It’s Freaky Friday. I bet you’re wondering why I’m at Pam’s blog. Go on. Check your coffee. There’s no LSD in it. Look in the mirror. You didn’t wake up an elf this morning. Here’s the horrible truth: nothing is weird except that I’m here at Pam’s blog.
Does this mean the apocalypse is nigh and zombies are about to invade? That Ian Somerhalder is going to start a free kissing booth? Unfortunately, no. It means today is Life List Club Day. The ever-wonderful Pam Hawley is hosting me, and the talented Marcia Richards is guest posting at my blog.
This Freaky Friday is dedicated to true crime. We’re going to chat about the Johnston Gang. These guys were the real life criminals on which the 1986 movie At Close Range was based. Haven’t seen At Close Range? That’s okay. I’ll tell you all about it. Get your coffee and your pop tarts and pull up a chair.
At Close Range stars Sean Penn as Brad Whitewood, Jr. and Christopher Walken as Brad Whitewood, Sr. Christopher Walken did an awesome job acting in this movie. He is scary.
When he takes a first-time interest in his adult son (Sean Penn–Brad, Jr.), the young man doesn’t have a chance. This mysterious father he’s never known tantalizes him with money and power. Brad, Jr. is drawn into a snake pit of illegal activity before realizes the consequences.
The consequences of getting involved with Brad, Sr.? Brad, Jr. is expected to stick by his blood no questions asked. The problem? Brad, Jr. has met the love of his life–a high school-aged girl named Terry…and his dad thinks Terry has a big mouth.
Terry and Brad, Jr. need money, so Brad, Jr. starts pulling jobs–stealing–for his father. He even starts a kiddie outlaw gang with his half-brother and some buddies. Eventually, Brad, Jr. gets pinched and goes to jail.
Worried his son will rat him out, Brad, Sr. rapes Terry as a warning to Brad, Jr. The rape has the opposite effect. Brad, Jr. turns snitch. This ignites a wave of murder and mayhem that ends on a dark night in a bullet riddled car. Terry is killed, and Brad, Jr. is seriously wounded. The final scene of the movie shows Brad, Jr. testifying against his father.
Here’s the trailer:
“Wait a minute!” you scream. “Why did you tell me the whole plot of the movie?”
Well, I was going to have to tell you all this stuff anyway to get you to understand what kind of man Bruce Johnston, Sr. was. This is a man who portrayed himself a ladies’ man, not a mass murderer.
He was a fast talker. When asked about one of the people he was later convicted of murdering, he played “Only the Good Die Young” on the jukebox. Sometimes he’d say [his murder victim] had gotten a new job pushing up daisies. Real comedian, huh?
[Note: Bruce Johnston, Sr. was renamed Brad Whitewood, Sr. in At Close Range. He was the character played by Christopher Walken.]
See, Bruce Johnston, Sr. and his brothers, David and Norman, stole stuff. They stole farm equipment, antiques, cars…illegal drugs. Most of their thefts took place in rural Chester County, Pennsylvania; however, they were known to cross into Lancaster County as well. Their criminal activity started in 1960 and continued through 1978.
In 1977, Bruce Jr. (of whom I do not have a picture) started the kiddie gang with his father’s blessing. The kiddie gang stole lawn equipment, cigarettes, drugs, and cars for Bruce, Sr. to part out. Bruce, Jr. eventually went to prison for petty crimes in 1977. His teenage girlfriend, Robin Miller, was left behind.
While Bruce, Jr. was in prison, Bruce, Sr. raped Robin Miller to send a message to Bruce, Jr. Sound familiar? Bruce, Jr. was, of course, furious. He’d been planning to marry his fifteen-year-old girlfriend. He agreed to testify against his father in court.
When the Johnston Gang realized they were about to go to jail, they started shutting mouths–permanently. Bruce, Sr. put out a contract on Bruce, Jr.’s life.
Bruce, Jr.’s half-brother, James Johnston, was also a member of the kiddie gang. James used the Johnston name even though he wasn’t Bruce, Sr.’s child.
In August of 1977, James Johnston and three other members of the kiddie gang were taken to a field in Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania. They were executed and buried in a common grave.
A few days later, another kiddie gang member insisted on knowing what happened to James and his friends. He was killed and dumped in a landfill. His body was never found.
The contract on Bruce, Jr.’s life had gone up to $15,000. He was in federal witness protection but had signed himself out of the program to be with his girlfriend, Robin. On the night of August 30, 1977, David and Norman Johnston decided to cash in.
Bruce, Jr. and Robin had spent the day at Hershey Park. It was late when they returned to Robin’s home. They sat in the darkened Volkswagon Rabbit while Robin gathered her things. Bruce, Jr. had bought her a new purse over the course of their day out.
Shadowy figures surrounded the car and began firing guns. Norman Johnston was later quoted as saying, “We filled the car full of holes. It was just like Bonnie and Clyde.”
Bruce, Jr. was hit eight times. Robin was hit twice. She ran into the house and died of her injuries. Bruce, Jr. called emergency services. He survived his injuries and testified against his father and uncles.
Bruce, Sr. received six life sentences. His brothers, David and Norman, received four life sentences each. The Johnston Brothers are believed to have been involved in more murders than just the ones for which they were convicted.
On August 1, 1999, Norman Johnston escaped prison. He was recaptured on August 23, 1999. Bruce Johnston, Sr. died of liver problems while still in prison on August 7, 2002. David Johnston is still in prison and would like a new trial.
Bruce Mowday has written a book about the Johnston Gang titled Jailing the Johnston Gang. It primarily describes the investigation authorities mounted against the Johnston Gang. The book doesn’t delve very deeply into the crimes–or the people who committed them. Be sure to read the reviews before purchasing to understand what you’re buying.
Fun factoid: At the time At Close Range was filmed, Sean Penn was married to Madonna. Her song “Live to Tell” is featured in At Close Range. I’ve read two accounts regarding “Live to Tell.”
One says Madonna wrote “Live to Tell” specifically for At Close Range. The other account says Madonna wrote the song for Fire with Fire (in which it was not used). After “Live to Tell” was not used on Fire with Fire, Madonna used her influence as Sean Penn’s wife to get it used on At Close Range.
Whatever the truth is, it’s a great song. All these years later, I still think it’s one of Madonna’s prettiest songs. Here’s the video:
All great fun, you say, but what does it have to do with Life List Club? One of my Life List Club goals is to be grateful for every day I am alive. Being able to write about true crime and share with a friend–Pam Hawley–makes me feel very grateful to be alive.
Does anybody remember these real life crimes or the people involved? Tell me about them.
Catie Rhodes grew up in the pineywoods of East Texas. Her love of spinning yarns comes from her grandmother, who told Catie her first spooky story. The nightmares lasted for weeks. Now, Catie crafts her own tall tales about real people in scary situations. When she’s not writing, Catie travels the Texas backroads searching for inspiration, antiques, and the best taqueria this side of the border.