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Delayed revenge in a South Dakota town

An elderly man confesses to murdering a popular schoolmate more than five decades after a locker room prank. The story of obsession — or mental illness — rattles a 'Norman Rockwell town.'

August 14, 2012|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
  • Carl V. Ericsson, 73, is escorted into court after a 72-year-old former schoolmate was shot to death on his doorstep in Madison, S.D.
Carl V. Ericsson, 73, is escorted into court after a 72-year-old former… (Elisha Page, Argus Leader )

Reporting from Madison, S.D. — The man standing at Norman Johnson's door that cold January evening was a stranger who might have seemed vaguely familiar.

Johnson, a retired high school instructor who taught English and coached tennis and football for 35 years in this unassuming town, probably didn't even have his door locked when he came to greet the bearded, gray-haired visitor. The man bluntly asked him, "Are you Norm Johnson?"

When the 72-year-old Johnson didn't answer quickly enough, the man asked again. When Johnson finally said yes, the intruder shot him twice in the face, leaving him to die on the doorstep of his tidy brown-clapboard home.

In Madison, where many of the 6,500 residents have known each other since childhood, people don't die this way, especially well-respected people like Norm Johnson. Most police officers who swarmed the scene had once sat in the classroom of the strict but fair instructor they still politely called "Mr. Johnson."

Following a tip, police the next day arrested 73-year-old Carl V. Ericsson, who for years had been treated for anxiety and depression. Charged with first-degree murder, Ericsson told investigators a story of obsession that would rattle this Midwestern farm town, where the last murder conviction came in 1917 and the lone police detective badgered locals not to leave the keys in their trucks when they ran about town doing errands.

Ericsson told them he had come to avenge a long-ago locker room prank: In high school, someone put an athletic supporter over his head for laughs. Nobody's really sure whether Johnson was the culprit or whether he'd just laughed the loudest or even if it happened at all.

Back then, Ericsson and Johnson were a study in contrasts. Johnson was the star running back, a handsome boy who started every game and dated a cheerleader. He married her the year of his graduation, in 1958.

One grade ahead, Ericsson was the squad's student manager — a job relegated to nonathletes who assisted coaches and ran errands. He was a teen who existed mainly on the sidelines.

"Norm was a small spark plug of a kid, but real athletic. He wasn't cocky, but he was popular. He let his exploits on the playing field provide his leadership," said Buzz Rumrill, a former team lineman who knew both boys. "It's just hard to remember Carl. He wasn't popular, but he wasn't shunned either. I think he really wanted to be an athlete, but he wasn't. He was the team manager. He was a gofer."

For more than 50 years after high school, Johnson and Ericsson led separate lives — apparently never speaking — until just after 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 31.

That night, the high school basketball team was playing a home game, leaving the streets virtually empty. What happened on that doorstep remains vague, pieced together by statements Ericsson made to police.

What is known is that a man with no criminal record parked his brown Ford Taurus outside Johnson's house and walked to the door with a Glock handgun, carrying 54 rounds of ammunition in three full magazines.

Now two families are left to cope with the aftermath. Ericsson's brother Dick, a popular lawyer and town councilman, lives with knowing his emotionally fraught older brother confessed to shooting a longtime neighbor and colleague. Dick Ericsson had served on the local hospital board with Johnson.

For Johnson's widow and two grown daughters, Ericsson's stated motive only added to their heartbreak. The National Enquirer published a story on the killing, emphasizing the alleged jock strap incident, and the slaying was highlighted on a nationally televised talk show segment on bullying.

But many here wondered: Did the taunting really happen, or was it the creation of a troubled mind? And if the humiliation took place, did Ericsson dwell upon it for decades or did it suddenly pop into his head during a depression-induced flashback?

"People are putting so much credence into the words of a mentally ill man — and so my father has become a bully in the eyes of the nation," said Beth Ribstein, Johnson's youngest daughter. "It's hurtful; it angers me. And conveniently, Dad isn't here to defend himself."

With Johnson's death, people here say society's mayhem has finally invaded their town, a place so quaint that they only needed to give the last four digits of their phone numbers until a second calling prefix was introduced recently.

"This really is a Norman Rockwell town. You half expect to see kids walking down the street with fishing poles on their shoulders," said Jon M. Hunter, publisher of the hometown Madison Daily Leader, who had Johnson as an English teacher and tennis coach.

*

In an agreement with prosecutors, Ericsson pleaded guilty to second-degree murder under circumstances of mental illness, which would send him to prison for life.

But first he had to face the family of his victim.

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