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An identical twin's quest for the truth

His brother's traffic death at age 8 in Torrance tore up Lynn Johnston. Decades later, he's still searching.

March 10, 2011|By Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times
  • Lynn Johnston keeps the ashes of his twin brother, Lyle, in a rosewood box. Johnston has conducted his own probe into the death.
Lynn Johnston keeps the ashes of his twin brother, Lyle, in a rosewood box.… (Kevin P. Casey / For the Los…)

They dressed alike, combed their hair the same way and had the same friends. They raided a neighbor's henhouse and swiped eggs together. They even had crushes on the same girl.

The two 8-year-olds were playing near the corner of Crenshaw Boulevard and 236th Place on March 2, 1959, when Lynn Johnston tossed a bottle across the street and his brother Lyle ran to get it. Crossing back over Crenshaw, Lyle was hit by an Oldsmobile as Lynn watched in horror.

As he grew into adulthood, Johnston made a habit of explaining to people that his identical twin had been killed by a car, as if that would somehow explain who he was.

"Lyle's death was like ripping me physically in two," he said. "I've always told people that."

Johnston eventually married and became a father. In 1987, he made a pilgrimage with his daughter to Torrance to show her where Lyle was killed and where he was buried. He snapped a photo of his daughter standing at the corner of Crenshaw and 236th holding a bouquet of flowers, which they later placed on Lyle's grave.

He had always had questions about the accident and often wondered what had become of the Oldsmobile's driver.

Two and a half years ago, he decided to find out.

In his quest to learn all about the case and whether justice was done, Johnston awakened painful memories for himself and others. He would learn that the legal process cannot heal emotional wounds, and that the echoes of that sunny afternoon would live as long as he does.

::

The twins lived in Lomita and were visiting their Aunt Gloria that day.

"Our mother often went there. As always, she told my brother Lyle and me not to go onto the road, since Auntie's place sat on a residential street alongside a four-lane highway," Johnston wrote years later in a college essay.

"Our cousins were having a nap, and being eight years old we were big enough that we no longer needed them. So we wandered outside on the front lawn, where my brother pulled out a small treasure, a pretty-colored glass bottle, from his pocket.

"I grabbed it from him and then him from me.... I tossed the bottle to the other side of the highway, not expecting Lyle to cross the street to get it. But he did. As he started, I yelled at him what mom had told us. 'If you go across the street you'll be killed,' I said, hoping it would scare him into turning around."

On his way back across the street, Lyle stopped to tie his shoe, kneeling in the traffic lane closest to the shoulder of the road, Johnston wrote. A car approached from about two blocks away, a gray, two-door 1955 Oldsmobile.

"The driver would surely see him and would turn to the left, to the right, or stop," Johnston wrote in the essay. "The car had the whole road to itself. I watched frozen as the car bore down on Lyle, who wasn't moving.

"I watched the front bumper hit Lyle's head, throwing him into the air for what seemed like a half block."

With Lyle gone, Lynn was lost. He withdrew from the world and frequently hid in closets. He had emotional outbursts in school and fell behind in his class work.

A psychologist convinced his parents to move the family from Lomita back to Washington state, where the Johnstons had previously lived.

Lynn continued to have problems in school and was placed in a remedial class. He had to repeat the third grade.

"I had nightmares for years. I was always afraid to be left alone," said Johnston, now 60 and a telecommunications salesman living in Kingston, Wash., on Puget Sound northwest of Seattle. "I always had issues."

As an adult, Johnston returned to Southern California to visit the Redondo Beach cemetery where his brother was buried. He discovered that the grave was unmarked. His family had been too poor to afford a headstone, so he paid for one.

"We miss you much, Lyle, while you sleep in death," the inscription read. "Your twin brother, Lynn."

The visit stirred something within Johnston. He was seized by a desire to learn more about the accident. In 2009, he contacted the Torrance Police Department and obtained a partial copy of the original accident report.

He was stunned to read the investigator's conclusion: that although the death was accidental, the driver should be held "criminally responsible," for failing to yield to a pedestrian. No charges were ever filed, however.

Johnston knew his parents had reached a $10,000 settlement in a lawsuit they had filed against the driver, but this was the first hint that a crime might have been committed.

A month later, Johnston went to Torrance to search for more records and obtain a copy of the complete police report. At the same time, he had his brother's remains exhumed, cremated and placed in a Brazilian rosewood box that he could take back to Washington.

Reading over the full police report, Johnston learned that the driver had said Lyle ran in front of her car, and that she had swerved and honked her horn in an attempt to avoid him.

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