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Escape revives a town's bad memories

Residents of Kennett Square believed they had seen the last of the Johnston brothers

Sunday, August 15, 1999

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

KENNETT SQUARE, Pa. -- Norman Johnston never bought into the work ethic that made this town the mushroom capital of the world.

In Kennett Square, the police chief has almost dared Norman Johnston in television interviews to set food inside the town limits. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr, Post-Gazette) 

Then again, he never bought much of anything.

Johnston, the most-wanted fugitive in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware since escaping Aug. 2 from a maximum-security prison, grew up in a family gang that loved to steal. The Johnstons eventually advanced to contract murder to cover their tracks.

Now, almost two weeks after Norman Johnston's prison break, police think he is back in Chester County, thick as thieves again with family or old cronies who can help him get away for good.

Johnston's suspected presence has rattled a region that is vastly richer and more populous since he and the rest of his gang was sent to prison in the 1970s and '80s. These days, an acre of ground in Kennett Square can sell for $100,000 and an average home for $350,000.

The gigantic mushroom farms around the town first attracted hard-working members of Johnston's family to Chester County. Later, the gang members found that they liked the area, too, mainly because it had so much to steal.

Along with big brothers Bruce and David and teen-age recruits known as the kiddie robbers, Norman Johnston helped himself to anything that wasn't nailed down and much of what was.

From the mid-1960s through the next decade, he stole antiques, diamonds, gold, silver, tires, farm equipment and lawn tractors, which seem as commonplace as two-car garages in Chester County.

The Johnston gang hijacked trucks filled with groceries, cigarettes and pantyhose, pilfered a load of drugs that a Virginia dealer didn't guard zealously enough, and even robbed an amusement park in the heart of Lancaster County's Amish country.

"To some people, these guys were folk heroes. Boy, that never was true," said Albert McCarthy, police chief of Kennett Square.

McCarthy was about to become a rookie officer in 1972 when an associate of the Johnstons assassinated two Kennett Square patrolmen who were beginning to investigate the gang. Both officers were shot in the back with a rifle as they prepared to walk into the station house.

  Jim Landreth sits in the window of his barbershop in Kennett Square, reminicing about the Johnston escapades. . (V.W.H. Campbell Jr, Post-Gazette)

After those murders, which were committed by a safecracker named Ancell Hamm, police pursued the Johnston gang with a stalker's zeal. Panic set in. The Johnstons themselves began murdering the young thugs who had stolen for them but who might also be tempted to become snitches.

In all, five teen-agers were slain by the gang in 1977 and 1978. One was Bruce Johnston's stepson. Another was the 15-year-old girlfriend of his biological son, Bruce Jr.

Bruce Sr. also ordered the execution of Little Bruce, as his son was called. He took nine bullets, but survived as a prosecution witness.

One by one, the three Johnston brothers were arrested and convicted.

Norman Johnston, now 49, received a life sentence in 1987 for the murders of three teen-age associates and a series of other crimes.

In the years since, Kennett Square, a pleasant Quaker community of 5,200, had happily forgotten about him and the rest of his cohorts.

With Johnston's escape from the State Correctional Institution Huntingdon, memories of the gang have returned in a rush.

State police have been flooded with news of dozens of sightings of the fugitive in and around Chester County. Like many people in Kennett Square, police believe that Johnston has come home, to the scene of his worst crimes.

They say Johnston is probably using family and old friends to hide in the vast, wooded tracts where the borders of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware converge.

"This is the area he knows. This is the area where he can reach out for help," said Capt. Henry Oleyniczak of the Pennsylvania State Police.

Not a day passed last week without a breathless account of Johnston eluding police.

A Maryland state trooper spotted a motorcyclist Monday night who loosely resembled Johnston, a hatchet-faced man who stands 6 feet, 1-inch tall and weighs 180 pounds. The man hopped onto his cycle and, police said, roared off at 130 mph. Police lost him as he crossed the Pennsylvania line and disappeared into Lancaster County farmland.

McCarthy later said the cyclist was a local wanted on a drunken-driving warrant.

On Thursday, the hunt regained intensity after a man resembling Johnston was spotted outside a home in Cherry Hill, Md. The house, which had been under surveillance, was occupied by a niece of Johnston's.

Police swooped in with helicopters and used tracking dogs that they said picked up Johnston's scent. But if Johnston had been there, he slipped away again.

David Richter is an ex-FBI agent who wias instrumental in putting the Johnstons behind bars. Here, he discusses the gang and the coverage it received in local newspapers. .(V.W.H. Campbell Jr, Post-Gazette) 

Johnston also had been linked to the theft of a car and truck in the area, but Oleyniczak said the palm prints officers recovered didn't match his.

More sightings, some sounding plausible, others far-fetched, continued as the weekend arrived.

P.K. MacRae of Lincoln University said the pursuit of Johnston would be almost comical if he were not so dangerous.

"He's supposed to be in all these places, but he always gets away," said MacRae, who was waiting for a haircut in a Kennett Square shop.

His barber, Bob Burton, agreed.

"They've got sightings of him on Broad Street [in Philadelphia], on a guardrail in Maryland, everywhere."

The town's other barber, Jim Landreth, cut the hair of all the Johnston brothers. He still remembers Norman and the others as above-average young men, not notorious gang members.

"He's a lot smarter than people give him credit for," Landreth said. "All of them were intelligent young men who got on the wrong track. He didn't seem any different than you or me."

Retired FBI agent Dave Richter said the Johnston gang, in the worst way, was different from just about everybody.

When their way of life was threatened by persistent police surveillance, they showed a savagery that few would associate with an idyllic little town such as Kennett Square.

"One of the problems we had in the case was getting people to testify against them," Richter said. "They had a history of intimidating witnesses. One of their tactics was to place dynamite on farm equipment, a pretty clear signal to those who had been victimized."

As the police net tightened on the Johnston gang, the brothers began killing off their underlings. Finally, police officers were the only people left who had direct knowledge of the Johnstons' criminal empire.

The intimidation factor was gone, but so were the five teen-agers who had been roped into the gang or its fringes. For the Johnstons, the appeal of adolescent members was that they would do little time if caught stealing, because the juvenile justice system limited sentences.

But when police began tracking the gang with increasingly sophisticated surveillance, the fidgety young members also were a threat to crack and tell all.

At that point, the Johnstons turned more violent.

"We went from dealing with a bunch of burglars to a bunch of killers," Richter said.

If anything, he believes the Johnston brothers' brutality has probably heightened in prison, where all were serving life sentences.

After his imprisonment at the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh, Bruce, the oldest of the gangsters at 59, was charged with killing fellow inmate George Arms in 1985 by setting fire to his cell.

Arms supposedly had angered master thief Johnston by stealing his radio or television.

Bruce Johnston was later transferred to Graterford, York County, where he is segregated from the rest of the inmate population.

The other brother, David Johnston, was moved from the prison in Greene County to the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh last week, after his brother's escape.

Norman Johnston's breakout from Huntingdon was elaborate. He had built a dummy and left it in his cell bunk to simulate a sleeping prisoner. Then he somehow slipped out a window and cut his way through two security fences.

Chester County is about a five-hour drive from Huntingdon. If Johnston has returned, police believe he had help.

Cohorts who worked with him to sell stolen property still live in and around Chester County. Some have done time and been paroled. Others made deals with prosecutors by offering information about the gang.

In Kennett Square, McCarthy almost dared Johnston in television interviews to set foot inside the town limits. McCarthy is one of the few active police officers who would know him on sight.

He regarded Norman Johnston as the best of a bad lot, a flashy thief who insisted on driving Corvettes. "Norman is the least vicious of them all," McCarthy said.

Richter does not agree. He said Norman Johnston personally killed one of the teen-agers that the gang was training as a burglar.

A persistent claim in Chester County is that Johnston has come back for hidden loot, left behind by gang members when they went to prison. Richter discounted the speculation, calling it "folklore of the case."

There is plenty of that.

The most enduring but hardest to come by last week was the 1986 movie "At Close Range." A romanticized look at the Johnstons, it proved to be the hottest video rental around.

The movie, starring Christopher Walken and Sean Penn, was in such demand that stores Chester County; Wilmington, Del.; and throughout Maryland added copies to their stock.

For police officers such as McCarthy, the movie wasn't worth a second look. He saw it as a tribute to a family that ran an interstate burglary ring, corrupted juveniles and then killed them.

Johnston's mother, Louise, 85, who still lives in Chester County, went on Philadelphia television last week and asked Johnston to give up. She said she feared that he also would be killed if he continued to run.

Richter, the former FBI agent, doubts that Johnston will surrender. As with dismantling the gang itself, police will have to do the hard work to catch him, Richter said.

"Twenty years ago, we all worked together without any squabbles to get it done. All those people are gone now. But if the new people do the same thing, they'll get him."

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