How did a bright young man from Stockbridge became a wanted fugitive?

A documentary picked up by PBS for national syndication answers that question.

“Finding Tyler” explores the life of Tyler Johnson, a Michigan native who went from being a sought-after academic to a fugitive on the run from the FBI in just a few short months.

Johnson, who died at age 30 while living on the run, was once a brilliant young physicist with a bright future in academia ahead of him.

He earned the Presidential Merit Scholarship from the California Institute of Technology and planned to earn his Ph.D. while teaching at the University of New Mexico. His studies included theoretical physics and artificial intelligence.

“Finding Tyler,” directed by Chris Brannan and Diana Reichenbach, explains how one night threw the gifted young man’s life into chaos.

At Cal Tech, Johnson befriended Billy Cottrell, a likeminded student who shared many of Johnson’s ideals. The pair would spend time together rock climbing and bonded over a trip to Joshua Tree.  

On Aug. 22, 2003, Johnson, Cottrell and Michie Oe, Johnson’s girlfriend, set out with a plan to spray paint SUVs. They stopped at a car dealership and spray-painted vehicles with slogans like “I Love Pollution” and “SUV = Terrorism.”

But the spray-painting mission escalated into arson when the group began lighting the vehicles on fire with Molotov cocktail-like incendiary devices.

The FBI immediately took notice of the incident, due to its similarity with other acts of arson allegedly orchestrated by the Earth Liberation Front, a loosely organized extremist environmentalist coalition.

It didn’t take long for the investigation to lead authorities to the friend group, and Johnson was staring down charges of domestic terrorism and a potential prison sentence of 35 years.

Whether Johnson or Cottrell escalated the night’s antics to their extreme endpoint is disputed, both claim the other was responsible.

Cottrell, despite only admitting to participating in spray-painting, ultimately served several years in prison for his involvement.

Faced with an impossibly difficult decision, Johnson fled the country.

One of Tyler Johnson’s journal entries, written during his time living in Corsica.

“Finding Tyler,” chronicles Johnson’s life as a fugitive. Spending some months in Europe, Johnson settled on living a nomadic lifestyle in Corsica, a mountainous island off the coast of France.

The documentary’s co-director Brannan, a filmmaker who has worked on multiple nonfiction projects, had a natural pull to the tale. After all, he was a middle school classmate of Cottrell.

Brannan said he was shocked to see somebody he knew as a child being charged as a domestic terrorist. He produced a short documentary about Cottrell’s story in 2008, but the discovery of Patrice Johnson’s blog, Tyler Johnson’s mother, inspired the genesis of “Finding Tyler.”

“Coming across those materials, I knew this was a powerful story with compelling characters,” Brannan said.

The documentary reveals the hardship suffered by Patrice Johnson and her husband, James Johnson, as they struggled with being in such limited contact with their son.

Fearing capture, Tyler Johnson revealed little in his letters and kept his residence in Corsica a secret from his parents.

Patrice Johnson can still recall the moment she learned her son was a fugitive.

“There were three gentlemen standing there. And my husband said, ‘These people are from the FBI.’ I laughed, I thought he had to be kidding. But I saw from the look on his face that he was not kidding,” Patrice Johnson said.

It would be a full year before Patrice and James Johnson would finally get a letter from their son. Patrice Johnson said they were interviewed by the FBI but were not pressured into exposing his location.

“They are probably skilled enough at questioning to realize we didn’t know where he was and we didn’t know how to reach him,” Patrice Johnson said.

Much of the material presented by the documentary was developed from journals left behind by Johnson that were discovered after his death, as well stories gathered from interviews with friends he made in Corsica.

The recovered entries and anecdotes illustrate how Johnson spent his days working odd jobs, taking hiking trips through the mountainous terrain of the island, and developing his nonprofit Solaria, an association that offered solar-powered stoves for residents in poor countries.

Despite the discovery that he was a fugitive living in exile from the United States, Tyler Johnson’s friends in Corsica spoke very highly of him to the documentary’s crew.

A photo of the island where Tyler Johnson lived until his death in 2010.

“When I explained the crime to them, they were completely shocked. It was representative of the climate, dealing with a post-9/11 political and judicial landscape. There was increased pressure to find these types of incidents and prosecute them heavily,” Brannan said.

“Finding Tyler” provides a deep look into the timeline of his life and paints a portrait of the conflict inside him as he lived life in exile from his home and his loved ones.

“He kept very detailed journals, about 900 pages worth. He said he was writing to bridge the ocean of silence between us and that when we were reunited, he could share what his life was,” Patrice Johnson said.

Unfortunately, Tyler Johnson would not have that opportunity. He died in 2010, caught in an avalanche.

Patrice and James Johnson flew out to Corsica, tasked with the crushing responsibility of identifying their son’s body.

While in Corsica, the two were led around the island by friends of Tyler Johnson, and they got to experience how he lived his life in his final years.

Patrice Johnson hopes that her son’s story can teach people about the fragility of life, and how the consequences of one action can change everything. She wrote a biography of her son in 2017, “The Fall and Rise of Tyler Johnson.”

“I think what happened to him could send a warning to young people, so they don’t fall into the same kind of mistake. I think that would give his life more significance,” Patrice Johnson said.

For more information about “Finding Tyler,” visit findingtylerfilm.com.

You can view East Lansing PBS affiliate WKAR’s broadcast schedule here.