For the Johnston Family, Police Say, Crime Was a Way of Life—and Then Death
02/25/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST
02/25/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST
More than 50 police prowl the grounds and corridors of the 75-year-old courthouse in Ebensburg, Pa., carrying handguns and two-way radios. Visitors entering the building must pass through a metal detector; some are stopped and frisked. At night, when the two-week-old murder trial of David and Norman Johnston is in recess, guards with attack dogs patrol the hallways. Both defendants reportedly have been threatened with death, as has their young nephew, Bruce Johnston Jr., a key witness against them.
Brooding over the courtroom is the specter of yet another Johnston, Bruce Sr., who will go on trial separately some time this spring. Like his brothers, Bruce Sr. looks more like a hillbilly hell raiser than a methodical criminal, but police say that's misleading. "He comes on like a country bumpkin," observes a detective, "but behind that face is a mind that's always going." According to authorities, Bruce Sr. is the prosperous paterfamilias of a close-knit crime family that has lived off the land around Chester County, Pa. for a decade.
One of nine brothers and half brothers, Bruce Sr., 40, grew up in the rolling farm country of eastern Pennsylvania and was expelled from school when he was 15. He and some of his brothers drifted into a life of petty crime, breaking into a grocery store for $15 worth of ice cream and sweets, stealing a $10 recapped tire from a service station, and siphoning gasoline from a tractor. Eventually he was sentenced to 18 months in a state juvenile facility, and later, between 1960 and 1966, served two terms for larceny.
By the time he got out, police say, Bruce Sr. was a hardened criminal. Working with brothers David and Norman and an extended organization of fences and thieves, he specialized at first in stealing Corvettes, then turned his attention to farm machinery. During the '70s the Johnston gang allegedly made off with more than $1 million in cars, trucks, guns, sporting goods, construction equipment, cigarettes, food, antiques and cash. The brothers lived well, flashing big rolls of bills and driving customized cars, but managed to elude the law. One reason, officials believe, was the apparently secure network of fences the Johnstons had set up. "It was never a matter of dealing with strangers," one former gang member has said. "It was always a friend or a friend of a friend."
Above all, say police and informers, Bruce Sr. was determined never to return to prison and intimidated anyone who was in a position to cross him. "Bruce just wouldn't let anybody hurt him," one former colleague explained. "He'd look at you and say, 'Don't ever try to—me,' and you'd know he meant it." In 1978, however, the Johnstons' empire began to unravel. Bruce Jr., who was raised by his mother, Bruce Sr.'s estranged wife, had joined the gang the preceding year. So had his half brother James Johnston, who bore Bruce Sr.'s surname and called him "Dad," though he had been fathered by another man while Bruce Sr. was doing time. In 1978 Bruce Jr. was arrested for larceny and sent to a prison farm.
Predictably, police offered young Bruce a deal if he would testify before a federal grand jury. At first he refused. But he was 19, and in love with 15-year-old Robin Miller. "I've had it. I'm not going to steal anymore," he reportedly told his mother. "Robin and I had a long talk, and I'm straightening up." Soon afterward, according to Robin, Bruce Sr. and another man accompanied her on a visit to his son, then took her to a motel. After that, she told Bruce Jr. later, his father persuaded her to down nearly a quart of whiskey. She said she believed she had been raped while unconscious. Infuriated, Bruce Jr. decided to avenge himself by turning state's evidence.
Desperate to silence his son, Bruce Sr. allegedly put out a $5,000 contract on his life. But at the time Bruce Jr. was safe in jail. Not so lucky, say police, were James Johnston and three other young men who had worked with the Johnstons and could also have testified against them. According to Ricky Mitchell, a gang member who has confessed to his part in the slayings, James and two other boys were taken one August night to a field in Chadds Ford, Pa.—no more than a mile from the home of artist Andrew Wyeth—and shot to death by Bruce Sr., David and Norman. They were buried in a common grave. A few days later another young gang member was similarly executed, and his body was placed in a landfill.
Ignoring the danger, Bruce Jr. insisted on signing himself out of protective custody two weeks later. He wanted to be with Robin, he said. After midnight on Aug. 30, 1978 he and his girlfriend drove up to her empty home. "I've got to feed the cats," she said. Then, suddenly, two figures emerged from the darkness, shoved pistols at the couple and began firing at point-blank range. Shot in the face, Robin ran into the house and died. Bruce Jr., hit three times in the head and six times in the back, staggered into the house and managed to reach a phone. The police found him a half hour later, weeping by Robin's body. His uncles David, 32, and Norman, 29, were formally charged with the shootings in January.
For a time authorities believed that Bruce Jr. would not live to testify. "I saw him lying on a hospital table an hour after we brought him in," one policeman remembers. "It looked like they were doing an autopsy. I had never seen so much blood or anyone who looked so dead." But Bruce lived, and now he holds his uncles' and father's fate in his hands. "This was a kid who never had love, not from his father, not from his mother. Then he had it, and he lost it," says one investigator. "Only because they killed the one person he really loved and didn't get him do we now have a case."