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.
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.
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!")
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
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.
after 20 years, Norman got out of jail on Aug. 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
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."
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
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.)
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.
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.
spotted near Boy Scout Camp Horseshoe near Rising Sun on Aug. 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.
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.
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.
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."
the reward kept going up. As of Saturday, Aug. 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."
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.
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
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, only having come back 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.
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."
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 only felt
comfortable 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).
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."
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
bombmaking, 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.
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.
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.
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.