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Guerneville family describes ’terrifying’ encounter with rampaging driver in Safeway lot

Iva Morrell stopped by Safeway in Guerneville on Tuesday night with her family and a short shopping list: cake and ice cream to celebrate the birthday that she and her oldest daughter share.

But just moments after the family parked and her husband and their oldest daughter entered the store, the nightmare began for Iva and their two younger children inside their new orange Dodge pickup.

A driver who police say was high on drugs tore into the parking lot in a stolen truck and slammed into two vehicles before wrecking against a tree.

In one of those collisions, the driver, a man with a prior history of stealing a car and crashing it, barreled into the side of the Morrells’ truck, crumpling the rear panel and warping the door just inches from where their 18-month-old boy, Indigo, sat behind the driver’s seat.

“It was terrifying,” Iva said.

A flurry of 911 calls beginning at 6:42 p.m. alerted authorities to the chaos, which began in a collision just up the street involving a stolen red Dodge pickup and the man said by authorities to be behind the wheel: Rusty Johnson, 48, of Yuba City.

The 911 calls also included reports of a man with a gun and an active shooter — and pandemonium briefly broke out inside the store on similar reports — but the existence of an armed assailant turned out to be unfounded, according to Misti Wood, a Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman.

Johnson, who was seriously injured after he crashed into a redwood tree near the parking lot entrance, refused to surrender until he was pulled by deputies from the wrecked vehicle. He was arrested on suspicion of DUI, hit and run and stealing a vehicle and he remained hospitalized Friday in critical condition.

Beyond those who witnessed it and residents along the lower Russian River who heard about it, little of the extent of the rampage was known this week until the Morrells came forward with their story. The California Highway Patrol issued a 188-word press release on the incident that described the vehicle theft and the crash, but did not elaborate on the fallout for witnesses and victims.

“Our lives were in jeopardy,” Iva Morrell said. “The whole town is pissed.”

Aside from the unshakable fright they experienced as a family, and the major damage to their truck, the Morrells emerged with only minor injuries. Iva suffered a mild concussion, and she and daughter Jillian also were checked out by the family doctor for whiplash.

Still, the Morrells and others who were at the Safeway Tuesday evening are still trying to make sense of the bedlam that erupted in the grocery lot less than 2 miles from their home.

It prompted a response from the Sheriff’s Office helicopter, Henry 1, and at least nine other county law enforcement units, Wood said.

“With that kind of chaos that we’re hearing, it’s better to send more and not need them,” she said.

A Dodge pickup reported stolen and driven by a DUI suspect in a reported Feb. 23 hit-and-run incident at the Guerneville Safeway, where the driver crashed into two vehicles and a tree before being arrested. (California Highway Patrol)
A Dodge pickup reported stolen and driven by a DUI suspect in a reported Feb. 23 hit-and-run incident at the Guerneville Safeway, where the driver crashed into two vehicles and a tree before being arrested. (California Highway Patrol)

‘Why did that happen?’

Iva Morrell, 47, had been waiting for a few minutes in the family truck with Indigo and Jillian, who turned 7 that day. Her husband, Joe, and their oldest daughter, Patsy, 9, were inside picking up the birthday goodies and a few other groceries.

A screech and thud from the street gave Iva the first indication that something was wrong.

“I heard what sounded like a car ... skidding and hitting the curb,” she said. “I thought it was over and looked back and that son of a b---h was driving along the front of the store.”

In the next moment, she said, he jerked the wheel in their direction, accelerated and hit the family’s pickup broadside without ever appearing to brake. The impact knocked the cupholder out of the baby’s car seat, sending it flying.

The Morrells’ truck with three of them inside skidded sideways and hit a Honda Civic parked nearby.

The kids screamed, Iva Morrell said, and from her front passenger seat, she turned back to check on them.

“I turned around to look at my daughter and tell her everything was OK and be calm,” she said. “She looked at me and she said, ’I am not all right!’ She was screaming, ’Why did that happen? I don’t wanna die!’ ”

Iva Morrell kept her seat belt on and turned an eye toward the pickup driver, unsure if he was going to hit them again. The collision had pushed her truck several feet away from his.

He paused for a moment and she studied his face, determined to commit it to memory. He kept his eyes down, she said.

But, “he saw me. That is for damn certain,” she said.

The driver appeared to restart his engine and back up, far enough that she wondered if he was leaving. But then the truck shot forward again.

“I don’t know what happened. It was like an angel was in the way,” Iva said. The driver may have braked or hit something else. Whatever the reason, the two vehicles did not make contact.

Instead, the man threw the truck into reverse, turned and sped around the far side of the grocery store.

A truck owned by Joe and Iva Morrell was damaged on the night of Feb. 23. A man driving a stolen truck hit their pickup in the parking lot of Safeway in Guerneville, sending it skidding into a nearby parked car. (Joe Morrell)
A truck owned by Joe and Iva Morrell was damaged on the night of Feb. 23. A man driving a stolen truck hit their pickup in the parking lot of Safeway in Guerneville, sending it skidding into a nearby parked car. (Joe Morrell)

As he left, Iva Morrell jumped into action. She got out of the pickup and asked a woman parked a few spots down to help her get the two kids out of the back. About that moment, she said, Joe and Patsy emerged from the front of the store.

Joe Morrell had heard the squealing tires and impact of the crash from inside at the checkout counter.

“I was like, ’Oh my God, I hope that wasn’t my truck,’ ” he said.

He and Patsy saw the damage from the door, and Iva as she moved toward them quickly, holding Indigo, yelling for them to get back in the store because the driver was still on the move.

In the confusion, as the family changed direction and headed back inside, Jillian, the birthday girl, was accidentally left behind. She found sanctuary inside the car of the helpful female driver.

But the Morrells were only inside the store for a few minutes, because next they heard someone scream about a man with a gun.

That sparked more chaos, Iva said. The four of them ran back outside with other customers, she said. They reunited with Jillian and the woman who had helped them earlier.

“She said, ’Get in my car, I will take you anywhere,’ ” Iva Morrell recalled. The family piled into her car, and away she drove, dropping the Morrells off safe at their house minutes later.

Once there, with paramedics on the way to check out the three family members in the crash, Joe Morrell returned to Safeway to tell their story to the sheriff’s deputies and CHP officers beginning their investigation.

When the first deputies arrived, Wood said, Johnson had already crashed the stolen truck into the redwood tree. He refused to exit the vehicle, cursing at deputies, she said, but they were able to remove him from the truck and lay him on the ground. Paramedics began to tend to his injuries.

CHP Officer David deRutte, a department spokesman, said Friday he didn’t know if the officer leading the investigation into the incident was aware of the Morrells’ account that Johnson had perhaps deliberately targeted other drivers or pedestrians in the area.

“He was very much under the influence of drugs,” deRutte said of the suspect.

Tuesday was not Johnson’s first rampage with a stolen vehicle, according to authorities. In 2010, he stole a vehicle and crashed it into a pole in Vacaville, where it caught fire and he was left badly injured with burns and broken bones, according to a report from the Napa Valley Register. He was arrested on suspicion of vehicle theft and illegal gun possession.

In Tuesday’s crash, it was not immediately clear why Johnson was in the area, 85 miles from the city where officials say he lives.

“He didn’t care who he hurt. It’s just damn lucky that people were able to get out of his way, because he didn’t care.” ― Iva Morrell

On Friday, the Morrells shared their story as they waited on a final assessment on the damage to their truck.

It was a brand new purchase for the family last May, with less than 7,000 miles on it, Joe said. From what they’d been told, the repairs were set to cost at least $16,000, Iva said.

She’s had nightmares ever since the incident and has had to take time off from work while recovering from her concussion. Her kids are receiving counseling through their school.

Iva said she hopes to see justice served after what her family and fellow Guerneville residents were put through.

“He didn’t care who he hurt,” she said. “It’s just damn lucky that people were able to get out of his way, because he didn’t care.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

Kaylee Tornay

Education, The Press Democrat

Learning is a transformative experience. Beyond that, it’s a right, under the law, for every child in this country. But we also look to local schools to do much more than teach children; they are tasked with feeding them, socializing them and offering skills in leadership and civics. My job is to help you make sense of K-12 education in Sonoma County and beyond.  

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