?> CampbellStories.com : The Search For Norman Johnston

The Search For Norman Johnston

By Zane Campbell

December, 2005

Norman Johnston has a stare that defies human comparison. It’s like a corpse is staring into your soul, which is all that’s going to be left of you after he’s through with you. His eyes say he is completely blind to morals or the laws of man. That he could pump nine bullets into his own brother’s son and kill four teenagers—five if his beloved nephew had been human and died, which he wasn’t and didn’t. No, he just ripped up his t-shirt, tore little pieces off it, plugged up his own wounds and ran off to rat out his uncle and dad. Three tough bastards.

If you saw Norman’s spot on America’s Most Wanted this past August, you know that he is a bad motherfucker and not to be toyed with. If you’d shoot your own brother’s son nine times, you’d probably shoot your own mother—and sure as shit he’d shoot you, dear reader, whom he doesn’t even know and probably wouldn’t like.

Norman Johnston and the rest of his gang—known as “the Johnston Gang,” naturally—netted millions of dollars in criminal activities over a 20-year period. Their adventures were chronicled in the 1986 film At Close Range, starring Sean Penn and Christopher Walken. Johnston, 48, was serving four consecutive life sentences when, on this past August 2, he escaped from a maximum security prison near Pittsburgh, having racked up no good behavior time whatsoever.

The most important thing to remember about Norman is that he is a retarded hillbilly, which America’s Most Wanted foolishly failed to mention. If you don’t know this about Norman and encounter him, say, in a dark hollow, you are at grave risk. His family originally came from Tennessee. The fact that he is a retarded hillbilly explains why the FBI and hundreds of cops scouring his old stomping grounds of southeastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, and northeastern Maryland, where I was raised and am now living again, couldn’t find him for 19 days.

Without Norman’s escape from prison it would have been pretty dull around this rural part of Maryland this summer. The only other news was the drought, if that gives you any idea.

Norman and his two older brothers, Bruce Sr. and David, were convicted in 1980 of whacking those four teenagers—members of their own gang, who’d gotten caught and agreed to rat them out—in 1978. Bruce Sr. had killed his son’s girlfriend and tried to kill his own son and namesake, because Bruce Jr. was about to snitch on his father and his beloved uncles. It was feared when Norman escaped that he might seek revenge against his ex-wife, who had been placed in the Witness Protection Program but foolishly left it 10 years ago. His ex-wife, now remarried, left town immediately upon his escape.

The Johnston Gang gainfully employed more than 40 adults and teens, and continued even after the brains of the operation, Bruce Sr., went to prison. Their m.o. was to steal hundreds of trucks, tractors, cars, and specialty farm equipment in Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, and allegedly sell them down South, bound for South America. (“Receipts? We don’t need no stinking receipts!”)

The Johnston Gang’s downfall was in trusting their own sons. Bruce Sr. recruited the kids himself and encouraged them to set up their own burglary/fencing ring he called the Kiddie Gang, empowering them and letting them control the means of production and the rewards. This was no nickel-and-dime operation, either. They used walkie-talkies and surveillance during heists. Alarms? Fuck that. They peeled back roofs like tin cans to get at their sardines. These guys were not lazy.

The shit hit the fan when Bruce Jr. agreed to rat out his father because his girlfriend said Bruce Sr. had raped her while Jr. was in the can for, what else, burglary and fencing. He wasn’t talking to the authorities until his girlfriend told him of the alleged rape. She paid for that bit of whining with her life at the hands of Norman and his brother David. They also shot Bruce Jr. at the same time, with Pop’s full knowledge and approval; shot him nine times, but as I said, he survived.

And so, after 20 years, Norman got out of jail on August 2 the old-school way: hacksaw on window bars. (A prison guard and a nurse were later fired for smuggling in the hacksaw and a special screwdriver for opening prison windows. The deputy superintendent abruptly retired.) He walked across the prison yard and “wriggled through a fence,” as one news report put it, to freedom. Pennsylvania police immediately launched a slipshod manhunt, when prison employees (read: drug dealers) at the State Correctional Institution in Huntington “noticed the fence was loose.” Like it was a white picket fence and they noticed the latch was up.

Norman had left a life-size dummy sleeping in his bed, complete with hair, possibly a wig he took from prison spokesperson Diana G. Baney. The prison is outside Pittsburgh in a residential area, and Baney wisely and astutely commented, “There’s houses right across the street from it.” I feel so safe. Right across the street from the prison where “there’s houses,” Norman stole a 1966 Land Rover and made a beeline across Pennsylvania to his old stomping grounds, Chester County, in the southeast corner of the state. The whole tri-state area was suddenly in an uproar. Every parent in three states was suddenly locking up their teenagers at night, which is a good idea anyway. Before he left prison, Norman was alleged to have said, “I’m gonna kill me some teenagers.”

Bruce “The Brains” Johnston was living in the town I’m living in right now, Elkton, MD, back in the 70s when they were doing their tractor-stealing and murdering. At the height of their reign, I was living nearby in my hometown, North East, MD, oblivious of them and everything else. Bruce Sr. shot the first snitch, Gary Crouch, in the head in 1977. They found Crouch a year later in a grave. Crouch used to take his daughter to the same Tastee-Freez I frequented in my hometown.

The Johnston Gang used to hang out at The Bastille, a bar I played at, on Rte. 40 between Elkton and North East, back in those days. They were hanging out there at the same time I was playing there. So the Johnston Gang had to have listened to my rock ’n’ roll cover band in the mid ‘70s. I probably fired them up for crime on occasion, playing Stones and Who covers. I’m told they were all serious wake-and-bake potheads, druggies, and drunks. Sounds like me back then.

Back then, Jack DeWitt, a Cecil County sheriff based in the county seat of Elkton, tried to capture the gang singlehandedly with his posse of traffic ticket revenuers, up near Oxford, PA (illegally crossing state lines) and was outgunned. DeWitt took along a county jail snitch to show him where Johnston was, holed up in a remote farmhouse, and things got so out of control that the sheriff had to give a gun to the snitch to help them shoot their way out. (The snitch, Kenny Howe, was a member of the Johnston Gang. He’d been caught by infrared surveillance on his property, doing a little late-night bodywork with stolen car parts supplied by the gang. After the near-disastrous shootout at the farmhouse, he entered the Witness Protection Program and went to Tennessee—where relatives of the Johnstons discovered and attacked him with the hillbilly weapon of choice, shotguns, shooting five or six times, and he lived. They were a tough bunch, even the snitches.)

Harford County police nabbed Norman in 1979, in the town of Edgewood, MD, at a motel. Maj. William Jacobs, now of the Cecil County Sheriff’s Office in Elkton, was involved in Norman’s final apprehension, which took 12 state troopers and lots of guns, though no shots were fired. The cops got the drop on Norman through an anonymous tip.

Hollywood made At Close Range to glamorize these killers for the teenagers of America (copycat killers). The Johnston Gang was much worse than the movie let on, and much less glamorous. They may have killed many more people than either gave them credit for. Bruce Sr. was convicted of killing six to his little brother Norman’s four, allowing for double-ups, but many other known blabbermouths in the tri-state area had gone missing during their reign.

After his escape this August, there were soon sightings of Norman Johnston all over the Penn-Mar-Del region, as we call it, turning neighbor against neighbor. One damn near confirmed sighting of Norman was right up the road from here in Fair Hill, MD. Some women were reading the local rag with pictures of Norman plastered all over it, saw a fellow who looked just like him by the side of the road and did right-out-of-the-movies double takes. “Norman” saw the comic double take, laughed maniacally, and ran into the woods. Suspicious, no?

I know something about Fair Hill because my father owned a country general store there for many years, the only store for miles, so I was bemused when I read that two typical rural Maryland waitresses at a local upscale restaurant there went looking for Norman in the basement of the restaurant. Their weapons? Lit cigarettes and full beer bottles. I was thinking, “These ain’t weapons. These are appendages. They would have had them in their hands anyway, at any given time of the day!” Good thing they didn’t catch Norman. Also in the Fair Hill area, police almost shot a 70-year-old man who looked nothing like Norman after they decided he looked suspicious walking down the road.

The cops were out in droves, a tri-state coordinated task force overseen by the FBI, using more helicopters and infrared devices than ever before seen in these parts. They had K-9 dogs sniffing Johnston’s dirty underwear and salivating off into the woods after him. They had roadblocks set up looking for Norman in the trunks of cars. My sister Mavis did an obvious U-turn at one when it came her turn for inspection, and the police did not come after her. She could have had two Normans in her trunk and they wouldn’t have known.

In Nottingham County Park near the PA-MD line, a park ranger spotted Norman making a phone call. He pulled his gun and asked for ID. According to a local paper, The Cecil Whig, “Johnston, who had tried to cover his face, indicated he was with a group of 10 junior rangers taking an environmental class under a nearby pavilion. Then explaining his lack of ID, Johnston reported that marijuana was the only thing he had in his possession. With the ranger’s gun still leveled on him, Johnston bolted as another park officer arrived. That ranger grabbed Johnston’s shirt, ripping it as the escaped killer broke free and headed for a line of oak trees and briars 100 feet away. Because the junior rangers were so close, the rangers didn’t fire their weapons as Johnston fled.”

Translation: They knew it would just piss him off and he might turn on them. They probably couldn’t hit a tree at point-blank anyway, being “park” officers. Norman probably sensed this and ran, escaping into the woods with only a torn shirt, outrunning the park rangers, at his age. The park rangers didn’t want to go into the woods.

Also at the park, Norman approached a “parker” bearing food. Norman said, “You know who I am. Give me the food and I won’t hurt you.” Like most locals, the “parker” willingly covered for Norman, with no quid pro quo necessary, and didn’t report the incident until 12 hours later, giving him plenty of time to eat in peace and run.

My aunt, Mary Owen, spotted him at her sister’s antique store in nearby Childs, MD. He came in the store asking directions; she didn’t know the house he was looking for and he left. She remembered him from 20 years ago when he used to come in her store at Oxford, PA. She didn’t even report it, saying only that “He looked so sad, I felt sorry for him. But I couldn’t say for certain it was him. It’s been 20 years.”

He was reputedly spotted at a Wal-Mart in Elkton by other Wal-Martians, and at Ted’s Lounge sucking up the suds and talking out his ass, but police later retracted those sightings when a local alcoholic’s car was linked to both scenes. Police spotted the suspicious car leaving Ted’s Lounge at some ungodly hour, gave chase and pulled it over, but as they approached the vehicle the alcoholic ran into the woods. Suspicious? Not in Cecil County. One more DUI and you’re in jail, then walking for a while when you get out. Quite understandable. Almost any driver on any given Friday or Saturday night around here would have acted similarly. The poor drunk left personal effects and receipts from Wal-Mart in his vehicle. But he couldn’t get to work now, so he foolishly went to reclaim the car, which had been impounded by the coppers, and was arrested for his trouble.

(In the good old days when I was driving the roads around here drunk, the cops would merely comment on my state of inebriation and let me off with some jive traffic ticket, if that, and give me directions home for chrissakes, as long as you didn’t deny that you were drunk, which they didn’t like and would haul you in for, lying being worse than drunken driving. Land of the free, my ass. You can’t even drink and drive anymore. Designated drivers? They did a recent survey in Cecil County and found not one man or woman capable or willing to be one. Everyone had at least one DUI or court-ordered alcohol/drug rehab to their credit and were working on more, if they were allowed to drive at all anymore.)

The Norman Johnston manhunt went on for almost three weeks. Since I bear a passing resemblance to Johnston (6-foot-1, 180 pounds–okay, 210–dark pompadourable hair, phrenologically questionable head shape, weird wild eyes), I decided to have a little fun with an ABC News crew outside of Oxford, PA, during all this hick hoopla. There were white news vans (ABC, NBC, CBS) swarming on the largely rural area like flies, racing after any drunken redneck’s Elvis-like “sighting” of Johnston. The (obligatory, token, cliche) Chinese-American newswoman was trying to interview the locals when I got up in her face wearing a green doctor’s shirt and spattered housepainter’s pants. I knew she was getting nowhere with the locals—they were all covering for Norman anyway; shit, he was probably hiding out in the back of the fruit stand—so I said, quite seriously: “Hi, I’m Norman Johnston. I hear you been wanting an interview with me.” She backed up. She didn’t laugh, didn’t say anything, but the fruit stand crew and the locals were laughing their asses off.

The other big local “news item” was the run on At Close Range at all the video stores in the Penn-Mar-Del region. Norman Johnston himself was spotted at a Rising Sun, MD, video store begging for a copy, probably having forgotten what he’d done 20 years ago and wondering why everybody was chasing him.

Norman was spotted near Boy Scout Camp Horseshoe near Rising Sun on August 10. What was he doing there? Looking for teenagers to kill, obviously, or preteens so they wouldn’t grow up to be teens and rat somebody else out as they are wont to do these days, the little fucks. Around this time a state trooper spotted a man fitting Johnston’s description at a payphone outside of Johnston’s Liquor Store (no relation, according to Mr. Johnston, the liquor store owner). Johnston (the liquor store owner) got pissed when one of his soon to be ex-employees put “Run, Norm, Run” on the big lit-up liquor store sign outside and then called the local paper for a photo op, which they featured, along with a local beauty parlor’s offer to give Norman a free makeover.

When the man at the liquor store fitting Johnston’s description saw the trooper, he high-tailed on a motorcycle, reportedly reaching speeds of more than 130 mph. He crossed the state line near Little Britain (no relation to any part of Britain) into Pennsylvania and dumped the bike, running into the woods. Suspicious? No. Just a typical Maryland resident in fear of losing his motorcycle license again. State police Sgt. John (“Gay”) Blades said it couldn’t have been Norman because he’s been on ice for 18 years and just couldn’t operate a motorcycle at such reckless speeds. Yeah, right. Sgt. Blades just don’t understand hillbillies and don’t know they learn to ride a fucking motorcycle before they get their tricycles; Norm Johnston could outride a state cop after being cryogenically frozen for 40 years.

Police believed Norman was taking advantage of our rural terrain, hiding in caves and eating tree bark and roots, or perhaps eating foods illegally picked from the surrounding farms, which they swore to prosecute him for, if they ever caught him. Killing teenagers is one thing, but this is farm country, and fruit and vegetable theft is no joke.

Of course there was the mandatory plea from his mother, who raised him wrong in the first place, to “give yourself up.” He was probably hiding in her pantry with her full knowledge when she was saying this into the cameras at WPVI-TV in Philadelphia. “Norm, I don’t know where you are” (why did she have to say that?), “but I wish you would give yourself up because you’re going to get killed.”

Meanwhile the reward kept going up. As of Saturday, August 14, the reward was up to $40,000. By then police in all three states were involved in the manhunt, along with the FBI, and they still couldn’t catch one retarded hillbilly. That Saturday America’s Most Wanted ran a 10-minute segment on Johnston.

If the law enforcement authorities were too stupid to catch Norm, you can imagine what the local vigilantes were like. A resident of Fair Hill, Patrick Foster, was out cruising for Norman, no doubt thinking $40,000 is a lot of beer money, when he came upon a dead ringer for Norm. He chased him with “a piece of iron” down the railroad tracks near Elk Mills. I think Patrick says it best when he says (quoted in the Whig), “I seen him about 50 yards down the tracks. I picked up a piece of iron and chased him down to the trestle crossing at Big Elk Creek. I don’t know whether I got scared but when I was about to cross the trestle my kids popped into my mind—‘Translated: he got scared.’—and I turned back to call police. Johnston went across the trestle like he was an Olympic sprinter and ducked into the woods.” Later on he says, “If I would have caught him, I would have beat him. I would have beat him hard. I am going to search around some more for him this afternoon.”

Law enforcement responded to this with, “This is a dangerous man and we don’t want citizens trying to apprehend him. That’s best left to the professionals.” Who was the “dangerous man” they were referring to, Norman or Patrick?

As it turned out, the “dead ringer for Norman Johnston” was 17-year-old Todd W. “Billy” Birney Jr., who on his way home for lunch from the lumberyard where he worked when Patrick the ever-vigilant vigilante spied him. After lunch, Birney started back to the lumberyard along the tracks when all hell broke loose.

“About 12:35 I saw people on the trestle,” he told the Whig. “I just thought they were railroad employees. I didn’t think they were cops. They were yelling at me and I just kept right on going. It might have looked like I was running, but I wasn’t. I was just going down a steep bank. The next thing I knew, cops came up from behind me, told me to freeze and get on the ground. They were coming down the embankment and said, ‘If he moves, shoot him.’”

Things got so out of hand they canceled a Charlie Daniels concert in Fair Hill, claiming it was too dangerous. One of the local rumors was that Norman was looking for millions in stolen money, buried somewhere in the tri-state. However, the area has changed so much in the last 20 years that I don’t even recognize it anymore, having come back only a few times, to dry out, in that space of time, from NYC. The money could have been hidden under a housing development and long since spent by corrupt construction workers or new home owners.

Norman evaded capture for almost three weeks. Not bad. In the end he was undone by modern technology more than anything else: newfangled cars (he could only steal old ones he knew how to operate, without all the bells and whistles); automated teller machines (he hadn’t even heard about them in prison); self-service gas pumps (he never did figure those out, and had to buy gas in a can). Some cop spotted him in a stolen car leaving a gas station in Chester County and there was the standard high-speed chase, the ditching of the car after almost hitting a house, the chase on foot and his eventual, uneventful capture, capped by Norman’s matter-of-fact, goes-without-saying quote: “You guys just don’t give up.”

But the question remains: Why did Norman come home in the first place? He could easily have driven one of those stolen cars to another state and beyond. He came back to the only region he had ever known. He’d come home. Maybe he felt comfortable only on these rural roads. He knew places he could hide out, but there were so many ugly new housing developments it must’ve been confusing. In fact, it was in one such cul de sac that he got caught. Trooper Louis Robinson said when he saw Norman careen into a development called Deerfield in Mendenhall, Pennsbury Township, PA, with him in hot pursuit, “I knew when he went in there, there was no way out of that development” (a fact residents of Deerfield probably know all too well, mortgages and all).

Was there really hidden loot? All the money they found on him was a pathetic handful of quarters for making phone calls. Maybe he couldn’t find the money, the place having grown up so much he didn’t recognize it. Maybe there was no money, all of it having been spent long ago.

Was it a hope for revenge on Bruce Jr. for not dying after the nine bullets and ratting out the whole family all those years ago? If so, he doesn’t seem to have acted on the impulse. Trooper John Malone, one of his captors, said when they caught him, “He wasn’t arrogant with us at all. He was very humble. He said he just wanted to be free.”

He didn’t know about cellular phones or how to steal one, which is why he collected quarters from the cars he stole to use on payphones. Who did he call? Relatives? Yes, at least in one case. The day those park rangers saw him, he was making a payphone call to a relative; said relative was picked up en route to the park to aid and abet Norman’s getaway. It is “rumored” that the relative had in his pickup truck three shotguns, assorted handguns, materials for amateur bomb-making, a six-pack, and a sandwich. As I’m writing this, the police won’t release the name of this relative. They also want to know who else Norman called during his three weeks of freedom. If anybody else aided and abetted him, or tried, authorities have promised to prosecute them to within an inch of their rights. Since it took said authorities so long to find him, they suspect everyone in the whole tri-state area, not without merit.

It is believed Norman spent most of his unsupervised out-time in the woods, perhaps in places he played in his childhood: caves, abandoned barns and farmhouses, heavily wooded areas. What did the fresh air feel like after almost 20 years in jail? They think he hid out around the Elk Creek and along the railroad tracks, the only area that hadn’t changed much in 20 years and connected the two confirmed sightings of him. I hike around this area a lot myself and let me tell you, you never see anybody. All summer long I’ve hiked around the Elk Creek and the railroad tracks and I have yet to see one person, except maybe the conductor on the Amtrak, if you look real hard, and the passengers whizzing by.

Norman ain’t talking much about what he did or where he was while he was out. He’s only said that it was a daily struggle to survive with police dogs constantly on his trail. Pennsylvania State Police Capt. Henry Oleyniczak said, “The best we can tell from our encounters, he was living in the woods a lot.” Johnston did tell police he hid out by day and went to convenience stores for food at night only, listening to the radio newscasts and reading newspapers to keep one step ahead.

Oleyniczak said that when troopers asked him why he stayed in the area, Norman said it was hard for him to get out of the area. He felt the heat was too hot. But wouldn’t the heat be less hot elsewhere? It doesn’t add up. Then the cops asked him, “Was it worth it?” and Norman said, “Not for 20 days.” He refused to say anything to reporters as he was being led back to prison.

Norman is now in an 8-by-10 cell in a new prison, with a light shining on him 24 hours a day (can’t even jerk off in peace), allowed only underwear to wear, allowed no tv, radio, or even books (might hide a hacksaw in one). He spends 23 hours a day in his cell with round-the-clock monitoring on all four sides. He gets out one hour a day to exercise. No interviews for me or anyone else for a while.

I miss his being out, the commotion he caused, Cecil County’s 15 minutes of national fame for the first and possibly last time. In the end, like my Aunt Mary at the antique store, I just felt sorry for Norman, a hunted animal in a world he no longer recognized, understood, or could operate the gas pumps of.