Man who died in Tarrant jail sought help for schizophrenic episode before arrest, family says

Anthony Ray Johnson Jr. tried to get help when he began noticing the symptoms of a schizophrenic episode coming on, according to his family.

He went to his mother and told her what he was experiencing. They got in the car together and drove to a mental health facility, where he hoped he would be admitted for treatment.

But that didn’t happen, his sister Janell Johnson told the Star-Telegram on Tuesday. The 31-year-old Marine Corps veteran, with infectious optimism and the most beautiful handwriting his family had ever seen, was turned away. On Sunday morning, he died in Tarrant County Jail custody.

The Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office said Johnson was arrested Friday by Saginaw police on charges of possession of a controlled substance in penalty group 1, tampering with/fabricating physical evidence with intent to impair, and evading arrest or detention and was taken to the Tarrant County Jail on Saturday. Police were responding to a call about a man in an intersection wielding a knife, the sheriff’s office said in a news release.

Anthony Johnson was pepper-sprayed by detention officers who were conducting contraband checks in cells that morning, according to the sheriff’s office, which oversees the jail. The sheriff’s office said Johnson refused to leave his cell for the check and got into a fight with officers, who eventually used pepper spray on him.

When he was examined by medical staff in the jail, he was unresponsive. Paramedics took him to John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, where he was pronounced dead about an hour after he was pepper-sprayed, the sheriff’s office said. Results of an autopsy are pending.

Janell Johnson said her family hasn’t gotten any answers from authorities. They didn’t even know Anthony Johnson had been pepper-sprayed until they read about it in news articles, she said. When a jail chaplain and two law enforcement officers came to their door Sunday morning, they were only told that he was dead. The officer said they couldn’t tell the family any more because of an ongoing investigation, according to Janell Johnson.

A spokesperson for the sheriff’s office did not immediately respond to a Star-Telegram phone call and text requesting more information Tuesday. Sheriff Bill Waybourn asked the Texas Rangers to lead the investigation. In a statement Tuesday, the Texas Department of Public Safety said the Rangers’ investigation is ongoing and “there is no further information available.”

Arrest came after mental health episode, family says

Anthony Johnson was diagnosed with schizophrenia after serving five years in the Marines, Janell Johnson told the Star-Telegram. He enlisted to follow in his father’s footsteps. When he learned of his diagnosis, he was determined not to let it rule his life. He was taking his medication, learned the signs of an oncoming episode and wasn’t ashamed to ask for help, she said.

That’s what happened on Friday, Janell Johnson said. Her brother noticed the symptoms and went to his mother, asking her to take him back to Millwood Hospital Behavioral Health Center. He’d been there earlier this year when he’d had an episode and Fort Worth police officers trained in mental health had him admitted, and after staying in the center for about a week and a half was released and was able to go on living his life, his sister said.

He hoped that was what would happen again, but Janell Johnson said that when he showed up, staff at the hospital told him he couldn’t stay. He was not showing signs of violence toward himself or others at the time and he was taken home.

A spokesperson for Millwood Hospital could not immediately be reached Tuesday afternoon for comment.

Johnson was arrested later that day. He called his family from the jail around 1 p.m. Saturday, Janell Johnson said. He seemed to be doing better. He was looking forward to getting better and getting out, he said in the phone call.

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A brother, uncle, son and friend

Janell Johnson said her brother was always a warm, caring person. He had a sense of humor that could make just about anything fun, and his intelligence was baffling. He would constantly surprise his family and friends with what he knew, and teaching others brought him joy.

She remembered when the two of them were kids and Anthony Johnson went to the YMCA to take swimming classes. He would come home and immediately start sharing what he’d learned.

“He told me the water’s not that scary, you just have to jump in,” Janell Johnson said. “I learned how to swim just because of him.”

Anthony Johnson would also make sacrifices for the people he cared about, as if it was nothing, his sister said. Janell Johnson is a single mother, but she wasn’t raising her son alone because her brother always wanted to find new ways to help out.

“He was there for my son and if there was anything he wanted to do it was to make sure he was strong enough to be here with me and my son,” Janell Johnson said. “He was always there for him, always. He took time, he was patient, he played games with him, he never made my son feel alone.”

Anthony Johnson kept her son entertained the same way he did for his four siblings when they were growing up, she said. He could come up with new games to play and new activities to do.

With him gone, Janell Johnson said her son has lost more than an uncle. He’s lost a friend who could build up his self-esteem and confidence and could motivate anybody even in the toughest of times.

“For anything we needed help, for anything, we knew he would be here, he would do it,” Janell Johnson said. “Even when he was away in the Marine Corps, he was always calling.”

‘Fighting to get help’

Overcome with emotion, Janell Johnson told the Star-Telegram through tears that her brother shouldn’t be dead right now. Veterans deserve better after serving their country, she said. She believes his mental health struggles are linked to his time in the Marines, and the military should have taken care of him after he was out.

And she said he shouldn’t have been turned away from help when he was still present and responsible enough to seek it out for himself. Angry that her brother would almost certainly still be alive today had he not been arrested, she questioned the point of a medical system for people experiencing mental health struggles if they can’t access those resources until they aren’t enough of themselves to seek it out on their own.

“I just want to let people know that there are people out here that are trying to get their mental health together,” Janell Johnson said. “They’re aware of what they’re going through and they’re trying to get better. Despite everything in the world that’s going on and everything they’re going through, they’re trying to do right. My brother was fighting to get help. ... There are people who are working on themselves to be better. Somebody has to meet them halfway.”

History of deaths in Tarrant County Jail

Johnson’s was the second in-custody death at Tarrant County Jail in less than a week. On Thursday morning, Tarrant County detention officers found another inmate unresponsive in his cell after he hadn’t shown up for breakfast, the sheriff’s office said. Medical personnel from JPS responded and attempted life-saving measures, according to a news release. MedStar and the Fort Worth Fire Department also responded.

The man who died Thursday, identified by the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office as 42-year-old Roderick Johnson of Fort Worth, had been in custody since Dec. 4. Results of an autopsy are also pending in his death.

There have been more than 60 deaths in Tarrant County’s jail since Sheriff Waybourn took office in 2017.

In a statement Monday night, Tarrant County Commissioner Alisa Simmons called the rate of deaths at the jail unacceptable.

“I will be asking the United States Department of Justice to investigate the continual problem of people dying in Tarrant County jail facilities,” Simmons said. “Hopefully, my colleagues on commissioners’ court are as interested as I to mitigate these occurrences and will be amenable to seeking a Justice Department review.”

Regarding Anthony Johnson’s death, “there are more questions than answers therefore I am unable to provide details because there has not been an investigation,” Simmons wrote. “I want accountability, I expect transparency and I want a full investigation into everything that occurred, before, during and after the altercation and the subsequent death of Mr. Johnson in our jail, including video footage.”

In 2019, another man incarcerated at the jail, 38-year-old Robert Miller died after he was pepper-sprayed three times at close range during his intake and did not receive medical attention when he told a nurse he could not breathe, a Star-Telegram investigation reported.

A county pathologist ruled in 2020 that Miller’s death was “natural” as a result of a sickle cell crisis.

An amended autopsy report last year reclassified Miller’s manner of death from “natural” to “undetermined.” But the cause was still listed as sickle cell crisis, which remains in contradiction to what outside experts have told the Star-Telegram.

At a public forum in January, Waybourn defended the conditions at the county jail. At that time, he said that all but six of the deaths during his tenure were due to natural causes and or drugs.

This article includes information from the Star-Telegram’s archives.