Man charged with manslaughter in fatal City Hall crash

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Maryland State Police arrested Monday the Baltimore man they say struck and killed a pedestrian last week in front of City Hall and charged him with vehicular homicide, manslaughter and a slew of drug offenses.

Police say Johnny Johnson, 43, had drugs in his system and was carrying cocaine and heroin last Tuesday when he struck veteran city employee Matthew Hersl on a downtown corner.

Johnson initially was treated at a hospital and released as authorities investigated the crash, a move that drew criticism from some in the city.

But on Monday, state police and prosecutors announced that they had gathered enough evidence to charge Johnson, even as their traffic investigation continues. Police said he was taken into custody without incident as he walked to his home in the 2400 block of Francis St. about 1:30 p.m.

Officials from the state police and the Baltimore state's attorney's office did not elaborate on the decision to charge Johnson.

A woman who lived in the same home as Johnson and identified herself as his aunt said he is "remorseful."

"He's sorry it happened. Really, really sorry," said the 73-year-old woman, who declined to give her name. Johnson is "mostly good," she said, but falls into trouble when he becomes depressed over bills and his job. She said he worked at a rehabilitation center on Pennsylvania Avenue in Baltimore.

After the crash, police said Johnson was driving a black 2000 Acura TL at more than 100 mph on Interstate 83 when he entered downtown.

Johnson allegedly encountered a state police cruiser on the highway, and police said the trooper arrived at the scene of the crash as it took place.

The wreck drew dozens of spectators and the attention of City Council members inside. Police closed downtown streets just before rush hour.

Hersl, 45, a city finance supervisor, was beloved in his Little Italy community for his volunteer work and leadership in neighborhood associations.

A passionate Baltimore Orioles fan, he was a "ballhawking" enthusiast who caught foul balls and home runs. More than 200 mourners attended his funeral Friday, including City Council members and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

State police said last week they were holding off on detaining Johnson because they didn't want to charge him with a lesser crime that could legally obstruct prosecutors' attempts to seek more serious charges such as vehicular manslaughter or homicide.

Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein said after the crash that no weapons or drugs had been found in the car, which made it more difficult to detain him while the traffic investigation continued.

On Monday, prosecutors said drugs were in fact found in the car, which led to several drug-related charges.

He now faces allegations of driving under the influence of drugs, driving under the influence of a controlled dangerous substance, possession of heroin, possession of cocaine, possession of drug paraphernalia and multiple traffic violations.

"The alleged narcotics and paraphernalia were recovered from the vehicle during the course of the investigation," said Bernstein's spokesman, Mark Cheshire.

He declined to elaborate on why Bernstein's initial comments conflicted with the drug discovery.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said last week he was "very disappointed" Johnson wasn't charged immediately. A spokesman said Young was glad Johnson was charged Monday.

"He obviously was here at City Hall when it happened, and he wanted justice for the family," spokesman Lester Davis said.

Johnson was convicted in 2002 of drug distribution and first-degree burglary charges and sentenced to 20 years, with all but six years suspended. He was charged in 2008 with second-degree assault, a charge that was placed on the inactive docket by prosecutors in 2010. No current lawyer was listed for Johnson in court records.

City Councilman James Kraft, who represents Little Italy, remembered Hersl on the council floor Monday evening. His comments came after Johnson's arrest, but he didn't discuss it.

"Matt was one of God's good people," Kraft said. "He wasn't a perfect guy, but he was a good guy."

Kraft said he respected how Hersl wouldn't just complain about problems in his community, but took action to fix them.

"He was a true citizen in every sense of the word," Kraft said. "We not only lost a great employee, the people who live in Little Italy lost a great neighbor. His family lost a great family member. It's a great loss to everybody."

Baltimore Sun reporters Justin Fenton and Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

jgeorge@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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