MARINETTE, Wisconsin – A man faces life in prison after he pleaded no contest Thursday to gunning down three youths swimming in a river and trying to kill six others near the Wisconsin-Michigan state line last summer.
Scott J. Johnson, 38, of Kingsford, Mich., withdrew his not guilty pleas earlier Thursday and pleaded no contest to 10 felonies. Marinette County Circuit Judge Tim Duket convicted him of three counts of first-degree intentional homicide, six counts of attempted first-degree intentional homicide and one count of second-degree sexual assault.
Johnson's plea spares him a jury trial that was set to start March 16. Duket told Johnson that he could face a maximum of three life terms plus 445 years. The judge will decide at a May 21 hearing whether Johnson will be eligible for parole.
Prosecutor Gary Freyberg said he had no doubt Johnson would have been found guilty at a trial.
"We are delighted that the victims don't have to go through the trauma of a trial," Freyberg said. "They have suffered tremendously."
Johnson's lawyer, public defender Shannon Viel, said it was Johnson's decision to change his plea and that there were no plea negotiations Thursday.
"He understands his situation," Viel said. "He is not hiding anything. He is not in any denial."
Johnson dropped an insanity plea in January, and reports filed by court-appointed psychologists who examined him in the fall have not been released.
Prosecutors said Johnson, an unemployed Army veteran and divorced father of two, fired at a group of swimmers at the Menominee River in July, killing Tiffany Pohlson, 17, of Vulcan, Mich.; Anthony Spigarelli, 18, and Bryan Mort, 19, both of Iron Mountain, Mich.
Daniel Louis Gordon, 21, of Kingsford, Mich., also suffered a superficial back wound from shrapnel.
Johnson, wearing camouflage, hid in the woods overnight and turned himself in the next day.
The criminal complaint said Johnson thought about committing a random shooting for four or five years. He told investigators he stashed weapons in the woods for at least a year in preparation.
Johnson also was convicted of sexually assaulting a 24-year-old woman near the river the day before the shooting. He told investigators he knew police would be looking for him after the assault and that he plotted to kill as many officers as he could, then wound up shooting the youths when four of them started climbing toward where he was hiding, the complaint said.
His mother, Judy Johnson, has described her son as despondent since his wife left him in 2001 and took their children to Ohio. Johnson served five years in the Army and was honorably discharged in 1994, she said.
David Mort, the father of a victim, said he was relieved there would be no trial. His son was killed near a train bridge between state lines, and he has pushed for Johnson to be tried in federal court in Michigan, where a death penalty would be possible.
Viel and prosecutors declined to comment on the possibility of federal charges, referring questions to Michigan prosecutors. After-hours messages left at U.S. attorney's offices in Lansing, Mich., and Marquette, Mich, were not immediately returned Thursday.