Search for suspect in 1974 killing goes on

City police don't forget Christmas Eve slaying

December 26, 2003|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

McKinley Johnson Jr., a civilian Baltimore police employee, was assembling charity food baskets for the poor at a city tavern on Christmas Eve in 1974 when he noticed someone had stolen a can of lunch meat from one of the packages.

The 40-year-old chased the thief outside and was shot after a brief confrontation, police say.

The next day, hours before he died of his wounds, Johnson identified a man from a photo lineup - Michael Hughes, then a 27-year-old West Baltimore man with a record of shoplifting and drug arrests.

Even with that key evidence in hand and police working around the clock to solve the killing of one of their own workers, Hughes managed to elude capture 29 years ago - and has evaded the law ever since. No current homicide suspect in the city has been a fugitive longer.

The killing of Johnson occurred before the development of sophisticated computer tracking systems and national fingerprint databases. Yet, even with those modern tools, detectives have been able to catch just a fleeting glimpse of Hughes' shadow and collect scattered tidbits about his fate from his relatives.

Passed down through generations of detectives, the task of catching Hughes now rests with veteran investigators in the department's cold case and warrant apprehension squads.

Though frustrated by Hughes' elusiveness, investigators say they are not going to give up the hunt.

"A crime has occurred, and it has to be answered for," said Sgt. Roger Nolan, supervisor of the cold case unit, who joined the force in July 1967. "It is our job to bring these people in."

The shooting occurred about 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve outside the New Fulton Tavern in the 1700 block of W. Baker St. For years, Johnson had collected donations for the charity baskets; he was putting them together with friends at the tavern when he noticed the missing can of lunch meat.

He chased the suspected thief out of the bar, police say, and was shot in the stomach and arms. Rushed to the old Provident Hospital, Johnson underwent surgery and was shown a photo line-up of suspects. He picked out Hughes, police say, before he died.

Calling Johnson a kind-hearted man dedicated to serving those less fortunate, close friends say they have grappled with his death for years and still dream of closure.

"Everybody liked him," said Helen Fogg, 61, Johnson's girlfriend and mother of Johnson's son, now 34. "It was really sad. He stays on my mind, and the feeling is very strong this time of year. [Hughes] should just turn himself in. He must have run [off] the face of the Earth because they never caught him."

Despite persistent effort, Baltimore detectives have caught only a whiff of Hughes' trail.

Detective Anthony Lansey and Sgt. Jae Kim of the warrant squad have sent Hughes' fingerprints to the FBI lab to run through databases. They've also asked the bureau to take an old mug shot of Hughes, who is now 56, and digitally alter it to reflect the aging process.

Every few months, the detectives have run his name, variations of his name and his aliases - which include Marvin Holmes and Aubrey Harper - through national computer databases. They have spoken with Hughes' relatives about his whereabouts but have made little progress.

One of Hughes' brothers has told detectives that he spoke with the fugitive about six years ago, police say.

The electric and gas bills at Hughes' former home in the 1600 block of McKean Ave. - where some of his relatives live - are still in the fugitive's name, according to Donald Worden, a former veteran homicide detective who works as a civilian in the cold case unit and is helping with the search.

The detectives have theories about where Hughes might be hiding.

Some believe he has settled down with a new identity - perhaps even has children - in Virginia or West Virginia. Or maybe, police speculate, he is living in the Carolinas, where he has relatives.

"He's not like Saddam [Hussein] and living in some hole," said Nolan, referring to the former Iraqi president who was recently captured by U.S. troops. "He's living a normal life."

The last solid clue to his whereabouts came in 1988, when Hughes was arrested near Dallas on a shop-lifting charge and gave a fake name.

A national computer database that tracks arrest warrants was not working at the time, so police released Hughes. Only later, after a clerk and officer were shown a photograph of Hughes, did FBI agents determine that police had briefly held the fugitive.

Lansey, who led the successful hunt for a couple who fled the country after being charged with murder and were arrested as they got off a flight from the Caribbean in September, said trying to find Hughes has proved to be a challenge.

"He just has such a head start," said Lansey, who was 5 years old when Johnson was killed. "He was able to leave Baltimore without a trace, and we don't have a lot of connections on the street to help us make contact."

Police concede it will be a difficult case to make against Hughes, with memories fading and witnesses dying over the years. But they are not worried about that right now. They just want to catch him.

"We have to narrow the gap," said Kim, who was a 12-year-old who had just arrived in the United States with his family from Korea when the killing occurred.

"Usually, they have a two-week head start. Now we have to narrow the gap from 29 years ago. We just have not had a lot of success. He must be one of the luckiest guys we've ever chased."

Anyone with information about Hughes' whereabouts is urged to call Lansey at 410-637-8970.

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