Everyone thought he was an ICE agent. His girlfriend stumbled into the truth, records say

Weapons and supplies seized from the suspect's home, according to federal prosecutors.
Weapons and supplies seized from the suspect's home, according to federal prosecutors. U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California

Everyone in his life — his friends, family, girlfriend and ex-wife — believed Matthew Johnston, 26, was an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent.

It would be hard to blame them. Nearly all the trappings of Johnston’s life in Fontana, California, suggested he had a job with the federal law enforcement agency, according to court records: He wore ICE badges and uniforms. He used blue and red police lights on his car. He had a tactical vest that said “federal agent.” Johnston described his job on Facebook as “fugitive apprehension” for the Department of Homeland Security, which includes ICE.

Johnston wasn’t an ICE employee, though, and he never had been. But that didn’t stop him from pretending to be a federal agent for months as he interacted with the unsuspecting public, court records said.

He once flashed his fake police lights to pursue another car, which caused a collision, prosecutors said. On another occasion, he posed as an ICE agent to speak with someone about a possible undocumented person. Johnston also bragged that he was an ICE agent to patrons and workers at Déjà Vu Showgirls, a strip club in Industry, California, prosecutors said.

Johnston was sentenced to two years in federal prison this month after pleading guilty to possessing an unregistered destructive device, which investigators discovered searching his home, federal prosecutors announced Monday.

His lie began to unravel on Oct. 11, 2017, during a traffic stop in San Bernardino County, court records said. A deputy pulled over Johnston’s girlfriend after the white Audi she was driving activated blue and red police lights. Johnston wasn't in the car with her.

The girlfriend said she accidentally turned on the flashing lights. She had only meant to plug her phone into a charger, and didn’t even know the car had lights, she said. The car belonged to her boyfriend of two months, she explained, and he worked for Homeland Security.

At that point, the deputy got Johnston’s phone number from the girlfriend and gave Johnston a call. Johnston answered and said he worked for Homeland Security. He told the deputy he had forgotten to remove the lights from his car, court records said.

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The deputy instructed the girlfriend to take the lights off and put them under the seat. Then the deputy let her drive off, according to court records.

But the next day, the deputy gave the local ICE office a call to ask about Johnston. There were no records indicating Johnston worked there, the deputy learned. That’s when ICE started looking into Johnston’s social media and doing a more thorough search of ICE records to confirm that Johnston had never worked there.

Meanwhile, the deputy went to the girlfriend’s home on Oct. 12 and spoke to her about Johnston. Johnston had told his girlfriend he had worked for Homeland Security, but that got fired around the time of his divorce and then worked as a security guard. Recently, though, he was rehired by Homeland Security, Johnston had told the girlfriend.

The girlfriend showed the deputy a picture Johnston sent her of a handgun, handcuffs, a gold ICE belt badge and a Homeland Security ID card featuring Johnston’s picture and the DHS seal, court records said.

She also said Johnston would give her between $1,500 and $2,000 every week for no particular reason, according to court records. If she needed money, she said, he would "pull out a large wad of cash." She showed the deputy Johnston’s badge, which called him “Special Agent Matthew Johnston” and said he had “Clearance Level 2.”

After getting a warrant, federal and local law enforcement searched Johnston’s residence Oct. 23, court records said — and uncovered 32 firearms, about 10,000 rounds of ammunition, cannon fuses, homemade rocket launchers, homemade rockets and other destructive devices.

When officers spoke to Johnston that day, he said he pretended to be an ICE agent “because his ex-wife had insulted him in front of his daughter and told his daughter that he had done nothing with his life.” He decided to concoct the ICE story “to show everyone that he was ‘somebody’ and had done something with his life,” he said, according to court records.

Why ICE? Fewer people knew what ICE was, he said. “He did not want to pick a local agency where people might know individuals who worked at the agency, because he feared being caught,” according to court records.

Federal agents used geo-coordinates from Johnston’s cellphone to track down an area in the open desert where he had traveled. There, they uncovered a host of homemade explosives — including five unexploded or semi-exploded improvised devices, what was left of an exploded pipe bomb and an expended smoke grenade, prosecutors said.

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