Controversial parolee kills himself after bank robbery Terrence G. Johnson was imprisoned for slaying of 2 policemen

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Terrence G. Johnson, paroled amid controversy in 1995 after serving nearly 17 years in the slayings of two Prince George's County police officers, shot himself to death yesterday moments after robbing an Aberdeen bank with his brother, police said.

The shooting, which came as police closed in near the NationsBank branch at Beards Hill Plaza, shocked those who knew Johnson as a model former prisoner. And it brought tears at the University of the District of Columbia law school, where, until recently, he had been a second-year student.

But the violent end came as no surprise to some relatives of the officers slain years ago.

"I knew it was going to happen," said Blanche Claggett, mother of Officer Albert M. Claggett IV, whose gun Johnson used in the 1978 slayings. "You don't change the stripes."

She added: "We've lived through a nightmare through all these years. People asked me if I'd thought about whether Johnson could turn his life around and I said, 'No, I couldn't care less.' My son couldn't turn his life around and come back."

Police said the bank robbery began about 9: 30 a.m. yesterday when two armed men walked into the bank.

Klein's Supermarket Manager Chuck Cross was in the bank making a deposit, and was about to leave when the men, wearing brown trench coats and black knit caps, entered. One carried a .45-caliber semiautomatic handgun and the other a knife with a 12-inch blade.

One man put a small box on the floor and said, "I've got a bomb here. If anyone calls the police or comes outside after us, we're going to blow the place up," Cross said. The men made profane demands for money, he said.

After tellers turned over an undetermined amount of money, the men ran from the bank, leaving the package on the counter, police said. Officers spotted two suspects running along Barnett Lane, a dead-end, one-lane road lined with homes, and stopped them.

Ron Cullum, 39, who was washing dishes in his nearby mobile home, heard shouting and ran outside to his screened porch. He saw an Aberdeen police officer leaving his car with his pistol drawn and shouting, "Halt!"

The two men continued to walk away from the officer, Cullum said. "It was like they was just taking a walk through the park, so to speak. It wasn't like they robbed a bank or nothing."

The officer repeated his command to halt, and one man stopped after walking about 10 more feet, Cullum said. The other kept walking, stopped about 150 feet from the officer and "pulled his own revolver out and shot himself," Cullum said.

The man left standing then shouted, "Please don't shoot me! Please don't shoot me!" As police officers closed in, he dropped to the ground, Cullum said.

Dead at the scene

Terrence Johnson, 34, of Langley Park was pronounced dead at the scene.

Darryl B. Johnson, 35, of Baltimore was taken to police headquarters, where he was charged with bank robbery, three counts of first-degree assault and four counts of using a handgun in the commission of a felony. He was being held last night in lieu of $150,000 bail at the Harford County Detention Center. He will appear this afternoon before a Harford County District Court judge for a bail review hearing.

The state fire marshal's bomb disposal unit examined the package the robbers left at the bank and found it was an empty box.

Terrence Johnson -- whose 34th birthday was yesterday -- had spent nearly half his life behind bars for the June 26, 1978, shooting of Claggett, 26, and Officer James Swart, 25, at the Hyattsville police station.

From the start, the case had strong racial overtones. Johnson was black; the two officers were white. And Johnson, who was 15, said the officers were beating him while questioning him about a petty theft. He said he snatched the gun of one officer and fired because he feared for his life.

His testimony struck a chord in Prince George's County, where the Police Department had been criticized over allegations of brutality and racism.

He was convicted of one count of voluntary manslaughter and using a handgun in the commission of a felony, the death of Claggett. He was found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity in Swart's death.

He received the maximum sentence -- 10 years for the manslaughter plus 15 years for the handgun conviction -- but soon sought to rehabilitate his reputation.

During his 16 years and seven months' imprisonment, he earned a bachelor's degree from Morgan State University, and certificates in barbering and computer science. And he counseled other inmates.

He was denied parole four times between 1987 and 1991, and the parole commission said in July 1991 that public sentiment against his release was so strong that he should expect to serve the full sentence. Police officers in Prince George's County, in particular, opposed his appeals for parole.

However, pressure mounted for his release. And his chances brightened in 1994, when then-Circuit Judge Warren B. Duckett, a former Anne Arundel County state's attorney, told the commission that he was convinced that Johnson had earned his freedom.

Freedom came Feb. 1, 1995.

Attorney surprised

No one could have been more surprised at yesterday's events than Charles J. Ware, a Columbia lawyer who took Johnson under his wing after his release from prison.

"I'm just shocked at this turn of events," said Ware.

Ware said Johnson lived with him for a year after he left prison and worked in his law office. Johnson then entered the University of the District of Columbia's law school and began his second year last fall, Ware said.

"He seemed to be doing fine, he was in good spirits. He has been living on his own in an apartment and I was really proud of him," the lawyer said, adding that Johnson last worked for him in the fall. They had not seen each other since last month.

Johnson dropped out of law school Feb. 20 for financial reasons and because of his father's health problems, said Stephanie Brown, associate dean for administration and finance. "He was doing fine academically," she said. "We were surprised that he withdrew and we are shocked at what has happened today."

Meanwhile, some students were crying in class and were visibly upset at the UDC campus yesterday.

"People are devastated, people are really blown away by it," said Todd Sellers, 27, a third-year law student. "It's just a human tragedy."

Several law students said Johnson always was willing to help fellow students with criminal law and other legal questions. They said he seemed to be making a turnaround in his life, and planned to meet other students today to talk about community service work.

But Blanche Claggett, who lives in Deltona, Fla., said yesterday: "I thank the good Lord. I'm glad it's over. I'm so glad he took his own life and not another police officer's."

Does this bring closure? "I hope we can bury it. We'll never forget our son, we will always have to live with the fact we lost our son, but we won't have to be worried about Johnson anymore," Claggett said.

Swart's mother, Rita Swart of Riverdale, said, "It does bring a closure, period." She declined to be interviewed further.

John A. Bartlett Jr., president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 89, which represents Prince George's County police, said: "I think the view of the FOP is very simple. We view any loss of human life as a tragedy. We're just very thankful that no other citizens or police officers were injured today."

Some cheering

Was there a sense that justice was done? "Some of our membership has felt that. Of course, we've seen some cheering," Bartlett said. "The majority of the membership believes in the truth in sentencing, that individuals who are given sentences should serve the full sentence. Of course, Terrence did not serve his full sentence."

Duckett said he was "very distressed" at the news of Johnson's death.

"I thought the guy was going to make it," Duckett said. "I was happy to be able to assist him. But a lot of people are going to say 'Duckett, we told you so.' "

The retired judge said his last contact with Johnson was in 1994. He said he sent Johnson some drawings that an artist did during courtroom proceedings.

"They were quite good of him," Duckett said. "I sent them to him and to [his lawyer]. I kept one for myself and it hangs on the wall of my home."

Pub Date: 2/28/97

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