ST. LOUIS • The shooting of a career college administrator downtown marked Sean Johnson’s second sudden violent outburst, officials said Wednesday, and exposed an unavoidable rip in the law-enforcement net intended to catch fugitives.
Although Johnson had been wanted in St. Louis County since May on an arrest warrant for violating terms of probation from the earlier attack, he continued with his usual routine as an on-again, off-again student at the Stevens Institute of Business & Arts, 1521 Washington Avenue.
That’s where he allegedly wounded the financial aid officer, Greg Elsenrath, 45, with a single shot about 2 p.m. Tuesday. Johnson, 34, also wounded himself, perhaps by accident while putting his pistol under his coat, police said. Both men, hit in the chest, were expected to survive.
St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson said Wednesday that the failure to rein in Johnson sooner exposed a flaw: “The number of people who are wanted out there, and the resources we have to go to get them, there is a disparity there.”
Said Paul Fox, the county court administrator, “It’s not unusual for some people to be wanted for more than a year on outstanding warrants. There is such a large number that it overwhelms the system, and these departments don’t have the staff to go out and look for every individual.”
County police sends information to other jurisdictions where fugitives have home addresses, but it said St. Louis city police asked about a year ago to be taken off the list.
Dotson, appointed city police chief in December, said he was unaware of that request but didn’t think it would have mattered to the capture of Johnson. “The reality is, we are actively looking for individuals who are wanted in aggravated assaults and homicide cases,” he said. “This was a violation for probation, and that’s a challenge because there are so many out there.”
Information in law enforcement databases would have revealed Johnson’s wanted status to any police officer who checked his record. It appears that none did, until he allegedly attacked Elsenrath on Tuesday.
Johnson, 34, of the 5300 block of Cote Brilliante Avenue, was charged Wednesday in St. Louis Circuit Court with first-degree assault, armed criminal action, unlawful possession of a firearm and possession of a defaced firearm.
In the previous attack, on Oct. 22, 2009, the weapon was a box cutter, not a gun, police said, and the outcome less dire.
Belete Mekuria, 53, a cab driver from Florissant, said in an interview Wednesday that he had picked up Johnson at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport that afternoon for a ride to the South County Center mall. Mekuria said he was uncomfortable with Johnson, who smelled of alcohol, and Mekuria asked for $60 up front. Johnson gave him three $20 bills, Mekuria said, and a few minutes later reached into a shoe and pulled out a box cutter. Mekuria said he had been expecting trouble, and caught Johnson’s hand, ultimately pinning him down as the vehicle hit a median barrier on Interstate 70 near Lindbergh Boulevard.
“He said, ‘Let me go, let me go,’” Mekuria recalled. “I said, ‘Hold on, tell me why you tried to kill me.’ And he said, ‘I screwed up my life. I don’t have a future. I don’t care for myself and I don’t care for others.’” Mekuria said damage to his taxi and medical bills cost him a few thousand dollars.
Johnson was charged then in St. Louis County with first-degree assault and armed criminal action, but pleaded guilty in 2011 to reduced charges of unlawful use of a weapon and second-degree assault. Court records reflect that he has a mental health condition. Judge Tom DePriest sentenced him to five years on probation, with terms requiring him to take his medication and have no contact with the victim.
Mekuria said he got “no satisfaction” from the outcome.
In February 2011, Florissant police arrested Johnson for unlawful use of a weapon. But he was never charged with the crime, so officials there would not discuss the details of the case.
DePriest declared Johnson a probation violator and issued an arrest warrant in May, after Johnson was arrested for allegedly using a brick to smash the window of a St. Louis police car outside the North Patrol Station. He kicked two officers who tried to arrest him, according to court documents.
A warrant was issued in June for his arrest on assault and trespassing charges in the police car case, and served on him at St. Louis University Hospital after Tuesday’s shooting.
Cindy Musterman, president and owner of Stevens, told a reporter Wednesday, “We never had any indication he would be capable of this kind of violence.”
She said Elsenrath had just talked with Johnson, who had left his office after a discussion about financial aid. “There wasn’t any yelling. There wasn’t any aggressive speech or threats made,” she said.
Then Johnson returned and shot Elsenrath, who was talking on the phone, officials said.
Police said that the two had talked the day before and that Johnson was upset about losing financial assistance, but not threatening.
Police said Johnson used a seven-shot Kel-Tec 9-millimeter semiautomatic handgun that was found near where he fell in a stairwell. It had three live rounds remaining.
Dotson said the serial numbers had been filed off, suggesting to investigators that it was stolen. Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were able to restore the numbers anyway and were trying to trace the weapon.
Occupants at Johnson’s address refused to speak with reporters, but neighbors described him as quiet, seemingly harmless and known to have learning disabilities.
Elsenrath, who had been with the college about 15 years, lives in Winfield with his wife and two children. Friends described him as an honest and fair man, an avid hunter and a sideline farmer.
Mike “Hoot” Jones of Old Monroe said they rarely talked about Elsenrath’s work, but he remembered one particular conversation: “He told me that getting financing for students was getting harder all the time and the interest rates and things they charged for them was getting to where kids would not be able to pay for them.”
Tim Barker, Susan Weich and Jennifer Mann of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report