An Ashley County man pleaded guilty Tuesday morning to two counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted first-degree murder, and one count of first-degree battery in the October 2010 two-vehicle crash that killed a pregnant woman and her unborn child and injured his former wife and another woman.
Mark David Johnson, 49, of Hamburg was scheduled to be tried Tuesday in Drew County Circuit Court on capital murder charges in the October 2010 deaths of Austin Nichole Paccio and her unborn baby but in a plea agreement Tuesday morning pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder. He pleaded guilty to attempted first-degree murder of his then wife Heather Johnson and first-degree battery of Shelly Paccio.
Johnson was originally scheduled to be tried in Ashley County but just as his December 2011 capital murder trial got underway, Circuit Judge Don Glover granted a defense motion for a change of venue due to widespread opinions about the defendant in Ashley County.
A Drew County jury of seven men and five women were seated late Tuesday afternoon to hear sentencing evidence. The sentencing portion of the trial will get underway Wednesday morning at 9 a.m.
According to court documents, Johnson drove his 2002 Dodge Ram into his wife, Heather Johnson’s vehicle, which was being driven by one of her friends, Shelly Paccio. Paccio and Heather Johnson, the back seat passenger, were both injured while the front seat passenger Austin Nichole Paccio and her unborn daughter, Adaleigh Marie Paccio died. The gestation period of eight months (for Adaleigh) exceeded the 12-week gestation threshold set by state law, making her a an unborn victim.
Mark Johnson was traveling north on Arkansas 52 about two miles northeast of Crossett when his 2002 Dodge Ram struck the passenger side of the southbound Jeep, causing the Jeep to overturn, ejecting 20-year-old Austin Nichole Paccio, according to a State Police report.
Shelly Paccio, 36, of Crossett, told police Johnson drove into her lane and she swerved in an attempt to avoid contact but was unable to do so. She said she could tell Johnson “gunned” the gas pedal because the truck was approaching them fast and black smoke was coming out of the tail pipe.
Johnson told police he was “fooling with his radio” then looked up and the Jeep was in his lane. He said it was possible he drifted into the turning lane.
The incident reportedly stemmed from domestic problems between the Johnsons. Mark Johnson was served with divorce papers on October 4, two days before the fatal crash and he reportedly threatened to kill Heather Johnson, 37, prior to the crash.