Drug Dealer Who Eluded Officers Is Shot to Death

Times Staff Writer

Johnny Leroy Caldwell, a manufacturer and dealer of crystal methamphetamine who had escaped the law twice by blowing up residences where the drug was being made, died of gunshot wounds Sunday after his car was surrounded by sheriff’s deputies, federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents and U.S. marshals.

A spokesman for the county Sheriff’s Department said Caldwell may have shot himself moments before officers riddled the car with bullets after cornering it on a remote stretch of Lyons Valley Road at Japatul Valley Road.

The officers opened fire on Caldwell’s Datsun 280Z after hearing a muffled gunshot come from the car, the spokesman said.

Caldwell, 41, who was released from prison in October after serving time for narcotics trafficking and manufacturing, was a survivalist who authorities believe had hidden out and stored food, water and weapons in remote caves in the Cleveland National Forest.


Before dawn Saturday, 18 two-man teams of sheriff’s deputies and U.S. marshals had used infrared surveillance scopes to comb the rugged terrain.

Caldwell had been seen in the area the night before, but he had slipped away again and the search had been abandoned Saturday afternoon.

About noon Sunday, the spokesman said, Caldwell was spotted again, and his amazing series of escapes came to an end at about 2:45 p.m.

Two women believed to have been companions of Caldwell’s were taken into custody at the scene but authorities were not certain if they would be charged with any crimes.


The Caldwell saga began Nov. 2 at a condominium complex on Third Avenue in downtown Chula Vista. DEA agents had Caldwell under surveillance and, after neighbors called the Chula Vista Fire Department and reported smelling ether, they approached his condo, intending to arrest him.

Just as they knocked on the door, however, there was an explosion, which Caldwell apparently touched off by intentionally spilling ether used in manufacturing crystal methamphetamine, a potent form of the drug commonly known as “speed.”

Several agents and neighbors narrowly escaped injury.

In the ensuing confusion, Caldwell escaped through a back window.


Then, last week, DEA and Sheriff’s Department officers surrounded an isolated mountain home in the Cleveland National Forest where they believed Caldwell had another drug lab.

They telephoned Caldwell just after 4 a.m. Wednesday, informing him that the house was surrounded, but again he set a fire and escaped into the mountainous forest area by way of a tunnel he apparently had constructed.