Being too “lazy” to head to the proper area to clear his pistol, Johnson, standing near another Marine, Lance Cpl. Riley S. Kuznia, pulled his pistol from his holster with his finger on the trigger.
“I reached into the holster, the weapon had to be on Fire, and I didn’t know it. I pulled it out and as I was going like this boom,” Johnson told officers with the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department immediately after the shooting, according to an investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service obtained by Marine Corps Times through a Freedom of Information Act request.
After the shot, Kuznia dropped to the ground. He was pronounced dead at 5:59 a.m., according to the investigation.
“I just dropped the pistol and went to assist him,” Johnson told D.C. police, insisting that the shot was an accident.
But the investigation, taken over by NCIS in March 2019, reveals a unit culture that allowed Marines to regularly ignore weapons safety. It also revealed that Johnson had a history of pointing what he believed to be an unloaded pistol at fellow Marines and pulling the trigger.
‘Dry firing’ daily
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In July 2020 Johnson was sentenced to five years in the brig for the accident killing, convicted of four counts of Article 92, willful dereliction of duty, and one count of Article 119, involuntary manslaughter, in accordance with a previously agreed upon plea agreement, Marine Corps Times previously reported.
One Marine, while conducting an impromptu and unsupervised dry fire exercise with Johnson, told NCIS he saw Johnson turn around and point his unloaded M9 service pistol at a stairwell where a squad of Marines was walking and pulled his trigger.
Johnson then turned back around and the Marines kept practicing their dry firing without saying anything, the investigation said.
One time Johnson was standing post listening to Soulja Boy when he pulled out his pistol and started dancing while waving it in the air, other Marines told investigators.
The Marine told NCIS Johnson was “jumped on” or scolded after the incident.
A video of Johnson, taken on Dec. 31, 2018, the day before Kuznia was killed, showed Johnson pointing his gun at the camera while standing post.
One Marine told NCIS that Johnson “dry fired” his pistol almost daily after being relieved from duty.
No Marines said they remembered Johnson being formally punished for his firearm safety issues ― while his discipline record in the investigation only shows one counseling on appropriate online conduct from September 2017, which Marines were required to sign in the wake of Marines United.
“Following the incident, Guard Company initiated actions to increase supervision and personal accountability,” Capt. Katie Kochert, a spokeswoman for Marine Barracks Washington, told Marine Corps Times Wednesday.
The actions included having a Marine officer or staff noncommissioned officer serve as the guard duty officer everyday and a “revamped” shift turnover procedure.
“The newly implemented procedures provide more oversight and increased personal accountability of all service weapons and ammunition during the turnover process,” Kochert added.
Most of the Marine’s firearm safety issues occurred during unofficial training events conducted by squads in his unit, according to the investigation, including shoulder to shoulder dry firing, “draw stroking” and room clearances with their duty pistols.
One Marine told NCIS the squad would conduct “draw stroking” drill three or more times a month where they would line up shoulder-to-shoulder and practice drawing their weapons while aiming at a blank wall.
Though initiated by the sergeant of the guard, once told to start the drill Marines were on there own with no range commands, supervision or specific direction, according to the investigation.
A Marine told NCIS that Johnson would sometimes point his gun sideways at the wall during the drill or even aim at other Marines while conducting the unofficial training.
Johnson “would pull the trigger while his empty pistol was aimed directly at the other Marines in the unit,” NCIS said in the investigation.
Johnson along with “‘everyone else’ did dry fire and room clearing practices with their firearms, which as ‘common,’” another Marine told NCIS.
The drills would take either immediately before or after the Marines were on duty, one Marine said.
Another told NCIS that three Marines would ensure each weapon was empty prior to starting the drill.
“Any Marines who may have violated weapons safety procedures either before or after the incident would have faced appropriate corrective and administrative action, however the command cannot speak to specifics,” Kochert said.