In the deep darkness of the early morning, on a prison bus that became a rolling crime scene, Philip E. Parker Jr., 20, and Kevin G. Johns Jr., 22, were together one more time, the last time.
They were among 35 inmates who sat shackled to themselves, wearing three-piece suits of ankle, waist and wrist chains. In a cage at the front - and another at the back - sat two guards not 10 feet from the nearest prisoner they were to be keeping watch over, though it was hard to see much.
They were almost at the end, 60 miles into a 75-mile haul on a routine trip across a desolate Interstate 70 from Hagerstown to Baltimore as it neared 4 a.m. Feb. 2. That's when a guard heard a commotion, shined his flashlight and saw blood on the shirt of a prisoner moving about the aisle.
No one stopped the bus. No one moved closer to investigate. Safety regulations wouldn't allow it. Not until the bus arrived at the prison for the worst criminals in the state would officers make the discovery they suspected - one inmate, still tightly bound is his own manacles, strangled by the chains of another.
The lifeless 6-foot-6 body of Parker, who was serving three years for unarmed robbery, was splayed on the floor.
Sitting behind Parker was Johns, a murderer twice over - both of his victims strangled, one with a belt, one with bare hands.
Just hours earlier, the 5-foot-7 Johns had been sentenced to life for the second time in two years, warning in a Hagerstown courtroom that he would likely kill again if he wasn't treated for his psychiatric problems.
Less than two weeks after the killing, the state Division of Correction still isn't saying what happened on the bus, and indeed, all of the inmates who were in the locked bus compartment with Parker are potential suspects. No charges have been filed, and few answers have been forthcoming.
But the focus of the investigation has swung toward Johns, law enforcement sources have acknowledged. A guard on the bus saw blood on Johns after the slaying, and the prison chaplain told Parker's parents that the suspect had blood on his wrists. Johns' lawyer, seeking to protect his client's Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, wrote a letter to prosecutors warning them not to question his client because Johns "might be a suspect."
A review of court records and interviews with correctional authorities, witnesses, lawyers and family sheds some light on how these two ended up taking this fatal journey together.
"I know they're working on it, but I need to know what happened to my baby so I can sleep at night," said Melissa Rodriguez, Parker's 38-year-old mother. "If something like this happened to our child [on our watch], we would be in jail for neglect."
Kevin Gregory Johns Jr.
Kevin Gregory Johns Jr. was born Nov. 4, 1982, at St. Agnes Hospital.
His mother was 18, a drinker who took her first sips at the age of 13. His father became a homeless alcoholic who lived in shelters after separating from his mother. While they were together, life was violent and chaotic. They would have three more children, but it didn't turn them into a family.
This picture of Johns' life is painted by a psychiatric evaluation done for the public defender's office in 2002 and 2003 in the months after he was charged with killing his 34-year-old uncle, Robert Lee Percell.
Prosecutors say Johns killed Percell because he wouldn't give his nephew money. In statements to police, Johns says it was more than that - Percell had wrongly accused him of stealing $100, Percell had picked fights with Johns' parents, Percell had molested him as a baby.
The Department of Social Services first came into Johns' life when he was 3, taking over full responsibility for raising him when he was 6 after his stepfather was found to be abusing him. He would be in and out of foster care and institutions until he turned 18.
He was diagnosed with many things. Fetal alcohol syndrome. Lead poisoning. Attention deficit disorder. Depression. Post-traumatic stress disorder.
There were too many medications to name, drugs that were always being changed.
At times, he was well enough to attend public school, but he was found to be "extremely disruptive ... frequently agitating peers and being disrespectful to teachers," the report states. Those who took care of Johns said many of his problems stemmed from feeling rejected by his mother, who was in and out of his life, mostly out.
"He regarded his fellow students as 'trying to make enemies with me,'" according to the report prepared by Lawrence J. Raifman, an official with Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville. The report was culled from Johns' extensive state files and supplemented with three long jailhouse interviews.
After Johns' grandmother died in 1995, his behavior began to deteriorate. "He experienced nightmares following her death," Raifman wrote. "He made suicidal thoughts public and undertook suicidal gestures, such as tying a string around his neck."
For most of 1999 and much of 2000, Johns was living at the Regional Institute for Children and Adolescents in Catonsville. While there, sources said, he shared a 15-bed cottage with Philip Parker, another troubled youth. When Johns was in a structured environment such as the institute's, officials reported, he did well. He earned a high school diploma.
Goldie Brown, who worked at the institute during Johns' stay, was asked at the Feb. 1 sentencing hearing whether he was "known to be violent."
"No," she answered, "he wasn't violent at all."
Before Johns turned 18, he ran away from the program of the moment and didn't return. He joined the ranks of thousands of children in Maryland who have essentially been raised by the state and have little idea of how to function when they are no longer institutionalized.
"Like bad sausage, they're mixed up," said Stacey Gurian-Sherman, a lawyer and juvenile justice advocate. "There's no transition back to the home. We spend an enormous amount of money to fail people."
Johns went to live with his mother on Furrow Street, but mostly hung out with his uncle, Robert Lee Percell. "We drunk together, played pool together, smoked weed together, talked to females together," Johns relayed to a counselor who interviewed him in the Baltimore City Detention Center. "He tried to be threatening and smart sometimes, but I didn't pay him no mind."
Transition into adulthood was hard. He was out on the streets without medication. He moved on to illegal drugs. His mother turned out to be no more involved with him than before. The state's exhaustive report on Johns called him "a time bomb waiting to explode on February 2, 2002."
That night - three years to the day before Parker died - Johns was living in an abandoned house on Frederick Avenue, about two miles from Parker's mother's home. Johns spent the day at a bar drinking and later hung out with his uncle at the house. Percell had been accusing him of taking money, Johns would tell authorities, and he tired of it.
"The devil voice started just then," he told a counselor.
Johns took off his belt and started to strangle his uncle. The belt snapped, he told police, so he put Percell into a choke hold. "And then I thought he would come back alive," Johns told detectives. So he searched for something to cut with and went after Percell's throat with an old saw he found. "And I thought that wasn't working 'cause it didn't feel right so I went downstairs," Johns said, where he got a box cutter to finish the job.
In a March 2003 plea bargain, Johns was sentenced to 35 years in prison and got a referral to the Patuxent Institution, where some of the most seriously mentally ill inmates are sent. It was a brief hearing, just 12 minutes. Johns thanked Baltimore City Judge John M. Glynn for making him eligible for parole down the road - even if it wouldn't be for 3 1/2 decades. "I'd like to thank you for the opportunity you gave me and the chance to see society again," Johns told him.
Johns' mother made an appearance, too. She proclaimed her son's innocence before he was taken away.
Kevin Johns was sent to Patuxent, but in October 2003 he was reassigned to the Maryland Correctional Training Center, a medium-security prison in Hagerstown. A Division of Correction spokeswoman wouldn't say why he was transferred, but soon he had a cellmate named Armad Cloude.
The Baltimore boy was just 16, serving a 12-year term for second-degree murder. Cloude pleaded guilty in 2002 to fatally shooting another teen, 17-year-old Corey Mason, in a botched robbery attempt. Cloude was just 14 at the time and should have been at home. But days earlier Cloude had slipped out of the home detention electronic monitoring device the court forced him to wear for his drug-trafficking offenses.
Johns, a violent 21-year-old, and Cloude, now 16, were cellmates in January 2004 - something prosecutors and family members have been questioning ever since. Johns was braiding Cloude's hair one night and strangled him. To be sure he was dead, Johns tried to cut him in the neck, too. The body was found around 3:30 a.m., while prisoners were being released for breakfast. Half of Cloude's head was in plaits; the other half wasn't.
"He's crazy. To put him in a cell with anybody, let alone a younger, smaller guy - that's insane," said Alexander R. Martick, a Baltimore attorney representing Cloude's mother in a wrongful-death claim against the state. "Who runs the joint? Who's in charge? They don't care about the protection of the inmates under their care."
The only explanation given for the Cloude killing was some sort of "contract with the devil, signed by himself and ... purportedly signed by Satan," authorities said.
In Johns' second sentencing hearing, the Feb. 1 proceeding for the killing of Cloude, Deputy Washington County State's Attorney Joseph Michael told the court: "This is a murder that the defendant says he'll do again. ... If he's willing to express to the officers that if he just simply has a cell buddy in the Division of Correction that they will be back for what he will do to that person, and all of the records indicate that it didn't take much impetus for him to kill his uncle or to kill Mr. Cloude.
"I mean, who's next?"
Philip Eugene Parker Jr.
Philip Eugene Parker Jr. was born Aug. 30, 1984, at Harbor Hospital. His mother, Melissa Rodriguez, was 16 when her first son had been born the year before. She would give birth to a baby boy every year from 1983 until 1987.
"I may not have been the best of mothers, but I loved every one of my babies," she said.
They were a handful, especially for a single teen mother of many. Her second-born, Philip, was an active boy with mental problems that showed up early on. She had trouble controlling him.
She remembers she had to nail the windows shut when he was a toddler because he found ways to pry them open and one day had to be rescued from a second-story window where he was stuck halfway in and halfway out. When he was 3, she remembers, she found him in a blue sleeper one snowy night several roofs down after a brazen escape.
When he was 8, she moved him from the city to Baltimore County to live with an aunt. He was able to get extra services at Reisterstown Elementary School. That went OK, until Parker set his aunt's house on fire.
Parker's first contact with the Department of Juvenile Justice wasn't far behind. When he was 10, his mother recalled, he took a tablet of drain cleaner into school and tried to give it to a little girl, passing it off as candy. Authorities called it an assault, and he was taken from his family.
He, too, would be in and out of mental health facilities. And he would spend time in various juvenile justice centers. He would be on medications and then off. He was diagnosed with ADD, as bipolar, as having deep-seated fears of being hurt, his mother said. He would come home for a bit, but Rodriguez said that after a few weeks or months there would be trouble again and she'd find herself overwhelmed and unable to take care of him.
In 2000, Parker was in the juvenile jail at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County. He desperately wanted to come home - or just be anywhere but there. He drank bleach. He ate plaster. He ingested pieces of light bulbs, bedsprings, a mercury thermometer, the side of his glasses and more. Every time, he'd tell the guard right away. He wasn't trying to kill himself, Rodriguez said; he just wanted out of Hickey. Each time, he'd get a reprieve at the hospital.
Three times, she said, her son had to have items surgically removed.
"We tried to get him help for his problems," she said. "So much of his life was spent away."
The men in Rodriguez's life are not unknown to the state Division of Correction.
Parker's father, a warehouse worker on disability, spent a chunk of his son's youth locked away in prison. In 1975, Rodriguez's older brother Jefferson Kiser was 20 when he died at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown after sniffing from an aerosol antiperspirant can, according to newspaper accounts from the time. Rodriguez hates to talk about it and dreads what her father must be going through, having lost a 20-year-old son and then a 20-year-old grandson in the same system.
In December 2000, Rodriguez's mother, Ruth Kiser, died. They were all close to her - Philip particularly - and they all took it hard.
Parker was released from the system when he turned 18. "They put him on the street with no medication, no nothing at 18 years of age," Rodriguez said.
Soon he committed the crime that landed him in prison. He had a broken pellet gun, she says, and - wearing a ski mask and a hooded jacket - demanded money from two kids. He got three years.
"When he walked out of that courtroom, I knew I was never going to see him again," Rodriguez said.
Parker was sent to prison in Hagerstown, but his paranoia got the better of him there. He was deeply afraid he would be hurt by the other inmates. He knew that at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in Baltimore, known as Supermax, everyone got his own cell and had to stay inside 23 hours a day.
He did everything he could to get reassigned there, not an easy task.
Rodriguez says the letters her son sent were upbeat. But to others, Parker gave truer accounts, she has learned. He set fire to his cell, got in fights, fashioned weapons, spit and cursed at the guards. He earned himself a cell in Supermax.
There he was cocooned until Johns' attorney's subpoena. Parker was called to bolster Johns' case, to tell the court that he was indeed crazy. They both wanted the same thing, for Johns to get help.
"He gots a really, really short temper, right," Parker would testify that morning. "And he gets very easily irritated and agitated."
Melissa Rodriguez says she woke up around 4:30 a.m. the morning her son was killed. She was having this nightmare. A snake was chasing her, then grabbed her and wouldn't let go. She willed herself awake, but had a feeling she just couldn't shake.
She threw in a load of wash. She cleaned the dirty dishes piled high in the sink. Before 6 a.m., the phone rang. It was the chaplain from Supermax calling. "Your son has passed," he told her.
She hasn't gotten much sleep since. Every time she closes her eyes, she sees him fighting for his life.
"I know he fought with everything he had. The marks on my son no makeup could cover it. I had to bury him in a turtleneck," she said last week as she sat on her front porch.
"All I think about is him struggling and me not there to help him. Nobody there to help him."
There were four guards and a driver on board the bus. She wants to know what they were doing, why they would put her son so close to a known murderer like Johns, a man who had just told a room of witnesses that he would kill again.
"I want answers. How can you not be paying attention? That's your job," she said.
Officials with the DOC have said they are reviewing their transportation policies, and the guards who were on the bus that morning have been placed on administrative leave while the investigation continues.
In a private meeting Friday with Parker's parents, DOC Commissioner Frank C. Sizer Jr. didn't offer them details about how or why their son died. But he did give them his condolences and assured them of a thorough investigation.
"It seemed very sincere," said Michael A. Mastracci, the family's attorney, who held the meeting at his Catonsville office. "It was a personal kind of thing."
On Feb. 1, the defendant was the last person to testify in the case of the State of Maryland v. Kevin Johns as he was sentenced for killing Cloude, his 16-year-old cellmate.
"It's not that I want to go around killing people," he told Washington County Judge Fred C. Wright III. "No, that's not in me, but if my hand is forced to, yes I will do it again. ...
"When people call me, disrespect me and come at me and I feel as though my life is in danger, I'm going to do what I have to do to protect myself."
Johns and his attorneys were asking that he be placed in the Patuxent Institution, the state's facility for mentally ill prisoners. That's why Parker was there to testify that his one-time roommate at the Regional Institute for Children and Adolescents was indeed crazy and in need of treatment. He was only there to help.
Michael, the prosecutor, told the court he didn't much care where Johns went - as long as he was kept away from others. "Almost definitely it would be foolish to put him anywhere where he's going to be able to get his hands on another inmate or guard or anyone," he told the court.
Wright said it was not for him to decide where to send Johns. It would be up to the DOC.
The next morning, Johns and Parker ended up together again - on the bus on the way to Baltimore. A guard on the bus told union officials later that he and the other correctional officers weren't aware of Johns' threat to kill again, and if they had been, they would have confined him to a separate caged-in area.
On the bus, Parker was talking about how he'd be going home. "Fourteen months and 22 days," Parker was overheard saying, according to an inmate on the bus, who recounted the words in a letter to a relative.
The inside lights on the bus were broken, the guard said, so the passengers were in darkness. The inmate witness didn't name the killer, but told how he sucked in his stomach to loosen his chains, raised his arms over his head and strangled Parker.
The killer pulled Parker's head over the back of his seat, and as he died, the witness heard the killer shushing his victim. "It's OK," he said. "Just go to sleep now."
Sun staff writers Greg Garland, Gus G. Sentementes and Jennifer McMenamin contributed to this article.
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