Cactus Shipments Part of Payment : Fallbrook Man Faces Charges of Soliciting Murder

Times Staff Writer

A Fallbrook man was indicted Wednesday on charges of soliciting the murder of his brother's business partner in a scheme that allegedly included an offer to give a middleman $1,000 worth of cactus each week for the rest of his life.

Ethan M. Johnson, 57, son of the owner of Johnson's Cactus Gardens in Fallbrook, was charged by a federal grand jury with using interstate telephone lines to arrange the murder of Billy Camps, the partner of his brother, Joseph Johnson Jr.

Ethan Johnson was arrested June 4 after he met in a San Diego hotel room with an FBI agent posing as a hit man. Documents filed with the indictment said Johnson paid the agent $1,000 and promised to pay another $10,000 once Camps was dead.

Investigators for the U.S. attorney's office believe Johnson wanted Camps killed to improve his chances of inheriting the family business.

"The motive is a little unclear," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Charles F. Gorder. "He believed he'd be helping himself out by getting his brother's business partner out of the way."

According to the statement of a San Diego FBI agent who investigated the case, Johnson in April called a Sumner, Wash., nurseryman he had known for 20 years and asked if the man, David Corner, knew of anyone who could kill two people for $10,000 each.

"Johnson also told Corner that if Corner could do this he would never have to worry about product," the agent said in his report. "Johnson also said he would give Corner $1,000 worth of cactus product every week for the rest of his life."

Originally, Johnson sought the murder of his brother and sister-in-law in Lakewood, Calif., the agent said, and wanted the killings done in such a way that Camps would appear to be guilty of committing them. Later, Johnson changed his mind and decided he wanted Camps killed instead, the documents said.

Corner reported Johnson's request to the FBI in Seattle on April 8, and several calls between Corner and Johnson over the ensuing weeks were monitored and taped.

On May 23, Johnson informed Corner that he had decided to have Camps killed instead of his brother and sister-in-law, the FBI report said.

"Johnson explained his reason for the change by saying in part, ' . . . 'cause the investigation will be too heavy,' " the report said. "Johnson agreed in this call to meet a Butch Edwards, who Corner told him was the person who would do the killing, in a San Diego motel or hotel to discuss the matter."

On June 4, Johnson met with the agent posing as the hit man at the Holiday Inn on First Avenue in San Diego. Johnson allegedly gave the agent $1,000 and a description of Camps, his license plate numbers, and the address of his home and work in Long Beach.

The FBI report said the agent gave Johnson an opportunity to back out of the agreement and he declined. At the end of the meeting, Johnson was arrested and booked into the Metropolitan Correctional Center downtown, where he remains in custody in lieu of $100,000 bail.

Johnson's father, Joseph (Harry) Johnson, founded and owns the Cactus Gardens nursery in Fallbrook.

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