Eight months after turning himself in to face attempted-murder charges in the May shootings at Randallstown High School, Antonio Richard Jackson walked out of the Baltimore County Circuit Courthouse yesterday a free man.
At least for now.
Still unable to locate a witness they describe as essential to their case, county prosecutors dropped all charges against Jackson, 21, of Owings Mills, who was the last of three men scheduled to be tried for the May 7 shootings that left one student partially paralyzed and three others injured after gunfire erupted on the school parking lot as a charity basketball game was letting out.
But prosecutors made clear yesterday that they intend to refile the charges whenever detectives track down that witness, Ronald Patrick Johnson Jr.
"Nobody hides forever," prosecutor Stephen Bailey said. "The police will eventually find Ronald Johnson, and we will try Antonio Jackson."
Accused of bringing to Randallstown High the gun used in the shootings, handing it to one of the shooters and driving the black BMW in which the suspects fled, Jackson was originally scheduled to go on trial in November. But the trial was postponed after authorities could not find Johnson.
A new trial date was set, and jury selection had been scheduled to begin yesterday. That was pre-empted by prosecutors' decision to drop the charges.
"This is just the best day," said Jackson's girlfriend, Keisha Fisher, adding that she was eager for Jackson to return home to their 3-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son. "I just thank God. He works miracles."
Jackson was released by noon. Walking from the Towson courthouse with his girlfriend and lawyer, he declined to comment.
Defense attorney Lawrence B. Rosenberg said his client was thankful to be going home. But the lawyer added that he is disappointed that Jackson was not set free under different circumstances -- a full acquittal.
"Even if they find [Johnson], we're confident that Antonio Jackson didn't do anything improper," he said. "We don't believe he is criminally liable."
Johnson initially was charged with attempted murder in the school shootings, but authorities dropped the charges after determining that no evidence linked him to the crime. Prosecutors said yesterday that he is the only person they know of who can identify Jackson as having been at Randallstown High during the shootings.
Authorities have been searching for Johnson since Nov. 1, when officers could not locate him to serve a summons for the Nov. 10 trials of Jackson and co-defendant Matthew Timothy McCullough. Eight days later, Baltimore County Circuit Judge Patrick Cavanaugh signed an order directing sheriff's deputies to take Johnson into custody when he is found.
Since then, Bailey told Cavanaugh yesterday, more than a dozen officers have been hunting for the witness. They searched more than 50 locations and combed through records from the Motor Vehicle Administration and from state parole, probation and child support offices. They also checked databases that track criminal arrests and wages paid out by the state government for any hint of Johnson's whereabouts.
Bailey told the judge that authorities believe the witness is in hiding because he does not want to testify against his friends, not that he has been the victim of foul play or that he fears for his safety.
Two men already were convicted in the shootings that left William "Tippa" Thomas III paralyzed from the waist down and also injured Alexander Brown, Marcus McLain and Andre Mellerson.
Tyrone D. Brown, 24, pleaded guilty in September to attempted second-degree murder and a handgun charge, and was sentenced to 50 years in prison. McCullough, 18, was acquitted in November of attempted-murder charges but convicted of assault. He is scheduled to be sentenced this month.