Jeffrey Christenson had just woken up in his usual spot under an awning outside the Central Library in downtown Seattle when a stranger attacked him, pummeling him with fists and bludgeoning him with a traffic cone in March 2019, according to King County prosecutors.
Christenson, who suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him with severe physical and cognitive disabilities, died two years later, on March 20, at a Pierce County nursing facility, charging papers say. An autopsy found he died from delayed complications from the assault and his death was ruled a homicide. He was 62.
In June, Ryan Johnston, 42, pleaded guilty to first-degree assault for the attack on Christenson and third-degree assault for a striking a woman in the face three weeks later, court records show. Sentenced to just over seven years in prison, Johnston was charged Tuesday with second-degree murder in connection with Christenson’s death, according to court records and charging documents.
Johnston, who was living in a tent at Seattle’s Freeway Park at the time of the 2019 assaults, is currently incarcerated at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, Franklin County, about 95 miles east of Yakima, according to court records and the state Department of Corrections website. As of Tuesday, he had not yet been transported back to the King County Jail, though prosecutors have requested that he be held in lieu of $2 million bail.
Johnston is to be arraigned May 17. Court records don’t yet indicate which attorney is representing him.
Should he be convicted of second-degree murder, Johnston faces a standard-range sentence of 11 to 19½ years.
According to a defense mitigation report filed in the first-degree assault case, Johnston suffered extreme physical and sexual abuse as a child, first at an Oregon foster home and later, at the hands of his father’s friends in Alaska. He worked for a time as a commercial fisherman before he came to Seattle in 2018, living in homeless shelters and a tent, the records say.
Three people, including a library janitor and a man sitting at a nearby bus stop, witnessed the assault on Christenson just before 8:30 a.m. on March 30, 2019, charging papers say. Christenson, who was known to bed down outside the library on Fifth Avenue, “didn’t bother anyone” and would pack up his belongings when asked to leave, witnesses told Seattle police at the time, according to the charges.
Johnston was identified as Christenson’s assailant from fingerprints found on the library window above the spot where Christenson had been sleeping, according to the charges. The charges also include still photos of Johnston taken from video-surveillance cameras on the day of the attack that appear to match photos from a Seattle police officer’s body-worn camera that were recorded during an earlier contact with police.
The defense report in the assault case involving Christenson says Johnston was in a psychotic state, intoxicated on meth and suffering flashbacks and hallucinations, apparently causing him to believe Christenson was one of his father’s friends who had sexually abused him as a child.
Following Johnston’s arrest in April 2019, he was diagnosed at Western State Hospital with unspecified psychosis and bipolar, schizoaffective and substance abuse disorders, court records show.