Hunt for killer brings fear to Cecil residents

People stay indoors, bolting their doors, sleeping with guns

August 14, 1999|By Devon Spurgeon and John Murphy | Devon Spurgeon and John Murphy,SUN STAFF

LEEDS -- Searching on foot, on horseback, from the air and with packs of bloodhounds -- police from three states yesterday scoured 10 square miles of thick woods and farm fields here for escaped killer Norman Johnston.

And once again, Johnston stayed a step ahead.

Since breaking out of a maximum-security prison in Pennsylvania nearly two weeks ago, the man who is serving consecutive life sentences for killing four teen-agers has demonstrated an uncanny ability to flee authorities -- once from their very hands.

At various times, a man believed to be Johnston, 49, was spotted at a fruit stand in Fair Hill, which is also in northeastern Cecil County; asked a resident in Nottingham County, Pa., for food; and fought free of a ranger in Nottingham County Park.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Saturday's editions of The Sun on a manhunt for escaped killer Norman Johnston incorrectly identified the county where Johnston asked a resident for food. In fact, that sighting of Johnston was in Chester County, Pa. The Sun regrets the error.

Thursday afternoon, a scruffy man in overalls was seen smoking a cigarette on the porch of a Leeds home. When a Cecil deputy sheriff and a Maryland state trooper spotted him, he vanished.

Johnston's niece lives in the house, although she said yesterday she did'nt believe her uncle would have come to her.

"He wouldn't come near the family. There's no reason for him to," said Mary Montgomery, 40, who wasn't home at the time of the sighting. "To do this to us ... he wouldn't."

No Johnston sightings have been reported since then.

The escaped killer's exploits are the talk of Leeds, a small town of horse farms and quiet subdivisions in the northeastern corner of Maryland.

"He knows the area. ... The man was a hunter. The man was a farmer," said Tim Bickling, who has been following reports about the manhunt.

"If he wants to hide, he can hide," said Bickling, standing outside his white clapboard home in nearby Cherry Hill.

The nearby 6,000-acre Fair Hill Natural Resource Area, with its dense forest and streams trickling through the underbrush, makes it easier for a person to go undetected. Tunnels connecting the streams' tributaries would help evade the police helicopter, law enforcement officials said yesterday.

Bickling speculated that Johnston has also survived by stealing tomatoes, beans and other vegetables from family gardens.

Other residents, such as Bickling's son, Keith, believe that Johnston is receiving assistance from friends in the area. And he has reasons to stay around.

"He's either coming back for revenge or to get money," Keith Bickling speculated.

None of this is comforting to residents of Cecil County, many of whom are used to leaving doors unlocked. Now, many of them report staying home, with their windows locked and front door bolted. Streets that last week were filled with the noise of children on bicycles have fallen silent.

Yesterday's search started near the house where he was last spotted, at 2: 20 p.m. Thursday. A bloodhound traced the scent several miles into dense forest near Elk Creek, between Leeds and the natural resource area. The dog lost the scent, however, after becoming exhausted in the humidity and near-100-degree temperature.

Late yesterday afternoon, police in six squad cars searched the niece's home. Authorities have not released any information about what, if anything, was found.

He cut prison bars

Johnston escaped Aug. 2 from the State Correctional Institution in Huntingdon, Pa. During most of his incarceration there, he has been in solitary confinement.

Prison officials said he left a dummy, with human hair, in his bed and used a small knife to cut through the bars on his window. He then tunneled under two fences lined with razor wire to reach freedom, Pennsylvania state police said.

Two prison guards were suspended after the escape, prison officials said.

Police have received numerous reports of sightings in Cecil County; Chester County, Pa.; and New Castle, Del.

Johnston has relatives in Childs, about 58 miles northeast of Baltimore in Cecil County, and in nearby Chester County, Pa.

Residents of Leeds, where cornstalks line neighborhood yards, are well-acquainted with Johnston's criminal record. He and his two brothers ran a multimillion-dollar burglary ring in the 1970s; the brothers are still in prison for murders, six in all, according to a 1980 Pennsylvania Crime Commission report.

The brothers and others working with them stole farm equipment, robbed houses in the tristate area and sold thousands of dollars worth of drugs, the report said. The Johnston Gang, as they were named by law enforcement officials, ran a sophisticated burglary operation using police scanners and two-way radios, the report said.

"They stole anything with four wheels," said Janet Skinner, 43, a student who has known the Johnstons for several years.

After a task force -- composed of Chester County detectives, Pennsylvania troopers, the U.S. attorney's office in Philadelphia and the FBI -- was established to prosecute the gang, six killings were committed to "silence members of the gang who were cooperating with authorities," the report said.

Film based on him

The brutality of the crimes is legendary. Sean Penn starred in the 1986 movie "At Close Range" that was based on the Johnston case.

Now it appears a new chapter is being written.

"There's going to be a sequel I'm sure," Tim Bickling said.

Much of the stolen money was not recovered, and according to local folklore Johnston has hidden money and stolen goods in the woods.

At Kenmore Elementary School in Cherry Hill, which is ground zero of the manhunt, teachers bringing boxes of back-to-school banners mingled yesterday with law enforcement officials from seven agencies.

In the midst of the manhunt -- with police cars whizzing by -- Mark McIntire, 40, sat in his swimming pool sipping water. Last night, he slept with his .357-caliber Magnum.

"Nothing like this has ever happened," the welder said. "I sleep light, and anything out of the ordinary I am ready for."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 8/14/99

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