Jurors hear trial testimony of state trooper run over by Eureka man

Apr. 19—The trial of a Lincoln County man accused of running over a Montana Highway Patrol trooper during a law enforcement pursuit more than a year ago is underway in Libby at the county courthouse.

Jason Allen Miller, 42, is facing felony charges of attempted deliberate homicide, criminal endangerment, aggravated kidnapping, possession of dangerous drugs and criminal mischief following a Feb. 16, 2023, incident in north Lincoln County. Miller pleaded not guilty to the charges and remains locked up in the county Detention Center with his bail set at $1.5 million.

Tpr. Lewis Johnson suffered life-threatening injuries in the incident near Rexford and is still recovering after returning home to Chester, Montana in October 2023.

Tuesday was spent selecting jury of 14 county residents, including nine women and five men. Two are alternates.

Wednesday began with opening statements from Montana Assistant Attorney General Thorin Geist, who is prosecuting the case, and defense attorney Daniel Wood.

According to a court official, Thursday heard more testimony from witnesses for the state before it rested its case. The defense also rested.

Closing arguments were scheduled for Friday morning and then the jury would begin deliberations.

Geist argued the evidence he and fellow prosecutor Selene Koepke would present would show Miller was aware of the warrant for his arrest and that the defendant wanted to, "get away from law enforcement at all costs."

Wood wanted jurors to consider the question of intent.

"I am focusing on the attempted deliberate homicide charge, the most serious charge, and the difference between intention," Wood said. 'We know what happened. Miller struck Tpr. Johnson, leaving him partially paralyzed. But what was Jason Miller thinking that day? I don't envy you that task, but I ask you to keep an open mind."

Following testimony from Lincoln County Sheriff's deputy Clint Heintz about the events of Feb. 16, 2023, Tpr. Johnson took the stand.

He explained his training, graduating high school in Chester, Montana in 2006, graduating from the University of Montana and joining the Montana National Guard where he met and became friends with Heintz.

When the chase began, Johnson was within 30 minutes of his shift ending for the day. He said Heintz sought his assistance in the pursuit and joined it on Highway 37.

The two lawmen, along with county officers Bo Pitman and Scott Welchons, had worked together earlier in the day on another case.

After explaining the pursuit continuing on Camp 32 Road, Johnson testified to his recollection of the moments leading up to him being run over.

"His truck appeared to be stuck, Heintz stopped and I went past and blocked the road and got out," Johnson said. "At first I couldn't see the truck and I walked up the left track and my vehicle was behind me. Then the truck was coming toward me. I quickly determined lethal force would be a prudent option.

"There was no waiting, I fired when I knew I was going to be run over," Johnson said.

After further questioning by Geist, Johnson said he knew a big truck was coming at him, accelerating heavily and was under control.

"I felt my life was in danger," Johnson said. "To use deadly force, you have to believe your life is in danger."

Johnson recalled Heintz making the radio call and being taken to the U.S. Forest Service Ranger Station in Eureka for transport to Kalispell by the ALERT helicopter.

When Geist asked him how close he came to dying, Johnson replied, "I came real close."

Including the severing of vertebrae in his spine, he suffered 22 broken ribs, a broken shoulder, his right lung was punctured and his stomach lining was torn.

Koepke began the prosecution's case by questioning Heintz. He led the pursuit from Eureka to Camp 32 Road near Lake Koocanusa Bridge. He is credited with helping save Johnson's life after he was struck by the truck Miller was driving.

Dash cam footage from Heintz's patrol vehicle showed the chase from the beginning to the time when Miller allegedly struck Johnson. The footage left many observers tearing up and sobbing.

The gallery included many law enforcement officers from the region as well as family members of Johnson and Miller.

Lewis Johnson and his wife, Kate, also a MHP Trooper, comforted each other while the video footage played.

Heintz described the day to the jury following questions from Koepke. He said he was on patrol in Eureka when he encountered Miller's brother who told him where to find the defendant.

Heintz went to a property owned by Miller's father. He testified he saw Miller loading tires into the bed of a Chevy Silverado truck. When Heintz attempted to contact Miller, video footage showed Miller get into the truck and drive away, followed by Heintz.

The pursuit continued on Highway 37. Heintz said Miller drove at speeds exceeding 100 miles per hour. He testified that he believed Miller endangered the lives of more than 10 people as well as law officers involved in the chase.

Heintz used his PA system multiple times in an effort to get Miller to pull over. He testified that it had worked in the past.

Heintz and video footage showed the chase as it left Highway 37 and on to Camp 32 Road. Miller's vehicle slid on the ice- and snow-covered road. He backed up, then apparently put the truck in four-wheel drive and drove toward Johnson's vehicle. Heintz saw a muzzle flash of Johnson firing at Miller's vehicle from 10 to 15 feet away as he drove toward the trooper.

Heintz then saw Johnson up on the hood of Miller's truck before rolling off and under one of the tires. Heintz testified that he believed Miller could have drove around Johnson and his patrol vehicle. Heintz also testified he yelled repeatedly at Miller to stop and fired his rifle at the defendant while he made his way to where Johnson lay in the snow.

"I could hear him gurgling, trying to get a breath," Heintz said. "I moved him so he could breath and the blood could flow out of his mouth. After I heard the vehicles further down the road, I began checking him over then radioed for help from both vehicles.

"He gave me a thumbs up when I asked him if he was still alive," Heintz said.

Two U.S. Border Patrol officers arrived on scene and helped before Heintz hopped into the ambulance with Johnson for the trip to Eureka where Logan Health's ALERT copter took the wounded officer to Kalispell for treatment.

The video footage was difficult to watch as the sounds of Johnson moaning in pain were heard.

County Sheriff's Office Patrol Sgt. Bo Pitman, an 18-year veteran of the force, said he and new deputy Scott Welchons were on patrol and training when they joined the chase.

"The warrant for Miller had been out for two weeks," Pitman said. "When it comes to a pursuit, I make the decision on whether to continue it. I've been in a lot of pursuits and at this point, it's instinctual."

Pitman said many factors influence decisions on pursuits, including speed, road conditions, an officer's experience.

"But if we didn't pursue those who run from us, then everyone would run from us," Pitman said.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Game Warden Ben Chappelo joined in the effort to arrest Miller after the chase left the highway. He was out of his patrol vehicle when Miller crashed into it, totaling the vehicle.

Welchons was a Navy veteran and reserve deputy with Lincoln County before joining the force full time in January 2023.

Welchons testified he saw Miller's truck stop, back up and head toward Tpr. Johnson, accelerating as it went.

"He was about 30 to 50 feet from Johnson. I eventually heard gunshots and saw Tpr. Johnson get hit. It happened very quickly."

Welchons felt that Miller could have avoided striking Johnson. He also explained Miller's truck was still moving at about 20 mph when a female passenger jumped out of the vehicle.

When Welchons and Pitman were able to put handcuffs on Miller, the accused thought he was shot.

"He had minor scrapes, but that was it," Welchons said. "He asked about Tpr. Johnson's condition, how hurt he was and he hoped the trooper would have been a better shot."

During a cross examination by Wood, he asked Welchons if the copter was for him after hearing it on their radios.

"No, you (profanity) hit him," Welchons said.

The deputy testified that Miller repeatedly said, "Oh (profanity) and hung his head."

Welchons said he believed Miller's comments were spontaneous response, "because he realized how much trouble he was in."