At Close Range and The Johnston Gang

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.]

Bruce Johnston, Sr. (from Jailing the Johnston Gang)

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.

Bruce Johnston, Sr. (from Jailing the Johnston Gang)

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.

David Johnston from Jailing the Johnston Gang

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.”

Norman Johnston (from Jailing the Johnston Gang)

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.

Norman Johnston upon his recapture in 1999

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.

About Catie Rhodes

Catie Rhodes is the author of the Peri Jean Mace Paranormal Mysteries. She also enjoys writing horror fiction. Catie is that kid your mother warned you about, the one who cusses and never washes her hands after petting the dog.
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86 Responses to At Close Range and The Johnston Gang

  1. Pingback: Empty the Bucket Before You Kick It | Catie Rhodes

  2. Marcia says:

    A scary family, those Johnstons! I’m grateful I never knew about them and that I’m out of their reach now! Great post, Catie!

    • Catie Rhodes says:

      They really were. I’d known the story of the movie for years, but it really hit home as I began to research them and look at pictures of them. Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for stopping by. :D

      • carla pranke says:

        the movie at close rage is very good and as for real story its crazy this is a very good story to tell i love madonnas song from the movie and i saw u say that it was suppossed to be in the movie fire with fire i loved that movie too

  3. Stacy Green says:

    Good grief. How could a father be so cruel to his son? Just goes to show some people should not be allowed to be parents. How awful. And amazing that Bruce Jr. survived and Robin didn’t. Very sad.

    Great Freaky Friday post as always!

    • Catie Rhodes says:

      When I was researching this case, I read a quote by a policeman who saw Bruce, Jr. at the hospital after the shooting. He said he thought Bruce, Jr. was dead, that he’d never seen anybody look so dead and still live. And can you imagine treating your child this way? I read that Bruce, Jr. spent very little time around his father growing up and that he’d had no love from him at all. Crazy story.

      Thanks for stopping by and glad you enjoyed the post. :D

  4. wosushi says:

    Yikes. As always, very interesting, Catie.

    I had no idea about the Madonna song – it’s one of my favorites of hers as well.

    • Catie Rhodes says:

      Amber, I had never heard the bit about Fire with Fire and “Live to Tell.” I actually wonder if that one’s true, but it is a story floating around internet-land, so I thought I’d share it.

      I didn’t put this in my post…the reason I watched At Close Range the first time was because of the music video for “Live to Tell.” The music video featured scenes from the movie, and I was intrigued enough to to want to watch it.

      Thanks so much for stopping by.

  5. hawleywood40 says:

    I am definitely adding Jailing the Johnston Gang to my reading list! I was thrilled at the chance to host one of Catie’s Freaky Fridays, since they’re one of the many things I love about her blog. And this is so frighteningly fascinating. I knew a little about the background and history, and saw At Close Range a long time ago, but now my interested is perked all over again and I want to delve even more into the story. Thanks for a wonderful guest post, Catie, and I’m looking forward to many, many more Freaky Fridays : ).

    • Catie Rhodes says:

      I’m so happy that you’re happy with the post. I tried all that much harder since that was appearing at someone else’s blog. At the end of it all, I hoped you’d grin as you read it.

      It is very fascinating. The one thing I’ll tell you about Mr. Mowday’s book is that you don’t get much info about any of the Johnston’s or their victims. I was very surprised to find it was mostly about the police investigation. It was still very interesting, but it was interesting in a different way than I expected.

      I tell you what I’d like to see. I’d love to see what the real Bruce Johnston, Jr. looked like. Maybe Robin Miller, too. I heard her mother moved to Texas after the whole tragedy just to get away from the horror of it.

      Anyway, thanks for hosting me. Maybe we’ll do it again sometime. This time we really will put catnip in their coffee. LOL

      • hawleywood40 says:

        LOL! Oh, I’d love to see what they look like too. I really like reading the police investigation side of things, since it is the part about which I know the least and I still hope to take a forensics class for writers one day, so that I can write crime investigation better. I loved hosting you and can’t wait to do it again!

      • linda a says:

        i have started reading your post and came across this i just wanted to tell you that i know jr and he is, in a way apart of my granddaughters extended family. he dates my grandaughters other grandma. if u are intrested in anything i am sure that he would talk to you.

  6. akamonsoon says:

    Love the switch up. I was a little confused at first but what a great idea! I remember the movie but did not remember its premise. What a sick and twisted family.

    • Catie Rhodes says:

      Glad you enjoyed the story. When I spoke to Pam about what she’d like to see on her blog for the next Life List Club Day, she very eagerly mentioned my Freaky Friday posts. I gladly agreed to do one because I was so flattered. LOL

      Thanks for commenting. So nice to meet you. :D

  7. hawleywood40 says:

    We do the Life List guest posts every other Friday – I love Catie’s Freaky Fridays so am so glad it worked out that I could have on here : ). I’m over at Jess Witkins’ place today:

  8. Truth is stranger (and scarier) than fiction. Great tale-telling Catie!

  9. I missed this movie. It and the book about the Johnston gang are going to have to go on my watch/read list. :D

  10. Julie Glover says:

    Another shiver-inducing post! Oftentimes, I know about these movies but have no idea they are based on true stories. Thanks for enlightening us!

  11. Lafemmeroar says:

    Okay here’s a confession … I’ve had crush on Christopher Walken for decades. I soooo remember this movie and I loved the Madonna song.
    The movie “I Love You to Death” starring Tracey Ullman and Kevin Klein was based on a true story about a wife who tried to kill her husband for cheating. Larry King interviewed the couple years ago when the movie came out.

    • Catie Rhodes says:

      Oooh, interesting. You’ve given me a new movie to check out. I have never seen I Love You To Death…but I will now. Here’s a true confession from me: I loved those Lifetime Movies that were based on true crimes. I don’t even know if they make them anymore, but I remember watching the Better Broderick story and many others. Such a guilty pleasure. :D

      Christopher Walken is interesting. I have to wonder if he comes across as intimidating in real life as he does on the screen. The man has an excellent presence, and he’s a wonderful actor. I can totally understand having a crush on him.

  12. Jess Witkins says:

    I’ll have to check this movie out, can’t go wrong with Christopher Walken.

    Um, does this mean Ian Somerhalder isn’t starting a kissing booth??? I’m going to close the door and cry while listening to Madonna’s Live to Tell now.

    • Catie Rhodes says:

      Dude, I am so sad that Ian Somerhalder is not starting a free kissing booth. Heck, I’d even pay….that makes me a pathetic old cougar, doesn’t it? LOL

      You do need to watch At Close Range. This was one Sean Penn’s early performances, and he’s really good in it. Thanks so much for stopping by.

      • Bowlegged In Brooklyn says:

        Wow, thats so shocking when women call themselves “Cougars” or even accept being called that by others, especially men. Like women have to have some nickname tossed at them when they are older and interested in younger men. When men have a younger woman, he doesnt have some special title, its just accepted that he is “a real man” and has his “trophy” on his arm and even then, its STILL about her being a “trophy”. Truly vile in my opinion.
        Nice read though……thank you.

  13. Confession time, I’ve been horrible about keeping up with your blog Catie, but this makes me want to pop over more often. I love learning about true crime. There are some truly amazing stories out there. Thanks for sharing!

    • Catie Rhodes says:

      Emily, do not worry about it a bit. I will say you’ve missed some interesting stuff. I always do paranormal or true crime on Freaky Friday. I love freaky true stories, and I love to research. :D

      Thanks so much for stopping by, and I hope to see on next Freaky Friday. The subject matter will be paranormal.

  14. hawleywood40 says:

    Sorry I haven’t been around more to participate in this great discussion – between birthday celebration stuff and some unexpected car troubles yesterday I have been everywhere but online lol! Thanks to all for the wonderful response : ).

  15. Aurora says:

    Just serves to prove once again, that true life stories really are stranger than fiction. I couldn’t even imagine all that let alone research and relate it as you have done. Great job. Thank you for sharing and thanks Hawley for sharing such a talent with us. Happy Weekend to you both :)

    • hawleywood40 says:

      You too, Aurora! Hope you’ll keep checking out Catie’s Freaky Fridays over at her blog – they are always a treat and I learn something new and unusual with every one!

    • Catie Rhodes says:

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I love writing these posts. They are by far my favorites. The research is hard, hard work, but the post wouldn’t be the same without it.

      I sure do hope you stop by my blog for Freaky Friday sometime. I try to keep it as weird as I can. :D

  16. The Hook says:

    What an awesome “Bad Guys Rule!” post!
    Good work!

  17. MCR says:

    I’m from Oxford the town they lived in. Robin was shot on the same street I grew up on. I lot of the families involved in this still live in our town!

  18. Brian says:

    I have recently watched At Close Range several times now. When it came out and I was a kid growing up in Louisiana, we were poor and never could afford to go to movies like our friends. Fortunately now, and using the wonderful ways that Iw as raised even to this day, I am not poor anymore. But evenso, I have never had to resort to thievery or murder or any other coward act to get money or to eat, such as the cowardness of this Johnston gang. What I am wondering is at the end of At Close Range, Sean Penn, after being shot so many times, and after his girlfriend is killed, manages to get to his father’s house some way. He didn’t drive his car because as the movie shows, the police surrounded his car which still had his girlfriend’s bosy in it. One thing, I am just wondering which way the movie tries to show us or tell us that Sean penn got to his Daddy’s (Walken) hoff with a hoseome. Did he walk, run, hitch-hike? Was he beamed there by Scotty or Spock? If he hitched a ride, who in their right mind would even pick up someone that hasd been so shot up. So, how does the movie want us to believe that he (Penn) got to hsi Dad’s (Walken). Also, my 2nd question is also based on the end, where Sean Penn, having just been mercilessly shot up (attempting to surely kill him), manages somehow to just go wash his gunshot wounds off with a hose, ties tournequettes around the wounds, closes his car’s trunk, and then it reverts to him being at his Dad’s house and knocking on his door. Then he is let inside by his Dad, goes to the restroom and gets the bathroom gun, comes out, and then the fun starts with his shooting all around his Dad, but never kills him. Anyway, what I wanted to know is did the real-life true event
    that happened right after Bruce Jr. and Robim Miller was shot up by his coward useless loser family, match what the movie showed at the end? In other words, in real-life and after Bruce Jr. and his girlfriend Robin Miller got shot up which Robin died from it, did Bruce Jr. really manage to make it over to his Dad’s home and confront him with his own (Dad’s) gun? Did it really happen that way, or is that just a fable that Hollywood came up with in order to make the movie better and give it a more dramatic yet bittersweet feeling to it? I have been shot before, and stabbed. I have been ganged up on and robbed and beaten so senseless that I didn’t even know I still existed. And I tell you, one gunshot or severe stabbing really sucks a good chunk of your life out yourself, let alone 8 or more gunshots. So unless the man was Superman, I am very highly doubting that Bruce Jr. managed to hitch a ride or whatever to his Dad’s then get a gun and shoot shoot shoot it like no tomorrow! I very highly doubt that it happened like the movie showed. Still though, I would like to know the reality of it, the truth! And trust me, I Can Handle The Truth. Thanks

    • Catie Rhodes says:

      Well, in real life… (and I’m just using the actor’s names so you will know who I mean)

      Mary Stuart-Masteron (Sean Penn’s girlfriend) ran in the farmhouse to die. Sean Penn followed her and called emergency services. Sean Penn didn’t go to Christopher Walken’s house following the shooting. He went to the hospital and was operated on. One of the detectives working the case said he saw Sean Penn laying on a gurney at the hospital and thought he was dead. After surviving 8 gunshot wounds, Sean Penn went into protective custody and testified against his father and uncles in court. There was no dramatic confrontation like the one in the movie.

      Sean Penn = Bruce, Jr.
      Christopher Walken = Bruce, Sr.
      Mary Stuart Masterson = Robin Miller

      Hope this answers your question. :D

  19. Thanks Catie, At Close Range was defiantly one of the darkest films I’ve ever seen. You know a movies dark when Robert De Niro turns down the lead. Actually according to Christopher Walken, Sean would not do the film without Chris playing the father. Patrick Leonard is a genius and the score here reinforces the darkness of the subject matter. Director James Foley absolutely captures an elicits stunning performances from all involved “At Close Range” is a must see film and it’s the only time you’ll see Sean Penn, Christopher Penn, and their mother, Eileen Ryan in the same film.

    • Catie Rhodes says:

      Interesting info about At Close Range. I didn’t know Eileen Ryan was the real life mother of Chris and Sean Penn. Nor did I know that Sean Penn refused to do the film without Christopher Walken. It’s a fascinating story, and I think the actors who played the real life characters made it even more so. Thanks for your comment. :D

  20. SamanthaV says:

    I am a 27 year old female who grew up around the area that the Johnston Gang had been in. My family has history with the son Bruce Jr. I can still remember the day Norman escaped from prison…I was terrified. I came home from high school and my father looked at me and said “Norman escaped.” At first I didn’t realize who he was talking about and then I saw it on the news. My dad was saying how grateful he was that we moved around a lot and that no one knew where we were living at now. The house of the Johnston Gang is only 5 minutes from my old high school and back in those days we (my friends and I) would go down to the house and just sit there and think of all the horrible things these guys did. I grew up watching At Close Range and can remember my father and uncles talking about Bruce Jr. and how his girlfriend Robin was shot by his own father. It is weird and kind of creepy to know that certain fields that I used to just drive by and take no notice of is one of the fields that they buried guys in and now I live near the landfill where they dumped the body of the one guy. It’s creepy but in a way I can share this information with my friends who live so close to all of this.

    • Catie Rhodes says:

      Your reply is part of the reason I love writing these posts. How interesting your family was involved with Bruce, Jr. I can see why you would have been worried when Norman escaped. I’m sure you were relieved when he was recaptured. Living near the landfill would be creepy. I think the guy murdered there was one of the ones they never found. It’s an interesting and horrifying history. Thanks for sharing your story with us. :D

    • I read your comments about the Johnston Gang. It’s fascinating to hear from someone who actually knew the person that lost so much, that being Bruce Jr. I have never seen a picture of him. I remember riding through Pennsylvania in 2003 on my way to New York. I was looking about the countryside, it was such a tragedy. I heard Chris Walken say that Sean Penn had chosen him to play the part of Bruce Sr. and that he had a hard time finding a studio willing to make the film.
      It was after Director James Foley sign on to Direct that they got financing. I feel to this day that
      ” AT CLOSE RANGE “, is a much under rated film.

    • gene colwell says:

      I would love to hear more Samantha…any info. we are not aware of. Thanks for such an interesting post.

    • gene colwell says:

      Very interesting! Where was the house of the Johnston Gang located?

      • Leslie says:

        Hi, the house is on Fallowfield Rd. around the 1000 block, it’s actually a farm. I attended Octorara school when this happened. A friend of mine lived up the road from the Johnstons’. My sisters boyfriend at the time was robbed & murdered one night after selling his truck to someone, we believe whoever bought the truck was related to this gang. We believe after selling his truck he was followed, beaten & robbed by them and then murdered; his decayed body was found in a field off of Bell Rd. by a farmer plowing his field. The death was never formally related, I believe it was labelled as “foul play” or something as ridiculous. It is a tragic, tragic story.

  21. Just a side note of creating a character. If you saw “The Falcon and the Snowman” (1985), and saw how Sean Penn looked in that film, and the physical transformation for his part in “At Close Range” (1985), it is rather amazing the effectiveness of the development in little over a year.

    It would be a good “quit drugs” morph, though fictitious of course. Penn creates very believable characterizations. Dalton Lee and Brad Whitewood Jr. are related so to speak, LOL.

  22. Ooops: “At Close Range” (1986)

  23. “”On Dec. 30, 1978, then-State Trooper Tom Cloud was on his knees digging at the frozen ground with a tablespoon in the middle of a sprawling estate in Chadds Ford. Beside him was Chester County Detective Larry Dampman.

    “It was a surreal scene,” said Cloud, now a private investigator in West Chester.

    Battery-powered lights, such as the ones used in a photo studio, cast an eerie glow over the hilltop area. A bonfire was going nearby. Dozens of police milled about. Investigators scraped away dirt carefully, so as not to damage what they were looking for.

    Finally, resistance to the digging softened. The police had found what they were there for — and the stench was overpowering. Slowly, spoonful by spoonful, the bodies of three young men were unearthed.

    The bodies of Jimmy Johnston, 18, the stepson of Bruce Sr.; Wayne Sampson, 20; and Duane Lincoln, 17, had been piled like firewood, one on top of the other. Their faces were unrecognizable. One wore a Tweety Bird shirt.

    The discovery would eventually break up a notorious ring of criminals that had eluded and taunted police for years. There was no jubilation, though.

    “It was the most gruesome thing I ever saw,” Cloud said. “And it was sad. Here were these kids with their whole lives in front of them.”

    Dolores Troiani, who helped prosecute the Johnstons as a young assistant district attorney, remembers that the best-preserved parts of the bodies were the feet, because the boys wore heavy work boots.

    “The smell was so bad. I threw away my clothes,” she said.””


    “”The three had been killed on Aug. 16, 1978. Mitchell had killed Sampson, the last to be shot. David Johnston had killed Duane Lincoln. And Bruce Sr. had taken care of his stepson. Later, another gang member, Leslie Dale, would tell police that Bruce Sr. told him Jimmy Johnston was still gurgling when he was dumped into the common grave.”

  24. Just in case you do not already use something like this, you can search transcripts from court cases from some notable litigation.

    It has national cases, though the link says AZ Supreme Court

  25. You may be able to find the outcome of this discussion panel of prosecutors and others involved in this case recently reviewed for this purpose:

    “”This will be a chance to get insight on what people haven’t heard about from those that put the case together,” Mowday said. “The interest in this case is still very high from the reaction I’ve gotten from around the county.””

  26. gene says:

    “At Close Range” is without a doubt one of the best movies ever made. Thanks for all the information pertaining to the book and such…I would love to learn more about this family if possible. Would like to know how Bruce Jr is doing these days and where he lives.

  27. Jeff MacKenzie says:

    I have a Johnston Gang story you may be interested in. I was a young police officer with the Elkton Police Department in Cecil County, Maryland from 1976 to 1980. (I am still in law enforcement but with another agency) A county deputy sheriff had arrested Bruce, Sr for some offense that I cannot remember. While the deputy was processing Johnston, Johnston told the deputy, “Your car will be gone tomorrow when you wake up.” The deputy lived in Claymont, Delaware at the time. When he looked outside his home the next morning his personal car was gone and was never recovered. Pretty scary when they can reach out a touch you that quickly at your home.

  28. Paul F. says:

    I live in the area where the actual events took place and the story has always interested me. Look up the Feb. 25, 1980 issue of People Magazine. There are some pictures included in an article about the Johnstons including a picture of Bruce Jr. and his girlfriend Robin. I know a couple of the police officers involved in the case including one of the first on the scene after Bruce Jr. & Robin were shot and one of the lead investigators. They have some interesting stories about the case from beginning to end, but I haven’t had a chance to talk to them 1 on 1…yet…but can’t wait to ask more specific questions. They do say, however, that the book by Bruce Mowday is very accurate from their point of view.

    • gene colwell says:

      Wow! I would love to learn more about what the policemen have to say. Also, thanks for sharing the info on the People Magazine article. I think I have read that article, but I did not see the pics of Bruce Jr. and Robin. I would like to see those pics and learn anything more if possible. There is just something about this that extremely fascinates me.

    • gene colwell says:

      I looked at the People Magazine article online and there is no pics of Robin Miller and Bruce Jr. Does anyone know where I can find these pics or send me a copy at Thank you.

      • T. Howell says:

        Gene, Julia Cass, then at the Philadelphia Inquirer, did a detailed story on the Johnstons that appeared in a insert for the paper. I requested a copy years ago from her and she sent it to me, but I have since lost it. I am sure that it is in the papers archives. It had a long story, pictures of all involved, pic of the house where Bruce Jr and Robin Miller were shot, along with a story about my father, entitled “When the Ninth Bullet Hit Him, He Decided to go Straight”. Julia no longer works for the Inquirer, but she was very involved in the Johnston story. My father, Kenny Howell, was a long time member of the gang. He took a shotgun blast to the stomach while with the Johnston’s, several bullets from the Johnston’s themselves during an assassination attempt because he was turning Federal evidence against them. and nine bullets from California police while on the run. All of this was published in the Inquirer I believe 79 or 80. Don’t hold me to the dates, as I said, I have misplaced my copy over the years, but it sounds about right. You can also check out the Time Magazine article, “It Was Pennsylvania Gothic” online, no pics, but a
        detailed story.

      • T. Howell says:

        oops,9171,919990,00.html, forgot the link to the Time Mag story, you have to subscribe to gain full access..,9171,919990,00.html

  29. frankjones says:

    Hello, I am looking for any family members of Wassel Tober, who was a rumored member of the Johnston gang and and supposedly a victim also. I am looking for my Friend Rachael Lynn, She was his biological daughter who was put up for adoption when she was 2.I know that she had 1 brother, 2 years older that drown the day before they were to meet again some 14 years later. She is around 40 now and wishes to find any relatives. any info would be greatly appreciated. I can be contacted at

  30. Camneely8 says:

    I agree with one of the previous comments concerning the movie “At Close Range” and feel too that it is one of the most underrated movies over the past several years. It reminds me alot of the “Outsiders” in that the cast includes several actors who went on to make their mark in cinema, with many of them becoming mainstream, critically acclaimed, and well-respected in the field. Sean Penn, Crispin Glover, Kiefer Sutherland, Mary Stuart Masterson, and Chris Penn all give great performances along with their elder counterparts. Christopher Walken is brilliant in the film and Penn’s insistance on him playing Brad Sr. is a testament to them both. I own the film and have for many, many years, watching it periodically and always whenever it airs on one of the premium cable networks.
    I will be seeking out the written version of the Johnston Family’s decade of infamy and their eventual incarcerations. Truly a fascinating tale one would think could only be created in Hollywood. Would love to find more information if anyone knows where to look.

    • gene colwell says:

      I would also love to find out more info concerning this and I am very thankful that Catie decided to choose this topic for Pam’s blog.

  31. gene colwell says:

    Here is the best article I was able to find about the Johnston crime family and it gives a little bit more detail into the lives on those involved in the gang:

  32. gene colwell says:

    Does anyone know anything about Edward Potter, a former member of the gang, that testified against the Johnston brothers? I read somewhere that someone who knew him said that he had some great stories to tell and that the truth was much more fascinating than the book or movie. I think it is a shame that someone like Edward Potter did not write a book.

  33. I highly recommend “AT CLOSE RANGE” to anyone who has yet to see the film. Be warned, this is a very “Dark” motion picture. The fact that it is a true story only reinforces the darkness. The redeeming qualities of the film are the Incredible performances given by all involved.

  34. T. Howell says:

    Wow, It’s been a long time since I have seen anything recent about the Johnstons, even since this book came out. Mowday’s book was readable, but it seems completely biased towards the law’s story. If he had taken the time to flesh the gang member’s themselves out more, it could have been an awesome book. For instance, if he had bothered to track down gang member’s wives, he would have gotten a treasure trove of stories that might have given insight into the Johnston’s. My father was a member, I grew up with the gang in my basement ever night in Cherry Hill tearing apart corvettes. My bus driver was Bruce Sr’s sister, and I spent many an evening at her house while the gang met in her kitchen. They threatened to kill me when my dad turned “snitch”, but they never layed a hand on me, though they tried to kill him several times and they had ample opportunity to use me against him if they really wanted to be completely heartless. Mowday mentions my father several times in the book, but not nearly to the extent he was actually involved. He even says we had a “bulldozer” buried in our backyard, which is silly, who would or could bury a bulldozer? It was a tractor and it wasn’t buried, lol. Mowday should have done some more first hand account research, and fact checked what he did write about There are plenty of people still in and around Elkton who actually lived it and might have been willing to add to or correct some things.

    • Catie Rhodes says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I really enjoyed researching it. I didn’t find nearly the amount of information I hoped to, and ended up relying on a few news accounts and Mowday’s book. By the way, you’re totally right about that. I wish he’d have talked to the family members. I got the feeling it could have been such a rich story.

      What an interesting history you have! Thank you so much for your comment.

    • gene says:

      I would like to exchange e-mail addresses and learn more about the stories you know T. Howell. My e-mail address is I would like to see someone write a book that details more of the events from the Johnston Gang and its affiliate’s side of the story. I also recently read in a Lancaster, PA newspaper archive online that Bruce Jr. was now 53 years old and living in Christiana, PA…about 20-30 miles from West Chester, PA and Bruce Jr. was using his real name and had recently been arrested for possession of a stolen GPS.

    • shari says:

      Mrs. Payne was my bus driver too. !

  35. Pingback: At Close Range and The Johnston Gang | Catie Rhodes

  36. when i was a little boy i went to st agnes school in west chester in the 1970s. we were afraid to fetch our tennis balls when they bounced out of the playground because people said, “if you go watch for the johnston brothers”. of course we were scared…we were in 5th grade but i can say for sure the johnstons were well known and you did not mess with them.

  37. i forgot to add….i just read bruce mowday’s book on a plane and i own the dvd of at close range. both are excellent and this article is excellent. thank you!!

  38. hilliscolwell says:

    I just started a group page about the Bruce Johnston Gang and the movie “At Close Range” and anyone can join….

  39. shari says:

    I also grew up in Elkton, and I live in Chester County, PA now – so I’ve been crawling all over this area all my life. I know Jeff MacKenzie who posted above, so it was strange to see his name jump out at me. I can tell you, it’s hard to describe how incredibly creepyscarymenacing the Johnstons were. I lived on the street between Bruce’s house and the chop shop in Cherry Hill (just a neighborhood, same town) the woman above listed. You knew these guys were active (I was about the same age as Robin, but I didn’t know her), and you did your level best not to get them to notice you.

    Once we screwed that up. A guy in a pickup truck came screaming through Leeds, probably on the way from Bruce Sr’s, and as he passed our property, he was going so fast that he drove over our front lawn. My stepdad was shoveling dirt at the bottom of the driveway. He intended to gesture, but he got so mad in the moment that he threw a whole shovelful of dirt onto the windshield of the truck as it sped by. The guy stopped with a screech of tires, backed up, and flew into our driveway. He got out, and was Screaming at my step-dad that he was going to kill him. My mom got in the way and started yelling “You’re gonna have to kill me first!” It got really weird and violent very fast. Neighbors heard the yelling and all came out to see what was going on. Finally the guy drove off. My step-dad knew who he was after he got out of the car. We locked our doors, and didn’t go out at night for months. We were Scared. It was Gary Wayne Crouch. The Johnstons killed him for snitching, but we didn’t know that he had died until at least a year later. But we had the feeling that if he ever got bored he might just come by and torch the house while we were sleeping. The whole lot of them were that scary evil. Hard to convey. Glad they’re all in jail now. Wow, even 30 years later, my stomach rolls over thinking of them. And when Normal broke out of jail – the whole MD/PA line area was in chaos. No one forgot what it felt like to have a Johnston on the loose. It’s really bizarre to remember what terror just even the name sent through anybody who lived around here.

  40. Doug Flynn says:

    Madonna didn’t write”At close range”.

  41. Doug Flynn says:

    ….”LIVE TO TELL”, rather. Patrick Leonard did.

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