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March 8, 2006

Canadian authorities baffled by 'Bandit's' exploits in the West


Authorities within Canada's criminal justice system this week said they were just as surprised as anyone to learn about the daring exploits of their fugitive George Robert Johnston, otherwise known as the Ballarat Bandit.

In Canada, Johnston was a relatively mild offender, generally compliant and unremarkable, according to Canadian law enforcement officials. There was nothing in his criminal files to prepare law enforcement or corrections officers there for the news that he had led United States federal, state, and local police on a nearly yearlong manhunt through four states before taking his own life in an isolated desert wash near Death Valley in July of 2004.

Although he had been arrested in 1997 in connection with one of the largest marijuana grows on Prince Edward Island, with an estimated street value of between $5 and $6 million, according to SSgt. Larry Kavanagh of the Island's Royal Canadian Mounted Police, that was Johnston's first criminal offense. He surrendered peacefully to the two officers waiting for him when he arrived to tend his crops on Oct. 1. He served the minimum time required of his two concurrent four year sentences without incident, and was paroled to a halfway house nearly a year later.

But even then the Bandit, who would later be suspected of terrorism because of his apparent expertise with firearms, had a penchant for weapons. When the officers searched the motor home parked near the site of his nearly 4,000-plant grow, they found not just Johnston's four daughters, ranging in age from 5 to 10 years old, but two illegal weapons - a semi-automatic .22 caliber rifle and a handgun.

In addition to charges of possession and trafficking an illegal narcotic, he was also charged with unsafe weapons storage (the guns were loaded), and possession of the guns without a permit. But never in Canada, or later in the United States, would he actually exhibit any inclination to use the weapons.

What happened to Johnston's children after the arrest still remains unclear and Canadian authorities could not release any information about their fate. However, writings by Johnston's wife Tommi Johnston, which are on the Internet, indicate that she was away from home seeking medical treatment at the time of the arrest and that the children were taken temporarily into protective custody.

Tommi Johnston wrote that she suffered from terminal leukemia and used marijuana rather than morphine as a form of pain relief. After she completed a court-mandated drug rehabilitation program for her marijuana use, Johnston wrote that her daughters were returned to her in December of 1997.

During his prison term, according to his wife's writings, Johnston probably only saw his children once because the family could not afford to transport them to the federal facility in New Brunswick, essentially a state away. The youngest, she wrote in 1998, "Has begun to forget what her father looked like."

After the arrest, Tommi Johnston wrote, she and the children were living on welfare and had very little money. She had only managed to visit her husband two or three times.

In May of 1999, George Robert Johnston stepped back into the world a conditionally free man. He had successfully completed a six-month halfway house program and was released on full parole, said Wayne Marston of Canadian Corrections Services.

"He was not a recidivist, not a rounder in the system, had a first time sentence" Marston said. "Here's a guy that from the beginning was seen as an acceptable parole risk." This means, Marston added, that Johnston had not exhibited any violent tendencies or given any reason why he should be considered a flight risk and that all indications were he could be reintegrated into his community.

So while there was every reason to hope that Johnston would fade back into the fabric of respectable society, something apparently went awry. Neither Marston nor Kavanagh could speculate as to what might have happened in the intervening three months, but Johnston went missing in July of 1999 and was declared unlawfully at large. His parole was suspended and a warrant was issued for his arrest.

So far, officials have been unable to answer any questions about whether or not Johnston's wife is still living, or whether she might have lost her battle with leukemia.

Johnston next surfaced in the Canadian justice system in May of 2000, when he was returned to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police by U.S. Immigration officials who had deported him from Chicago. In the early spring of that year, Johnston had again been arrested for illegal possession of a handgun and sentenced to 30 days in a Chicago jail.

Whether anyone in the Chicago Police Department ever submitted the fingerprints of this small-time Canadian offender to the United States federal database is unclear, but later the Chicago arrest record would not surface despite San Bernardino County Coroner's Office Inspector Dave Van Norman's persistent attempts to secure a match from computer searches.

Back to prison Johnston went to continue serving out his original sentence, with time most likely added for having jumped parole, Marston said. On Jan. 22, 2002 he was again released on parole from a prison facility in Ontario and relocated across the country to New Westminster in British Columbia, on Canada's west coast. Again, said Marston, the parole board evaluation indicated that Johnston was an acceptable parole risk and was placed in an area where he was known to have family or a support system, though Marston could not give specifics.

Eight days later, Johnston was again unlawfully at large and another warrant was issued for his arrest. In April he was again apprehended and charged with breaking and entering when he unlawfully entered a mobile home in Chilliwack, British Columbia, and was later caught with a pry bar in his pocket and stolen goods in his possession. What the goods were, Marston said he didn't know.

Once again Johnston went back to prison and this time stayed until the following November when optimistic Correctional Services authorities again released him on parole. Three weeks later, he was again declared unlawfully at large and a warrant was issued for his arrest.

That would be the last time Canadian authorities had any dealings with Johnston, who apparently fled to the United States some time thereafter and surfaced in Death Valley less than a year later.

How Johnston developed the skills to elude law enforcement officers trained to navigate the desert terrain becomes an even bigger mystery when viewed through the lens of his upbringing on Canada's Atlantic coast. Prince Edward Island, slightly north of the state of Maine, is a lush green land with plenty of rain and snow to nourish it, with average summer temperatures rarely topping 75 degrees. Farming and fishing are its major industries and the land is surrounded by sandy beaches tipped into salty ocean water.

The entire province is not much larger than the nearly three million acres of dry, desolate country comprising Death Valley National Park, where the average summer temperature is more than 100 degrees and water is the stuff of dreams.

How Johnston, a career drywaller and plasterer, 50 years old at the time of his death, managed to tolerate the harsh desert conditions while camping in remote areas and often traveling on foot is yet another mystery.

In Canada, Johnston had repeatedly submitted to arrests without a fight. In Death Valley, he accomplished feats of incredible physical endurance to avoid capture and ultimately took his own life rather than be arrested.

Many officers involved in the pursuit of the Bandit at one time or another, including Inyo County's Detective Jeff Hollowell, Nye County's Sheriff Tony DeMeo and Bureau of Land Management Ranger Dave Brenner, wondered whether the Bandit had something larger looming over him, some awful fate waiting somewhere that he could not face. Some speculated that it might be more prison time - that perhaps he had been charged with or convicted of a heinous crime carrying a capital sentence.

But Canada's Marston said that even with his parole violations, Johnston's convictions still didn't add up to much more time than Johnston had already served. On neither side of the international boundary line did he ever, so far as is known, commit a violent offense.

Some speculated that Johnston might have been fleeing something darker, a sentence, or hit, perhaps imposed on him by an underground organization resulting from his prison time, but neither Marston nor Kavanagh could speak to any knowledge of something of that nature.

Now authorities know the who and some of the how of the mysterious Ballarat Bandit. Still at large is the answer to the question - why?

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