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A Good Guy--or Bad Guy Gone Good? : Crime: The people of Two Bit Gulch, S.D., couldn’t believe it. There was just no way the friend they’d loved for years could be an escaped cop killer.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Folks in Spearfish, S.D., were shocked when Gary Johnston was arrested in 1993.

Police officers, sheriff’s deputies, state troopers and FBI agents swooped down on the Ford dealership, guns drawn. They said Johnston, the mild-mannered service manager, was an escaped cop killer.

Who could believe it? Johnston was too nice to be a murderer. People here had known Gary and his wife, Bobbie, for years. Surely it was a case of mistaken identity.

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But there was no mistake.

Gary and Bobbie Johnston were in fact David Gordon Smith and Jo Beth Smith of Oklahoma. He was convicted in 1979 of killing the Catoosa, Okla., police chief during an armed robbery the year before. The Smiths had been on the run for almost eight years, ever since David escaped from McAlester State Penitentiary in Oklahoma, where he had been serving a life sentence.

Robert Stack and NBC’s “Unsolved Mysteries” ended the Smiths’ secret lives. A viewer recognized David during a broadcast on March 3, 1993. The next morning, authorities arrested David at work and Jo Beth at home.

That should have been the end of the story, but it wasn’t.

Even after the Smiths’ identities were confirmed, their friends couldn’t believe the bad things people were saying about their favorite couple.

David and Jo Beth Smith, both now 40, had lived in the Black Hills of South Dakota for more than six years. As the Johnstons, they owned a seven-acre ranch in Two Bit Gulch, outside Deadwood, where they kept horses, cats and dogs. They paid their bills on time and worked hard--"Gary” at the Ford garage and “Bobbie” at the hospital in Deadwood.

“Without a doubt, he was the best person I ever worked for,” mechanic Bob Larson said. At 6 feet, 6 inches and 235 pounds, Smith could have been physically intimidating, but he wasn’t. His deep, slow drawl and quiet manner had a calming effect on people, an asset in a service department. Dealership owner Doug Johnson later said he’d rehire Johnston--or Smith--in a minute.

The two were popular members of the local four-wheeling club. They joined environmentalists to protest an open-pit gold mine. An elderly woman described how for years David had plowed her driveway after every snowstorm--unasked. When a couple’s baby was born with a serious congenital disability, David passed the hat, then threw in $200 from his own wallet.

“I see him as a protector, and I always have,” Kathleen Lincoln of Sundance, Wyo., said shortly after the arrests.

Fifty supporters attended a rally to raise money for David’s defense. They signed a petition asking the governor of South Dakota to deny extradition. Two dozen friends showed up for the hearing.

In short, the “Johnstons” weren’t just well-liked, they were beloved. That made it easy for friends to rally behind them when David Smith sent a message from his jail cell: He didn’t do it.

Yeah, sure. Prisons are full of nice guys who didn’t do it.

Besides, there were witnesses to the armed robbery. David was convicted by a jury that came within one vote of executing him. His appeals failed. After he was recaptured, Oklahoma prosecutor T. Jack Graves said the evidence was overwhelming. “Read the transcript of the trial,” he said.

But David and Jo Beth Smith had an intriguing story to tell.

*

David insisted that he was forced into the robbery at gunpoint by an accomplice, who died in the gun battle. He said investigators ignored and even hid favorable evidence.

Why did the Smiths run? Jo Beth said a corrupt prison official was raping her, extorting money from her and threatening to have David killed in prison if she talked.

It’s a conspiracy theory worthy of Robert Ludlum, but David says he has evidence.

“This isn’t just speculation anymore. Now I can prove it,” he said recently from his Oklahoma jail cell.

David does seem an unlikely armed robber. He was raised in Stillwater, Okla., the son of a college professor and a dietitian. “Did you ever see ‘Leave It to Beaver’? That was us.”

He was an average student, but he won awards in shop. After a few semesters of college, he quit school and got a job at a Tulsa lumber yard. He was making good money. He was engaged to be married. He had never been in trouble with the law.

Enter Jackie Ray Young, David’s next-door neighbor.

The two men occasionally worked on cars together. David said Young pestered him to help deliver one. Young offered him $50, but David knew the car was hot so he demanded $500, half in jest. Young agreed.

“Like an idiot, I thought, ‘Here’s a chance to make $500 for driving a car across town,’ ” David said. They picked up the car on the morning of Sept. 1, 1978. “It was just one of those stupid things,” he said.

It would go way beyond stupid.

Halfway across Tulsa, Young announced that they would rob a “tag agency” in nearby Catoosa. (In Oklahoma, privately owned tag agencies sell driver’s licenses and license plates.) David said that was when he protested, Young pulled a gun.

“I was too damn scared to try anything,” David said. “I should have done more, but I didn’t. It was a pretty gutless reaction, but it’s what I did.”

*

Both men put bandannas over their faces. Inside the store, Young ordered everyone to lie down. David taped the employees’ hands behind their back and began collecting loot. That’s when Catoosa Police Chief J.B. Hamby burst in the door.

The gunfight was hellish. Sixteen rounds were fired. Hamby fired six of them from his .357 Magnum. He wounded David, then he shot Young, who inexplicably shot and killed himself. Everyone agrees Young fired his .357 Magnum five times. But Hamby was wounded by a .22 caliber Ruger automatic that prosecutors said David fired.

The police chief staggered to a coin laundry next door and bled to death with a bullet in his chest.

Hamby had shot David once. The bullet went through his left hand and into his right thigh. Bleeding and terrified, David fled.

Police arrested him at the hospital.

*

Before and during his trial, David insisted that he had been forced into the robbery. He said he never fired a shot, and he even passed a lie detector test on that point. He said Young kept both handguns. Smith claimed Hamby had shot him as he knelt on the floor, hands raised in surrender, unarmed.

Jurors were unpersuaded. They sent Smith to prison for killing Hamby.

There, he quickly became known as the nicest guy in the Oklahoma correctional system. He was moved from maximum security to minimum after a few years. He got weekend passes for Jaycee fishing trips. He joined a running club and once got a pass to run in a Tulsa 10K. He had broken up with his fiancee, but he met Jo Beth McNary, who was visiting the prison with a friend. They married.

But when Hamby’s friends and relatives learned of the fishing trips and the 10K, they protested. David was returned to McAlester, a maximum-security prison.

Still, it’s hard to keep a nice guy down. At McAlester, David got a job a mile outside the walls, manning a pump house at a reservoir that serves the prison. He even slept there.

*

Jo Beth says that’s when her ordeal began. A prison official stopped by her house one day, saying he needed to talk to her about David. She let him in.

“He jumped me and raped me,” she said. He told her it would be easy to have David killed in prison if she talked. The sexual blackmail continued, Jo Beth said, and the official also began demanding money.

Desperate, Jo Beth stole drugs from the hospital where she worked as a nurse. She tried to kill herself with them. A friend found her in time, but Jo Beth remained suicidally depressed. Finally, she told David what was happening, and he confronted the official.

“He just laughed,” David said. “He threatened to put a rat jacket on me.” In other words, he would identify David as a snitch.

Afraid for their lives, David’s parole denied, the Smiths decided to flee in 1986. They wrote letters to their families, apologizing for the heartache they would cause and describing the rape and extortion. David also wrote to prison officials, but didn’t expect an investigation.

David’s unsupervised pump-house job made escape easy. He put a dummy in his cot. They took money from the sale of Jo Beth’s house and disappeared.

“David and Jo Beth ceased to exist,” Jo Beth said. They moved to Sioux Falls, S.D., where they took GED tests to obtain new high school diplomas. When they earned the two highest scores in the state, officials wanted to issue a press release, with pictures.

“I told them we were proud but private people,” Jo Beth said.

Soon, they moved west to the Black Hills. Jo Beth used her nursing experience to become an operating-room technician. David got a construction job. Within a few years he was making more than $40,000 a year at the Ford garage. The “Johnstons” established credit, bought land and put down roots.

And for 7 1/2 years they had no contact with family or friends in Oklahoma. The secret to survival was denial.

“All that stuff has to be locked away somewhere,” Jo Beth said. “You can’t take it out and examine it. If you did, it would drive you crazy.”

But terror always landed nearby. One day in 1991 an FBI agent knocked on their door. David’s heart was in his throat, but the agent was doing a background check on someone else. Ironically, David was a reference. “The guy got the job,” Jo Beth said.

*

If not for television, the Smiths might still be the Johnstons. “With the onset of reality TV, we were very fearful,” Jo Beth said. Their friends thought it odd that “Gary” and “Bobbie” subscribed to TV Guide, since they could get only one channel in Two Bit Gulch, but the Johnstons were poring over schedules to see if the new real-life cop shows would discover their story.

“American’s Most Wanted” was first, in February, 1992. They couldn’t pick up the station the show was on at home, so they rented a motel room to watch it. Afterward, “there was a lot of hugging and crying and sleepless nights,” Jo Beth said.

But nothing happened. And nothing happened when the show was rerun. Then in October, 1992, “Unsolved Mysteries” ran a story that David said was much more accurate. He was upset. Jo Beth fell apart. She said she stole drugs from the Deadwood hospital to kill herself, but she got caught. “Twice in my life I’ve been a very weak person,” she said.

She lost her job and received a suspended sentence but, incredibly, no one recognized her. Jo Beth went to work at a supermarket. Within weeks she was employee of the month.

David later estimated that reality-based cop shows ran their story seven or eight times with no result. The Johnstons began thinking their trail was too cold.

The following March, “Unsolved Mysteries” reran its story. David still doesn’t know who recognized him. The next morning, law enforcement officers showed up at the Ford dealership. In an instant, Gary Johnston ceased to exist. David Smith was reborn, in handcuffs.

“It just scared the hell out of me,” David said. “It’s hard to describe. It’s as though you step into another dimension. I mean, it was utter terror.”

Smith fought extradition, unsuccessfully, on the grounds that he would be killed in Oklahoma. In the process he found Bruce Ellison, a South Dakota lawyer uniquely qualified to represent him. Ellison also represents Native American activist Leonard Peltier, who is fighting his conviction in the slaying of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Authorities did not prosecute Jo Beth for helping David escape. Instead, they revoked her suspended sentence on the drug charge and she spent almost a year in prison in South Dakota. Now she is back in Oklahoma, working to help free David legally.

The Smiths are hopeful.

Ellison said he and an Oklahoma attorney have discovered ballistics evidence that was illegally withheld from David’s original defense lawyer. Bullet trajectories, bullet holes and the absence of powder residue on Smith’s hands or clothing prove Smith could not have fired a weapon, Ellison said. The Smiths also have canceled checks that Jo Beth wrote to the prison official she accuses of rape and extortion. Other witnesses support at least part of that story.

*

But the most puzzling bit of evidence is David Smith himself. Sociopaths can be charming, but sooner or later they slip. Smith has been seamlessly, relentlessly nice--before and after the robbery, in and out of prison.

After his recapture, Oklahoma prison officials threw him into a segregated unit for dangerous prisoners at McAlester. Now he’s back in medium security at Joseph Harp Correctional Facility.

He’s a model prisoner with a good prison job--as usual.


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