A 22-year-old homeless man faces up to life in prison for attempting to burglarize a Millington area home and nearly killing its 73-year-old homeowner with a propane tank.
Daniel Jay Johnson pleaded no contest last week in Tuscola County Circuit Court to armed robbery involving serious injury, first degree home invasion, and assault with intent to do great bodily harm less than murder. He faces anywhere between 11 years to life in prison.
According to a police report, Johnson admitted he tried to burglarize a home in the Murphy Lake area near Millington on April 22 after falling on hard times.
When the homeowner returned home as Johnson was mid-burglary, however, Johnson bashed him in the head with a propane tank and fled the scene. The victim had to spend several days in the hospital and received five staples, 18 stitches and had bleeding in the brain.
“This case very easily could have become a homicide,” said Mark Reene, prosecutor, Tuscola County. “We were extremely fortunate it wasn’t.”
Tuscola County Sheriff’s Department and Michigan State Police investigators worked together and cast a wide net over mid-Michigan to identify Johnson as a suspect and arrest him in less than a month.
“I am very proud of the way our officers investigated this crime, trying to get this perpetrator off the street as quickly as possible so that other victims in our county did not develop,” said Tuscola County Undersheriff Glen Skrent. “I also like the way they thought ‘outside of the box’ to utilize technology to place the suspect at the scene.”
A combination of Facebook messages, texts and phone records obtained via warrant from service providers, along with global positioning satellite (GPS) technology — even a so-called “tracking” app — helped speed the process of locating and arresting Johnson, creating a kind of “tech trail.”
“That plays huge in more cases than you can imagine,” Reene said, adding that newer technologies such as Facebook “can be an extraordinary tool for us.”
The pursuit of Johnson began, however, when a vehicle was discovered by a family member who had rushed to the scene of the attempted burglary. Through state registration, police traced the car to Johnson, who became a person of interest.
About the same time, another relative of the victim —identified as Richard Blakeley Keiter in the charges filed by Tuscola County prosecutors against Johnson — was asked about her acquaintance with Johnson. Keiter did not return a message left by The Advertiser.
Johnson had sent Keiter’s relative a message via Facebook stating that he was sorry about what happened. Johnson also asked the relative if she was OK when she publicly identified Keiter as a relative via Facebook, and when the story was first reported.
“This was the first time he had talked to her in about 1.5 years,” according to the police report.
Police would also learn Johnson and a second relative had dated several years ago and that he was familiar with Keiter and his home and had slept many times near a big safe containing guns and money. Police learned Keiter even loaned Johnson $900 to get out of jail years ago when he was arrested on spring break.
“You have someone (Johnson) who is aware of all of the family dynamics and exploited that,” Reene said. “If you’re willing to engage in that type of behavior with someone you know, and someone who you know in the past has treated you well, there is certainly every reason to think he would be willing to do it again with someone he doesn’t have any knowledge of or any relationship with.
“It really did put a premium on apprehending the suspect,” Reene said.
Johnson would later tell police that at the time of the burglary he had a new girlfriend and together they had just had a newborn baby, and that he had recently been laid off of work.
Johnson and his girlfriend also had been kicked out of the house they were sharing with another couple after failing to pay rent. Johnson’s girlfriend and the couple’s newborn were able to secure housing with one of Johnson’s relatives, but Johnson was essentially living in his car.
Further, Johnson said he had been using heroin daily for a period of about a-year-and-a-half.
Desperate for money, Johnson told police he ran down Huston Drive on April 22 wearing a hoodie. Witnesses told police they saw him veer off the road and into the woods near Keiter’s residence. Because it was April and there weren’t any leaves on trees, he was easily seen.
Keiter told police he had left his home to go have coffee with someone. He left his home unlocked, making it easy for Johnson to gain access.
“I just walked in the garage and I walked through the side door,” Johnson told investigators, adding he thought he would be able to make money by selling items he stole, such as guns.
However, Keiter told police he changed his mind about coffee that morning and returned earlier than he normally would.
Upon his return, he noticed several items had been moved and/or seemed out of place.
Alerted to the abnormalities, Keiter then began checking the rest of his house. He told police as he was walking down a hallway, Johnson jumped out of the bathroom and began hitting him in the head and chest.
Investigators would later determine Johnson had struck Keiter several times with a propane tank, causing a massive head injury.
Johnson told police he “panicked.”
After the assault of Keiter, Johnson said he “got the hell out of there” and went to his car that had been identified earlier as being near the scene by Keiter’s relative, who had since left the area of Johnson’s vehicle.
Using a GPS sensor that was in Johnson’s car, police were able to put his vehicle in the vicinity of the April 22 burglary at exactly the same time of the incident.
Johnson was arrested in Vassar on May 19, less than a month post-burglary.
According to the police report, Johnson said that he “wished he had never even went there and did that.”
Police asked Johnson if there was anything he wanted to say to Keiter.
“I’m very sorry,” Johnson said, reportedly having a hard time answering the question while sobbing and crying. “Worst mistake I’ve ever made in my life.”
Skrent said the case is a good reminder for citizens to use caution when opening their homes to others.
“I would stress the importance of who you allow into your home and what information you disclose,” Skrent said. “Even if it is a trusted friend, they may have a friend who is not so trustworthy.
“Word getting out about what valuables you have in the house should be kept to a minimum.”
Johnson is set to be sentenced Oct. 19.
Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at email@example.com