Grand jury indicts Riverhead teacher on gun charges

TIM GANNON PHOTO | Joe Johnson (top) leaves court Friday with his lawyer John Ciarelli.

A fourth-grade Riverhead teacher was arraigned on an 11-count grand jury indictment in Suffolk County Criminal Court in Riverside Friday, including charges of criminal possession of a weapon and driving while intoxicated.

The indictment stems from an April 21 arrest in Southampton Village in which teacher Joe Johnson, 38, of Southampton, was found in possession of a loaded .45-caliber handgun during a traffic stop.

Mr. Johnson pleaded not guilty to the charges, and was released after posting $15,000 cash bail.

His next court date is scheduled for June 13 in Judge James F.X. Doyle’s courtroom.

Mr. Johnson, dressed in a brown jacket and red tie, left court with his wife and two family friends without commenting. His attorney, John Ciarelli, also declined to comment to reporters outside the court but said in court that Mr. Johnson “has led an exemplary life.”

Active in the schools, Mr. Johnson has taught in the Riverhead School District since 2000, most recently teaching fourth grade at the Phillips Avenue Elementary School, and has been a high school basketball coach. He also led the annual “Say No to Drugs” march in 2006.

He currently is on leave at his home, and is not teaching, pending the outcome of the charges, school officials have said.

The top charge of second-degree criminal possession of a weapon is a Class C violent felony punishable by up to 15 years in jail.

The indictment includes charges of second-, third- and fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon, driving while intoxicated, second-degree aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle and traffic infractions for crossing a yellow line, talking on a cell phone while driving, and driving on the road shoulder, court records show.

Assistant district attorney Stacy Skorupa testified that on April 21, Mr. Johnson was pulled over on Hill Street in Southampton Village after village police officer Kimberly McMahon observed his car swerving about 3 a.m.

Mr. Johnson told the officer he had been at the Southampton Publick House, where he had been drinking beer, and was returning home, Ms. Skorupa said.

Initially, Ms. Skorupa told the court, Mr. Johnson reached into his glove box to look for his license, and when the officer shined a flashlight into the glove box, all that was in there was an iPod and some papers.

“Subsequent to that, while he was standing outside the car, he was observed making furtive movements towards his waistband,” Ms. Skorupa said. “And then subsequent to that, while he was back in the car and the officer was calling for backup, he was observed making furtive movements towards the glove box.”

When the officer checked the glove box again, Ms. Skorupa said, the handgun was now in it. The gun was loaded and had 13 rounds in it, she said.

Ms. Skorupa pointed out in court that Mr. Johnson has had previous incidents with the law, including a previous gun-related incident for which he was not convicted, and a prior alcohol-related arrest.

In 2006, he pleaded guilty to a driving while ability impaired charged in Riverhead Town, which was pleaded down from driving while intoxicated.

And in Thomas County, Kansas in 1996, Mr. Johnson pleaded guilty to a criminal trespassing charge that was pleaded down from a charge of a controlled weapon and criminal possession of stolen property, according to Ms. Skorupa, who said the original charges stemmed from Mr. Johnson’s being found in possession of a handgun that had been reported stolen. He was only convicted on the misdemeanor trespass charge, she said.

Mr. Johnson also was convicted on five counts of passing bad checks in Thomas County, Kan., in 1996, which also are misdemeanors, Ms. Sorupa said.

He took a pre-screen breath test at the scene in the Southampton Village arrest, which indicated a blood alcohol level of .14, Mr. Skorupa said, adding that he later refused a blood test at the police station.

Mr. Ciarelli said in court that Mr. Johnson was in college playing basketball in 1996 in Kansas and that his life has changed since then.

“Mr. Johnson has led an exemplary life since he graduated from college,” Mr. Ciarelli told the court.

These including being a fourth-grade teacher and a junior varsity basketball coach in Riverhead High School. The best man at Mr. Johnson’s wedding, a deputy sheriff in Lee County, Fla., was present at the arraignment Friday, Mr. Ciarelli said.

That man declined to speak to reporters.

Mr. Ciarelli pointed out that Mr. Johnson was not convicted of the gun charge then.

The attorney said he had presented the court with numerous letters from people speaking to Mr. Johnson’s good character.

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