For all the fear that Norman Johnston inspired, the quadruple murderer who had nothing to lose ended up surrendering today with barely a whimper. After 19 days on the lam, when police finally cornered him he threw up his hands and said, "I'm tired."
"He almost seemed to be relieved," said Glenn Blue, a Pennsylvania state trooper and one of the three officers who caught Johnston hiding in some bushes three miles north of the Delaware border and 25 miles southwest of Philadelphia. "We couldn't believe it was him. All the fighting we heard he did, he pretty much gave up."
For nearly three weeks, Johnston had sent shivers through the three-county area where Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania come together and where Johnston and two brothers became such brutal killers two decades ago that Hollywood made a movie of their exploits, called "At Close Range," with Sean Penn and Christopher Walken.
After Johnston, 49, stunned authorities Aug. 2 by breaking out of a prison where he was serving a life sentence, residents locked their doors, kept children inside and loaded guns. Fear was so prevalent that promoters canceled an outdoor concert featuring fiddler Charlie Daniels, who had been scheduled to perform Saturday night for 5,000 people on a farm near Fair Hill, Md.
During the 1970s, the Johnstons--Norman, Bruce and David--masterminded a burglary ring that stole more than $1 million worth of tractors, farm equipment, cars and other merchandise in the vicinity of Cecil County, Md., Chester County, Pa., and New Castle County, Del.
As authorities closed in during 1978, the Johnstons killed six young cronies who they feared were about to become witnesses for the government and testify against them. Some victims reportedly were forced to dig their own graves. In 1980, Norman was convicted of four of the murders and given four life sentences. His brothers were also locked up for life.
When Norman escaped from a state prison 150 miles away in central Pennsylvania and seemed headed this way, people immediately wondered why he would risk coming back to an area where he doubtlessly would be recognized. Was it to exact revenge on those who had helped put him in jail? Was it for the stolen loot, which was never recovered? Perhaps both?
The Johnston gang "terrorized this area for years, and there are a lot of people who are still scared of them," said Lewis Lee, 39, manager of the Country Market and Deli in the crossroads community of Cherry Hill, Md., a few miles north of Elkton. "This is familiar ground for Norman, and there are a million places where he could hide. But most people think he came back because he's got money buried somewhere."
Johnston's reputation was underscored by the ingenuity of his escape and his skill in outrunning his pursuers. He broke out of the maximum-security prison in Huntingdon by tucking a dummy under his bedsheets to fool his guards, hacksawing through a bar in his cell window and burrowing under two razor-wire fences. The escape was so seamless that 10 hours passed before anyone noticed.
A fugitive task force of more than 40 law-enforcement agents from three states was formed, but it found Johnston a slippery target.
On Aug. 6, Johnston was spotted making a call from a pay phone outside the ranger's office at Nottingham County Park near Oxford, Pa., about two miles from the Maryland border. Two park rangers got their hands on him, but he wriggled free and escaped into the woods, eluding 100 officers who cordoned off the park.
Six days later, a sheriff's deputy and a police officer saw Johnston sitting on the porch of his niece's home in Leeds, Md. But he ran away, melting into the woods.
On Monday, he surfaced again, this time at a diner in Newark, Del., where a waiter saw him making another call at a pay phone. A University of Delaware police officer confronted Johnston and tussled with the fugitive, but Johnston broke free and disappeared over some railroad tracks.
After each close call, speculation grew over Johnston's motives and why he remained in the area. Transportation wasn't a problem; authorities believe he stole at least four vehicles while he was on the loose.
"I don't think he came back here for revenge or to kill somebody, although I think he's capable of killing somebody," said Dolores Troiani, a former assistant district attorney in Pennsylvania who helped convict Johnston. "I think the money is still here. And this is where he could find help. I think he was looking for money so he could get moving again."
His arrest occurred about 5:45 a.m. today, six hours after a Pennsylvania state trooper spotted a car matching the description of a 1980 Oldsmobile Cutlass that Johnston had reportedly stolen near Newark, Del., on Wednesday.
When the officer tried to pull the car over on U.S. 1 in Kennett Square, Johnston allegedly sped off, leading police on a 10-mile chase that ended when he crashed into an embankment, just missing a house. He fled.
Police said they were about to give up the search in that area when Johnston suddenly walked out from behind a tree, apparently unaware that three officers were close by. They yelled at him to stop, and apparently after realizing that his escape routes were blocked by a fence, he complied.
"He told the troopers that he was tired, and then he said, 'You guys wouldn't quit,' " said Capt. Henry Oleyniczak of the Pennsylvania State Police, who led the investigation. Added state trooper Brian Barber, one of the officers who collared Johnston: "He was tired. I believe that's why he didn't resist."
Dressed in tennis shoes, shorts and a pullover shirt that he had been wearing since the last time he was spotted, Johnston was unarmed and carried only a trash bag filled with some cereal boxes and an umbrella, police said.
Although investigators had suspected that Johnston may have been receiving help from somebody--scores of his relatives and former gang members still live in the area--police said today that it looked like he had survived on his own.
They said he was scruffy, scratched and disheveled and had clearly spent the nights outside. He also had no money in his possession, save for a few coins.
There were other signs that Johnston was having difficulty coping with the outside world after two decades behind bars. Apparently, Johnston could not figure out how to operate computerized or electronic gas pumps. A convenience store clerk told authorities that a man resembling Johnston had asked him for help in the self-service lane before getting scared and driving off. Authorities also found a gas can and a plastic hose in the back seat of the stolen Oldsmobile, leading them to conclude that he was forced to siphon fuel.
Convicted murderer Norman Johnston was recaptured yesterday after eluding police for three weeks. Johnston had escaped from a Pennsylvania prison.
1. Aug. 6: Johnston is spotted while making a call from a pay phone outside the ranger's office at Nottingham County Park near Oxford, Pa., about a mile from the Maryland border. Two park rangers grab Johnston, but he wriggles free and escapes into the forest.
2. Aug. 12: A Maryland state trooper and a Cecil County sheriff's deputy see Johnston sitting on the front porch of his niece's home in Leeds, Md. Johnston runs off into the woods before the officers can catch him.
3. Aug. 16: Johnston is spotted at a pay phone outside a diner in Newark, Del., but manages to escape after tussling with a University of Delaware police officer.
4. Aug. 20: Johnston recaptured near the crossroads community of Mendenhall, Pa., after leading police on a 10-mile car chase.
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