Fugitive murderer of 4 teens recaptured

Amid massive manhunt, convicted killer stumbles into the arms of police

August 21, 1999

PHILADELPHIA -- Gaunt and scraggly, packing a pocketful of quarters but no weapon, fugitive killer Norman Johnston emerged from a stand of trees early yesterday into a yard where three state troopers were interviewing a homeowner.

"Don't move!" an officer shouted. Johnston stayed put. Guns drawn, the troopers seized the crouching fugitive, ending his nearly three weeks on the run from a life sentence for four murders committed two decades ago.

After spending all his time on the run within a 25-mile radius of the Chester County area where his family's theft ring once thrived, Johnston told police he had decided to steal a car and leave the area.

Instead, Johnston, 48, was on his way back to Huntingdon Prison by 10 a.m. yesterday.

His capture at 5: 45 a.m. in a housing development in suburban Mendenhall sparked a spontaneous "siren party" throughout the area, with police sirens howling and neighbors blaring their car horns and flashing their lights. The celebration erupted immediately after "We got him!" came across police radios throughout the region.

Johnston had been sentenced to life in prison for his part in the murders of four teens who Johnston and his brothers feared would testify about their crime ring, which operated in Chester County, Northern Maryland and Delaware in the 1970s.

His escape and frequent sightings in his old stomping grounds had terrified many in the region.

The intense tristate manhunt converged on the Deerfield development at 11 p.m. Thursday after a trooper spotted Johnston driving a stolen green Oldsmobile in East Marlborough Township.

An estimated 100 law enforcement officers, backed by helicopters and tracking dogs, swept into the neighborhood after the Oldsmobile careened across a driveway and lawn in a cul-de-sac and Johnston ran into the woods.

Police spent the night combing the woods, interviewing neighbors and fielding alarmed phone calls.

While troopers interviewed a resident who had called to report a noise in the back yard, Johnston walked out from the trees, apparently unaware police were there. Police later said he appeared as surprised as they were to see him.

At a news conference at state police barracks in Avondale, police said Johnston was gaunt, scratched, pale and tired -- a man who had spent his weeks of freedom on the run and desperate. He wore a black T-shirt, khaki shorts and sneakers.

His belongings consisted of an umbrella, a plastic bag containing personal items and several small boxes of Raisin Bran cereal, and a lot of quarters, police said.

He told police he had had some help from friends but not family during his time on the lam. He would not name those he said helped him.

Mostly he survived on convenience-store food he stole or bought with change he had apparently stolen from vending machines, police said.

Police characterized Johnston as a man unfit to deal with the modern world after 19 years of incarceration. Johnston needed help to operate a self-service gas pump at a convenience store Wednesday night, police said.

Johnston told police he had enjoyed his brief period of freedom. Asked whether his desperate flight had been worth it, he told them: "Not for 20 days."

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