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Police officer charged for fatal backyard shooting makes first court appearance

Idaho Falls

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IDAHO FALLS — An Idaho Falls Police officer involved in a fatal officer-involved shooting made his first court appearance Friday morning.

Dressed in a black suit, Elias Aurelio Cerdas, 26, pleaded not guilty to felony involuntary manslaughter while sitting alongside his attorney Dennis Wilkinson. A grand jury indicted Cerdas last month after investigators say Cerdas shot and killed Joseph “Joe” Johnson, a father of four, during a Feb. 8 manhunt in Idaho Falls.

During the Friday arraignment, District Judge Darren Simpson set Cerdas’ jury trial to begin on Jan. 4. Wilkinson and Idaho Deputy Attorney General Jeffery Nye said the trial would take anywhere from five to seven days.

RELATED | I.F. police officer who shot man in backyard indicted for manslaughter

The Idaho Attorney General’s Office is prosecuting the case after the Bonneville County Prosecutor’s Office handed the case over for unspecified reasons.

During Friday’s court appearance, Cerdas also waived a conflict of interest involving Wilkinson. The attorney and colleagues at his firm, Smith Woolf Anderson & Wilkinson in Idaho Falls, have represented the other officer who witnessed the fatal shooting.

This other officer is one of the Attorney General’s office’s “key witnesses,” and Wilkinson said if called to the stand, defense attorney Curtis Smith would cross-examine him.

Simpson accepted the waiver of conflict of interest signed by both Cerdas and the other officer.

Joe Johnson GoFundMe
Joseph “Joe” Johnson | GoFundMe page

Details of the grand jury indictment remain confidential. However, the Idaho Falls Police Department has previously said the incident began with a traffic stop. A Bonneville County Sheriff’s deputy pulled over Tanner Shoesmith, 22, for a broken taillight a few blocks from Johnson’s home on the corner of Tendoy and Syringa drives.

When Shoesmith ran, a manhunt followed, with more deputies and officers flooding the neighborhood.

RELATED | Officer killed man in backyard as police searched for suspect

Police say a resident on Holbrook Drive spotted the suspect running through a yard and believed he was carrying a gun. That information was then conveyed to officers on their radios. As police searched for Shoesmith, they learned he had several warrants for his arrest and a violent history with law enforcement, including a warrant for felony battery on an officer.

Another Idaho Falls Police officer spoke with Johnson, saying they were looking for a person who ran from a traffic stop and would be in the neighborhood.

A short time later, GPS coordinates from Shoesmith’s phone placed him in Johnson’s backyard, leading police to surround the home and draw their weapons.

Cerdas IFPD
Idaho Falls Police Officer Elias Aurelio Cerdas | Idaho Falls Police Department

As officers moved in, police said they heard yelling and then found a man — Johnson — in a black shirt carrying a gun.

RELATED | GoFundMe page launched for family of Joe Johnson

Little is publically known about the exact moments of the shooting. The Idaho Falls Police Department has said Johnson was wearing a black shirt — the same color as the suspect — when Cerdas pulled the trigger. Police have also said Johnson had a gun and that an officer told him to drop it.

Shoesmith was found that night hiding in a shed on Linden Drive, a block from the officer-involved shooting. He was arrested and booked into the Bonneville County Jail. He later posted bail and was released. Shoesmith has pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor resisting arrest charge stemming from the incident. A trial date has not yet been set.

Since the shooting, Cerdas has remained an employee with the department but was put on “limited duties which do not include public contact or the use of police authority,” according to a previous IFPD news release.

“The events of Feb. 8, 2021, illustrate perhaps the most difficult situations a law enforcement officer can find themselves in,” a statement from the Idaho Falls Fraternal Order of Police says in part. “A split-second decision in response to a critical incident is at the heart of every officer’s training. Believing he was protecting the community and other officers by engaging an armed suspect fleeing from police, Officer Cerdas acted on that training.”

You can read the rest of the Idaho Falls FOP statement here.

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