Police Say Fugitive Hunted for a Shooting on S.I. Was Heavily Armed

A woman who was arrested in Philadelphia on Monday on charges of shooting a co-founder of a Staten Island commune last year had apparently planned for the possibility of armed violence, the police said yesterday. The woman, Rebekah Johnson, had an AK-47 assault rifle and 1,000 rounds of ammunition in her apartment in North Philadelphia, the police said.

Ms. Johnson, 44, one of the nation’s most-wanted fugitives, was swarmed by law enforcement agents Monday morning outside an elevated train station in West Philadelphia, the police said. She was held without bail awaiting a hearing on June 28 on whether she will be extradited to Staten Island to face attempted-murder charges in the shooting of Jeff Gross, who helped found Ganas, New York City’s only commune — where Ms. Johnson lived for several years.

The authorities released a detailed account yesterday of how they said that Ms. Johnson, who eluded the police for more than a year, finally tripped herself up. She had taken the train to pick up a car she had recently bought and registered in her own name, they said.

”Instead, she picked up a bunch of regional fugitive-task-force investigators,” said Lenny DePaul, a regional commander of the United States Marshals Service in New York. Ms. Johnson was unarmed when she was arrested and did not resist, Mr. DePaul said.

Last year’s shooting focused unwelcome attention on Ganas, a community of about 100 people who live in several houses near the Staten Island ferry terminal and engage in formal daily dialogues and open relationships. On May 29, 2006, Mr. Gross was returning home from a movie when a woman confronted him and shot him in the chest and an arm. He is still recovering from his wounds and now lives in hiding.

Ms. Johnson, who had been forced out of Ganas in 1996 for what Mr. Gross said was disruptive behavior, mounted a one-woman crusade against the group for the next decade, accusing Mr. Gross of being a serial rapist and Ganas of being a Charles Manson-like cult, the police said. (A Web site that law enforcement officials say she ran is still online at http://ganas.100free.com.)

After the shooting, Ms. Johnson largely disappeared, though not entirely, the authorities said. After The Staten Island Advance ran an article weeks after the shooting under the headline ”Commune stalker: Who’s next?,” a person believed to be Ms. Johnson sent the newspaper a copy of the article with an arrow drawn on it pointing to a photo of Mr. Gross, next to the message ”Just him!”

In September, Ms. Johnson’s image was captured on a security camera at a Commerce Bank branch in Midtown Manhattan when she withdrew $2,000, the police said.

But then the trail went stone cold.

”She was very careful about avoiding creating any paper trail or bringing attention to herself,” said Paul J. Browne, the New York Police Department’s chief spokesman.

Though Ms. Johnson was featured five times on ”America’s Most Wanted,” none of hundreds of tips led to her, said Jon Leiberman, a correspondent for the program.

Then on June 9, Mr. Browne said, a New York City police detective with the New York/New Jersey Fugitive Task Force who had been searching databases found that Ms. Johnson had just registered a 1997 Plymouth Voyager to an address in the Philadelphia suburb of Cherry Hill, N.J.

The detective, Edward Colucci, drove to Cherry Hill. The address was a store where Ms. Johnson had rented a mailbox weeks before, Mr. Browne said.

The street address she gave the store was fake — a vacant lot in nearby Camden — but early Monday morning, the police visited the woman who had sold the Plymouth for $1,100 on Craigslist to an Evelyn Johnson, Mr. Browne said. Evelyn is Rebekah Johnson’s middle name.

The seller, whose name was not released, told investigators that she had not yet delivered the car to Ms. Johnson but planned to pick her up at the 56th Street stop of the Septa commuter train at 11 that morning to complete the sale.

As 11 a.m. approached, Mr. Browne said, Detective Colucci lay in wait outside the station, on Market Street, one of the city’s main thoroughfares. About a dozen Philadelphia, New York and federal law enforcement agents, some in plain clothes and some uniformed, were with him, the authorities said.

When Ms. Johnson descended the stairs and walked out to the street, they pounced on her, Mr. Browne said. She put up no struggle as they pushed her face down onto the sidewalk and cuffed her hands behind her back, he said.

On Monday night, the authorities said, Philadelphia police officers went to Ms. Johnson’s home on Fairmount Avenue in North Philadelphia — a small apartment in a red brick house on a seedy block lined with vacant lots and empty buildings.

Inside, they found an AK-47, a thousand rounds of ammunition and two ammunition clips that held up to 30 rounds each, Mr. Browne said.

Ms. Johnson made little impression on her neighbors. Mike Quigley, 31, a demolition contractor who has been working next door, said that she kept to herself, a silent figure pedaling by on her bicycle. Dave King, 27, a builder renovating the house where Ms. Johnson lives, described her as ”like a hippie type.”

Mr. Gross, who said he is living within commuting distance of New York City, said yesterday by telephone, ”It’s a happy day.” As for Ms. Johnson, he said, ”I hope she’ll receive the help she needs.”

Jon Hurdle contributed reporting from Philadelphia and Maureen Seaberg from Staten Island.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Andy Newman and Cara Buckley, New York Times, June 20, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/

Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday June 20, 2007.
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