On the Mysterious Conditions Surrounding the Death of Johnny Lee Perry in Montana
Johnny Lee Perry, a 31-year-old homeless Black man died after being shot by police in Montana and after lifted to a local hospital. His mother still has several unanswered questions.
As a writer and editor here at The North Star, I am often messaged by family members seeking our assistance in advocating on behalf of their loved ones who have faced harm, injury, discrimination, or at worst, death, on account of some form of systemic racism/social prejudice. What I’ve learned over the past two years of doing this work, and what I understood even before I had this position, is that all cases of injustice are not created equally with respect to how they are covered in the media, or how the narrative is interpreted.
There are cases such as George Floyd’s, Ahmaud Arbery’s or Botham Jean’s where the story of victimization leaves no room for gray area. All of the dots connect. The narrative is linear. The perpetrator(s) of the injustice is/are easily identified. The call for advocacy is clear. And there is direct action for rallying communal support, lobbying on behalf of the aggrieved and specific messaging that helps the public be able to articulate the who, when and assumed why a certain tragedy occurred.
Sometimes, even amid the mess that is made by state-sanctioned violence or racist vigilantism, there is a neatness to the story that allows everyone who is exposed to it to be able to piece the puzzle together.
However, there are other stories of injustice that do not neatly fit into a convenient narrative or lead to a direct path of advocacy on behalf of the victim. Sometimes, a story is so distorted in its presentation, or so biased against the victim, that in order to adequately expose the foulness at hand, you have to peel back several layers to get to the root of how that person was wronged.
The story of the death of 31-year-old Missoula, Montana resident, Johnny Lee Perry, is one of those instances where the narrative does not line up as neatly as some of the more high-profile incidents of state-sanctioned violence against a Black life, mostly because the specifics of what led to the end of his life are not as cut-and-dry as other stories that raise our antennas.
I became aware of Johnny Lee Perry’s story a couple of weeks ago after receiving a direct message from one of his sisters on Instagram. Initially, I thought her request for me to shed light on his death was more of a breaking news story, as I had not previously heard anything about him/his case. As it turns out, Johnny’s death that occurred just outside the city of Missoula, Montana happened last August, but there had been minimal coverage on it, outside of the local news, and their coverage was already based around a fixed narrative of Johnny’s role in his demise.
After receiving the message on Instagram, I asked his sister to email me more details about what happened. She sent me a slew of photos to use, humanizing her brother who had been vilified in Montana’s local news, and a message with the following words:
My brother's name is Johnny Lee Perry was very loved by all his family. He leaves behind an immensely devastated family of 16 brothers, 9 sisters and friends. To know Johnny was to know he was an utterly sweet man with a gigantic heart who would help anyone he could, even if it meant he had to take his own shirt off of his back. People say that a lot, but with Johnny it’s true. He was raised in Oakland, CA & upon visiting his mother in Montana he soon fell in love with the people and the environment so he decided to make it his permanent home. The day that Johnny passed the police were called because someone felt threatened by Johnny, the police took 20 minutes to arrive and during that time Johnny did not harm anyone. Johnny tried to flee the scene and the police did not tase him or tackle him. They decided to shoot him in his back. Johnny was not armed. Police have been trained in many art forms of de-escalation. What was done to Johnny was not humane or justified. It should be noted that Johnny was also a victim of violence last year at a homeless shelter where he had an altercation with another man resulting in this man’s death. Once the police gathered all the evidence and witness statements Johnny was freed of any charges because his actions were in self-defense.
From what we, his family, have heard from some of the citizens in Missoula is that some of the police force had an issue with this decision and didn’t like Johnny. We genuinely feel this could be a motive behind what happened to my brother. My brother had mental health issues, something people have tried to advantage of numerous times, something we feel was also taken advantage of in this situation. He has been snatched away from his two beautiful baby girls. They no longer have a father…a father whose smile could light the sky when he was with them. We are extremely heartbroken and devastated with the passing of my brother. Johnny was a very bright and radiant man who loved everyone, he was always happy no matter the situation. My brother was not a “Thug”. He loved skateboarding, playing video games and being home with his family…laughing and making memories. He was a good man who didn’t deserve the end that was handed to him. If you all could help us get Justice for Johnny Lee Perry we would greatly appreciate it.
Upon getting a fuller explanation from his sister, there were more than a few aspects of Johnny’s story that piqued my curiosity to dive deeper into what happened to him. The first thing I did was Google his name to see what news stories were out there related to the incident. One of the first of less than a handful of articles that popped up in searching him was a story from NBC Montana with a heading that read “Coroner identifies Missoula man shot by deputies.” The second sentence of the article read “Johnny Lee Perry is no stranger to law enforcement,” which gave me somewhat of a clue of what the tone of the story of his death would be in the article. The NBC Montana story opened with an altercation that Johnny was involved in at a local homeless shelter that led to another man’s death. Johnny strangled a man in an incident that was ruled as justifiable force/self-defense and was not prosecuted. But the local news outlet frontloaded its story about Johnny’s death with the shelter incident, seemingly to justify the causation of his death based on a previous narrative of violent behavior.
The police narrative around the death of Johnny Lee Perry is an abbreviated one, but goes as follows: Missoula-area cops were informed that a man was wielding a machete in a threatening manner, and went they went to intervene, the man turned the machete in their direction, forcing them to fire a shot at him after several “non-lethal” attempts to calm him went ignored. The man, Johnny Lee Perry, would later die in an area hospital despite being shot in the shoulder and bandaged on the spot.
After reading that account and communicating with his sister, there seemed to be a lot of missing context as to what happened to Johnny, and why his family was adamant about him receiving justice months after the incident had taken place. Johnny’s sister put me in contact with Johnny’s mother, Lesha White, who I spoke with at length to get another account of the incident that claimed her son’s life. Ms. White’s version of events not only provided a fuller picture of what happened on the day in question but also gave context to how Johnny’s battle with homelessness, drug abuse and undiagnosed mental illness, left a cloud of mystery over what exactly happened to him and who was actually responsible for his death.
Johnny Lee Perry, the son
Before getting into the details of what happened to her son, I wanted to ground my conversation with Ms. White by asking her to describe who Johnny was as a son, a brother and a young father. It is always important for me to always acknowledge the humanity of anyone whose life was taken under questionable circumstances, and so I wanted to hear from his mother who he was.
“Johnny was an individual who was very friendly, very outgoing,” Ms. White began. He was always cheerful and smiley. He was a person who was not confrontational. You could like to get along. You like to get along. He had two daughters and he loved his daughters. He spent a lot of time with his daughters. He was a good dad. He was a good dad in being with them. Just taking them places not just a one-time thing. I mean, he kept them, he would keep them, you know, for long periods on him helping the mothers out with them. As a son, he was a very sweet son. He was probably more like me I think in certain aspects and being friendly and outgoing and just a very cheerful-natured person. He didn't let things get him down, you know, the trials of life. He didn't let that get him down or deflect from his good-naturedness. He, he was a very special person, a very special person.”
Johnny had lived the majority of his life in Oakland before relocating to Missoula, Montana. He initially moved to Montana to be near his mother who was living in the town of St. Regis, but ultimately landed in Missoula where his mother would come to learn about Johnny’s great love of nature.
“At the time of his death, he was living in Montana which is where I lived at that time. So he came out to Montana to be with me. And I never knew he was a nature person. I liked the nature of things. I didn't even know I was a nature person, but Johnny came [to Montana] and he took to it like fish outta the water. He loved it.”
“He liked swimming. He liked boating, tubing. He liked hiking. He became an outdoors person. He liked fishing. Yeah, that's what he liked. That was his main interest outside of his daughters,” Ms. White informed me.
Johnny’s love for nature was not a newfound interest. He worked in the park and recreation industry in Oakland for a number of years before moving to Montana. However, he was unable to resume that line of work in Montana and had a scattered employment history upon first arriving. According to Ms. White, Johnny worked a variety of “odd jobs” when he first moved to Montana, including housekeeping work, working at a travel center and at a local resort as a dishwasher. Despite experiencing a great deal of job instability, Johnny brought his younger daughter and her mother out to live with him in Missoula in 2018. They shared an apartment as Johnny pivoted between jobs, but though his daughter and her mother would remain in the apartment, Johnny ultimately ventured out and found himself homeless, spending the majority of his time in Missoula sleeping out of his car.
Still, Johnny's houseless status did not disrupt his good-natured spirit. According to his mother, Johnny was well-known and cherished among various people in his Missoula community that appreciated his generosity of spirit and selflessness.
“After his death, I went and I spoke to everybody I could, and everybody knew Johnny, and they all spoke very well [of] him. Even someone that he had gotten into an altercation with him was like ‘you know, me and Johnny actually got into it. But he was protecting my girl because I was trying to beat her up and Johnny stood it in a way and told me it wasn't the right thing to do’”, Ms. White shared.
“There was another man [that] stated that Johnny had saved his life. Someone had pushed him into a fire and Johnny reached in with his bare hands and pulled him out of the fire, sustaining burns himself. But he pulled him out of the fire and helped to you know, put the fire out that was on him.”
And as I sat listening to Ms. White share stories of Johnny’s kindness as told to her by those in his immediate community, I grew more and more interested in learning more about how the information she received about his death contradicted with the narrative local police and media were telling. So I asked her directly to share with me the story of Johnny’s death as she knew it.
What Happened to Johnny Lee Perry on August 29, 2021: A Mother’s Account
Johnny Lee Perry died on August 29, 2021, after a stand-off between him and Missoula-area police resulted in the police shooting in the shoulder after they alleged he was moving towards them wielding a machete. But according to Ms. White, the details surrounding the police’s account of what happened are not fully consistent with what eyewitnesses shared with her. And there is a larger question as to how Johnny even arrived at the location where the police encounter took place.
“Johnny was out of his area and the place where this happened was not a place that he knew or even frequented. The residents in the area where he stayed told me that they saw him get into a car with someone they weren't familiar with that person either.”
According to information that was shared with her, Ms. White said that Johnny was taken to a homeless ‘camp’ in a mountainous area a few miles outside of Missoula, and it was in those mountains where the police encounter took place. Since his death, she has tried to no avail to find the exact location in an effort to retrace the steps of what occurred on that fateful day.
“I tried to go and find that place myself without success. And I have it in the police report. And when I get myself together, I plan to go back up there and find out something exactly what happened here, because I'm not sure.”
Ms. White had received information that suggested that Johnny was lured to the mountains with the promise of drugs and alcohol, and allegedly by someone who was a family member of the person Johnny strangled at the homeless shelter. Johnny dealt with a meth and marijuana addiction, and the person that is alleged to have brought him to the homeless camp area in the mountains used his substance abuse as a temptation to bring him somewhere outside of his element.
And it was in the mountains where Johnny found himself in an altercation, and gained access to a machete, that according to Ms. White’s account, wasn’t a weapon he owned.
“It wasn't his machete, but it was someone that he knew that had a machete. And he was an older gentleman. So I don't know if he got that person's machete or what happened, but he was trying to protect himself. So I don't know if this other person must have had a weapon or not, but I know Johnny was not the fighting kind. He wouldn't go out and start a fight.”
It was at the point of the altercation when the machete was weaponized that police were called to the area. Per Ms. White’s account, as told to her by eyewitnesses, the police initially attempted to use a foam bullet on Johnny to get him to drop the machete. Witnesses described Johnny frozen with fear upon police arrival, leading him to continue holding the weapon. Ms. White said she knows her son responded based on paranoia he struggled with and was afraid of what the inevitable outcome would be.
“He did not want to put it down and knowing him, I think at this point he was kind of scared. And so he's up this mountain with all these white people. And I think he was scared.”
The next part of the story is where the police account and the eyewitness-to-mother account get conflated. Per the police account, Johnny was moving toward them with the machete, but per eyewitnesses account, as told to his mother, Johnny turned to run from the police. It was at that point that police figured Johnny to be a threat to other campers in the combine and fired a shot into his shoulder. After shooting him in the shoulder, the police narrative is that they immediately went to Johnny to render first aid. They also identified a cut in Johnny’s hand that they assumed came from him wielding the knife. Johnny would later be airlifted to a local hospital where he succumbed to his injuries. Leaving Ms. White to wonder, what happened between first aid being administered to a flesh wound, her son being airlifted for treatment and dying in the hospital.
“My question to them is how did he die from a shoulder wound? If you all administered first aid to him? I mean, it's very rare. I know it happens, but it's very rare that a person died from a gunshot wound to the shoulder. And then from the policing statement, they were not trying to kill him. Hence the wound to the shoulder. I'm saying that they know what they are doing.”
“They should know where the arteries and things are, even in the shoulder, even though sometimes the shots will be off, but what happened there?”
Ms. White told me that she was uncertain as to whether the gunshot wound Johnny received claimed his life or if it was the treatment [or lack thereof] he received on the way to the hospital, and when he arrived at the hospital. Either way, the police were not able to provide her with clear answers.
“What happened when he got to the hospital? They said they didn't know [and that] I would've had to contact the hospital, but that he succumb to the wound in the hospital. So he was alert and everything until he got to the hospital. They were not really giving me any information and they were downright rude.”
Homelessness and Mental Health Issues Caused Johnny Lee Perry to be Treated with a Lack of Care…
“He was kind of paranoid. Let's put it that way,” Ms. White informed me when I asked her about Johnny’s mental health. “He was paranoid at times. And [he] even at one time thought I was talking about him. He was like, ‘mom, I know you and your friends, y'all talking about me too.’
Ms. White said that Johnny would often talk about the concept of someone planting chips in his brain to try to control his actions. She said that he never received a formal diagnosis, but expressed that whatever mental health issue he was dealing with was exacerbated by drug and alcohol use. This, she reasons, was how Johnny ended up in the mountains on that day, to begin with. His “free-spirited” and adventurous nature, coupled with addiction, homelessness, and someone who possibly was out to avenge the death of their family member, are all potential factors in a twisted series of events that led to the death of an extremely vulnerable person.
“Johnny was the type of free-spirited person and maybe if someone had come up to him and said, ‘Hey, you know let's go up here. This mountain is really cool. And we just want some weed and have a couple of drinks, you know, I'll bring you back.’”
“But I think whoever took him up to that mountain had no good intention because how do you get up here? He never reached out to try to harm anybody or hurt anybody. How did this all of a sudden happen and you're up someplace where you have never been. And as I said, Johnny never left that area. He was always, and I would go and visit my son too. Might I had, was going visit my son. And he was always in that area. That's where I found him all the time. Right in that area. So what was he doing up that mountain? How did he get up that mountain? Who took him up that mountain?,” Ms. White has pondered over and over in dealing with her grief.
When I asked her about whether or not Johnny had been officially diagnosed with any mental health disorders, Ms. White told me that she tried on numerous occasions to find help for him, but “ran into a lot of dead ends.” She knew that his mental state left him in a compromised position and that his struggles with homelessness made him virtually disposable to the outside world.
“I know there's a lot of biases in the homeless community. Cause I believe that people feel like their [the homeless] life is less than if they don't have a good quality of life that they don't have families that care about them that love them. And [that] couldn't be further than from the truth.”
“My husband and I, we go out and we minister to homeless people. We used to be homeless,” Ms. White confided. “There’s a lot of bias when you go to the hospitals and you go to the doctors. If they find out you're homeless, you can wait a bit longer. And it's because you know sometimes they think, well, if you have family, you go live with your family.”
“Johnny had family. Had a lot of brothers, sisters, mom, dad, he could’ve come and stayed, but he wanted to be where he was. He liked being out. He liked the freedom and I imagine some of them become acclimated to that. Once they find out that you're homeless, compassion goes out the door and I just think that they aren't willing to put in the effort to save a life that they [don’t] see being worthy of living because maybe you don't have the lifestyle they think you should have. But we all have a right to live, how we wanna live. Most of those people out there have family members that do care for them, but they don't wanna be under…let me see, I guess, under the structure of some, where you gotta be in a house at a certain time, or you gotta do this, you gotta do that. They wanna be in a sense, free to do what they wanna do.”
Advocacy for Johnny Lee Perry
I ended my conversation with Ms. White by asking her specifically if there were any new developments in the case of her son, and in what ways I could use this writing to help advocate on behalf of Johnny’s parents to gain additional clarity. When she told me that believed that Johnny would still be alive he would have been charged for the death that occurred at the homeless shelter, my heart sank as her comments really underscored the precarious situation Johnny lived in.
“One thing I saw was that someone wrote a small piece about this after Johnny's death and said, ‘oh, Johnny, no stranger to law enforcement,’ she told me. [But] there's no policeman, that's gonna let a Black man go for a murder if they didn't investigate or, or find out something opposite about it, right. Johnny would still be in jail right now. And he probably would still be alive if they had held him for that. Or they could have found probable cause to hold him for that man's death. But they didn't.”
Ms. White told me that the family is unable to afford the proper legal representation to investigate exactly who was responsible for Johnny’s flesh wound turning into Johnny’s death between the transit from the homeless camp in the mountains to the hospital. All that she and her family have been left with is heavy grief and unanswered questions.
“I don't know who to go to. One thing, we don't have any money. We don't have the type of money that it takes to hire a lawyer, to look into it. As I said, the hospital wouldn't even speak to me. And were very rude. You know, when I told them, you know, he can't write a release of information because he died here in your hospital. And I'm trying to find out what happened to my son. They told me they wouldn't tell me anything. They basically showed me the door. I couldn't believe how rude those people were.”
“Every life is precious. And in the United States, we are supposed to have that choice to how we wanna live,” Ms. White said to me while inferring that her son’s homelessness and struggles with substance abuse caused his situation to be met with negligence by multiple parties on August 29, 2021.
“There's no reason why he should have died from a gunshot wound to the shoulder. To me, it kind of speaks to where they just left him, let him lie there, and did not help him.”
If anyone in The North Star community is willing to assist Johnny Lee Perry’s family with attaining legal representation or willing to offer pro bono legal work, email us at email@example.com and we will connect you to Ms. White.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Donney Rose is a Writer, Educator, Organizer and Chief Content Editor at The North Star