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Bruce Johnston Sr., 63; Notorious Killer Dies in Prison

August 13, 2002|From Associated Press

Bruce Johnston Sr., one of suburban Philadelphia's most notorious murderers whose killing rampage became the basis for the movie "At Close Range," has died of natural causes in prison in Graterford, Pa., authorities said. He was 63.

Johnston was taken to Mercy Suburban General Hospital on Aug. 5 for complications associated with liver disease. He was returned to the prison and two days later was pronounced dead, officials said.

The convicted killer was serving six life sentences at Graterford Prison for murdering several of his criminal cohorts and his son's girlfriend, authorities said.

The Chester County, Pa., slayings were the basis for the 1986 film, "At Close Range," starring Sean Penn and Christopher Walken, whose character was based on Johnston.

Johnston and his brothers operated a multimillion-dollar burglary ring in the 1970s, stealing everything from cigarettes to tractors, authorities said.

In 1980, he and two brothers were convicted of killing three young members of their crime ring and were sentenced to life in prison.

They were also convicted of killing the girlfriend of John- ston's son, police said.

According to police, Bruce Johnston Jr., who survived an attempt on his life, had begun talking about the gang because he believed his father had raped his girlfriend.

The girlfriend and the other victims were killed so they wouldn't cooperate with authorities, police said.

Chester County Dist. Atty. Joseph W. Carroll, who called Bruce Johnston Sr. one of the county's "most notorious criminals," said that Johnston deserved the death penalty but that it was not available at the time.

"It's entirely appropriate that he died in prison," Carroll said.

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