ST. CHARLES PARISH, La. — Three days after he was booked in the fatal hit-and-run that took the life of construction worker Brady Ortego, Hunter Johnson was a free man.
Johnson, 22, is accused of plowing into Ortego on the Hale Boggs bridge in the early morning hours of Jan. 14 after a night of heavy drinking. The force of the crash sent Ortego flying off the bridge and into the Mississippi River to his death.
The fact that Johnson made his $800,000 bail wasn't the most surprising part to Adele Ortego, the victim's widow. She said she was even more disturbed to find out that Johnson was allowed to resume driving, despite being booked March 12 with vehicular homicide, DWI, hit-and-run, reckless operation and obstruction of justice.
“How he's even allowed to drive is beyond me,” Ortego said. “The whole thing has been puzzling to me.”
Since Johnson's release, WWL-TV has uncovered a string of his prior arrests, but one in particular made Ortego's family cringe. It happened when Johnson was a juvenile, so the criminal portion of that case is not public. But a civil lawsuit and police report from 2016 show that Johnson was arrested in a hit-and-run back then in Kenner that left a man badly injured.
And his rap sheet doesn't end there. Additional records show Johnson was arrested several times as an adult, including non-consensual disclosure of private images, better known as “revenge porn.” Two days after that arrest, Johnson was picked up for criminal damage with two other men for shooting at the property of the revenge porn victim who reported him. Subsequent arrests include violation of a stay-away order and being a fugitive from St. Charles Parish where he lives.
“I don't believe that I would have endless opportunities to just be out free, enjoying life, just willy nilly doing whatever I want. I find it shocking,” Ortego said.
While the outcomes of those old cases were not immediately available, WWL-TV obtained some alarming facts about the January fatal hit-and-run.
The arrest warrant affidavit issued by the State Police documents a night of drinking by Johnson and a friend at Hooters in Metairie. The affidavit states that Johnson bought 18 shots of liquor in three hours, drinking at least nine-and-a-half of them himself. Investigators say video shows Johnson staggering and vomiting before being helped out of the restaurant.
“Johnson is observed to have trouble standing and places his head on the bar,” the troopers wrote. “Johnson is also seen vomiting on the bar and floor before finally being helped out of the location.”
Accident investigators wrote that two hours later, Johnson struck a guardrail on the Hale Boggs Bridge and skidded 169 feet before plowing into three vehicles and striking Ortego, sending him flying into the Mississippi River. His body is still missing.
The exclusive State Police documents obtained by WWL-TV match some of the allegations first made in a wrongful death lawsuit filed against Johnson and his mother, Pebbles Johnson. But not all.
In the lawsuit, she is accused of being the person who drove her son away from the scene. But the police documents stop abruptly at that critical point.
“The investigation, it appears to have been artificially cut off,” said Rafael Goyeneche of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a criminal justice watchdog group,.
State Police wrote “at 1:03 a.m., Johnson made a phone call.”
The report then states, “The GPS coordinates provided by AT&T put Hunter Johnson at the base of the Hale Boggs Bridge just after the crash occurred.”
“Everything stops right there,” Ortego said. “It stops with knowing that a phone call was placed. Then there's nothing further.”
Even though Johnson was injured, his truck mangled, his passenger abandoned, he somehow left the accident scene.
“That's disturbing. Because people don't just vanish,” Ortego said.
The family's lawsuit against Johnson, however, does make allegations about what happened next. In the suit, the family alleges that Hunter Johnson's mom, Pebbles Johnson, picked up her son and drove him to a motel to hide from authorities, even though he suffered injuries that later required medical treatment.
Hunter Johnson was himself injured in the wreck, and Pebbles tried to render medical aid herself “rather than take him to a medical facility or report his location and injuries to authorities,” the lawsuit claims.
“Pebbles Johnson and Hunter Johnson remained hidden to avoid potential civil and criminal consequences,” the suit continues.
Goyeneche questions why relevant facts about Hunter Johnson leaving the scene weren't addressed in the initial State Police investigative reports.
“Why did they stop documenting what happened after the suspect left the bridge and was driven off the bridge?” he asked. “Whoever picked him up and drove him away is potential in violation of state felony law.”
We asked the State Police for comment. A spokesman wrote that the hit-and-run portion of the investigation is complete and has been submitted to the St. Charles District Attorney. The spokesman, Trooper Monroe Dillon, added, “Other aspects of the crash, to include aiding and abetting, remain under investigation.”
WWL-TV reached out to St. Charles District Attorney Joel Chaisson, but his office said it has a blanket policy of not commenting on pending cases.
Ortego's family said they personally spoke to Chaisson about their concerns. But their questions about who whisked Hunter Johnson away from that bridge were not answered, Adele Ortego said.
“There was a level of some comfort given, but there were still stones left unturned,” she said.
Developments since then have raised even more concerns for the family. Johnson's previous criminal defense attorney is now an assistant D.A. in St. Charles. And she shares a private law office with Johnson's current defense attorney. Records show they are assigned to the same section of court.
“That concerns me. A huge flag,” Ortego said.
Goyeneche cited a state law – Code of Criminal Procedure Article 65 – that prohibits law partners of assistant DAs to defend someone in a criminal case. The article states: “It is unlawful for the following officers or their law partners to defend or assist in the defense of any person charged with an offense in any parish of the state: Any district attorney or assistant district attorney.”
“A first year law student knows that you don't mix those two organizations in the same office space and practice law in the same building,” Goyeneche said.
The DA's office declined to comment on the apparent conflict, but gave private assurances to Adele Ortego and the rest of the family.
“That leaves me putting all of my faith in his word, in those words, that they will do what is right,” she said.
And now, with Johnson out of jail and the case silent, Ortego's family is focusing on one of the few things they can control. Two memorial services have been scheduled in Cajun Country where Brady was born and raised.
“We've kind of found some peace in that Brady is where Brady loves to be, which is the water.” Ortego said.
The Cajun version of a burial at sea.
“He grew up on the water. He loves the water,” his widow said. “If nothing else, we have that little bit of peace.”