Robert Johnson knew a price had been placed on his head, but he always assumed they’d come after him within the prison walls he knew so well.
A shank to the back. A lock in a sock swung upside his head. Something quick, homemade and lethal.
So Johnson was caught off guard one morning in March 2010 when an intruder broke in the door of his Sumter home as he was getting dressed for his job at Lee Correctional Institution.
Seconds later, Johnson lay on the floor with blood pumping from six gunshot wounds to his chest and belly.
Johnson, 59, still considers it a miracle he survived that day.
Now retired, he’s made it his mission to change the laws and practices that allow cellphone calls to be made from within prisons.
That’s how a vengeful inmate ordered the attempt on his life, with the aid of a contraband phone that had been smuggled behind bars, authorities said.
Johnson has pushed to change federal law to allow prison officials to jam cell signals within their walls. Now, he’s taking the battle to the cellphone companies as well with a recent lawsuit seeking to hold 20 providers liable for the attempt to kill him.
He maintains that cellphone companies turn a blind eye to the threat posed by phones in prison because they profit off the sale and use of those phones. More than 3,000 contraband phones were seized from South Carolina prisons last year alone, but replacements are smuggled at a steady clip to inmates eager for an unfettered connection to the outside world, prison officials said.
“They have the technology and the know-how to block the signals, but it’s all about the money with them,” Johnson said. “It’s a massive amount of revenue from the across the United States that they’re getting.”
The Post and Courier contacted the cellphone companies named in Johnson’s lawsuit, and all declined to comment on his statements, saying they have policies against discussing pending litigation.
But Mike Altschul, general counsel for Washington, D.C.-based CTIA-The Wireless Association, said Johnson’s lawsuits lack merit and are akin to “a bank suing a road-builder because bank robbers use roads to escape.”
Altschul said the industry does not condone contraband phones in prison but objects to jamming signals because that could interfere with legitimate service and emergency communications. “Frankly, it is irresponsible to suggest there is a profit motive here,” he said.
Johnson doesn’t see it that way, and he intends to keep pressing his case and telling his disturbing story to anyone who will listen.
A smuggler’s nemesis
Johnson entered the corrections business after retiring from a 20-year career in the Air Force, where he was a military policeman.
Johnson found he had an aptitude for prison work and a keen eye for ferreting out contraband — smuggled phones, homemade shanks, drugs, cash — that made its way into Lee, a maximum-security facility in rural Bishopville. He found a horde of phones stashed in the spare tire of a visiting vehicle and uncovered secreted drug-hiding holes in cell walls that had been disguised with a mixture of toothpaste and sand.
During 15 years at Lee, he rose to the rank of captain and oversaw a crack team of officers tasked with finding contraband. Along with the usual items, they uncovered a lucrative scheme in which inmates, working with an outside accomplice, used stolen credit card numbers to pay for smuggled goods and buy presents — including a new Cadillac — for family and friends, Johnson said.
Prison officials said Johnson’s work angered some inmates and interfered with their black market dealings. They began to take his work personally.
One day in 2009, Lee’s warden told Johnson he’d received word that an unidentified inmate had put out a contract on his life, offering $5,000 to see Johnson killed.
The news worried Johnson’s wife of 36 years, Mary, who urged him to quit his job.
Johnson decided to stay, but he took the threat to heart and took precautions. He avoided going onto the prison yard alone and devised a system for alerting his wife to run for help if they encountered an unexpected threat.
But he never imagined he was at risk in his own home.
On the night of March 4, 2010, a man knocked on Johnson’s door shortly after 9 p.m. and said his car needed a jump-start. Johnson didn’t feel comfortable opening the door to a stranger at that hour. His wife peered out a window and saw a tall man in jeans and a sweatshirt lope off into the darkness.
The incident was all but forgotten when Johnson rose the next morning. But as he prepared for work, a loud boom sounded from the front of his house, followed by someone shouting,”Police!”
Johnson moved toward the source of the commotion and saw a man he recognized as a former inmate. What’s more, the intruder held a gun.
Johnson doesn’t remember the flash from the barrel, the sound of gunfire or the acrid smell of gun smoke that curled through the house. His world simply went black.
His wife, who dashed from the house when the commotion began, returned for her husband when she saw the gunman run from the house. She recognized the intruder as the same man who knocked on their door the night before.
Mary Johnson grabbed a towel and pressed it to her husband’s torso to try to stop the bleeding as he began quoting Scripture and vowing not to die.
Over the course of several hours, Johnson was airlifted to a Columbia hospital, where surgeons struggled to keep him alive. The bullets had sliced his liver, shredded his abdomen, broken his ribs and caused other damage. Doctors pumped 63 units of blood into his body to keep him from bleeding to death.
At one point, a chaplain told Mary Johnson her husband wasn’t going to make it. They escorted her into the operating room, where every surface and person seemed to be splashed with his blood. She went to his side, kissed him and prayed, unwilling to say goodbye.
She told the chaplain, “God can do miracles.”
“Remember that He told Daniel ‘no’,” the chaplain replied.
“Yes,” she said firmly. “I know He did. But He also says ‘yes’ sometimes.”
Long road back
Robert Johnson hung on against long odds and survived his wounds. But the road back wasn’t easy. He endured some 15 surgeries and spent four months in hospitals receiving care and therapy. Three years out, he still has trouble breathing at times and walks with a pronounced limp and the aid of a cane. He has a burning sensation in one foot that won’t go away. And his stomach muscles are all but gone, replaced by a pigskin mesh that protects his intestines.
He couldn’t return to the job he loved, but he hasn’t been forgotten by his former co-workers. “He’s considered a hero,” corrections spokesman Clark Newsom said.
The men involved in the attempt on his life — the shooter, the getaway driver and two inmates who orchestrated the hit — haven’t been charged for their actions, but federal officials have indicated that indictments are imminent, Johnson said. All are currently locked up for unrelated crimes, he said.
Representatives from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the State Law Enforcement Division would not discuss the investigation or possible charges last week.
As he waits for justice, Johnson has thrown his energies into the quest to shut down cellphones in prisons, though results have so far been elusive. South Carolina’s request for federal permission to jam cellular signals at state prisons has stalled for years before the Federal Communications Commission, despite support from 30 other states.
Johnson said he won’t give up, even though he knows he risks retaliation from inmates who would prefer to see him dead. Shortly after he was shot, his wife returned home to find a message from an inmate on her answering machine. The inmate threatened to finish off Johnson if he tried to return to work and kill his family as well.
Though frail, Johnson is far from helpless. A crack shot, he carries a gun at all times and has weapons strategically placed throughout his house, which now has reinforced doors. All this is worth it, he said, if he can make a difference and shut down the prisoners’ illegal phone system.
“At the end of the day, you have to stand up for something,” he said. “When something is placed on you, you can either roll over or do something about it. And I don’t want anyone else to go through what I’ve been through.”