Caught In The Act

This was Shomrim volunteer Niner’s view from Seven Mile Lane, as he observed career criminal Joseph Rico Johnson comb through homes between Marnat and Shelburne roads.
(David Stuck)

Shomrim of Baltimore prides itself on creating a safer community. Thanks to the effort of one persistent, committed Shomrim volunteer, a career criminal can no longer prey on our neighborhoods. Instead, as of late last month, he sits behind bars and will remain locked up for up to 20 years.

A little more than a year ago, a longtime Shomrim volunteer, who the JT will identify as Unit 9 or Niner for security reasons, was traveling along Seven Mile Lane when his car nearly struck a man, later identified as Joseph Rico Johnson, in the middle of the road.

Niner, Orthodox and in his 30s, was immediately perplexed by Johnson when he walked away looking either lost or intoxicated, aimlessly wandering from house to house.

“It wasn’t normal behavior for a person going somewhere, doing something,” Niner recalled.

Niner deftly continued to shadow Johnson — making sure to keep his distance. He watched as Johnson ambled east on Marnat Road, attempting to pry open windows, jimmy doors and scour backyards.

By the time Johnson had reached his second house, Niner had already alerted Shomrim’s dispatch and was on the phone with Baltimore County Police. And once Johnson was out of his sight from Seven Mile, Niner turned his car onto Shelburne Road, which runs parallel to Marnat, and continued to observe.

With police en route, Niner tracked Johnson’s every action and communicated what he saw to the 911 dispatcher on the other end of the line. Squad cars arrived in a matter of five to 10 minutes and apprehended Johnson at the corner of Marnat and Labyrinth roads.

Police caught Johnson, 49, red-handed. Not only did he have stolen items on him at the time, further investigation uncovered the stash house where he stockpiled his loot.

“I would say that [Niner’s] behavior in this incident was part and parcel of the organization’s mission statement to be, in essence, the eyes and ears for law enforcement [and] to recognize when something looks suspicious [yet] keep distance, remain safe and relay information to police and allow them to do their job,” said Nathan Willner, Shomrim’s general counsel.

However, Niner’s mission of upholding social justice did not end there.

Johnson, whose rap sheet lists 12 arrests dating to 1988 and who has been sentenced to probation on three occasions, had become adept at finding loopholes in the system and escaping punishment.

In order to build their case against Johnson, prosecutors would need cooperation from Niner.

He didn’t hesitate to oblige — even after attempts of dissuasion from those close to him who feared for his safety.

“All my friends were saying, ‘Don’t do it, he’s going to come after you,’” recalled Niner, who is married with five children. “But if you keep being afraid, nothing is ever going to get done.”

In the following months, Niner made numerous trips to court to provide his eye-witness testimony to solidify the case. He even endured a surreal experience when Johnson — who opted to represent himself during his trial — cross-examined Niner, aiming to poke holes in his account.

Niner, who persisted through numerous cancellations and postponements, explained why he was so committed to bringing Johnson to justice.

“I was extremely happy that police in the county did their job, and because they did their job, I wanted to follow up. I didn’t want [their work] to go to waste,” Niner told the JT. “I saw how organized and motivated the prosecutor was, and because they were motivated, that kept me motivated.”

Because of Johnson’s checkered history, instead of serving about 90 days, which Niner was told would have been the likely sentence had it been his first arrest, Johnson was sentenced to 20 years with 364 days suspended.

The end result, Willner said, required essential collaboration between county police, the state’s attorney and Niner.

“Someone who lurked through our community is no longer able to commit further crime,” Willner said. “There are three legs to the stool: law enforcement, the attorney’s office and the witness, and you need all three elements to build the case properly. Without [Niner’s] efforts, the case would not have proceeded [as it did].”

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