A Southampton resident who taught fourth grade at Riverhead's Phillips Avenue Elementary School and was charged with driving while intoxicated and driving with a loaded handgun in his car in April 2012 has broken his silence.
Speaking publicly for the first time since his April 21 arrest, Joe Johnson — who recently hired a new attorney, Hauppauge-based William Keahon — said he wants to set the record straight.
"A lot of what has been printed just isn't true — has never been the case," Johnson said. "All that transpired that night and since then, there are things that are wrong on every level. I'm waiting to have my turn in court so that everything can be brought to light and people can realize that this isn't all what it appears to be."
Johnson was pulled over on April 21 in Southampton Village and was charged with driving drunk with a suspended license and being unlawfully in possession of a loaded handgun, according to police.
Johnson had a .45 caliber semiautomatic pistol, police said.
According to Bob Clifford, the spokesman for Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, Johnson pleaded not guilty to 11 charges in a grand jury indictment.
The indictment said Johnson was accused by the grand jury of Suffolk County with criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree, "an armed violent felony," as well as one felony count of criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree, and one misdemeanor charge of criminal possession of a weapon; one count of driving while intoxicated, a misdemeanor, and one count of aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle, a misdemeanor.
Johnson was also charged with unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle, failure to maintain lane, failure to keep right, driving on the shoulder, operating a motor vehicle while using a mobile phone, and failure to comply with a lawful order, all traffic infractions.
But Johnson said much of what has been said has been completely misrepresented. "There is something very wrong with this case."
Johnson said he had a DMV hearing last summer and his license was returned. "They didn't find enough evidence," he said. "That's one good sign."
Without being able to discuss specifics, Johnson alluded to the fact that "damaging information" exists about an individual "with an ax to grind" that will help his case and restore justice.
When asked about the gun charge, Johnson said that while he is not able to discuss the details of the case, "It is not what it appears to be. It is a complete misunderstanding."
Johnson is hoping that as details emerge, truth will be revealed. "I'm just hoping in the days to come that, with my new lawyer, things will start to look better. My life has been upended completely," Johnson said. "It's been turned upside down. And I've just been sitting on the sidelines, just watching it happen, not having the power to stop it."
Johnson, married and the father of two small children, ages 6 and 9, said perhaps the most painful part has been having to stop teaching.
"I miss it terribly," he said. "I've done it for 13 years — and I'm not losing my passion for teaching in any way, shape or form." Johnson said he has wanted to teach ever since he was 24 years old.
Johnson and his wife, he said, have been "very protective" of their children and shielded them from what has happened during the past few months.
Despite the dark days, Johnson said recent months have had a bright side, as friends, family and community members have rallied in support. "I never knew how many people are actually in my corner, who are standing up and advocating for you and standing by your side at a time when you wouldn't expect anyone to be standing by your side. It's unbelievable. I didn't know I had this network of friends, network of respect."
But it hasn't always been easy, Johnson said. "At one point in time, I felt really alone," he said. "I'm used to being the one who solved the problems for people — the one who has been able to connect the dots for them, showing them that there are choices. For something like this to happen to me — it's difficult to give yourself advice."
Johnson said he hopes his students past and present realize the true nature of his character. "If anyone knows me, and knows my passion for teaching and the community, it's the children that I work with."
Johnson said he hopes to impart lessons to his students. "I talk to the man upstairs," he said. "With all the things I've been through in life it's pretty hard not to have some kind of faith. I'm a testament to the fact that if you believe in life, you can make some good out of it regardless of what upbringing you may have had. You can accomplish as much as the next person."
Those who have spoken negatively about him, Johnson said, "have never met me. The people who know me know there has to be more to the story. Those are the people who are calling and making sure everything is okay. Those are the people you count on and lean on, because you can trust them. They know who you are."
Looking forward, Johnson said he is waiting for his day in court. "I hope to be completely exonerated of all charges, so that I can move on with my life and continue doing what I love to do."
Johnson, who attended the Riverhead school district, wants to get back to teaching in his classroom. "It's in my blood."
And, he added, "I can't wait to tell everyone what really happened that night. There is something seriously wrong with this case and I can't wait for it to come to light."
Keahon did not immediately return calls for comment.