Georgia woman recaptured, imprisoned after 37 years a fugitive

Eight days after being released from Lee Arrendale State Prison in Alto, Ga., Eunice Ann Johnson, 60, sits in her living room in Louisville, Ky., crying, as she recalls the conditions during her 16-month stay. (Nina N. Greipel / For the AJC)

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Eight days after being released from Lee Arrendale State Prison in Alto, Ga., Eunice Ann Johnson, 60, sits in her living room in Louisville, Ky., crying, as she recalls the conditions during her 16-month stay. (Nina N. Greipel / For the AJC)

She was serving time in 1980 for $213 in bad checks

Eunice Johnson was watering the flowers in her garden when the two U.S. marshals walked up.

At that moment, on an otherwise lovely late-summer morning, she knew she was once again Eunice Brown, convicted forger and fugitive from justice. She knew, too, that nearly 37 years after her escape from prison, she was headed back to Georgia to finish out her time.

Her story dates back decades, but it came to a close this month when she was released from prison, having served 100 days more than she was required.

» This man was at large for 48 years

Johnson was convicted in 1978 of forging four checks totaling $212.92 and sentenced to four years. She had known the day might come when she was found out — she waited for that day for the better part of four decades — but she hoped she could just live quietly on in Louisville.

She had not been hiding.

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Johnson with her husband, Andrew, at home in Louisville. She said she thanks God every day that she’s come home. (Nina N. Greipel / For the AJC)

Johnson with her husband, Andrew, at home in Louisville. She said she thanks God every day that she’s come home. (Nina N. Greipel / For the AJC)

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Johnson with her husband, Andrew, at home in Louisville. She said she thanks God every day that she’s come home. (Nina N. Greipel / For the AJC)

Johnson voted regularly. She uses the same Social Security number she was issued as a teenager. She changed her last name only when she married Andrew Johnson in 1984.

“I continued with my life,” she said.

At least until Sept. 1, 2015, when the two marshals showed up at her front door. She had been to court that morning for a hearing on whether she and her husband could have full custody of their young grandson. They succeeded.

Johnson now thinks her name on the court docket is what alerted the authorities.

The Georgia Department of Corrections said in a statement its fugitive unit “had been investigating her case for a number of years, and through leads in that investigation were able to locate her at a private residence in Louisville, Ky on 9/1/15.”

“I’ve been through a lot. I’m still going through a whole lot. I don’t think I’m ever going to get over it,” Johnson said between sips of coffee at her dining room table in her Louisville home.

Johnson, known as Brown in prison, was told she would not be freed this time until Sept. 21, 2018.

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The 2015 mugshot for Eunice Ann Johnson. (Georgia Department of Corrections)

The 2015 mugshot for Eunice Ann Johnson. (Georgia Department of Corrections)

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The 2015 mugshot for Eunice Ann Johnson. (Georgia Department of Corrections)

‘The system failed her again in 2016’

The thought of so much time in prison was devastating. She wrote letters to any organization she thought could help and begged her prison counselor to do something.

Then, this month, as she lined up to collect her daily medications, an officer shouted at her, “‘Brown, pack your bags.’

“I ran through the halls screaming, ‘Thank you, Jesus!’ And I didn’t pack anything.”

Johnson, it turns out, spent more than three months longer in prison than she should have. Her attorney from the Southern Center for Human Rights, Sarah Geraghty, raised questions with the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, which in turn notified the prison system that it needed to review Johnson’s circumstances.

Johnson was released within 24 hours after DOC realized the mistake, and the department said it has made changes to ensure what happened to Johnson doesn’t happen again.

“Eunice Brown more than repaid her debt to society back in 1979,” said her attorney Sarah Geraghty of the Southern Center for Human Rights. ” It is most unfortunate that the system failed her again in 2016. We appreciate that the Department of Corrections acted quickly when alerted to the error.”

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Eunice Johnson with her husband, Andrew, outside their home in Louisville. (Nina N. Greipel / For the AJC)

Eunice Johnson with her husband, Andrew, outside their home in Louisville. (Nina N. Greipel / For the AJC)

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Eunice Johnson with her husband, Andrew, outside their home in Louisville. (Nina N. Greipel / For the AJC)

‘I was afraid he’d leave me’ 

Now home in Kentucky, the 60-year-old great-grandmother is slowly telling her family and friends from church about her past. On Sunday, Johnson will “testify” before the entire congregation.

Until she got out of prison on Jan. 12, Johnson had told no one about her past. “I didn’t want them to think about me like that,” she said.

Not even her husband knew the details.

“I was afraid to tell him. I was afraid he’d leave me,” Johnson said. “I have grown kids I haven’t told yet.”

All Andrew Johnson knew when his wife was arrested in their front yard in 2015 was that “I did something bad 36 years ago.” She told him she would explain later.

As Johnson began talking recently in the front room of her house, husband carefully placed a mug of coffee in front of her. He sat nearby, rubbing her back as his wife tearfully detailed the first 14 months in prison and then the 16½ after she was captured. She cried often, using a white kitchen towel to dab away the tears.

During a recent interview with the AJC at their Louisville home, Andrew Johnson was hearing things about his wife that he’d never heard before. But he seemed unfazed.

“That’s my best friend,” he said.

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The money Eunice Johnson was supposed to get for her return trip from the jail, for bus fare etc., was mailed to her home in Louisville. (Nina N. Greipel / For the AJC)

The money Eunice Johnson was supposed to get for her return trip from the jail, for bus fare etc., was mailed to her home in Louisville. (Nina N. Greipel / For the AJC)

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The money Eunice Johnson was supposed to get for her return trip from the jail, for bus fare etc., was mailed to her home in Louisville. (Nina N. Greipel / For the AJC)

Prison sentences in two states 

Johnson was 19 and living in South Carolina, just across the Savannah River from Augusta, when her brother-in-law proposed a way they could make “quick money.”

They cashed forged checks in Georgia.

But when they wrote one in South Carolina, Johnson was caught.

She served 18 months of a three-year sentence in South Carolina and then was sent to Georgia.

In Richmond County, Johnson pleaded guilty and offered to repay the $212.92.

”I didn’t want to do no time,” Johnson said.

But she was sentenced to serve four years and sent to the Georgia Women’s Correctional Institution at Hardwick, in Middle Georgia.

“When I first got there it was very traumatizing because I could hear screams and hollering at night,” Johnson said. “They (correctional officers) was rough on me. Made me take a toothbrush and scrub the floor. They yelled and screamed and kicked at me.”

She also said she was sexually assaulted and sometimes taken to a nearby motel where she was forced to “sell my body.”

Though that allegation cannot be verified, in the early 1990s almost 200 inmates said in a federal lawsuit that officers at GWCI had been sexually abusing them for years. Fifteen men and women at GWCI and two other women’s prisons were indicted on felony charges. Two guards pleaded guilty and were sentenced to probation, another officer went to trial and was acquitted. But the remaining cases were dropped because either the statute of limitations had run or the prosecutor didn’t think a jury would believe the inmates.

Many nights in their cell at the Hardwick prison, Johnson in the bottom bunk and her cellmate in the top bunk talked about “running” because they were afraid of the officers.

“Finally I come to a conclusion,” she said.

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Picture of Eunice Johnson’s kids, taken at her home in Louisville. (Nina N. Greipel / For the AJC)

Picture of Eunice Johnson’s kids, taken at her home in Louisville. (Nina N. Greipel / For the AJC)

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Picture of Eunice Johnson’s kids, taken at her home in Louisville. (Nina N. Greipel / For the AJC)

An open door, a prison break

After a routine head count on the evening of April 19, 1980, Johnson and her bunk-mate spotted a door open to the outside.

“We walked straight out and started running,” she recalled.

Through the woods and at the top of a hill, a man driving a pickup stopped and offered them a ride. Johnson asked him to take her “as close to Aiken, S.C., as he could.”

The man drove her all the way and left her at a roadside phone booth. In a call to her sister, Johnson said she was out of prison and needed a ride. She did not explain that she had escaped.

A few days later, Johnson took a bus to Philadelphia to live with the family of her children’s father until she had enough money to get a home. She supported herself and her son and daughter by packing onions, waitressing and killing hogs at a slaughterhouse.

Johnson and her husband met in 1984 at a Philadelphia bar. They married the next year. Moved to South Carolina in 1991 and then to Kentucky in 1995, because relatives said they could make a good living laying brick.

It was hard work, but during a recent drive through Louisville neighborhoods, she was proud as she pointed out the homes she helped brick.

‘We finally caught up with you’

Andrew Johnson answered a knock on the door. Two U.S. marshals were looking for his wife but wouldn’t say why.

She wasn’t home and as they turned to leave he heard one of them say, “Let’s go get some hard criminals.’”

Eunice had just come through the front gate and had stopped to water her flowers when she saw the two men walking away from her front door.

They asked if she was Eunice Brown.

Yes, she answered.

“‘You’re under arrest. We finally caught up with you,’” Johnson recalled them saying

All the marshals would tell her husband, a teacher’s assistant at their grandson’s school, was that his wife was going to prison.

He told his grandson then that “Mama” was in the hospital.

Twenty-one days later, Georgia correctional officers showed up at a Louisville jail and placed Johnson in waist-chains and leg irons. Then they took her to South Georgia — via St. Louis, where they picked up several male inmates.

“I didn’t do nothing that bad,” Johnson said when she thought about the shackles.

‘I just want to get my life back’

Andrew learned his wife was gone only when he showed up for a visit at the jail in Lousiville later that day.

She arrived at a Georgia women’s prison in the early morning hours the next day.

Then, 479 days later, on Jan. 12, after Georgia taxpayers had spent almost $33,000 to feed and clothe her, Johnson walked out of the Lee Arrendale State Prison.

She was free.

Wearing prison-issued clothes — pants, a shirt and a jacket — but with no money, Johnson boarded a bus for Kentucky.

Johnson arrived in Louisville around 9 a.m. on Jan. 13, a Friday, and used $2 she begged from a woman at a stop in Nashville to pay bus fare for the rest of the way home.

“I’m so ashamed of myself,” Johnson said.

For dinner her first day home, the Johnsons had pepperoni pizza and then read to her 7-year-old grandson and tucked him in. The next morning, she walked the boy to school.

Johnson finds joy sorting the mail. She spends a lot of time sitting in a recliner, meditating and praying. Johnson says she likes watching cars driving past her house; they could only hear cars from inside the prison.

She has trouble sleeping. Now it’s too quiet. She’s still nervous about going outside. Johnson said she often finds herself “waiting for somebody to call my name. ‘Brown this and Brown that.’”

“I’m still trying to accept I’m home,” Johnson said. “I don’t feel like that person who committed that crime. I just want to get my life back together and move on.”