On Jan. 29, 1990, Officer Don Johnston responded to a report of a person attempting to pass a forged check at a local bank. Upon arrival, Johnston entered one entrance of the bank and was soon confronted by Nguyen Lu, who had tried to cash a bad check.
Lu was armed with a handgun, and pointed his weapon at Johnston who drew and pointed his service weapon at him. However, there was a civilian between the two of them. Johnston, having regard for the civilian’s safety, placed himself between the civilian and Lu, pushing the civilian from harms way.
Lu shot, hitting Johnston in the neck causing paralysis below the waist. The 9mm bullet entered the left front side of Johnston’s throat, damaging his voice box. It severed a vocal chord nerve and struck the T1-T2 vertebrae, causing paralysis from the chest down. Johnston was told he would never walk or talk again. At first he was certain his law enforcement career was finished.
Johnston, 35, who was a two-year veteran of El Monte Police Department, was rendered a paraplegic, with impaired function of some vital organs, including his bladder, and complete loss of the use of his lower limbs. He was hospitalized and underwent extensive rehabilitation for one full year. In lieu of applying for a disability retirement, to which he was entitled, he applied to return to duty.
Johnston, the father of a 17-year-old son from a previous marriage, chose not to retire. Instead, he returned to work a year later as a detective specializing in missing children.
The following year he transferred to the training office and was placed in charge of doing background checks on new hires. When a helicopter observer job opened up, Johnston applied immediately.
“How often does a cop in a wheelchair ever get a chance to be in patrol again?” Johnston asked. “It doesn’t happen . . . I worked hard to become a cop and to have that suddenly ripped away from me, it’s hard to accept.”
He continued working as a peace officer and an important part of the department for a full 10 years, from a wheelchair.
Over the years, Johnston’s health deteriorated until he was unable to work as a peace officer. It was determined that he had contracted cancer as a direct result of his injuries. In November 2001, Johnston honorably retired due to his medical condition. On Nov. 22, 2002 Johnston succumbed to the cancer and passed away.
Lu, the assailant who shot Johnston, was captured two hours after the incident. He pled guilty and was sentenced to 17 years and four months in prison. In July 1992, he hung himself in his cell.
Johnston received numerous awards following the shooting incident. They included the Medal of Valor, Congressional Award, Silver Star for Bravery, Legion of Honor Award, Certificate of Valor from the office of the Attorney General, Hero of the Week from the Los Angeles Dodgers, 1990 Police Officer of the Year from R.G. Canning, 1990 State Hero of the Year from the 40/8 Veterans Group, 1990 State Hero of the Year Certificate of Recognition from the California State Legislature, 1990 State Hero of the Year Certificate of Recognition from the California State Senate and Person of the Week from KABC Channel 7 News.
He also received Letters of Commendation from Gov. George Deukmejian, the city of South El Monte, county of Los Angeles and Governor Pete Wilson.
Various community organizations raised a substantial amount of money for him. The city of El Monte created a new award in Johnston’s honor, The Don Johnston Man of Courage Award. Because of his work with school children and his example of bravery, Johnston also received a Golden Apple Award from the El Monte School District.
Johnston’s comment at the time was “It amazes me of how the community has embraced me. To be recognized for what I did doesn’t make it worth it, but it makes me want to get better all the more.”
In a 1998 interview Johnston stated, “Sometimes life isn’t fair, but you make your decisions based on what life gives you.”
Johnston was the second of three generations to serve as a police officer for the city of El Monte. His father, Loren “Corky” retired from El Monte Police Department, and his son, Eric, is currently employed there as a police officer.
Johnston leaves behind his wife, Ruth; son, Eric; and two granddaughters, Erika and Virginia. He is also survived by his parents, Loren and Rosalyn; brothers, Michael, David and Doug; and nephews and nieces.