hand holding a gun and a portion of an arm. Senter was almost to the door when he heard a shot and retreated to a location behind a tree and radioed for backup.

At that location, Senter said he saw three people come out of the home.

"A black male (came out of the house). I pointed my gun at him and told him to get on the ground..." Senter testified. "A second black male (Johnson) came out of the house. I started yelling at him to get on the ground.

"Then a girl comes out of the house holding a gun, screaming ‘Why did you shoot him? Why did you shoot him?'"

He said the girl later ran, but left the pistol.

Senter said while he was handcuffing Johnson he asked him, "What's going on?" and Johnson replied, "I shot the (expletive)."

Senter said the remark caught him off guard, and Johnson repeated, "I shot the (expletive). I shot the (expletive) cop. I shot him in the head. He's dead. No need going in there, he's dead."

Later, under cross-examination by Bowman, Senter said he "didn't know anybody was shot until Mr. Johnson told me."

Senter was in the process of handcuffing Johnson when BPD Officer Daniel Graham arrived. Graham, who testified next, said "Lieutenant Senter told me to go inside and find out who had been shot and to ‘check on Officer Vance.'"

Graham said after a brief look downstairs, he went toward the main floor, where a female was screaming. Graham said when he asked her who had been shot, she pointed to the living room.

"I went upstairs, looked to my right and observed Officer Vance, shot in the right side of his face."

Graham, who was accompanied by another officer, ran to his vehicle to get his medical bag. On the way, he saw the revolver lying on the ground and told Senter he was putting the gun in the vehicle's trunk for safekeeping.

Graham also testified that after Johnson was placed in the back of his cruiser, "I could see that he was saying something in my cruiser ... I activated my remote" referring to a recording device in the vehicle.

After BPD Officer Bradley Tate gave his account of that night's activities, Britney Mitchell took the witness stand.

Mitchell, 17, at the time, testified she had called Johnson shortly after her father left the home. Mitchell testified she told Johnson about the pregnancy as soon as a home pregnancy test showed positive results, but that she had misled Johnson - who already had two children - into believing she had the abortion he requested. Mitchell was taken to an abortion clinic by a friend of Johnson's, went inside but did not have the procedure.

On the day of the incident, she told Johnson the truth. Johnson arrived 10 to 15 minutes later with two guns.

"He said he was going to shoot my daddy because he thought he was pressing charges on him."

After calling her father and telling him she was pregnant and the baby's father was threatening her with a gun, Mitchell told Johnson he was calling the police.

"He said he didn't care..." Mitchell said, "he'd shoot them. I thought he was going to kill me."

Two of Mitchell's female friends answered the door when Vance arrived and told the officer "everything was OK." She said she was on the phone with her father as Vance was walking up the stairs, and there was no conversation between Vance and Johnson.

"I didn't see anything, but I heard the gunshot. ... I dropped the phone, grabbed my baby (who was 1 at the time) and jumped in the closet for five or six minutes. Then the officer put me in the police cruiser."

Mitchell went on to testify she delivered triplets, who are now in her aunt's custody along with the older child. She said she had been working at Little Hands Christian Daycare for about five months until recently.

Testimony continues this morning at 9:30.

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