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Officer Nick O’Rear’s Killer Avoids Death Penalty, Pleads Guilty To Murder

Birmingham, AL – The convicted felon who fatally shot Kimberly Police Officer Nick O’Rear in the head during a vehicle pursuit in 2020 has pleaded guilty to a reduced charge that will allow him to avoid the death penalty.

Preston Cheyenne Johnson, 39, was originally facing a capital murder charge for the Feb. 4, 2020 shooting death of Officer O’Rear, The Birmingham News reported.

“The murder of a law enforcement officer, in my mind, is one of the worst crimes you can commit and is always prosecuted by our office as vigorously as the evidence and law will allow,’’ Jefferson County Chief Deputy District Attorney Joe Roberts said.

“Unfortunately, the main witness in this case, who was in the vehicle with the defendant when he shot and killed Officer O’Rear and shot at and attempted to kill [Warrior Police] Officer Lee Glenn, has been unreliable from the very beginning of the prosecution due to her substance abuse challenges and unstable living situation,” Roberts explained, according to The Birmingham News.

As a result, prosecutors made “a very difficult decision” to offer Johnson a plea agreement to a reduced charge of murder, he said.

“This was a very difficult decision choosing to settle this case,” Roberts told The Birmingham News. “The defendant was looking at the possibility of the death penalty or life without parole and in my opinion when a police officer is murdered those sentences are absolutely appropriate.”

The prosecutor said the decision was made with the involvement of Officer O’Rear’s parents.

“Nick’s parents have been very involved in every phase of the prosecution including the decision to settle the case,” he told The Birmingham News.

Johnson pleaded guilty to the reduced charge on June 13.

He also pleaded guilty to the attempted murder of Officer Glenn.

Jefferson County Circuit Judge Alaric May subsequently sentenced him to 25 years in prison, which will be followed by a 16-year federal prison sentence for an unrelated firearms case, The Birmingham News reported.

Roberts said that “under the circumstances,” Officer O’Rear’s family was “satisfied with having the defendant admit his guilt and serve a 25-year state sentence to be followed by a 16-year federal sentence.”

“I do not believe this resolution is perfect justice for what the defendant did, but I have learned over my 20-plus years as a prosecutor that the system is not perfect and sometimes, we have to accept less than perfect justice to avoid the risk of a major injustice occurring at trial,’’ the prosecutor added.

Alabama State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) Special Agent Pete Acosta testified about Officer O’Rear’s fatal encounter with the convicted felon in a prior court hearing, The Birmingham News reported.

The incident began as Officer Glenn was parked alongside Interstate 65 shortly after 10 p.m. on Feb. 4, 2020.

As Johnson passed by him in a black BMW, the suspect suddenly began driving erratically, Agent Acosta said.

Officer Glenn activated his lights and siren and tried to pull Johnson over, but he refused to stop, The Birmingham News reported.

The pursuit was already underway when Officer O’Rear joined in near mile marker 281.

Officer O’Rear positioned himself ahead of the suspect vehicle and Officer Glenn remained behind it, Agent Acosta said.

According to investigators, Johnson’s female passenger later told police that Johnson told her to grab a gun, but that she refused, The Birmingham News reported.

She said Johnson then reached into the back seat and grabbed an AK-47.

The suspect fired the rifle through his windshield, striking Officer O’Rear, then fired backwards towards Officer Glenn’s patrol car, Agent Acosta said.

Both patrol vehicles were heavily damaged by gunfire, he noted.

Agent Acosta said Officer O’Rear crashed into an interstate median after he was shot in the head, according to The Birmingham News.

The female passenger told investigators that when Johnson realized there were no longer police following him, he pulled off the interstate and ditched the BMW behind a church, Agent Acosta said.

She said they also hid multiple items in the woods near the car, The Birmingham News reported.

Investigators later recovered the stashed Glock handgun, the AK-47, a purse, keys, a camouflage jacket, and narcotics.

The gunman placed a couple of phone calls before a man in a white GMC pickup truck came and picked them up.

By then, police had already identified Johnson as the shooter due to their previous contacts with him and the description of the suspect vehicle.

The wife of the man who picked up Johnson and his female passenger contacted police after she noticed news alerts saying Johnson was wanted, The Birmingham News reported.

She happened to have the ability to track her husband’s location, which helped police pinpoint their where the suspect was.

Officers intercepted Johnson and three other individuals near Dora on U.S. 78 at approximately 1 a.m. on Feb. 5, 2020, The Birmingham News reported.

The other three subjects were released after questioning and were not charged.

Johnson was previously convicted of drug possession in Morgan County in 2017 and served time in prison until July of 2018, according to The Birmingham News.

On Oct. 31, 2019, Cullman County deputies found him in possession of a stolen Corvette, as well as an AR-15, suboxone, 13 grams of methamphetamine, scales, and baggies.

Johnson was arrested on charges of possession of drug paraphernalia, possession of drugs with intent to distribute, and receiving stolen property, WBRC reported.

Officer O’Rear, 33, served the Kimberly Police Department (KPD) for one year and had previously served as an Ashville Police Department officer, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.

The father-of-two was expecting his third child when he was murdered.

Officer O’Rear also left behind his parents and his sister.

“Today may not bring us peace, but maybe, maybe it can bring us acceptance and help us finally start to heal,’’ his mother, Kelly O’Rear, told The Birmingham News after the sentencing hearing.

“No parent is supposed to outlive their child. It is a nightmare that I wouldn’t wish on anyone,” she said. “There are no words to accurately describe the endless ache and sudden pains that come with having to say goodbye to your child who was suddenly and violently stolen from you. Nothing can prepare you for that gut-wrenching and crippling pain.”

Kelly O’Rear said her family is “still hurt and angry,” but that they believe they need to “find forgiveness” if they are to have peace, The Birmingham News reported.

“Not just for our family, but for Johnson and his family as well,” she added.

Written by
Holly Matkin

Holly is a former probation and parole officer who is married to a sheriff’s deputy. She is a regular contributor to Signature Montana magazine, and has written feature articles for Distinctly Montana magazine.

View all articles
Written by Holly Matkin

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