Crime witness proves elusive

School shooting case is said to hinge on man's testimony


It has been a year since sheriff's deputies tried to deliver a court summons for the eyewitness to come to court, since officers fanned out across the Baltimore area looking for him, since Baltimore County prosecutors reluctantly postponed the trial of the last suspect in the county's only school shooting.

And it has been one year since police and prosecutors vowed that they would find and arrest Ronald Patrick Johnson Jr., and ensure that he would come to court to testify about what he saw the afternoon two gunmen opened fire on Randallstown High School's parking lot as a charity basketball game was letting out.

They have not found him.

"He's still out there. He's still out there somewhere," said Michael West, a police detective assigned to the Baltimore County state's attorney's office. "It's an open investigation. It will never be put away. I've got 15 more years left - at least - in the department. It's not leaving."

Johnson, 21, of Owings Mills initially was charged with attempted murder in the school shootings, but authorities dropped the charges after determining that no evidence linked him to the crime.

But prosecutors say that he is the only witness who can identify the man who brought the gun to Randallstown High - the gun used in the May 7, 2004, shootings that left one student partially paralyzed and three others injured.

Johnson was to have testified in the November 2004 trial of Antonio R. Jackson, 22, of Owings Mills, who was accused of bringing the gun to school, handing the 9 mm semiautomatic handgun to one of the shooters and driving the black BMW in which the suspects fled.

Jailed for eight months while awaiting trial, Jackson was set free in January when prosecutors dropped attempted-murder charges, saying they could not proceed without Johnson's testimony. They said then that they would refile charges when their key witness was found.

Jackson's attorney, Lawrence B. Rosenberg, said he has since heard nothing from prosecutors about the case or the search for Johnson. Attempts to reach Jackson this week were unsuccessful.

"As far as I'm concerned, no news is good news," the defense attorney said. "It will be interesting even if they do catch him. I'm hoping they don't. They can go on to their next case."

But West, the detective, said this is exactly the kind of case that will remain on his desk indefinitely.

West and his partner, detective Gary Fischer, are paid by the Police Department but work full time out of the state's attorney's office. Their primary job is to locate witnesses who might have moved or have been reluctant to come to court to testify.

"We want to make sure that cases aren't dropped because of missing witnesses," West said. He and Fischer are "continually - weekly - doing things in this case" to find Johnson, West said.

The detective declined to discuss in detail those efforts.

But when Stephen Bailey, the deputy state's attorney for Baltimore County, went to court in January to drop the charges against Jackson, he offered a glimpse at the search efforts.

The prosecutor told the judge that more than a dozen officers had searched for Johnson at more than 50 locations and combed through records from the Motor Vehicle Administration, state parole, probation and child support offices. They also checked databases that track criminal arrests and wages paid out by the state government for any hint of his whereabouts.

West said they continue to check "all the computer systems we have access to." He said Johnson's family is no longer cooperating in the search. And he said he believes Johnson has maintained "close ties to the area."

"If he is out of town, it's definitely not on a permanent basis," West said, declining to elaborate.

Reached by phone, Johnson's mother, Audra Travers, said she has not seen or heard from her son in more than a year. But she said she doesn't understand why authorities are even seeking to prosecute Antonio Jackson.

"No one ever ID'd Antonio Jackson as being there, being present at the school that day," she said.

Bailey, the prosecutor, said he believes it's only a matter of time before police catch up with Johnson.

Two men believed to have been the shooters were convicted. A former Randallstown High student was sentenced to 100 years in prison, and another man who admitted firing a gun at the school was sentenced to 50 years.


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