Lancaster should conjure up images of sprawling farms, the Amish and lots of horses pulling black buggies behind them. And it does that for me. But it also always makes me think of the Johnston Brothers, one of the most infamous gangs that operated in this area and sometimes in Lancaster (which is about 45 minutes from me). There’s a famous movie about them staring Christopher Walken and Sean Penn but it’s not accurate (except Bruce Jr. really did look like Sean Penn then: here)!
It all began with Bruce Johnston, Sr. After being expelled from school at 15 he and his brothers turned to petty crime. Stealing sweets and ice cream, siphoning gas from tractors, mostly naughty teen boy things. He spent a year and a half in juvenile detention and then at 20 and 26 he served two more terms in jail for theft. (Yes, it’s escalating quickly).
Jail is meant to rehabilitate, in theory anyway, but it doesn’t always work that way. And it didn’t for Bruce Sr. who emerged a hardened criminal. He immediately returned to a life of crime with his brothers, specializing in stealing Corvettes at first. They moved on to farm equipment, cash, drugs, guns, food, antiques and trucks. If you had it and they wanted it, well, they stole it. Soon they were operating a multi-million dollar burglary ring. And bigger heists were just around the corner.
The brothers drove around the rural area, mostly populated with farmers and quarry workers, in their fancy customized cars. They flashed thick rolls of cash in town and were generally not too discreet. Working with family members and close friends created an environment where no one snitched and the gang was able to elude the police despite being so showy. They became so overly confident they felt safe taunting police. After burglarizing a golf club in 1975 they wore shirts with the club’s logo in town and walked by police officers. From appearances, most people assumed they were clueless country bumpkins. But the police knew who they were chasing: methodical and dangerous criminals. And things were about to get much worse.
The Prodigal Father
In 1977, Bruce Sr. reconnected for the first time with his son Bruce Jr. (“Little Bruce”), now a young adult, who promptly joined the gang. His half-brother James joined as well, though he had been fathered by another man while Bruce Sr. was in jail, James called him “dad” anyway. The boys had been raised by their grandmother and had had no contact with their father or his family until their sudden reconnection. Despite their father having just put a contract out on a fellow gang member he wanted dead, the boys were eager to join.
A year later, Little Bruce was busted for theft and sent to a prison farm. With the police desperate to lock up his father, he was offered a deal. Talk about his father’s crimes. Little Bruce turned them down at first. Then his 15-year old girlfriend Robin told him that his father had visited her under the pretense of bringing her to visit Little Bruce. Bruce Sr. gave her whiskey to drink and raped her. The terrible act was meant to demonstrate control over Little Bruce but it had the opposite effect. Little Bruce decided to testify. Scrambling to cover for his son’s upcoming testimony Bruce Sr. put a contract out on his son’s life.
For the time being his son was safe in jail. Instead Bruce Sr. decided to tend to other matters. Bruce Sr. and his two brothers, David and Norman, brought Little Bruce’s brother James and two other young gang members out into a field in Chadds Ford and shot them to death. Their reason: they had no use for them anymore and feared they might eventually cooperate with police. The older Johnstons hastily buried the bodies together on Devil’s Road/Cult House Road (if you’ve seen the movie The Village, you’ve seen this road and I’ll show you more of it soon). They dumped another gang member’s body in a landfill a few days after that.
It seems like it would be a good idea to stay in jail away from that someone like Bruce Sr. but Little Bruce signed himself out of protective custody in order to spend time with his girlfriend Robin. On a late summer night in 1978 Little Bruce and Robin were driving back from a day out at a local amusement park. They had been unaware that his uncles had spent the day looking for a hit man to kill him.
As they pulled up to her empty, dark house she went to go inside to feed her cats. Suddenly two men ambushed them, firing at the couple from point-blank range. Robin was shot in the face. She managed to run back into the house but died. Little Bruce was hit three times in the head and six times in the back. He also made it into the house and called the police. They found him weeping by Robin’s body. He identified the men as his uncles (I guess their search for a hit man hadn’t gone so well). Finally there was enough to charge his uncles. Bruce Sr. was next.
Little Bruce wasn’t expected to live though his multiple gunshot wounds. A responding police officer said: “I saw him lying on a hospital table an hour after we brought him in. It looked like they were doing an autopsy. I had never seen so much blood or anyone who looked so dead.” It looked like Bruce Sr. would escape punishment again. But against the odds Little Bruce lived. He was ready to make his family pay for Robin’s death.
The Trials, The Jailtime, The Escapes
Next gang member and safecracker, Ancell Hamm, was convicted of shooting (in the back) and killing two police officers in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. It was the beginning of the end for the Johnston gang; law enforcement now stepped up their pace to put the rest of the gang away. Once Little Bruce recovered Bruce Sr. was convicted of six murders and thefts in Chester and Lancaster counties. Despite swearing to never go back to prison, he did. He died of natural causes in 2002 while serving consecutive life sentences. Prison didn’t put a stop to his cold-blooded ways though. In 1985 he was tried for the killing of a fellow inmate by setting fire to the man’s cell and burning him to death…for stealing his radio. Somehow he was acquitted, though reporters noted the creepy smile on his face as the not-guilty verdict was read.
His brother Norman (convicted of four murders) escaped from his maximum-security prison in 1999. He went on the run for 18 days. Using old gang tactics where they called police to respond to an area away from where they were committing the actual crime, police received hundreds of calls with information on Norman’s “location.”
After being locked up for so long, it was changing times and technology that foiled a Johnston this time. In the ’70s the area was still deeply rural and sparsely populated. By the ’90s people had noticed the land made great wine, there was room for development and expansion, etc. The population had increased, it looked nothing like the area the Johnston brothers had terrorized not too long ago.
Norman had trouble stealing cars with alarm systems which were now common. Unable to figure out how to pump gas at stations that were now self-service, a couple spotted the struggling Norman as he asked the gas-station clerk for help and they phoned police. Realizing he had been recognized Norman high-tailed it into the woods but his adrenaline made an easy scent for the bloodhounds, Hannah and Claudette, to pick up on. He was recaptured.
Little Bruce was placed into witness protection and moved away from the area. Later, he returned to where the gang had pulled off one of their most well-known heists: a robbery of the children’s amusement park Dutch Wonderland. But Little Bruce hadn’t turned over a new leaf. He was arrested (at 55-years old) for drug dealing, trying to sell an undercover cop meth at a McDonald’s in Gap, Pa (that’s the Gap windmill tower above).
For the most part the area has forgotten the group who once terrorized them. Occasionally they pop up and the stories are retold but they quickly fade. I think they’re a little too disturbing to completely forget though. If you’d like to read a more detailed account of all their crimes here’s a link.