N.C. trooper critically wounded in hail of roadside gunfire

Jennifer Brevorka, Staff Writer

Copyright 2005 The News and Observer
The News & Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina)

FAYETTEVILLE -- A motorist unleashed a hail of bullets at a Highway Patrol officer Monday before fleeing a traffic stop on Interstate 95, leaving the trooper critically wounded on the side of the highway.

With help from the sleuthing of a passing driver, deputies then arrested Marvin Bell Johnson, 40, of Richmond, Va., and charged him with assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury with intent to kill, attempted murder and assault on a government official.

Johnson is wanted in Virginia for violating his parole on a second-degree murder charge, Cumberland County officials said.

Trooper J.C. "Chris" Horniak, 30, was shot in the shoulder, leg and abdomen. One of the bullets might have gone through his protective vest.

After fellow troopers tended to his wounds at the scene, Horniak was rushed to Cape Fear Valley Medical Center, where he had surgery. He was later conscious but unable to speak because of a tube in his throat. Medical officials said Horniak was in critical but stable condition late Monday.

The shooting, near highway marker 52 on southbound I-95, was less than a mile from the site of a fatal shooting eight years ago, when Highway Patrol Sgt. Lloyd Edward Lowry and Cumberland County Deputy Sheriff David Hathcock were gunned down during a traffic stop. Brothers Kevin and Tilmon Golphin were convicted of killing the two officers after Lowry stopped them as they rode in a stolen car.

"I-95 has a reputation in our state," said Lt. Everett Clendenin, spokesman for the Highway Patrol. "It's a dangerous highway for law enforcement, we know that."

The highway, which runs from New England to Florida, is a corridor for drug couriers between Miami and New York. The most mundane traffic stop there can be dangerous, Clendenin said.

"We're going to engage these people when we're doing our job," he said.

Traffic stop turns violent

Horniak has worked in Cumberland County for the Highway Patrol since 2000, Clendenin said.

Shortly before 10:15 a.m. Monday, Horniak was patrolling the southbound lanes. A Virginia license plate flapping on the back of a green Oldsmobile prompted Horniak to pull the driver over, officials said.

Horniak walked to the passenger side window and asked the driver for his license, said Horniak's boss, 1st Sgt. R.S. Kidd. The driver told Horniak the license was in the trunk and stepped out of the car to get it. Horniak, on the other side of the car, walked with the man to the trunk.

Instead of opening the trunk, the man pulled out a handgun and began firing at Horniak, Kidd said. He said Horniak had removed his gun from his holster but did not fire back.

"He just surprised Chris," Kidd said. "He got the drop on him."

Bleeding, Horniak stumbled toward his cruiser, while the driver continued to fire, Kidd said. Horniak reached inside the car for his radio. The phrase "Signal 25" -- code for help -- crackled across the airways.

As Horniak lay on the ground next to his car, waiting for an ambulance, fellow troopers arrived. The men tended to Horniak's wounds and listened to his recollection of the shooting.

Nearby, a motorist who witnessed the shooting as he was driving on I-95 began chasing the green Oldsmobile, Clendenin said. The man used his cell phone to call 911 and tell operators about the shooting.

At exit 49, the Oldsmobile turned off the interstate. The witness followed and tailed the green car to a Super 8 motel, where the driver parked and got out. Then, law enforcement took over.

Deputies from the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office arrived at the motel and asked the clerk to match the license plate number to a room.

In the parking lot, they arrested Nichelle Steele, 21, of Darlington, S.C., who authorities said was a passenger in the Oldsmobile. She was charged with accessory to attempted murder. It was not clear Monday evening how Steele and Johnson know each other.

Cumberland County SWAT team members then went to the pair's second-floor room. Deputies knocked on the door, and when Johnson answered, SWAT team members grabbed his arm, pulled him out of the room and pushed him to the ground, said Debbie Tanna, spokeswoman for the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office.

Thirty-four minutes after Horniak was shot, police had the suspects in custody, Clendenin said.

Investigation and recovery

A stretch of southbound I-95 remained closed for several hours as dozens of law officers combed the median looking for evidence. The alleged shooter claimed he had thrown the gun out of the car window as he sped off, Kidd said.

At Cape Fear Valley Medical Center, Horniak rested in a recovery bed. Horniak's wife, parents, sister and Kidd stopped by the room to visit. Horniak could not speak, but by 4:30 p.m., he was writing notes to his family, Clendenin said.

Across town, at the Super 8, deputies rooted through Johnson's room.

Johnson and Steele checked into the motel late Sunday or early Monday, said Tercel Walker, the front desk manager.

Walker was not working Monday, but when fellow managers from other nearby motels called him to find out what happened, he headed to the office.

"It definitely was a trip to see this happen in my motel," Walker said.

"I always tell people this is one of the most exciting businesses. I compare it to police work and to convenience store work because you never know who is going to come in." 

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