Arrest in 1979 death provides relief for victim’s brother

EVERETT — Gary Schwarz knows that the hunt for justice is far from over even now that a suspect is behind bars.

There is some relief, however, that after all these years police may have caught up with the person responsible for killing his sister.

“I’m very thankful to the Snohomish C

ounty sheriffs for not giving up, but we’re not done yet,” Schwarz said Monday. “It’s like the show, ‘Law and Order.’ We’ve only seen the first 30 minutes. There’s still the last half-hour to go.”

For more than three decades Schwarz didn’t give up hope that police would make an arrest. He just didn’t allow himself to imagine it happening — in case it never did.

Then there was a knock on his door early Saturday morning.

Snohomish County sheriff’s cold case detectives Pat VanderWeyst and Joe Dunn were there with news that they’d made an arrest in the 1979 killing.

“You could see the relief on his face,” VanderWeyst said. “He kept asking us if it was real. I think there was some disbelief.”

Gregory D. Johnson, 57, was booked into the Snohomish County Jail for investigation of first-degree murder.

He was no stranger to Susan Schwarz.

She and his estranged wife had been friends since high school. Schwarz didn’t like Johnson, whose wife claimed he had abused her, so she’d left him. The woman later returned to the state and had been spending a lot of time with Schwarz about three weeks before the killing.

Johnson called Schwarz, asking about his wife’s whereabouts.

Gary Schwarz met Johnson once. He wasn’t surprised to learn that he’d been arrested in connection with his sister’s death. He had always been on the radar, Schwarz said.

“I’m hoping he didn’t hurt anyone else,” he said.

Detectives believe Johnson broke into Susan Schwarz’s house on Oct. 22, 1979, while she was taking a shower. He is accused of attacking her, tying her up and shooting her. Investigators suspect that he took items from her home to make it look like a burglary. Witnesses told detectives that Johnson was resentful of Schwarz, 24. He blamed her for his wife taking their young son and leaving the state.

Johnson has denied killing Schwarz.

A judge on Monday found probable cause to hold the Seattle man on $5 million bail. Prosecutors told the judge that Johnson could face an aggravated murder charge because the killing may have happened in the course of a burglary. A murder conviction also could be Johnson’s third “strike” under the state’s persistent offender law.

Johnson has spent long stretches in prison for armed robbery and drug possession, according to the state Department of Corrections. He was locked up from 1985 to 2000 for robbery. A few months after he was released he was sent back to prison for six years for drugs. He was on community supervision for that conviction until December 2009.

Police say Johnson was a suspect early on in the investigation. His name and statements are part of the large file that cold case detectives have been scrutinizing over the past couple of years.

Johnson was questioned at least twice. The first time, about a week after the killing, he allegedly told investigators that he’d been fishing with his brother in Edmonds the day of the shooting. Police weren’t able to confirm that alibi. Then in 1986 detectives questioned him again while he was serving time in prison for a robbery.

His brother was a suspect in a Seattle murder which had similarities to the 1979 killing, according to court documents. That’s when Johnson allegedly admitted that he had dropped his brother and two other men outside a house to pull off a burglary on the day Schwarz was killed. He implicated his brother in Schwarz’s death. He allegedly told detectives he didn’t know Schwarz was the woman who had been killed until he heard about the case on the news.

His brother is serving a life sentence, without the chance of release, for a homicide in King County.

Police worked Schwarz’s case over the years. They featured her killing in the county’s first deck of cold case playing cards in hopes of soliciting new leads.

Detectives said they received a tip in March from an inmate who’d seen Schwarz’s cold case card. That helped them focus in on Johnson.

The big break came last week.

That’s when the detectives spoke with a woman who admitted that she was with Johnson when he killed Schwarz, according to a police affidavit filed Monday.

The woman, who is identified in court papers only by her initials, is not being treated as a suspect. She told detectives she’d been physically abused by Johnson and threatened with death if she ever left him. Even today, more than three decades later, the woman is fearful of Johnson and what he could do if he found out that she went to police, VanderWeyst wrote in court papers.

The woman, who was 18 when Schwarz died, has gone on to live a crime-free life, the detective added.

Reluctantly she described to detectives events leading up to the killing. Johnson had told her they were going to the house of a person who owed him money. They went inside and Johnson told her to grab some money and marijuana from the bedroom. He later told her to return to the car. She said she saw Johnson standing by the bathroom door with a cord in his hand. She returned to the car but she was worried he was going to rape the woman so she went back inside, VanderWeyst wrote.

She saw him grab the woman out of the shower and pistol whip her. He got the woman to the ground and tied her hands behind her back, court papers said. The woman begged for her life.

The witness said Johnson shot the woman in the head. That’s when he noticed her standing there. He fired a second shot and then asked the teen to check to see if the woman had a pulse. She said Johnson ordered her back to the car so he could clean up.

She told detectives that Johnson said the woman he killed was his wife’s friend and was responsible for his marital problems.

The woman detailed how Johnson got rid of evidence, VanderWeyst wrote.

Gary Schwarz said one day he’d like to thank the woman for finally stepping forward. It means so much to him, and his father, 82.

After all these years, there are some answers.

“A lot of people don’t get that,” Gary Schwarz said.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.

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