Mental fitness questioned of defendant in high-speed chase case

MARION COUNTY — A bona fide doubt has been filed as to the mental fitness of a 58-year-old man allegedly responsible for hitting a 63-year-old pedestrian Tuesday in Salem and subsequently leading law enforcement on a high-speed car chase across Marion County.

Suspect's vehicle following hit-and-run, high-speed chase. (Credit: Mitchell Schultheis)
Suspect’s vehicle following hit-and-run, high-speed chase.
(Credit: Mitchell Schultheis)

Jeffrey Freeman Johnston — now listed as residing in Champaign, Ill., and Reno, Nevada — was formally charged today in Marion County Court with Class 2 felony failure to report an accident with an injury and Class 4 felony aggravated fleeing through more than 2 traffic control devices.

Johnston remains in the Marion County Jail, with bail set at a quarter-million dollars. He reportedly struck 63-year-old Ernie Whipple Sr., as Whipple was walking across South Broadway at Mitchell Street in Salem.

Salem Deputy Police Chief Susan Miller says Whipple was ultimately airlifted to a St. Louis area hospital for treatment of his injuries. He was last listed in stable condition.

Johnston reportedly fled from the scene, taking multiple law enforcement agencies on a wild high-speed chase across Marion County. A Centralia police sergeant eventually used a “pit maneuver,” causing the defendant’s vehicle to crash down a steep embankment on Highway 161 on Centralia’s west side, before coming to rest in the field below.

Court records show that throughout Thursday’s proceedings Johnston made no response or any acknowledgment of anything going on. Based on that and reported conduct by the state Judge Mark Stedelin ordered a mental fitness evaluation of Johnston to be completed by Dr. Daniel Cuneo and Johnston was appointed a public defender. The case has been set for a November 10 status hearing.