Police conducted surveillance of his relatives. They searched 44 houses for him in a single day. And they staked out his mother's apartment in Owings Mills on holidays, hopeful that the long-missing witness to the only school shooting in Baltimore County's history might try to sneak home on Mother's Day or Thanksgiving.
And yet, for three years, Ronald P. Johnson Jr. was not found -- until he identified himself during a traffic stop in Baltimore in November.
Johnson, now 24, pleaded guilty yesterday to one count of obstruction of justice for failing to show up to testify at the 2004 trial in the Randallstown High School shootings case. He was sentenced to a year of home detention and was released to await the trial of the suspect whom authorities said they could not prosecute without Johnson's testimony.
"Any time a state's witness refuses to come to court, there's some kind of consequence to be dealt with," prosecutor Daniel Trimble said. "This case just had the limelight to have attention drawn to it."
It has been nearly four years since gunshots rang out across the parking lot of Randallstown High on a sunny Friday afternoon in May as a charity basketball game was letting out.
When a fistfight outside the school turned into a brawl, one man pulled a 9 mm semiautomatic pistol and fired several rounds into the crowd before handing off the weapon to a student, who kept shooting until the gun was empty. Four students were hit, including one who was paralyzed from the waist down after bullets pierced his neck, back and lung.
The two gunmen were convicted and sentenced to prison terms of 50 and 100 years, respectively.
But prosecutors said they could not proceed with their case against the last suspect -- Antonio R. Jackson, who had been accused of bringing the Glock handgun to the school that day, handing it to one of the shooters and driving the black BMW in which the suspects fled -- without the testimony of Johnson. He had been missing since November 2004, when officers fanned out across the Baltimore area but could not find him to serve a summons for the trials of Jackson and a co-defendant.
In January 2005, prosecutors dismissed all charges against Jackson, of Owings Mills. But authorities kept searching for Johnson.
Although prosecutors have offered little about the hunt for the missing witness at various court hearings over the years, Trimble offered the most detailed account of their efforts yesterday, drawing astonished looks from some of Johnson's friends and relatives who were in court.
In December 2004, with the trial of one of the shooters completed and the new trial date of Jackson less than a month away, the task of finding the witness was assigned to the county Police Department's career criminal apprehension team.
Members of the unit, which is responsible for conducting surveillance in the county's highest-profile cases and tracking suspects who cannot be found, spent more than 100 hours looking for Johnson.
They followed his family members and associates, Trimble said. They generated lists of every phone call going in or out of his mother's apartment and then conducted surveillance on the people connected to those phone numbers. They staked out his mother's home -- repeatedly and often on holidays.
"It was a high priority for us because of the shooting at a high school," said Baltimore County police Sgt. Ricky Whitmire, who leads the career criminal apprehension team. "We used every investigative tool we had."
He said police searched 50 to 70 different homes for Johnson, sometimes coming back to the same residences several times, and tracked leads from Florida to Connecticut.
"One of our concerns was the fact that the offense itself, the high school shooting, has potential for more violence," Whitmire said. "With him testifying against someone else, someone could do him in. He had the bad guys and the good guys looking for him."
Relatives of and attorneys for Johnson have long maintained that he feared for his safety -- a claim that county prosecutors have sometimes disputed.
"I believe this young man is still very concerned about that whole aspect," said defense attorney Rodney J. Gray, who pointed out that his client had been held in protective custody at the detention center since his arrest "because we didn't want to expose him to that possibility."
Baltimore County Circuit Judge John G. Turnbull II sentenced Johnson to five years in prison but suspended all but one year of the term and directed him to serve it on home detention.
"This keeps him on house arrest until, hopefully, the other case goes to trial in July," he said of the attempted-murder case against Jackson.
Johnson was arrested in November. Charges were reinstated against Jackson in December.