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‘67 Escapee Arrested in Texas

Times Staff Writer

Of the nearly 300 current fugitives from the California prison system, Donald Johnson had been on the lam longer than almost anyone. For more than 36 years, he had lived with a dark secret.

Convicted of burglary in 1966 in Riverside, he was sentenced to one to 15 years in prison. Six months later, he escaped.

Eventually landing in Texas, he stayed out of the way of Rangers and bounty hunters, married an apparently unsuspecting woman, worked for a chemical company for 21 years and lived a good life -- until last week.

“There’s no doubt about it, he’s coming back to prison,” said Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections. “He still owes California more time.”

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Johnson’s purchase of a mobile home may have led authorities to his door last week.

“He used his Social Security number and name to buy the travel trailer, and that may have led [California investigators] to him,” said Det. Ron McGullion of the Tomball Police Department in Texas.

Now 60 years old, 5 feet 11 and 115 pounds, Johnson sits in the Harris County Jail in Houston awaiting extradition to California.

Johnson was about 22 when he was sent to prison. Two months later, he was transferred to Sierra Conservation Camp in Jamestown, a hamlet west of Yosemite. On July 7, 1967, he escaped.

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But in 1969, he was arrested in Florida for assault with a deadly weapon and breaking and entering, and sentenced to five years in prison, Thornton said.

Florida officials notified California about the arrest and conviction. “We asked them to notify us 60 days before he was to be released,” Thornton said. “But we were never notified.”

Recently, Department of Corrections investigators learned that Johnson might be living in Tomball, about 30 miles northwest of Houston. Authorities there confirmed Johnson’s address and his employment at Pilot Chemical Co. in Houston.

On Jan. 9, two Tomball police officers, including McGullion, and two Harris County sheriff’s deputies called on Johnson’s supervisor at Pilot Chemical, who was flabbergasted, McGullion said.

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Away from other employees, Johnson was confronted. Had he ever been in trouble? the officers asked Johnson. He said he had not, McGullion said.

Shown a 1966 mug shot, Johnson said, “ ‘That looks like a kid,’ ” McGullion said.

“He was in utter shock and disbelief. He was trying to deny it, but it was obvious. You could see the exasperation on his face.”

McGullion later went to the Corral RV and Mobile Home Park in Tomball, where Johnson’s wife of 28 years was dumbfounded by the news, the officer said.

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“She was not aware of his situation at all,” he said. “It’s unfortunate, because she’s in poor health.”

Ron Harrington, vice president of Pilot Chemical, said Johnson had been at the company since 1982, working his way up from maintenance man. He was, Harrington said, “a very good, steady worker” who made a “nice, comfortable living.”

“He had one of the more senior hourly positions.”

The Harris County Sheriff’s Department said Johnson was being housed in the medical ward at the county jail in Houston. His medical problem was not disclosed.

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He is expected to be returned to the Sierra Conservation Camp, a minimum- to medium-security facility in Tuolumne County, authorities said.

“It will be up to the local district attorney if they charge him with escaping,” Thornton said.

If they are still alive, only two California fugitives have been on the lam longer than Johnson, authorities said.

They are Robert Cecil Ham, who escaped the California Institution for Men in Chino in 1965, and Jose Elias Lopez, who escaped the same prison the following year.

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In the last few weeks, three other longtime escapees have been apprehended.

On Dec. 31, Michael Dean Egger was arrested in Olympia, Wash. He had been convicted in Santa Cruz County of vehicle theft and had served six months of his two-year sentence when he escaped in 1988.

On Jan. 6, Brenda Sue Webb was arrested in North Carolina. Her history includes welfare and food stamp fraud, authorities said. Sentenced in Santa Clara County to three years, she escaped 15 months later, in 1983.

Also on Jan. 6, Susan Brounacker was arrested in San Antonio. Her criminal history includes drugs and car theft, authorities said. She had escaped from the Malibu Conservation Camp in 1989 after serving five months of a four-year sentence.

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“Our corrections agents are very persistent,” Thornton said. “If you escape, they will eventually catch you.”

*

Times staff writer Sandra Murillo contributed to this report.


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