DeLAND, Fla. – A man and a dog died early Wednesday in a fiery rollover crash in DeLand after the man drove away from a traffic stop, dragging and injuring an officer, police said.
DeLand police said Justin L. Johnson, 26, of Lake Helen, died in the crash, which was reported around 3 a.m. on Stone Street near New York Avenue.
DeLand police said a taxi driver called authorities around 2:50 a.m. requesting help because a woman in his cab said she was being followed by Johnson, her boyfriend.
"We drove off and now he's right behind us, following us," said the cab driver in a 911 call.
The driver had taken the woman to an apartment earlier in the night, where she got into a fight with Johnson, police said.
When she went to leave, Johnson tried to follow and pulled at the car door in an attempt to get into the taxi, according to an incident report. The woman closed the door and asked the taxi driver to take her to Florida Hospital DeLand after she was apparently involved in a disturbance, police said.
Johnson then got into his vehicle and began following behind and alongside the taxi, yelling for the woman to get out of the car, police said. The woman told the taxi driver that she didn't want to go with her boyfriend.
An officer spotted the taxi and what was believed to be Johnson's vehicle, a white Chevrolet SUV, at Plymouth Avenue and Woodland Boulevard, police said. The officer conducted a traffic stop on the SUV, and Johnson said that he had been arguing with his girlfriend, according to police.
Officer Tony Tagle said he spotted what he believed to be marijuana inside the SUV, so he asked Johnson to get out of the vehicle. Tagle started to help Johnson step out when Johnson started the engine, pulled the door shut and took off with Tagle's hand caught in the door, police said.
"We asked the driver to get out of the vehicle. He ends up closing the door on the officer's hand and starts driving away," DeLand police spokesman Chris Graham said.
Tagle was dragged 15 to 20 feet before freeing himself by pushing his right hand against the vehicle, police said. He suffered an injury to his left hand, police said.
Johnson sped away, and the SUV was found crashed about seven minutes later on Stone Street, police said.
Police told News 6 their officer did not chase Johnson and is working on dashcam video to prove it.
A fire in the engine compartment was extinguished, and it was determined that Johnson and a brown male pit bull had died in the crash, police said. The SUV was the same vehicle that Johnson had been driving, police said.
Tagle was treated at a hospital for his hand injury and released.
Neighbors on South Stone Street complain it's a busy street with lots of speeders, including the man who police said somehow lost control and crashed Wednesday morning.
"It sounded like a hand grenade going off. The car basically exploded," John Ward said.
That mangled SUV covered the street and Ward knew it was fatal.
"There was nothing I could do for him. He was passed. And his dog was sitting there, taking his last couple of breaths too," he said.
Family and friends said it was Justin Johnson, 26, behind the wheel.
"He had a nice smile and he was always willing to help us," said Diana Langhorne, Johnson's sister.
Neighbors said they felt their house shake from the crash.
Johnson's family said their brother may have had run-ins with the law, but didn't deserve to die and believes there's more to this story.
"It's tragic that our brother is gone now over we don't know what, but we just want some answers," Lori Walden said.
No details about the woman's condition have been released. She had a young boy with her when authorities spoke to her at the hospital.
"I have six grandkids who are at my house regularly, which would not be a good thing if someone was doing that kind of nonsense," a man said.
An investigation is continuing.