After listening to six days of testimony and deliberating for less than a day, 12 jurors found a Tonto Basin man acted in self-defense when he shot his neighbor in the back of the head more than a year ago.
Defendant Ronald Johns, 70, was found not guilty of attempted murder, aggravated assault and cruelty to animals.
He will be sentenced July 25 for three counts of misconduct involving weapons, which he pleaded guilty to two days before trial.
While Gila County Attorney Daisy Flores said she appreciated the service of the jurors, she was extremely disappointed with the verdict.
Johns wasn’t in court Thursday for closing arguments. His attorney, Michael Bernays, said health issues kept Johns from the courtroom Wednesday and he stayed away Thursday.
Bernays did not return a request for comment as of press time.
Throughout the trial, Johns appeared frail, wearing an oxygen tube and sitting in a wheelchair.
The frail image of Johns today is much different than the man who acted with force on May 5, said prosecuting attorneys.
In closing arguments, Gila County Attorney Patti Wortman painted a picture of Johns as a man fed up with petty property disputes with Tonto Basin neighbor Loren Eaton.
“This is the man who intended to get rid of a problem neighbor because no one else would help him do it,” Wortman said. “He wasn’t acting in self-defense on May 5, 2010. He was attempting to execute Loren Eaton and in the process a horse got shot.”
Bernays argued Johns was entirely warranted in firing his .410-gauge double-barreled shotgun at Eaton that morning.
“He is justified in reasonably believing that his life was about to be in danger and therefore he had the right to respond, to react, to defend himself,” he said.
“If Johns was defending himself, why was Eaton shot in the back of the head?” Wortman asked.
The state gave the following account of what happened that day:
Eaton woke up late, drank a cup of coffee, fed his animals and decided to walk down Desert Rose, an easement between Eaton’s and Johns’ properties. While Eaton lived across the street from Johns, Eaton owned an additional piece of land adjacent to the southwest corner of Johns’ home that he kept horses on.
As Eaton walked southbound, he noticed Johns’ vehicles were parked next to the easement, facing each other. This was unusual because the vehicles were always kept by Johns’ home.
As Eaton walked, he looked over at several horses he owned, which followed him down the fence line east of the easement.
“Loren didn’t threaten Johns, he didn’t even see him,” Wortman said. “He is walking down the easement and all of a sudden his world changes, he is shot in the back of the head.”
Eaton fell to the ground, realized he had been shot, “that his cheek is hanging open” and reached for his pistol, which he usually wore on his left hip. But Eaton couldn’t get the gun out, it was trapped between him and the ground.
Johns walked over, clobbered Eaton on the back of the head and walked away. Eaton staggered back to his driveway and called 911.
“Loren Eaton is very lucky. He was shot in the back of the head and most people shot in the back of the head don’t survive,” she said.
Because Johns didn’t like how Eaton was using his property and no one would help him, Johns took action.
“He decided, Ron Johns, that he needed to put an end to the disputes after four or five years of this ongoing feud. He needed to put an end to it and nobody would help him,” she said.
Bernays offered a far different account.
Bernays claimed Eaton was a dope smoker, as evidenced by a bowl and marijuana found by deputies in Eaton’s trailer. Eaton admitted during the trial that he had smoked and gotten high the night before. Bernays suggested this might have made Eaton act strangely or forget what happened on May 5.
In any event, Eaton lived his life on the outskirts of society, in a run-down trailer and tent. Eaton enjoyed provoking Johns and did so frequently, putting a sign up near Johns’ home that read, “Future site of Loren Eaton’s hog farm.”
A month before May 5, Eaton even pretended to draw his pistol on Johns, his wife and their grandchild as they drove by. Johns called the sheriff’s office, deputies took Eaton’s pistol away, but filed no charges.
“Eaton thinks it is perfectly OK to walk around and act like it is OK to draw down on someone,” Bernays said. “He paid the price for that.”
A week before the shooting, Eaton got his gun back. As Eaton walked down the easement that morning, he taunted Johns with the gun on his hip.
Feeling threatened, Johns grabbed his shotgun and shot one .44-caliber Magnum, a bullet not typically fired from a shotgun. Johns’ son had given him seven of those bullets earlier and Johns had decided to use them, Bernays said.
The first shot missed, but Eaton fell to the ground in shock, his back to Johns.
Bernays then argued Eaton got up on his hands and knees and reached for his gun again. Johns shot once more, hitting Eaton in the back of the head. But this did not keep Eaton down. As he squirmed on the ground for his pistol, Johns, out of ammunition, walked over and clubbed him on the back of the head, breaking the stock of the shotgun.
“A lot of people are lucky in this case. Eaton is lucky (the bullet) was not a half an inch to the right because he would be dead right now. Ron Johns is lucky because if it had been half an inch to the left, he would be dead right now,” he said.
If Johns had missed with that final bullet, Eaton would have gotten his pistol unholstered and fired.
“Let’s hope this taught (Eaton) a lesson about how you behave in society and who you threaten and when you threaten and that it is not all right to act like you are going to draw that handgun every time you get pissed off at somebody,” Bernays said.