The cost of freedom for parolee was death Friends say Johnson took on a heavy load

March 01, 1997|By Robert A. Erlandson and Ellen Gamerman | Robert A. Erlandson and Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF News researcher Jean Packard and staff writers Kris Antonelli, Jay Apperson, Caitlin Francke, Michael James and Lisa Respers contributed to this report.

In the weeks before paroled cop-killer Terrence G. Johnson died -- his bid for rehabilitation gone horribly awry -- financial pressures and other obligations had started to pile high.

And those demands of a free life, friends said yesterday, may have triggered his violent death -- suicide after a bank robbery in Aberdeen Thursday morning.

He told friends that he was trying to be a surrogate father to his sister's child. A Howard County woman said he had fathered her child, and she sought a marriage.

School work was unrelenting, and Johnson was trying to keep up his public speaking engagements -- many of them paid appearances in which he talked about his climb from prison to an independent life.

A big blow came in January when, halfway through law school, Johnson lost his scholarship to the $7,000-a-year University of the District of Columbia. The grant -- a U.S. Department of Education aid package from the Council of Legal Education Opportunity -- had vanished to federal cuts.

The school came through with $4,000 in aid, and then a $500 emergency loan. Officials also talked with him about finding a work study job, selling his car or paring down his lifestyle.

But there was little hint that Johnson's situation was so dire that he would leave school.

"If I had an inkling, I would have given him money out of my own pocket," said Anne El Shazli, the school's financial aid officer.

L "He must have been carrying the weight of the world around."

Yesterday, the official reports detailing his death rolled out.

Dr. Stephen Radentz, assistant state medical examiner, ruled that Johnson died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head -- a shot that came as police closed in.

A Harford County judge revoked the $150,000 bail of his brother, Darryl Johnson, 35, for robbery, assault and handgun charges stemming from the holdup of a NationsBank branch.

Darryl Johnson notified his employer Wednesday that he would not be at work the next day "because of some personal business," authorities said.

By all accounts, it was Terrence Johnson's first serious brush with the law since he was paroled amid controversy in 1995. He served nearly 17 years for the slayings of two Prince George's County police officers.

He claimed that the officers had beaten him at the Hyattsville police station and that he snatched the gun from one and shot them in fear for his life.

A jury convicted him of voluntary manslaughter in one case and acquitted him by reason of temporary insanity in the other, and he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Charles J. Ware, of Columbia, Terrence Johnson's lawyer and post-prison mentor, said his only explanation for the suicide is that "he always told me that if he ever got in trouble again, he would never go back to jail."

But Ware was mystified why Terrence Johnson would be involved in a bank robbery.

Terrence Johnson cited financial problems and his father's illness last week in his withdrawal letter from law school.

But Ware said Terrence Johnson's father had no idea his son was under financial pressure. Also, Ware said, he does not know of any illness that the father has.

Could drugs have been the cause of financial difficulties?

"I don't think he was into drugs, but then I wouldn't have thought he was into bank robbery either," Ware said, relating a bizarre incident last June in which a woman alleged Terrence Johnson had been kidnapped by a "drug lord" to whom he owed money.

When Johnson reappeared, police wanted to charge him with trying to con the woman into paying for his release -- something both denied, Ware said. "I read him the riot act, and he told me he was not on drugs and didn't owe money to any drug lord."

Since his release from prison, Terrence Johnson had received as much as $30,000 in option fees from producers who wanted to make a movie of his story, Ware said. But the deal had not been consummated. Ware said a book deal was also under discussion.

If Terrence Johnson was having trouble in his personal life, friends found it tough to gauge.

Former girlfriend Ne-Toisha Jefferson said that while in jail, he sent her poems and letters every week, always focusing on plans to go to college and better himself once he was free.

"He never talked about anything that was bothering him; he just kept it all to himself," said Jefferson, who kept in touch with him later. "He was always happy and positive with a big smile on his face."

He survived the first, and generally toughest, year of law school.

Beyond the classroom, he thrived as well, helping to organize the Million Man March in Washington, D.C., and volunteering at a shelter for homeless and abused women.

At the Lincoln Heights housing development -- an outreach program that began as part of his Juvenile Clinic at school -- he took on extra responsibility. He once drove at 3 a.m. to see a troubled teen who said he needed a friend.

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