Turbulent life of a defendant, 15

Irwin Johnson's history is neglect, violence and escape

December 09, 2000|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

By the age of 7, Irwin "Boops" Johnson was hanging out on the streets well past midnight, his parents say. Soon, he was causing trouble in school and at home, fighting, destroying things, setting fires.

He was quickly placed in foster homes, group homes and treatment centers. At age 13, in February 1999, Irwin was charged with carjacking and the attempted murder of a police officer.

Now, Irwin is charged with attempted murder in two cases - one in August and another Nov. 30, when two young sisters were shot while sleeping in their West Baltimore rowhouse.

Irwin, 15, fled to Atlanta after the Nov. 30 shootings, police say, and was returned to Baltimore yesterday.

Interviews with Irwin's family members, police and state officials, and a review of Irwin's psychiatric reports and court documents portray a youth who has lived a turbulent life.

They show a boy who was continually starting fights in kindergarten. They show parents consumed by drugs and crime who now blame the juvenile justice system for letting their son escape from confinement.

"They had custody of him," Irwin Johnson Sr. says.

Charged as an adult with attempted murder, Irwin could spend years in prison, well into adulthood, ending a childhood on the tough streets of Baltimore, in juvenile facilities and early on at home.

Irwin's father and mother, Valerie Cooper, invited a reporter to talk with them this week about Irwin. They also provided detailed records about their son's psychiatric and criminal history.

`We know he didn't do it'

Cooper and Irwin Johnson Sr. live in an apartment on Oxford Court near the state office complex. Their refrigerator is decorated by a magnet advertising a bail bond service; a wall is adorned with paintings of Jesus and a calendar from a funeral home.

Their most recent photograph of Irwin was taken when he was 8.

They are not sure of dates and become confused when talking about Irwin's past. But they are sure that Irwin did not shoot the two young sisters.

"We know he didn't do it," says Cooper.

Irwin's troubles began when he was living at home in Cherry Hill.

In early 1992, then 6 years old, he saw a counselor at the Kennedy Krieger Institute after being referred there after having trouble in school. He was fighting, throwing things and being disruptive in class, an institute report says.

Yet, in some ways, Irwin seemed like any other child.

He liked watching television, riding bikes and the bus, playing Nintendo, being read to and playing cards, a counselor wrote in a report. By the end of 1993, though, Irwin had been removed from his home. Social workers worried that his parents could no longer care for him.

"Both parents were (are) substance abusers and could not provide consistent educational and medical care for him," a social worker wrote in a report to a judge.

Ran away twice

Social workers placed Irwin in two foster homes, but he ran away. He also ran away from a group home. Social workers then sent Irwin to the Woodbourne Residential Center in late 1993.

In three weeks, he escaped four times, fleeing through a second-story window, once in his pajamas. During one escape, he made it to a local bus station, where police picked him up a few hours later.

After his last escape - and threats of suicide - Irwin was sent to Johns Hopkins Hospital for several days of observation.

During counseling sessions there, Irwin's troubles became clearer, physicians wrote. Irwin came from a tough home, and his parents seemed preoccupied by their own ills.

"During his mother's visits to the hospital," Johns Hopkins physicians wrote, "she ... manifested stigmata of recent alcohol use, with the aroma of alcohol on her breath and person at every visit."

The doctors also noted that Irwin's father had a "history of incarcerations." More than a dozen times, the older Johnson has been charged with and convicted of crimes.

`Want help for Irwin'

In reports, doctors and social workers often pointed to the lack of involvement by Irwin's parents in his young life. But Irwin's parents said they wanted the best for their son.

"The parents both expressed that they want help for Irwin," a social worker wrote.

Eventually, social workers placed Irwin in a residential treatment facility in Timonium, where Irwin's family says he spent three years.

Irwin got into serious trouble again Feb. 7, 1999, when he pointed a gun at a 66-year-old woman in the 6700 block of Park Heights Ave. and took her Toyota, officials said.

A Baltimore police officer spotted the car and pulled Irwin over. The 13-year-old complied, then accelerated at the officer, who fired three shots into the car, which hit a pole and stopped, officials said.

13 months in jail

Irwin was arrested and charged as a juvenile with carjacking and attempted murder of a police officer. As a result of that case, he spent 13 months at the Victor Cullen Center, a medium-security juvenile jail in Frederick, officials said.

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