Man killed in Merced shooting was decorated cop, also accused of excessive force multiple times

The 46-year-old former Merced County Sheriff’s deputy killed Tuesday in Merced had a history of accusations of using excessive force and domestic violence, costing the county more than $400,000 in settlements.

Dos Palos Officer Johnny Mathis died following a standoff and officer-involved shooting around 10 p.m. Tuesday in the 1800 block of Lopes Avenue in Merced, neighbors and property records confirm.

A complicated picture of Mathis emerged Wednesday with some, who didn’t want to speak on the record, describing Mathis as a talented officer who worked hard. Mathis was decorated by the Sheriff’s Office in 2009 and awarded the Medal of Valor, according to Merced Sun-Star archives. But, he also had ties to a series of questionable incidents, many of which resulted in lawsuits that ultimately cost Merced County hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Hired in 1996 by the Merced County Sheriff’s Office, he left in 2010. He has worked in Dos Palos since 2014, according to archives.

Former Dos Palos Chief Barry Mann, who hired Mathis, said he always appreciated Mathis as an employee because he wasn’t too proud to do some of the work other officers tried to avoid, including animal control and code enforcement.

“Johnny was rough around the edges until you got to know him,” Mann said. “He’s a very intense person, but his heart was in the right place.”

Mann said Mathis was an officer who sometimes held the “unofficial title” of second in command. “My heart goes out to his kids and wife,” Mann said.

The Dos Palos Police Department and Chief Rich McEachin directed all questions about the incident to the Merced County District Attorney’s Office, which is leading the investigation. People at the home where Mathis was killed declined to talk to reporters on Wednesday.

Though officials never specifically confirmed it, Mathis was accused of using steroids more than a decade ago. Mathis was the focus of three civil lawsuits and a government claim from 2004 to 2006. The cases were settled out of court, according to archives.

In a civil case filed in 2004, Marcus Aue and Jason Haugen claimed they were assaulted and beaten excessively at the Merced County Fair by two deputies who were allegedly on steroids.

Mathis and Deputy Bryan Ferreira arrested Aue for allegedly being drunk in public, according to documents. A crowd gathered and saw the deputies using force on Aue. Haugen, who was in the crowd, told the deputies Aue was no longer resisting arrest. At that point, Mathis allegedly knocked Haugen to the ground.

Two months after the incident, then-Sheriff Mark Pazin admitted that four deputies had used steroids but didn’t name them. Aue settled his lawsuit for $325,000 and Haugen for more than $15,000.

Pazin on Wednesday addressed some of the difficult times Mathis had as a Merced County deputy.

“There were some troubled spots during his career with the Merced Sheriff’s Office,” he said on the phone. “I know the entire family. My heart goes out to them. Whatever troubles John had, I’m just glad no one else was hurt.”

That same year, Mathis was off duty when he was involved in an incident in Santa Cruz. The claim alleged that Mathis had his K-9 with him when the dog attacked a bystander, Mark Kremenetsky. The case was settled out of court for $4,500.

A 2005 federal civil lawsuit filed by Peggy Red alleged that Mathis pointed a gun at her, detained and arrested her without cause and broke the frames of her glasses in the process. She settled out of court for $50,000.

Mathis was in pursuit of someone and allegedly attacked an unrelated man trying to leave his driveway, according to a 2006 lawsuit. Mathis came upon Stefano Evans while looking for another person, told Evans to stop his car at gunpoint, fired a Taser, dragged him from the car and arrested him. Evans settled out of court for $22,500.

The deputy was charged with domestic violence in 2010 for alleged battery on his wife, an on-duty dispatcher, while he was in uniform and on duty May 26, 2010, in Merced County Main Jail, according to the sheriff’s report on the incident.

Mathis was accused of pushing his wife. He was eventually charged with a misdemeanor and removed from his job. Both Mathis and his wife denied the allegation, authorities said.

The Merced County District Attorney’s Office ultimately dismissed the charge and Mathis attended counseling classes, according to records.

Reporter Thaddeus Miller has covered cities in the central San Joaquin Valley since 2010, writing about everything from breaking news to government and police accountability. A native of Fresno, he joined The Fresno Bee in 2019 after time in Merced and Los Banos.