By Michael P. RellahanMICHAEL P. RELLAHAN
He still looks very much like his late father, does Bruce Johnston Jr.
He has the same fierce eyes, the same tight-lipped grimace, the same sloping jawline. A 1979 Associated Press story about the infamous case surrounding his family had referred to him as “a mustachioed carbon copy of his father, Bruce Johnston Sr.”
But the face that stared out from the police mug shot that appeared recently following Johnston Jr.’s arrest on drug delivery charges in neighboring Lancaster County shows not the boy he was when he made newspaper headlines in helping to bring down a multi-state burglary ring, but a man who had been through a rugged life of unsavory behavior.
“He had the opportunity for a new chance,” said Joseph Carroll, the former Chester County district attorney who as a young prosecutor dealt with Johnston Jr. – known as “Little Bruce” – in the days and months leading up to the homicide trials at which he would testify against his father, Bruce A. Johnston Sr., and his uncles, David Johnston and Norman Johnston.
“It did not work out, though. That’s sad,” Carroll, now an attorney with the Philadelphia firm of Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel.
“The record shows, history shows, that he did not use the opportunity to turn away from that (criminal) life,” said Thomas Cloud, a retired state trooper in southern Chester County who was among the law local, state, and federal law enforcement officers who helped bring down the infamous “Johnston Brothers Gang,” which dealt in stolen tractors, art treasures, and whatever else they could get their hands on. “I am sorry to hear that he’s still involved in that.”
Delores Troiani, the county prosecutor who questioned Johnston Jr. during the two 1980 trials accusing his father and uncles of multiple murders, including that of his girlfriend, 15-year-old Robin Miller, echoed Carroll and Cloud in saying that he had taken the first step to turning away from the criminal environment in which his family were engaged, but lost his chance.
“He was angry, reeling from the death of his girlfriend,” she said. “One would think that people would grow out of this. But it is regrettable.”
By taking the stand against his family, and cooperating with police in their attempt to assemble the cases against the trio, he broke “the Johnston’s family’s most sacred covenant: never cooperate with the police,” wrote former Daily Local News managing editor Bruce Mowday in his wide-selling 2009 book, “Breaking the Johnston Gang.”
“He was a kid,” Troiani, an attorney in Devon, said in an interview Friday, remembering her interaction with him before, during, and after the two trials, when he could not stop getting into trouble. He walked away from a witness protection identity that had been set up for him, and as rumored to buy and sell drugs in southern Chester County. “He obviously had issues over the years, and I assume that some of that stemmed from what happened to him as a young man.”
“What happened to him,” in the late 1970s was so dramatic that it caught the eye of Hollywood. Johnston Jr. was the center of a film, “At Close Range,” depicting the exploits of the Johnston Gang, and was portrayed by acclaimed actor Sean Penn. Now, he has the sad look of a haunted man.
Johnston Jr. reentered the news this month after he was arrested by Troop J vice units of the state police in Lancaster. He allegedly sold a quantity of methamphetamine to an undercover state trooper at a McDonald’s in Gap.
Held in Lancaster County Prison on $1 million bail, his case was waived to Common Pleas Court by Magisterial District Judge Isaac Stolzfus of Intercourse on Tuesday. Because of his record, the felony charges against him carry the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence.
Indeed, Johnston Jr. is no stranger to the inside of a state prison cell. Ten years ago, in 2003, he was sentenced to one to two years in prison on a theft charges. He was then given another term of one-to-two years in 2009 on a parole violation in that case.
Brian Chudzik, the Lancaster County prosecutor who handled the case against Johnston jr., knew little about his notoriety except that he had been the subject of a book, Mowday’s recounting of the case mainly through the eyes of law enforcement.
Now a magisterial district judge in Lancaster County, Chudzik said he could not recollect any of the circumstances surrounding the theft charge, but was not surprised that Johnston Jr. was back behind bars. “You’re telling me a tiger doesn’t change his stripes? Who would have known that?” he said last week.
Bruce Johnston Jr. got his start in the life of crime when he was recruited by his father to start what was eventually referred to as the “Kiddie Gang,” a bunch of Johnston Jr. friends, and his half-brother James Johnston. The group would be tipped off to a tractor or farm machinery in a field in the Chester-Lancaster county area by older members of the Johnston gang.
They would go to the spot at night, push the machinery into the road, and wait for a truck to come pick it up.
“I think some of us felt bad for the guy,” said Carroll on Friday, of Johnston Jr. “You grow up in that environment and what could your future be? My impression was that he was a victim of circumstance in where he grew up. “
Johnston Jr.’s fate took a turn into violence after he was picked up by police for questioning about the thefts. His father offered to take his girlfriend, Miller, to Chester County Prison to visit him, but on the way there, got her drunk and raped her in a motel. Infuriated, Johnston Jr. agreed to begin cooperating with police.
“He had been through tremendous amount, and he was angry,” said Carroll.
Later, out of prison on bail, Johnston Jr. and Miller went to Hershey Park for the afternoon, unaware that his uncles David and Norman had been shopping around for a hit man to kill him on orders from his father. Outside her parents’ home, the two men sprayed the couple’s Volkswagen Rabbitt with gunfire. He was hit eight times and survived; she was hit once in the throat and died on her mother’s bed.
He was devastated, ‘about how his life had gone wrong, and the loss of his girlfriend,” Carroll recalled. “he had conflicted feelings about his father and uncles. But he decided those guys were evil. And that they didn’t care about him. His expression was, ‘This isn’t a family.’ He knew the life he was in was a mistake and it had no future.”
Johnston Jr. testified at the two trials for the Johnston trio – one for Johnston Sr. and one for David and Norman. They were convicted of multiple murders, and sentences to consecutive life sentences. Each pursued various appeals of their convictions and sentences, all of which failed.
The story of the Johnston Gang has resurfaced time and again, from Johnston Sr.’s arrest and acquittal on homicide charges while in prison in the 1980s, to Norman’s notorious escape from state prison and eventual recapture in Pennsbury in 1999, to Johnston Sr.’s death in prison at age 63 in 2002.
“The Johnston Gang terrorized Chester County and beyond for decades,” Mowday said in an interview last week following the latest news. “Johnston Jr. was both a participant and victim of the gang. After the convictions of his father and uncles on multiple murder charges Johnston Jr. went back to his life of crime.
“Sadly, I guess it was to be expected, as he was associated with a culture of crime during his early years,” the author said. “The story of the Johnston family doesn’t seem to end.”