Advertisement
Share

Delayed revenge in a South Dakota town

The man standing at Norman Johnson’s door that cold January evening was a stranger who might have seemed vaguely familiar.

Johnson, a retired high school instructor who taught English and coached tennis and football for 35 years in this unassuming town, probably didn’t even have his door locked when he came to greet the bearded, gray-haired visitor. The man bluntly asked him, “Are you Norm Johnson?”

When the 72-year-old Johnson didn’t answer quickly enough, the man asked again. When Johnson finally said yes, the intruder shot him twice in the face, leaving him to die on the doorstep of his tidy brown-clapboard home.

In Madison, where many of the 6,500 residents have known each other since childhood, people don’t die this way, especially well-respected people like Norm Johnson. Most police officers who swarmed the scene had once sat in the classroom of the strict but fair instructor they still politely called “Mr. Johnson.”

Following a tip, police the next day arrested 73-year-old Carl V. Ericsson, who for years had been treated for anxiety and depression. Charged with first-degree murder, Ericsson told investigators a story of obsession that would rattle this Midwestern farm town, where the last murder conviction came in 1917 and the lone police detective badgered locals not to leave the keys in their trucks when they ran about town doing errands.

Ericsson told them he had come to avenge a long-ago locker room prank: In high school, someone put an athletic supporter over his head for laughs. Nobody’s really sure whether Johnson was the culprit or whether he’d just laughed the loudest or even if it happened at all.

Back then, Ericsson and Johnson were a study in contrasts. Johnson was the star running back, a handsome boy who started every game and dated a cheerleader. He married her the year of his graduation, in 1958.

One grade ahead, Ericsson was the squad’s student manager — a job relegated to nonathletes who assisted coaches and ran errands. He was a teen who existed mainly on the sidelines.

“Norm was a small spark plug of a kid, but real athletic. He wasn’t cocky, but he was popular. He let his exploits on the playing field provide his leadership,” said Buzz Rumrill, a former team lineman who knew both boys. “It’s just hard to remember Carl. He wasn’t popular, but he wasn’t shunned either. I think he really wanted to be an athlete, but he wasn’t. He was the team manager. He was a gofer.”

For more than 50 years after high school, Johnson and Ericsson led separate lives — apparently never speaking — until just after 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 31.

That night, the high school basketball team was playing a home game, leaving the streets virtually empty. What happened on that doorstep remains vague, pieced together by statements Ericsson made to police.

What is known is that a man with no criminal record parked his brown Ford Taurus outside Johnson’s house and walked to the door with a Glock handgun, carrying 54 rounds of ammunition in three full magazines.

Now two families are left to cope with the aftermath. Ericsson’s brother Dick, a popular lawyer and town councilman, lives with knowing his emotionally fraught older brother confessed to shooting a longtime neighbor and colleague. Dick Ericsson had served on the local hospital board with Johnson.

For Johnson’s widow and two grown daughters, Ericsson’s stated motive only added to their heartbreak. The National Enquirer published a story on the killing, emphasizing the alleged jock strap incident, and the slaying was highlighted on a nationally televised talk show segment on bullying.

But many here wondered: Did the taunting really happen, or was it the creation of a troubled mind? And if the humiliation took place, did Ericsson dwell upon it for decades or did it suddenly pop into his head during a depression-induced flashback?

“People are putting so much credence into the words of a mentally ill man — and so my father has become a bully in the eyes of the nation,” said Beth Ribstein, Johnson’s youngest daughter. “It’s hurtful; it angers me. And conveniently, Dad isn’t here to defend himself.”

With Johnson’s death, people here say society’s mayhem has finally invaded their town, a place so quaint that they only needed to give the last four digits of their phone numbers until a second calling prefix was introduced recently.

“This really is a Norman Rockwell town. You half expect to see kids walking down the street with fishing poles on their shoulders,” said Jon M. Hunter, publisher of the hometown Madison Daily Leader, who had Johnson as an English teacher and tennis coach.

*

In an agreement with prosecutors, Ericsson pleaded guilty to second-degree murder under circumstances of mental illness, which would send him to prison for life.

But first he had to face the family of his victim.

Ericsson stepped into the courtroom for his June sentencing hearing wearing a black-and-white-striped jail uniform. He sat at the defendant’s table, using a hearing device to monitor the proceedings. When he spoke, his voice was feeble, nearly inaudible.

What the 30 people in the Lake County Courthouse heard that morning was the story of two men whose lives took vastly different paths:

Johnson never left Madison and remained active even in retirement. Known as “Stormin’ Norman,” he was a husky man with thick, silverish hair.

Everybody in town knew him: Either they’d had him as a teacher or came to know him as an adult.

After retirement, he worked part time as a custodian and playground supervisor, a proofreader at the local paper, and finally at the hardware store. He served on civic boards and studied piano. He especially liked playing the classical songs he’d loved as a child.

Former students sought him out. Some, now grandfathers and grandmothers, would approach him at the hardware store, calling him Mr. Johnson, just like always. He would shake his head and harrumph, saying, “Just call me Norm.” One carpenter recalled how Johnson regularly looked in on him for months after learning the man had a drinking problem.

Ericsson, the son of a successful lawyer and a librarian, was a loner. After high school, he left for Wyoming, where he worked for decades as a federal government insurance officer.

After retirement, he moved to Watertown, S.D., about an hour north of Madison, with his wife of 44 years. He doted on Shep, his German shepherd, and two aging horses he kept at a nearby stable.

Neighbors, though, described him as a peculiar man who would snow-blow their driveways in winter but flip off people who displeased him. He’d often complain about nearby children making too much noise. Then, the next day, he’d play the role of good neighbor, offering to help jump-start a dead car battery.

“Sometimes, he got overly friendly and it creeped my wife out. I told her, ‘He’s just a harmless old man. There’s nothing to worry about,’ ” neighbor Jason Crow recalled. “When his horses died, he blamed the vets. He said, ‘I ought to take my gun out and go shoot those sons of bitches.’ He was great with animals; he just wasn’t that good with people.”

Authorities say they discovered he had kept a cache of loaded weapons inside his tiny one-story home.

At the time of the murder, a psychiatrist told authorities that Ericsson suffered from “severe and recurrent depression that is, for the most part, treatment resistant.” In recent years he had threatened to kill his brother Dick, and after Johnson’s death told his wife, Deanna, that he planned to take his own life in prison, according to court records.

At his sentencing, Ericsson told the judge he killed Johnson because of “something that happened over 50 years ago.... It was apparently in my subconscious.”

But Beth Ribstein and her family weren’t buying the story of any tit-for-tat grudge: On the night he killed her father, witnesses said, Ericsson was seen prowling around the houses of his brother Dick and another former teacher — but both men were at the basketball game. Ericsson, authorities now say, may have been planning a much more serious rampage.

Ribstein and her older sister, Terri Wiblemo, took the witness stand to confront Ericsson. Ribstein, a substitute teacher, said she believed her father’s killer was jealous of successful people — old classmates, even his own brother.

“Your life has been filled with anger, jealousy and the need for revenge,” she told him at the sentencing hearing. “I truly pity your wife and your family because you’ve been such a coward, but I can’t blame you for being jealous of Dad. In high school he was popular. He was athletic. He dated Mom. They had 52 wonderful years together and had two daughters that adored him, four grandchildren that worshiped their grandpa.”

When it was his time to comment, Ericsson told the court: “I just wish I could turn the calendar back.”

*

On a frigid day in February, 600 people showed up at Johnson’s funeral. His colleagues at Jones Ace Hardware, many of them teenagers, wore their red work aprons. They gave the family a keepsake: Norm’s old apron, complete with his name tag, tape measure in one pocket, working man’s hand cream in the other.

“Norm was a mentor to so many people,” store manager Luella Poppen said recently. “If he had known about Carl Ericsson’s demons, he would have been the first to reach out to help him. That’s what kind of man he was.”

Most folks here have grown tired of the scrutiny and heartache the killing brought and want to be known for something else again.

The town has reached out to Johnson’s widow, Barbara. One man offered to take care of her lawn. Another dropped by with a strawberry cake; he’d had Norm as a teacher and recalled him saying how much his wife loved strawberries.

Meanwhile, within days of the shooting, Johnson’s family invited Dick Ericsson to dinner. “Dick is going through a terrible time,” Ribstein said. “My mother was there. We wanted him to know we never had any hard feelings, that we didn’t hold a grudge. He needed to see that we were still friends.”

That night, they all talked about everything but the murder.

john.glionna@latimes.com


Advertisement