Suspect in bus slaying knew victim as a teen

Men resided together at state facility, source says

February 09, 2005|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

The twice-convicted killer who is a suspect in the strangling death of another inmate on a prison bus had known the victim since both were in their teens, according to court records and interviews.

Both spent time in a state-run program in Catonsville for youths with mental health problems. A source familiar with the program said the two were housed for a time in the same cottage.

The mother of Philip E. Parker Jr., 20, who was killed on the prison bus last week, confirmed that her son had resided at the Regional Institute for Children and Adolescents.

Parker's mother, Melissa Rodriguez, said she could not remember the exact dates he was there.

"He was in and out of institutions his whole juvenile life," she said.

Court records show that Kevin J. Johns Jr., 22, was at that facility from 1996 to 1997 and again from 1999 to 2000. He completed high school while in the program, graduating in May 2000.

Jean Smith, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said she could not disclose whether Johns and Parker were housed at the facility because of rules that protect patient confidentiality.

However, a source familiar with the program, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said both lived for a time in the same cottage at the institution. The source was not aware of any significant conflicts between the two.

Smith said the facility is a residential treatment center that serves "seriously emotionally and mentally disturbed children" between 12 and 18 years old.

It houses about 45 youths for a few months up to a year, she said. Youths are referred there by social workers, juvenile services, schools and mental health professionals, she said.

Parker and Johns ended up on a prison bus together last week from Hagerstown to the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, known as Supermax, in Baltimore.

Parker had been in court in Hagerstown to testify for the defense in a sentencing hearing for Johns, who had pleaded guilty to the January 2004 strangling of his 16-year-old cellmate.

Johns asked to be sent to the Patuxent Institution, which has treatment facilities for inmates with serious mental illness, but the request was denied. Johns told the judge he would kill again if he didn't receive psychiatric treatment.

State corrections officials will not confirm whether Johns was on the bus that left Hagerstown early the next morning or say whether he is a suspect in Parker's killing.

But a law enforcement source has told The Sun that Johns is a suspect in Parker's killing, and a letter written by Johns' public defender on the day Parker was killed suggests he is considered a suspect.

In a letter to the chief prosecutors in four counties that the prison bus traversed on its way to Baltimore, attorney Stephen Musselman advised that he does "not consent to any questioning of my client" about the "alleged homicide" on the bus.

Parker's killing has led corrections officials to launch an extensive review of its policies governing the transportation of inmates. Among other things, they are exploring putting video surveillance cameras on the buses.

Although there were five correctional staff aboard - a driver and four officers - Parker wasn't discovered dead until the bus arrived in Baltimore at 4:03 a.m. The five staff members were placed on administrative leave after the incident.

The bus was transporting 35 prisoners. Former inmates say guards often slept on the bus trips and that loud music on the buses might have kept them from hearing any disturbance.

Parker had been serving a three-year sentence for unarmed robbery, while Johns was originally sentenced to prison for killing his uncle.

Prosecutors said Johns tried to strangle his uncle with a belt and then, after finding him still breathing, tried to cut off his head with a rusty saw and a box cutter before stuffing him into a closet and leaving him to die.

After his conviction for that crime, he was sent to a prison in Hagerstown to serve his sentence, according to corrections department officials.

Johns was in Hagerstown from March through July 2003, then was transferred to the Patuxent Institution, officials said. In October 2003, he was sent back to a prison near Hagerstown. A few months later, he strangled his cellmate.

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