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Miles outside their jurisdiction, Alabama police shoot, kill man in front of his mother, wife, and 9-year-old
They left his family with blood and unanswered questions.
They had come early, just after 6 a.m. on Monday, May 1. They’d driven more than 30 miles from Gardendale, Alabama, the Birmingham suburb they were sworn to protect, to Cordova, a small town in neighboring Walker County. They’d come, police would later claim, to serve a narcotics warrant at a home on School Road.
According to the family of Johnny Karris, though, law enforcement wouldn’t find the illegal drugs they claimed they’d come to search for. In the end, his family said, they’d take much more.
Moments after forcing entry into his Cordova home, Gardendale police shot and killed Johnny Karris, a 47-year-old father, with his mother, wife, and 9-year-old son present. In interviews with Tread, Karris’ family members said no one in the home heard police announce themselves before they knocked down the front door. Woken up by his wife, who’d heard a commotion outside, Johnny had armed himself with a legally-owned handgun and fired toward the door when it burst open. It was the last thing he’d ever do.
A day later, Karris’ family said they don’t even know how to begin picking up the pieces of their lives. They said Tuesday that they still haven’t even been given definitive answers about where their loved one’s body is currently located. They’re reeling in grief and pain, they said, and angered by what they see as the callous, reckless actions of law enforcement officers that led to Karris’ death. Johnny Karris was murdered, his family members said, and their questions deserve to be answered.
A family man
Robin Wiggins said her son Johnny was a hard worker and a good father. Born in Michigan and raised in Florida, Johnny Karris had eventually settled down in Alabama with his wife Ashley and their little boy.
Johnny was always a caring person, his mother said, and lived a simple life, always providing for his family and never getting in trouble with “the law.”
Lately, he and Ashley had been working DoorDash and delivering car parts for a local automotive shop to make ends meet.
“He was a good, caring man,” his mother said. “He worked hard and took good care of his family.”
Ashley Karris was the first to hear something outside. It was still early Monday morning — the sun barely peaking out from above the horizon — when the noise came. She woke up her husband, who was still in bed asleep.
Johnny Karris armed himself with a legally owned handgun — a .22 caliber — and pointed it at the front door, his mother said.
“They never said they were the police,” his mother, Robin Wiggins explained. The noise outside had woken her up, too. She was leaving her bedroom when she saw that Johnny was armed.
“I seen him take a shot. It was dark in the house, and he couldn’t see who they were,” Wiggins said, her voice distraught. “He fired a shot, and they fired back at him.”
Wiggins said she’d then watched as Ashley laid her body over her 9-year-old son as the shots rang out.
“He turned to the right, and he looked at me,” she said of her son. “He went face down, and his brains were all over the hallway.”
An unfruitful search
Wiggins, 66, had initially been forced to the ground by police after they entered the Karris home, her hands cuffed behind her back.
Then, for hours after their loved one was shot to death, Karris’ mother, wife, and son were forced to remain outside the house as the search took place.
“The cops kept them outside from six to four in the sun,” Ashley’s mother Michaele Hooper said. “Ashley and [her son] were sunburned. Ashley had to pee outside in front of the officer because they wouldn’t let her go to the bathroom. All the while my grandson was sitting right there next to her.”
“They blew his brains out, and I ended up having to clean it up.”
In the end, Karris’ family said the only narcotic police found in the home was the 9-year-old’s prescribed ADHD medication.
And it’s what the police left behind, Wiggins said, that still haunts her.
“They blew his brains out, and I ended up having to clean it up,” his mother said.
This isn’t the first time Wiggins has lost a child. Wiggins had three sons. Now she has none.
First, it was Jaime, her oldest, who died of cancer in 2019.
Then, in 2019, it was Jimmy. He was doing home repairs when he fell through a garage roof. He’d landed on his feet but hadn’t realized his spine had been severely injured. Wiggins would find him dead the next day.
Johnny Karris, then, was the only son Wiggins had left.
“I’ve lost my last son, and they’ve killed him,” Wiggins said.
When it came to the blood, Robin Wiggins tried to do the hard lifting. But despite her efforts, some of the blood had flowed under the door, into the room where Ashley sat with her mother, sobbing.
“She had to wipe up his blood that had seeped under the door,” Hooper said. “It about tore us up.”
Hooper said she’s still stunned by what happened Monday morning.
“I want to go outside and just scream my lungs out,” she said. “I feel so bad for my daughter.”
She and Wiggins said the family is drowning in uncertainty around what happened Monday.
First, there’s their most pressing concern — where is Johnny’s body?
Then, the family said, there are questions about what the warrant was for, who signed it, and whether the police should have been allowed to execute a search warrant dozens of miles outside their jurisdiction.
In a statement released May 1, the Gardendale Police Department confirmed its detectives and tactical unit were executing a search warrant at the Codova home when the shooting took place.
“Upon arrival at the front door the officers were immediately confronted with gunfire from an armed suspect,” the statement said. “The suspect was fatally wounded and pronounced deceased on the scene.”
No officers were injured, the statement went on to say.
The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency said in a statement that it would lead the investigation into the shooting at the request of Gardendale police.
“Nothing further is available as the investigation is ongoing,” an ALEA representative said in a statement. “Once complete, the findings will be turned over to the Walker County District Attorney’s Office.”
Robin Wiggins said she believes that the officer or officers who shot and killed her son should be charged with murder.
“They murdered my son,” Wiggins told Tread the day after his death. “If they would have said they were police, my son would not have shot [at them].”
She also believes police should not be able to travel outside of their own jurisdictions to serve warrants.
The practice of serving warrants out of jurisdiction was not commonplace in Alabama until a 2020 appeals court ruling confirmed the practice’s legality. Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, who had asked for the expansive ruling, applauded the decision to broaden police powers at the time.
“[The court’s actions] also serve to clarify for the first time in Alabama criminal case law that search warrants can be served by law enforcement officers outside their territorial jurisdictions provided a local judge within the jurisdiction of service approves the warrant,” Marshall’s office said in a 2020 press release.
Robin Wiggins said the state’s policy doesn’t make sense.
“I don’t understand how they can come this far,” she said. “Did they even notify the local police?”
In a statement, Cordova’s police chief said the town’s officers were “not involved in the shooting” but did not say whether the department had been notified about the search warrant before it was carried out.
In the wake of Monday’s tragedy, Michaele Hooper said it’s hard for her to accept that there are some things that just can’t be fixed.
“You killed my best friend and my daddy.”
Officials from the school Johnny’s son attends have visited the home to check on the family, she explained. The child had told them he was afraid because the home’s front door was still broken open. Generously, they’d brought back supplies to help board it up. It was a small step in the right direction.
But the trauma of what happened isn’t so easily repaired. Wiggins said that after the shooting, Johnny’s son approached the officers flatly.
“You killed my best friend and my daddy,” he’d told them.
Now, a day after the shooting, the boy is still stuck in the same loop.
“He just keeps saying the police shot his dad, and he’s dead,” the boy’s grandmother said. “It makes me feel horrible. I can’t fix this for my daughter and grandson, and that’s what I do. I’m supposed to fix things.”
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