Background and First Conviction
Johnson was born in Joliet, Illinois, a city near Chicago, on May 15, 1950. Little is known about his early life. In 1970, at the age of nineteen, he raped a woman during a burglary in Pilcher Park, also torturing her with a cigarette lighter. Caught afterward, Johnson was convicted on charges of rape and burglary, and sentenced to 25 years in prison. He was eligible for release in April 1986 at the earliest, but authorities decided he was fit for an earlier release and was paroled on March 10, 1983. He started living with his mother and stepfather afterward.
Murders, Investigation, and Arrest
A few months after his parole, Johnson began a series of random killings in Will County. Two elderly sisters were shot and stabbed to death, then burned post-mortem on June 25. This was followed by the shooting deaths of a couple in their house a week later; the wife's body was taken and dumped in the neighboring Cook County. Two weeks later, on July 16, Johnson launched another killing spree. He first got a car to stop by bumping into its rear bumper with his truck. Once both vehicles pulled over, Johnson killed the other car's occupants, 25-year-old Cathleen Norwood, and 32-year-old Richard Paulin. He was then interrupted by two auxiliary Sheriff's Deputies, 50-year-old Sergeant Denis Foley, and 32-year-old Deputy Steven Mayer, who thought they were assisting him because his truck got stuck. Johnson killed Mayer and injured Foley with a shot to the throat. As Johnson concealed Mayer's body, Foley fled to his police car and radioed for help, but his words were garbled and he was instructed to turn on his siren. Afterward, Foley saw a car approaching and tried to flag it down for help, but Johnson fired several shots at the car from between his truck and the police car. The driver of the new vehicle, 24-year-old George Kiehl, was killed and his female passenger was wounded. Once the car stopped, the woman fled, while Foley eventually died from his gunshot wound.
Johnson fled the scene of the shooting and continued his spree. At around 1:30 p.m., near Wilmington, he found Anthony Hackett and his girlfriend, Patricia Payne, sleeping in their vehicle along the side of Interstate 55. He tapped on their passenger-side window to wake them up before abruptly shooting Hackett to death. He then had Payne give him Hackett's wallet and her purse before abducting her and driving her down the interstate in his truck. During the drive, Johnson sexually assaulted Payne, then raped her after pulling over. After finishing, he resumed driving, but then pulled over again after a short time, stabbed Payne with a knife, and dumped her out of his truck. She was found by a passing motorist and taken to a local hospital, ultimately surviving. An Illinois State Police agent interviewed Payne, and she described her attacker as an African-American man with no observable facial hair. She had to look through approximately 1,500 mugshots of suspects, and she picked out 42 of them because they had facial similarities to her attacker (though it is unclear if Johnson's was among those photos). The violent and brutal murders terrorized Joliet and surrounding communities, leading to police being mobilized to sweep Will County to search for suspects.
The police investigation of these crimes stalled until information that Ann Shoemaker telephoned the Will County sheriff's office in August 1983 was turned over to the State Police in February 1984. Shoemaker described an incident in which a dark pickup truck had played cat and mouse game with her while she was driving one night in July 1983. She and a friend followed the truck and recorded its license plate number. After seeing the driver was not someone they knew, tried to get away. On March 6, 1984, she gave this number to the police, who traced it to a truck owned by Sam Myers, Johnson's stepfather.
After Myers signed a consent form, the police searched the truck and found Caucasian head hairs similar to Payne's hair, bloodstains, a steak knife, reddish brown fibers, and a sales receipt for a Tasmanian Devil stuffed doll. Based on these items, the police obtained a search warrant for Myers' residence, where the defendant lived. The police seized three .357 Magnum cartridges from a dresser in Myers' bedroom.
Also on March 6, 1984, Payne looked at five mugshots. Johnson's photograph was the only one among the five which Payne had seen on September 6, 1983. After several minutes, Payne tentatively identified the defendant as her assailant. On March 9, Payne viewed a six-person lineup. After each person in the lineup repeated commands that the assailant had given Payne on the night of her ordeal, Payne unmistakably identified the defendant as her assailant.
Trial and Incarceration
Initially, the Will County public defender was appointed to represent the defendant. On June 1, 1984, the day before the scheduled trial date, William Swano entered his appearance as the defendant's retained attorney. The trial court granted Swano three continuances, totaling 55 days, and set the trial date for July 26, 1984.
The defendant moved for a change of venue, citing negative pretrial publicity in Will County, and the trial court transferred the case to Iroquois County. Following a jury trial, the defendant was convicted of the first-degree murder of Hackett, as well as the aggravated kidnapping, deviate sexual assault, rape, and attempted murder of Payne. The defendant waived his right to a sentencing jury, and the trial court found the defendant eligible for the death penalty.
The trial court further found no mitigating circumstances sufficient to preclude the death penalty and sentenced the defendant to death for Hackett's murder and to concurrent terms of 40 years' imprisonment for deviate sexual assault, rape, and attempted murder. On direct appeal, this court affirmed the defendant's convictions and sentences.
Johnson then filed a pro se post-conviction petition in the Will County circuit court, alleging that he received ineffective assistance of counsel on direct appeal and in post-conviction proceedings. The trial court granted the state's motion to dismiss the petition. On appeal, they affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded. The court held that the trial court properly dismissed Johnson's claim of ineffective assistance of appellate counsel, but that the trial court improperly dismissed Johnson's claim relating to his post-conviction attorney's performance. Johnson is serving his sentence in Menard Correctional Center.
Johnson's known crimes always occurred on the weekends, whenever he had access to a truck. During this time, he would drive around the communities surrounding Joliet until he found a victim that he randomly selected. Johnson would always kill them by shooting them with a pistol and/or stabbing them with a knife. His methodology always varied: some of his victims were killed in home invasions, while others were killed in their vehicles. Many of the victims were robbed, and some of the female victims raped.
On Criminal Minds
- Season Eleven
- "Tribute" - Johnson was possibly referenced on Reid's map of infamous serial killers by location, one could be seen pointing to Will County's approximate location, presumably as a reference to Johnson. He also has some similarities to the episode's unsub, Michael Lee Peterson - Both were spree killers, rapists (Peterson budding serial), and cop killers who were also a Joliet native who shot a couple repeatedly in their car and went on a rampage near their hometowns. Their names also seem to mirror each other slightly.