Johnston Gang kingpin Bruce Johnston Sr. Courtesy of Bruce E. Mowday
A Devon native resurrects the Johnston Gang’s ‘70s reign of terror in Chester County in a new podcast.
The Johnston Gang had one golden rule: No snitching. Led by Bruce Johnston Sr., along with his brothers David and Norman, the clan—often referred to as a rural mafia—terrorized Chester County throughout the 1970s. What started as petty thievery grew into grand theft auto, breaking into homes, stealing farm equipment and selling it for profit, and murder.
With nefarious activity like this, it’s no wonder the group was on law enforcement’s radar for years. Things came to a head when Bruce Sr.’s 19-year-old son got word that his father and another gang member had raped his 15-year-old girlfriend. He agreed to cooperate with law enforcement, barely escaping an assassination attempt that killed his girlfriend.
David and Norman stood trial for murder in 1979, and Bruce Sr. followed a year later. At Bruce Sr.’s trial, a 14-year-old girl from Devon sat in the back of the West Chester courtroom. Amanda Lamb was the daughter of Chester County district attorney William H. Lamb. An Episcopal Academy graduate, she now has a successful career as a TV newscaster in North Carolina and is sharing the chilling story of the Johnston Gang on a new podcast, The Killing Month August 1978. “A lot of people don’t know about this because it happened 45 years ago,” says Lamb. “That’s why I really wanted to do the story again.”
Through eight episodes, Lamb details the Johnston Gang’s horrific crime spree, interviewing those directly involved in the case, including her father. The podcast is available via Apple and Spotify. More details of the case can also be found in Jailing the Johnston Gang: Bringing Serial Murderers to Justice, a 2010 book by East Goshen’s Bruce E. Mowday, who reported on the events in real time for West Chester’s Daily Local News. He covered both trials, attending almost all the hearings. In later years, he studied the case at the Chester County History Center in West Chester. “Almost every day for three years, I wrote about the Johnstons as the murders, the investigation and the trials took place,” says Mowday, who’s written three books on the topic.
For quite some time, Bruce Johnston Sr. and his brothers seemed invincible. That all changed when, enraged by his son’s betrayal, the gang boss arranged an attack on Bruce Jr. and his girlfriend. Two gang members approached their yellow Volkswagen, shooting Bruce Jr. at least eight times and his girlfriend once with a fatal bullet.
For quite some time, Bruce Johnston Sr. and his brothers seemed invincible. When one was arrested, he was never in custody for long, thanks to attorneys and legal technicalities. Any potential witnesses would find explosive devices on the seats of their cars or tucked into their mailboxes. That made it even more difficult to convict the crew of anything.
That all changed when, enraged by his son’s betrayal, the gang boss arranged an attack. On Aug. 30, 1978, Bruce Jr. and his girlfriend pulled into the driveway of the Miller family home in Oxford. Two gang members approached their yellow Volkswagen, shooting Bruce Jr. at least eight times and his girlfriend once with a fatal bullet that clipped her carotid artery.
Miller managed to escape the vehicle and make a run for the house. Inside, her boyfriend cradled her in his arms as she took her final breath. Now, with a murder on their hands, law enforcement could finally convict the leaders of the Johnston Gang. The rural mafia’s reign had come to an end at last.
The story was also the subject of the darkly powerful 1986 film, At Close Range, starring Sean Penn and Christopher Walken. Both the movie and Mowday’s book were helpful resources for Lamb. “A lot of the people I interviewed for the podcast don’t like the movie because they think it softens the characters and makes them more humane than they were,” she notes. “Bruce’s book is more of a straight retelling of the story. The podcast is somewhere in between. While it’s all factual, we’re hopefully doing it in a creative way.”
Through their work on the 1978 investigation, law enforcement began to uncover a series of earlier murders carried out by the Johnston Gang. “That’s the crazy thing about this story,” Lamb says. “Two of the brothers were convicted of killing four people, and the other brother was convicted of killing six. But there was talk that it could be more. We’ll never know.”
Lamb had no problem finding content. “Ironically, a lot of people agreed to talk,” she says.
“That’s the crazy thing about this story. Two of the brothers were convicted of killing four people, and the other brother was convicted of killing six. But there was talk that it could be more. We’ll never know.”
—Podcast creator Amanda Lamb
When her dad downsized to a condo in Haverford, he gifted boxes of notes from the trial to his daughter. He had hundreds of articles from the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily Local News, New York Times and other publications. The podcast allowed the veteran attorney to relive the case that shaped his professional career. “There were a lot of details about the case that I didn’t remember,” says the elder Lamb, who went on to cofound West Chester’s Lamb McErlane PC. “It was interesting to hear the story retold in such a way that many of the details jogged my memory again. Being a young district attorney when I tried this case, it not only put me in the public spotlight but it challenged me in ways that very few other cases have ever challenged me throughout my entire career.”
For his daughter, the time spent with her father throughout the process was priceless. “The best part was getting this opportunity to work on this with my dad and understand what he did for a living,” she says. “This case really defined him for the rest of his career.”