KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A Tennessee highway patrol officer made a gruesome discovery when he stopped a suspected drunken driver over the weekend: the upper torso of a man the driver struck while running from the law, police said.
Court records obtained by the Knoxville News Sentinel show Dorrae Debrice Johnson, 29, of Knoxville, is accused of striking and killing 65-year-old Darryl Eugene Butler during a police chase around 3:30 a.m. Sunday. A trooper was trying to stop Johnson when he veered onto a sidewalk and struck Butler, a formerly homeless man who had been placed in public housing just weeks before he died.
"Daryl achieved housing 2-3 weeks ago and had persevered for over a year to achieve his housing goal and to leave the streets behind him," read a post on the Facebook page of Volunteer Ministry Center, an organization that serves the homeless in Knoxville and the surrounding county. "Even though life had not always been easy, Daryl was a bigger-than-life personality and will be remembered for his smile, contagious positive attitude and always having a story to share with others."
Johnson remained jailed Tuesday in the Knox County Jail, charged with vehicular homicide, driving with a revoked license and evading arrest by flight, jail records show. His bail has been set at $76,000.
The News Sentinel reported that the chase that led to the crash began when a Highway Patrol trooper stopped Johnson on suspicion of failure to stay in his lane on Interstate 40. Arrest warrants indicate that when the trooper approached Johnson's 2006 Chevy Impala, he yelled out the window that he had to get to his family's house.
Then he drove away, the documents say.
The trooper pursued Johnson as he exited the interstate onto surface streets, where he went the wrong way on Sutherland Avenue, the court records say. He struck a curb and blew a tire, the newspaper reported.
Investigators believe Johnson struck Butler on Sutherland near Harry Street, a Tennessee Highway Patrol report says.
"The driver continued on until he lost control of the vehicle and hit a utility pole," the report says, according to the News Sentinel. "The driver then fled on foot from the vehicle. The trooper was able to catch up to the suspect and took him into custody."
When a trooper at the crash scene reached into Johnson’s Impala to turn off the ignition, he found the upper half of Butler’s severed torso lying on the passenger-side floorboard, the court documents say.
The lower half of Butler’s body was found near the impact site on Sutherland Avenue,
The News Sentinel said it was not totally clear how Butler’s torso wound up in Johnson’s car, but that warrants refer to the “intrusion of the suspect’s vehicle.”
A witness near the scene told WBIR in Knoxville the appearance of the car indicated Butler was thrown into Johnson's windshield when he was hit.
"Looked like someone had come completely through the windshield," Percella Etherton, an employee at Gus' World Famous Fried Chicken, told the news station. "There was, like, a big, huge hole in the windshield."
Troopers, who immediately suspected Johnson had been drinking, questioned him about how much he'd had to drink. WBIR reported that he indicated he had been drinking 1800 Tequila but could not say how much.
Johnson smelled of liquor, had bloodshot, watery eyes and staggered when he tried to run from the crash scene, the news station said.
Troopers said in the arrest warrants that Johnson admitted he'd gotten "blitzed," the News Sentinel reported.
Sutherland Avenue was closed for several hours Sunday morning as the incident was investigated and the crash scene cleaned up, Knoxville police officials said.
Court records show Johnson has a lengthy criminal history, including a November 2017 conviction for driving under the influence, the News Sentinel said. He was sentenced to just under a year in jail, but the sentence was suspended.
He was again charged with a DUI in January after he nearly struck a guardrail on Interstate 275 and failed sobriety tests, the newspaper reported. The outcome of that case is still pending.
Kim Cantrell, head of Knoxville Pays It Forward, described Butler as approachable and likable with a "vivacious personality." She said they became friends after she met him under an overpass where homeless people gather in the city.
"He went to church with my friends, and they said when he sang, it was like he was singing with the angels," Cantrell told the News Sentinel.
Connor Searle, a chaplain and outreach team member at Knox Area Rescue Ministries, wrote on Facebook that Butler loved to talk about the Bible and was never afraid to express his faith.
"Often when I would work in the dorm, I would come downstairs to find him sweeping or mopping away 'just because,'" Searle wrote. "He was a hard worker with a genuine heart and infectious optimism. No matter what life threw his way, he refused to give up.
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