An Ashley County man accused of driving his dodge pickup truck into a Jeep SUV in October 2010, killing a pregnant woman and her unborn child, and injuring his estranged wife and another woman has changed his plea to not guilty by reason of mental disease.

At a pretrial hearing in Drew County Circuit Court Tuesday, Mark Johnson’s attorney Jim Wyatt announced that Johnson was changing his plea. Circuit Judge Don Glover ordered the proceedings suspended, pending receipt of a mental evaluation of Johnson. The trial, which was set to begin on March 26, has been continued, according to 10th Judicial District Prosecutor Thomas Deen.

Johnson, 49, of Hamburg, was originally scheduled to be tried Ashley County but just as his December capital murder trial got underway, Glover granted a defense motion for a change of venue due to widespread opinions about the defendant in Ashley County.

Johnson is alleged to have driven into Heather Johnson’s vehicle, which was being driven by one of her friends, Shelly Paccio, according to court documents. Paccio and Heather Johnson, the back seat passenger, were both injured while the front seat passenger Austin Nichole Paccio and her unborn baby died. She was eight months pregnant.

According to a State Police report, 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.

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 is alleged to have 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 is alleged to have threatened to kill Heather Johnson, 37, prior to the crash.

Johnson is charged with two counts of capital murder in connection with the death of Austin Nichole Paccio and her unborn daughter Adaleigh Marie Paccio.

If convicted of capital murder, 10th Judicial District Prosecutor Thomas Deen said he will seek the death penalty because two people were killed in the same episode. The gestation period of eight months (for Adaleigh) exceeded the 12-week gestation threshold set by state law, making her a an unborn victim.

He is also charged with attempted capital murder of Heather D. Johnson and first-degree battery of Shelly Paccio.

MORE NEWS         CRIME & COURTS