LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Nevada’s roads are not patrolled 24/7 with some having no coverage overnight. One area with no trooper on shift at night is a stretch of highway where a suspected impaired driver killed 18-year-old Katarina “Kat” Johnson.
Johnson, a freshman UNLV student from Tennessee, was driving on U.S. 95 northbound on her way back from meeting friends for a bonfire, which ended up canceled.
“I didn’t go to UNLV, but Kat did,” Greg Johnson, Kat’s father, told the 8 News Now Investigators. “One thing they’ll never take away from me is I’ll always be a UNLV dad from now on.”
Kat came to Las Vegas to study computer science and coding. By the end of September, a woman accused of driving under the influence would claim her life.
“You don’t get to say goodbye,” Alexaundra Johnson, Kat’s mother, said.
The fatal crash occurred near a bend in the road just after midnight on Sept. 26, 2022. Taylor Madison crossed the center line heading south toward Searchlight, crashing into Johnson’s car head-on, troopers said.
Madison told the investigating trooper she thought she was drugged. The trooper noted he “could smell the strong odor” of alcohol coming from her, adding he found a “white powdery substance” and marijuana in her car, documents said.
Several hours after the crash, while Madison was recovering from her injuries in a hospital bed, the coroner was calling.
“He said, ‘I’m sorry but your daughter was killed in a head-on collision with a DUI driver,’” Greg Johnson said.
The crash happened at 12:33 a.m. on a section of road in the jurisdiction of Nevada State Police but records the 8 News Now Investigators obtained show Boulder City police arrived first at 12:41 a.m. The city’s fire department reached the crash site two minutes later at 12:43 a.m.
The first state trooper arrived at 1:14 a.m. – nearly 45 minutes after impact.
“You’re going to be waiting,” Wayne Dice, a spokesperson for the Nevada Police Union, which represents Nevada State Police, said. “The fire department will show up before we ever do and that’s happened on many occasions. We’re having a problem with people being able to respond to crashes because we don’t have enough people.”
Last year, the 8 News Now Investigators reported the shortage was so bad, there may be as few as three of four troopers patrolling the entire Las Vegas valley overnight. That means troopers, from no fault of their own, are going from stop to stop, crash to crash, where every minute counts.
“And if those folks are on crashes or at the jail, there’s nobody patrolling the freeways looking for those impaired drivers,” Dice said. “The medical folks, they’re not trained to fight drivers who might be impaired. That’s our job to show up and control that scene and start that investigation and make sure it’s safe for everyone.”
Data from the department revealed a 32% vacancy rate for sworn officers as of January: out of 389 authorized positions, 123 need to be filled.
There are some areas under Nevada State Police’s authority with no coverage. Substations in Eureka, Indian Springs and Lovelock have no troopers at all — all their positions are vacant.
In Boulder City, the station covering the area of Kat’s crash, there are six authorized positions. Three are vacant.
On U.S. 95 in Boulder City, an artery carrying traffic in and out of the Las Vegas valley via Interstate 11, coverage ends at 10 p.m., the union said. That means there is not one trooper potentially stopping a suspected impaired or speeding driver, drivers who may end up on the wrong side of the road piloting a weapon.
“The idea that we’re 24/7 on the highways is just not true at all,” Nevada Department of Public Safety Deputy Director Sherri Brueggemann told a bipartisan committee during a legislative hearing earlier this month. “In fact, it’s rare, especially outside the cities.”
“Criminals don’t take time off,” Greg Johnson said. “Drunk drivers don’t take time off.”
The staffing crisis is a product of Nevada’s own making, according to the union. State troopers make on average 24% less than their counterparts in other Nevada police departments, data showed.
“If we can’t start stopping the bleeding this year, we’re not sure we’ll be around by next year,” Brueggemann warned.
State troopers have not received a pay increase in more than a decade, the union spokesperson said. It is not an issue of which political party is in control. Both Democrats and Republicans have been in power as the personnel crunch snowballed.
More than 20% of a state police employee’s salary is automatically taken out for retirement. State law requires an employer to cover a police or fire employee’s retirement contribution, but the state of Nevada itself is excluded. The retirement contribution will near 30% when the rate increases per state law in July.
The union had asked former Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak to consider a special legislative session to address the staffing issue. That never happened. The Board of Examiners, which the governor chairs, approved a new collective bargaining agreement for the police union in 2022, which included a 2% pay bump. The increase would be retroactive to July 2021. The legislature must approve the increase for it to become law.
Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo is proposing pay increases for state employees by as much as 8% one year followed by 4% the next.
“Do you feel like Nevada is failing you?” 8 News Now Investigator David Charns asked Dice.
“It is,” he said. “I don’t know what it’s going to take for the legislature to understand this. I’d hate to see one of their family members be killed by a DUI driver and that’s what finally tips the hand for us to get some help. It shouldn’t take that.”
“Every day is hard and it doesn’t get easier,” Alexaundra Johnson said as she awaits seeing the woman accused of killing her daughter in court for the first time. The Johnson believe Kat died on impact. They were startled to learn about the delay in state police’s response.
“I honestly did not realize that it took NHP that long to respond,” Alexaundra Johnson said.
Kat’s parents question what happened in those 45 minutes before that trooper finally arrived – the time before the investigation into their daughter’s death officially began.
“I understand they deal with this on a daily basis, but that’s my only daughter and I can’t get that back,” Alexaundra Johnson said.
Prosecutors charged Madison with DUI resulting in death. A criminal complaint alleges her blood-alcohol level was above the legal limit, though the exact number is not provided. A trooper said Madison told him she was driving home, but the trooper noted she was heading south on U.S. 95 in the wrong direction of her address, documents said.
A judge first set bail for Madison at $50,000, ordering her to stay away from drugs and alcohol and not to drive. Records show a judge found her out of compliance in November and tripled her bond.
As of Monday, Madison was out of custody on $150,000. She was due in court at the end of March.
The legislature’s 2023 session began Feb. 6 and ends June 5. If no action is taken, the body will not regularly meet again until early 2025.