John Eric Johnston was late for his overnight shift as a guard at Eastman Chemical Corporation. He rode his bicycle to work, so his boss tried calling him on his cellphone.
But Johnston couldn't answer because he was lying in a ditch.
That's where he was left unconscious after his bicycle was struck from behind by a passing vehicle that never stopped, the driver leaving Johnston lying there perhaps dead.
Now he is lying in a hospital in Roanoke, suffering from various broken bones, brain bleeds, a concussion and numerous other injuries so severe that he could face permanent disability.
Johnston, who lived on Grandview Street in Martinsville, had just turned 55 years old six days before the crash that nearly took his life and has left his family looking for answers and a Martinsville Police Department with few to offer.
"My brother, ‘John Eric’ we call him, was riding his bicycle from his home in Martinsville to Eastman, where he worked as a security guard for Allied Security,” Connie Nystrom said. “He was the victim of a hit-and-run driver, and the driver of the car that hit him left him lying in a ditch and drove away.”
'Ya'll might want to come and check on him'
According to the police crash report, the 911 communications center received a call at 10:43 p.m. on June 27. It was a clear Saturday night.
“Yes, I was on Northside Drive in Martinsville, and I’m driving to work, and I can see that there’s a man laying in a ditch,” said a person in a calm and collected voice that sounds like a young, adult female. “It’s nighttime, and I figured ya’ll might want to come and check on him.
“I mean I don’t know if he’s alive or anything, but it’s definitely a man in a ditch. He’s actually got on a reflective thing - that’s how I knew it was a person.”
The caller also said Johnston was “not moving" and might be “passed out.” The call did not include a name or phone number.
Martinsville Police Officer Jason Vaughan found Johnston and his mangled 2015 Huffy bicycle just off of the northbound side of Northside drive, one-tenth of a mile south of its intersection with Dudley Street.
Vaughan classified the crash as a hit-and-run, with both vehicles going straight ahead. Skid marks were noted coming from the bike but not from the vehicle that fled the scene.
Late to work
“He was one of my guards and worked the night shift,” Eastman Guardhouse Supervisor Raymond Hairston said. “We thought maybe he had overslept, so I kept calling his cellphone, but I didn’t get any answers."
Hairston and Nystrom both explained Johnston’s routine of riding his bike to work from his apartment at 1521 Grandview Road in Martinsville to the Eastman guardhouse just off Kings Mountain Road.
“It took him 35 minutes to get here,” Hairston said. “His shift started at 11, and at 11:40 p.m. a police officer called and said, ‘John won’t be into work - he was in a hit-and-run accident.’ But he didn’t tell us his condition.”
Nystrom lives in Culpeper, a 3 1/2 hour drive from Martinsville.
“It was 3:40 Sunday morning when the Culpeper County Sheriff’s Department was on my doorstep telling me that my brother had been in an accident on his bike and had been flown to [Carilion] Roanoke Memorial Hospital,” Nystrom said. “They told me he [John] couldn’t talk, he couldn’t tell who he was.”
Nystrom said they were fortunate Vaughan had found Johnston’s wallet at the scene, and once he was able to identify Johnston, he made contact with the guardhouse, which supplied Nystrom’s contact information.
“I’m John Eric’s older sister, and he has an older brother that lives in California,” Nystrom said. “Our dad lived in Franklin County, where he retired after a career in the Marines."
Their father died in 2013 and their mother died in 2017.
'Not in a good place'
Johnston had been an assistant teacher in the Franklin County Public School system for 12 years, took linguistics classes through the University of Virginia, spoke both English and Spanish and spent time as a substitute teacher for Martinsville City Schools.
“John moved to Martinsville last year and was ready for something new, so he applied to Allied Security, went through the criminal justice training class required for the job and was employed with Allied Security at Eastman," Nystrom said.
"He had not been doing so well since mom died. He was not in a good place mentally - John was not in a good place - so he moved into an apartment and was riding his bike to work.”
Johnston had been employed with Eastman as a night guard for almost four months when the accident occurred.
“We have one person per shift - six people altogether,” Hairston said.
The close-knit group are friends, and Johnston was quickly accepted by his new work family.
“We just felt bad that there was nothing we could do,” Hairston said. “He [Johnston] was always on time, a little early. We knew when he didn’t make it on-time something had to be wrong.”
The suspect vehicle
Martinsville Deputy Police Chief Robert Fincher says the case remains under investigation.
“A full reconstruction of the accident was done, and based on the evidence, the suspect vehicle is a Subaru Crosstrek,” Fincher said. “It is a 2016 through 2018 model, and right now the vehicle color is unknown.
“It will have [or have had] damage to the passenger front of the vehicle.”
As for the 911 caller, Nystrom said that Fincher assured her they had followed up with the caller but didn’t provide any additional details, and Sgt. Harley Durham has been assigned as the lead investigator.
Johnston remained bedridden nine days after the wreck and was only able to recall his name and birth date. He didn't have health insurance, so a gofundme account has been set up to help raise money for his medical bills -- which are significant.
“My brother has no memory of the last 10 years of his life right now,” Nystrom said. “He talks as if he lives in Franklin County still, and he thinks my parents are alive."
His injuries included two brain bleeds, a severe concussion, five broken ribs, both collarbones broken, a fractured pelvis and a fractured fibula.
“He was assessed by the speech pathologist and will qualify for the cognitive/memory therapy when he is more consistently alert,” Nystrom said. “It looks like he will be healing for four to six weeks with extremely small amounts of therapy.”
Bill Wyatt is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. He can be reached at 276-638-8801, Ext. 236. Follow him @billdwyatt
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