30 years after killing, a guilty plea

On the run since '70s, man bargains for 3-year sentence

September 28, 2005|By JULIE BYKOWICZ | JULIE BYKOWICZ,SUN REPORTER

For three decades he hid, fleeing charges that he killed a Baltimore Police Department employee who chased him down for stealing a can of food from a Christmas gift basket.

He outlived seven witnesses. He kicked drugs and became a counselor for Boston's homeless.

And yesterday, nearly a year after authorities caught up with him, Michael Hughes received a plea deal that, in the opinion of Baltimore Circuit Court Judge John M. Glynn, became a "clear case of justice delayed being justice denied."

After admitting yesterday to fatally shooting McKinley Johnson Jr., 40, on Christmas Eve in 1974, Hughes, who is now 58, received a three-year prison sentence for a second-degree murder conviction.

Assistant State's Attorney Mark P. Cohen told the court that he had no choice but to offer a short sentence given the difficulties of prosecuting a 30-year-old case. Hughes could be eligible for parole in six months.

Unlike television homicides where fingerprints or DNA capture long-lost killers, yesterday's plea deal reflects the challenges posed by the passage of time - dimming memories or, in this case, the deaths of eyewitnesses needed to offer crucial testimony.

Family members of both the defendant and the victim who listened yesterday to the plea said afterward that they felt relieved to be able to put the matter behind them after so many years.

"I'm just glad it's over with," said Johnson's sister, Cynthia Johnson, 54. "But, no, it's not a fair sentence."

McKinley Johnson worked in Baltimore police headquarters signing out motor pool cars. He left behind a daughter and four sons, one of whom was in court yesterday.

"I was so young at the time that I never really got to experience a relationship with my dad," said Kennard Anderson, now 42.

Hughes' sister-in-law, Fannie Hughes, said she was sad for the Johnson family but grateful for a resolution. She said she had not spoken with her brother-in-law for 30 years, until his arrest last September in Boston.

Hughes' brother, Larry, died a month after his brother's arrest, although the two did have one final, brief conversation, said his wife.

"This is much better than putting both families through a trial," Hughes' attorney, Timothy M. Dixon, said later.

Both families, the Johnsons and the Hugheses, have roots in West Baltimore and said they had known each other for years before the shooting.

Cynthia Johnson said she knew Michael Hughes as a troubled young man with a drug addiction. Hughes' Boston friends said he turned his life around years ago - that he began calling himself Johnnie Floyd, got a job as a counselor at a homeless shelter and developed a passion for jazz.

The long-ago crime appeared to stem from a dispute that erupted when Hughes took a can of food - lunch meat, according to some reports - out of one of the charity baskets that Johnson was preparing at the now-closed Fulton Lounge in the 1700 block of Baker St. Johnson chased Hughes into the street, and a scuffle ended with Johnson critically wounded from four gunshots, Cohen, the prosecutor, said in an account of the crime read into the court record yesterday.

Hughes ran to his grandmother's house on McKean Avenue, kissed her goodbye and disappeared out the back door. He told his relatives it was the last time they'd ever see him. Before Johnson died on Christmas, he identified Hughes as his assailant, Cohen said. The open warrant for Hughes' arrest would become the city's oldest.

Baltimore police figured Hughes for a crafty con who lived below the radar, traveling from city to city. In reality, he lived in Boston almost the entire time and, in the early years, continued to have a heroin addiction and drug-related trouble with the law, according to court records and his friends.

Although Hughes was arrested in Boston and elsewhere seven or more times, he managed to duck the Baltimore warrant. He used at least nine aliases.

In the mid-1990s, Hughes appeared to assume a new identity - and a new lifestyle.

He began calling himself Johnnie Floyd and got a job with the Boston Health Commission as a counselor at a homeless shelter.

He rented an apartment in a quirky neighborhood of Boston called Jamaica Plain, becoming so friendly with his landlords that they had him check on their cats while they were away.

He grew dreadlocks and befriended artsy types, talking with them for hours about jazz and philosophy, according to his close friends, Michael Shores and Angela Mark. He wore his sobriety like a badge, they said, drinking green tea instead of coffee and refusing alcohol and drugs.

Hughes' life in Boston began unraveling Sept. 5, 2004, with a fight on a bus. Boston police documents indicate he was arrested on suspicion that he used a pocketknife to slash the arm of another passenger.

At the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority Police station, Hughes gave the name Johnnie Floyd, but officers said they suspected he was using an alias.

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