Investigation finds Duluth police officer justified in shooting

DULUTH, Minn. -- A Duluth police officer was justified in shooting a knife-wielding man who had attempted suicide and barricaded himself inside a garage at a residence this summer, St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin said Tuesday.

DULUTH, Minn. -- A Duluth police officer was justified in shooting a knife-wielding man who had attempted suicide and barricaded himself inside a garage at a residence this summer, St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin said Tuesday.

Rubin determined that officer Marc Johnson was justified in using deadly force against 34-year-old Joseph Zontelli on Aug. 11. Zontelli was injured but survived the shooting.

“The decision he made to employ deadly force was, in my professional opinion, legally and factually justified,” Rubin wrote in his report. “It was reasonable under the totality of the circumstances. I do not believe criminal charges would be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, nor should they be.”

Zontelli had cut himself with the knife and barricaded himself inside a garage enclosure, telling officers that he wanted to bleed to death, according to the report. With blood seeping under the doorway, Johnson made the decision to forcibly enter the room in order to get medical treatment for Zontelli .

Johnson, a seven-year veteran of the force, shot Zontelli twice, later stating that Zontelli had made a motion with the knife that he felt was an attempt to stab him or another officer.


Police Chief Gordon Ramsay said officers are trained to de-escalate situations and would not typically force entry. But time was of the essence in this case, he said.

“This case was unique in the fact that we had an individual who said he was dying on the other side of a door from police officers,” Ramsay said. “In this case, Marc Johnson felt that if he did not take immediate action that Joe Zontelli was going to die on the other side of the door while he stood there and did nothing.”

Johnson was initially placed on paid administrative leave, but has since returned to the force.

Officers were familiar with Zontelli, who had been the subject of several calls for suicide threats or domestic incidents in the weeks leading up to the shooting, police said. He had been separated from his wife, Amy Zontelli , and was not living with her at the time.

Calls for suicide attempts or threats are all too familiar for officers, Ramsay said. Those incidents have risen steadily in the past several years, according to department statistics.

“Police officers are more and more put in situations of being the first responders for people that are in crisis,” he said. “The last thing we want to do is to have someone hurt. We’re there to help.”

Officers were called to the Zontelli family home around 4 a.m. Aug. 11 on a report that Joe Zontelli had come to the home and was cutting himself, according to the report. He told his wife that if she called 911 he would get shot, so Amy Zontelli texted a friend, who called police.

Officers arrived on the scene and saw Joe Zontelli run down a staircase into the basement. The officers noted a trail of blood leading through the house and down the stairs.


When officers were unable to make contact with Zontelli , they went downstairs and learned that he had taken refuge in a room in the attached garage, the report said. Officers immediately noted a “substantial amount of blood” coming from underneath the door.

Zontelli allegedly told officers that he wanted to be left alone to “die in peace in his own house,” stating that he was standing by the door and holding his knife to his chest so that he would be stabbed if the door was forced open.

Johnson, accompanied by five other officers, announced that he was going to force the door open, according to the report. He did so, and released his K9 partner, Oakley, into the room. The dog grabbed onto Zontelli’s leg and was intended as a distraction to the man, Johnson told investigators.

Johnson entered the dark room and repeatedly ordered Zontelli to drop the knife. When Zontelli refused to comply and made a movement with the knife, Johnson grabbed Zontelli’s right arm - the arm he thought was holding the knife, the report states.

The knife, however, was actually in his left hand. Johnson reached to secure the knife and then fired two shots from his service pistol, striking Zontelli in the left back and shoulder area.

Rubin wrote in the report that interviews with the other officers and video captured by several officers’ body cameras corroborated the events as described by Johnson.

“Things happened fast, Officer Johnson took control of the situation, and there was no one that seemed to disagree with the course of action or suggested outright a different tactic,” Rubin wrote.

Attempts to reach the Zontelli family for comment were unsuccessful.


The incident was the first major use-of-force case since the department rolled out body cameras department-wide earlier this year. The videos, however, were not immediately made public.

A data practices request to obtain the video was made, but Ramsay said he is withholding the data at this time while the city seeks further clarification on privacy laws, as the incident happened inside Zontelli’s residence.

Ramsay said the city attorney’s office has requested that the Minnesota Department of Administration review data practice statutes and provide guidance on the request.

Authorities stressed, though, that the entire incident happened very quickly. Only about six to seven seconds elapsed from the time the door was forced open until the time Johnson fired the first shot, according to the report.

“That’s a very short period of time,” Deputy Police Chief Ann Clancey said.

“It’s easy for us to sit here now and go back, take our time, read it, look, think about other options. But you have to remember that timeframe,” Clancey said. “We can’t use 20/20 to evaluate that. We have to use the timeframe and the information that the officer had at that time.”

Rubin, in his report, commended the officer for his quick thinking, saying Johnson took the only course of action that he could under the circumstances.

“His intent was not to cause harm to Joe Zontelli , but to save his life,” Rubin wrote. “In the final analysis, that is what he did. Had he done nothing, Joe would be dead, and we would not be visiting this question as we are now.”


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Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or
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