Lufkin PD releases new information regarding officer-involved shooting

Epthen Johnson (Source: Angelina County Jail)
Epthen Johnson (Source: Angelina County Jail)

LUFKIN, TX (KTRE) - A death inquest form identifies the man shot and killed by a Lufkin police officer early Wednesday during a stabbing as 40-year-old Epthen Johnson, of Lufkin.

The inquest states the time of death as 1:45 a.m. at the emergency room at CHI St. Luke's Memorial Hospital. Justice of the Peace Billy Ball signed the form.

Police say at around 1:20 a.m., an officer responded to a stabbing in progress call in the 600 block of Kurth Drive just outside of Jones Park after a 911 call about a man "being knifed to death." The victim's screams can be heard in the background of the 911 audio, and "the caller urges the dispatcher to get a med unit and officer en route quickly."

According to a press release from the Lufkin Police Department, Officer Robert Blake Witherspoon's body cam showed  that Johnson was on top of his victim, Jose Isabel Rodriguez, 32, attempting to cut his throat when Officer Robert Blake Witherspoon "discharged his duty pistol, resulting in Johnson's death."

"The officer loudly attempted to get Johnson's attention and commanded him, 'Let me see your hands' multiple times before taking lethal action," the press release stated.

The press release gave a narrative of what happened in Witherspoon's body cam video.

"The officer shouts at Johnson "'Let me see your hands' multiple times, but Johnson fails to acknowledge the officer's presence and continues the stabbing attempts," the press released stated. "The officer then fires three shots and pauses to see if Johnson stops his assault. Johnson is unfazed by being shot and the officer's additional attempts to get his attention. He continues stabbing at the screaming man. The officer then fires a fourth time, stopping the assault."

In the moments after the shooting, Witherspoon tells Rodriguez, 'Hang on, man. Hang on" several times in an effort to calm him down, the press release stated. Then the video shows the LPD officer doing a "combat breathing technique "to slow his heart while he is waiting for other officers to arrive on the scene.

"Rodriguez later told officers that he prevented Johnson from fatally stabbing or cutting him by gripping the blade of Johnson's knife, evidenced by several lacerations to his hand," the press release stated. "He said that just before the officer arrived, he began to tire from the fight and doubted his survival."

Rodriguez suffered a shallow stab wound near his belly button, a deep cut above his left eye, defensive wounds to his hands, scratches on his neck, and abrasions all over his body.

"An officer's desire always is to save life and prevent injury, but a sad reality is that we sometimes have to take lethal action to preserve or protect the lives of others," said Lufkin Police Chief Gerald Williamson. "Officer Witherspoon is visibly shaken and will be deeply affected by this for the rest of his life."

Johnson died at CHI St. Luke's Health Memorial Hospital in Lufkin. Rodriguez was taken to Woodland Heights Medical Center, where he was treated for multiple injuries. The press release stated that Rodriguez is out of the hospital and is expected to make a full recovery.

Johnson has four prior arrests in Angelina County dating back to 1999, including one for a charge of aggravated robbery in 2000. He was last arrested in November of 2016 on a bond surrender for delivery of a controlled substance.

Witherspoon has been with the Lufkin Police Department since 2011. He is currently on paid administrative leave, per department policy.

According to the press release, the Lufkin Police Department's leadership, the mayor, the city council, and the three Lufkin PD chaplains - Randy Brown, Ray Vann, and M.E. Lyons - all reviewed the body cam footage.

"City council has a legal obligation to the city to review the video to dispel rumors among their constituents," Williamson said. "The three police chaplains, who are sworn members of the Department, were also shown the video to better assist our officers with their mental and emotional health in the coming days."

The press release stated that the incident is only the Lufkin Police Department's fourth officer-involved shooting in the last 30 years. The other three incidents involved armed suspects, and they occurred in 1992, 2000, and 2010.

"I would like to ask for your prayers and compassion for Mr. Johnson's friends and family as they grieve," Williamson said. "I ask the same for Officer Witherspoon and his family."

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