Man convicted of witness retaliation in shootings at DHS, woman's home

By Lance Benzel Published: October 4, 2013 | 7:53 am

An El Paso County jury on Thursday convicted a man of witness retaliation in what prosecutors characterized as a pair of revenge shootings committed after his children were placed in emergency foster care.

Burnest Johnson, 36, was found guilty of shooting up a vehicle parked outside an El Paso County Department of Human Services office on Feb. 1 and minutes later spraying bullets into the home of the woman who lodged a child abuse complaint against him - nearly hitting the woman's 10-year-old daughter and the daughter's friend as they played together in a bedroom.

A six-man, six-woman jury tossed the most severe counts, including attempted first-degree murder of the woman and two children.

Despite his break, Johnson, a six-time felon, faces a quadrupled sentence - or up to 48 years on the witness retaliation conviction alone. Other convictions include illegal discharge of a weapon, and misdemeanor counts of child abuse and reckless endangerment.

Sentencing for Johnson will follow an Oct. 21 hearing at which prosecutors must establish details of his criminal history, a formality that largely turns on fingerprint comparisons.

The mixed verdicts capped roughly five hours of deliberation and marked an end to a week-and-a-half long trial in 4th Judicial District Court.

"We're happy with the verdicts," said prosecutor Michael Allen, adding that "the jury worked very hard and heard difficult evidence."

During closing arguments Thursday, prosecutor Matt James called the shootings a clear-cut case of taking aim at witnesses in a child abuse investigation.

"Snitches get stitches - that's why we're here today," James told the jury.

Details on the custody action weren't available, but Johnson's children - who were removed from his home on the day of the shootings - have since been returned to their mother's custody.

The shootings occurred within 20 minutes of each other - the first reported about 6 p.m. outside the Citizens Service Center at 1675 W. Garden of the Gods Road, the second in the 2000 block of Trent Avenue, near North Circle Drive and Constitution Avenue.

No one was injured, but a bullet passed within six feet of the two girls, authorities said. A crime scene analyst testified the slug went into the girl's bedroom and through her dollhouse before it came to rest in a desktop karaoke machine.

El Paso County offices temporarily went on heightened alert after the shootings.

Johnson's attorney, Cynthia McKedy, said during closing arguments Thursday that while Johnson was angry over the removal of his children - including an infant son - he didn't pull the trigger and couldn't be tied to the shootings by evidence presented to the jury.

Attorneys dueled over the significance of gunshot residue found in a 2012 GMC sport-utility vehicle rented by Johnson, and whether ballistics evidence was sufficient to prove the shootings were related.

The trial was hampered by a no-show witness and allegations that Jessica Tuckness - the mother of Johnson's two children and a co-defendant in the case - had conspired to place a spy in the courtroom to record witness testimony on a cellular phone.

El Paso County District Judge Theresa M. Cisneros said the "spy" claimed to be a law student and sat in the back of court during the opening days of trial. The woman didn't return after the ruse was uncovered in court, McKedy said.

According to Cisneros, Tuckness told Johnson about her plan during a phone call with the jailed defendant - a conversation that was recorded by authorities. While the judge stopped short of accusing Johnson of arranging the affair, she said he initiated the call from jail using a different inmate's phone code, saying the circumstance "raised suspicion" he was involved.

The judge also said authorities had undertaken "heroic" measures to find a witness who failed to heed a subpoena ordering her to testify. The woman, 26-year-old Ashley Renee Buechler, confessed that she was responsible for shooting into the home, but didn't show up to tell her story in court, Cisneros said. Prosecutors dismiss Buechler's claims as fabrications. She is being sought on a failure-to-appear warrant.

It's unclear if any action is being considered against the woman who made a recording of court testimony.

On Thursday, Cisneros warned that anyone who kept a cellular phone powered on in court could face contempt charges and a jail sentence.

Tuckness, whom authorities allege hatched the plan with Johnson and sat in the passenger seat during the drive-by shootings, took a Sept. 16 plea deal requiring her to testify for the prosecution. Initially charged with attempted murder and other crimes, she pleaded guilty to aggravated witness intimidation and faces up to 12 years in prison at her Nov. 18 sentencing.

Cisneros denied a defense request for a mistrial based on the irregularities.

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