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.
‘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.