Documents: Atalissa shooter was a college professor and wanted to attack truck drivers

Shooter thought he saw semi kill a family; DCI agent doubts this claim, attributes attack to road rage

ATALISSA — An Illinois college professor who shot at a truck driver and police officers earlier this month near Interstate 80 says he was “obsessed” over a family he had seen killed by a semi, according to court documents.

Charles Johnston, 60, of Belvidere, Ill., was arrested Jan. 11 after he shot at motorists and law enforcement officers. He faces Cedar County charges of attempted murder and assault on a peace officer with a dangerous weapon.

Johnston believed he witnessed a semi-truck driver run a family’s vehicle off the highway that day, killing them, Ryan Herman, a special agent with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, told the Des Moines Register.

Herman, however, said investigators have found no evidence to support that claim and described the shooting as road rage.

A Cedar County search warrant affidavit said the sheriff’s office took multiple calls around 2:15 p.m. of someone in a small black car shooting at vehicles on Interstate 80 near the Pilot station near Atalissa, about 25 miles east of Iowa City.

A semi driver reported leaving the Pilot station and being shot at by a person in a black Volkswagen — later identified as Johnston — who was pulling into the gas station.

“The driver of the Volkswagen pointed a handgun out the window and fired multiple shots at the semi driver,” the affidavit states.

The semi driver said Johnston circled around to the truck’s passenger side, so the semi driver hit Johnston’s car and pinned it under the trailer. Johnston continued to shoot into the passenger door of the semi.

The semi driver then pulled onto Atalissa Road and saw Johnston go south on Atalissa Road and park. Johnston then approached the semi in his vehicle.

A Iowa State Patrol trooper arrived at that time and — after exiting his vehicle — was fired upon twice by Johnston.

One round hit the trooper’s patrol car, and the trooper returned fire.

More law enforcement officers arrived, and Johnston eventually left his vehicle and gave himself up.

“The suspect indicated that he became enraged or obsessed over a family that was killed in an accident with a semi and that the motive behind his actions was to harm a truck driver or truck drivers in retaliation,” the affidavit states.

Johnston also told authorities he was taking “several” prescription drugs and had recently been hospitalized. Authorities said they recovered two prescription bottles with marijuana inside, two pipes, a box of cigarettes with a joint inside and a third prescription bottle containing medications that did not match the label.

Johnston was an associate professor in the psychology department at Harper College in Palatine, Ill., which fired him Tuesday. He had been with the college since 1996.

Johnston remains in the Cedar County Jail, where his bail has been set at $1 million cash. He is to be arraigned March 2.

l Comments: (319) 398-8238; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com

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