Killer tracked down by cold-case team admits to 1979 slaying

EVERETT — For three decades a killer hid his sins, evading justice.

On Friday in a Snohomish County courtroom, Gregory Johnson finally came clean.

The Seattle ex-con admitted that he fatally shot Susan Schwarz after breaking into her Alderwood Manor home on Oct. 22, 1979.

With the past catching up to him, Johnson, 58, faces a long stretch behind bars.

Because the slaying happened two years before the state Sentencing Reform Act, Johnson is expected to be sentenced to life in prison at a hearing scheduled for March. Superior Court Judge Larry McKeeman likely will make a minimum sentence recommendation. Ultimately it will be up to the state’s Indeterminate Sentencing Review Board to decide how long Johnson spends behind bars.

Under the plea agreement, Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Lisa Paul will recommend a nearly 25-year minimum prison term.

This is the first conviction in the cases featured in the county’s cold case playing cards. The decks, paid for under a grant from the Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians, were released in 2008 in hopes of generating new leads for unsolved homicides and missing persons cases dating back to the 1970s.

Schwarz is featured on the queen of hearts.

“This basically is the result of the hard work and dedication of our cold case team,” Sheriff John Lovick said Friday. “These are the kind of results we expected when we assigned people to investigate these types of cases.”

Lovick attended Friday’s hearing. The detectives who tracked down Johnson were there too, sitting behind the slain woman’s family.

“We all wanted justice for Susan and her family. Today, after 32 years, we finally got some of that justice,” cold case detective Jim Scharf said.

Johnson, seemingly at ease in shackles, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. His voice gave away no emotion as he admitted that he was responsible for the death of a young woman.

Schwarz, 24, was a high school friend of Johnson’s estranged wife. Prosecutors believe Johnson resented Schwarz and blamed her for his marital problems. Prosecutors say he broke into her home, tied her up and shot her. He staged the crime scene to look like a burglary.

Then 26, Johnson was a suspect early on in the investigation.

He was questioned at least twice. The first time he 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 in prison while he was serving time for a robbery. That’s when Johnson told detectives 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.

Still with no answers, detective Barry Fagan handed the case off to Scharf 13 years ago, “because it was one of those horrific crimes that he couldn’t forget,” Scharf said.

Johnson’s name and statements are part of a large case file that cold case detectives have been poring over the past couple of years.

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

About a month later detectives tracked down a woman who would provide the biggest break in the case. She admitted that she was with Johnson when he killed Schwarz.

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. The woman remains fearful of Johnson, Det. Patrick 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.

Cold case detectives arrested Johnson in April outside his Seattle apartment.

Johnson already has spent long stretches in prison. 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.

About a month after Johnson’s arrest, cold case detectives identified a suspect in two other unsolved cases — the 1995 slaying of Patti Berry and the disappearance and suspected homicide of Tracey Brazzel that same year. Investigators claim forensic evidence ties convicted sex offender Danny Giles to both cases. No charges have been filed against him. King County prosecutors last year filed a petition to hold Giles indefinitely as sexually violent predator. He remains behind bars at the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island.

“Cold case investigations take a lot of patience and teamwork,” Scharf said. “Here at the sheriff’s office we have dedicated the resources to accomplish that difficult task and it’s paying off.”

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

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