By Jim Smith
BOSTON — Richard Johnson, the electrical engineer convicted in 1990 of manufacturing and exporting devices designed to blow up British Army helicopters in Northern Ireland, is looking forward to his freedom in October.
In an interview with the Echo last week at the downtown Boston law office where he works as an office clerk while he finishes up a six-month stay in a federal halfway house, the 51-year-old Connecticut native talked about his early interest in Northern Ireland, his bitter experiences within the U.S. justice system, and his plans for the future.
The oldest of three children, Johnson earned a B.S. degree in electrical engineering from Catholic University in Washington, D.C. in 1970, and a master’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley two years later.
In 1972 he began working for defense contractors in California, including Hughes Aircraft, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Northrop Corporation.
"In 1976, I made my first trip to Ireland," Johnson said. "I knew a priest who grew up in Derry and every summer he’d take some of the college students over there. I went over with him and met his family."
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Johnson, whose maternal grandparents were from Kerry and Cork, began to strike up friendships with people who had IRA connections. "Nobody ever came out and said that, but by the same token it was one of those things where it was hard to tell about their level of involvement, and I wasn’t going to ask them," he said.
"After being in the North of Ireland and seeing what was happening there, I was certainly sympathetic to people trying to defend themselves," he said. "Some of them had different technical questions for me, mainly to do with radio equipment."
Anne Johnson, who is 82, speaking at her Harwich home on Cape Cod, where she lives with her husband, explained that her son Richard was always interested in science. He had a ham radio when he was about 9-years-old. "He had a scientific mind and was always interested in radios, telescopes and things like that.
"And when he was a young boy, my aunt from Ireland would tell him stories about how the people there had been treated by the British. He became very interested in the history of Ireland. That’s why sometimes I think it’s my fault what happened later on."
In 1986 Johnson moved to Nashua, N.H., and began work at the Mitre Corporation in Bedford, Mass.
According to court documents, on July 26, 1988, the U.S. government received an authorization pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to conduct electronic surveillance of Johnson’s home in Nashua and his parents’ home in Harwich.
As a result of that surveillance, the government recorded incriminating conversations between Johnson and others which linked them to an alleged conspiracy to enhance the technology of IRA weaponry.
In addition, the government alleged that between 1981 and 1986 Johnson wrote a series of letters regarding the procurement and development of remote-control bombs to Peter Eamon Maguire, an electronic systems expert in the Republic who would later be convicted of related offenses.
According to Johnson, the FBI’s initial interest in him stemmed from his purchase of some electronic parts that had been sold in the U.S. "Those parts, or similar ones, had been used over in the North," he said. "They (the FBI) were trying to figure out who bought those parts and why. I always had gadgets and devices like that around."
Botched FBI job
On July 12, 1989, Johnson emerged from work unexpectedly and confronted two men who had pulled his dashboard apart in what he assumed was an attempted theft.
"The local police were called, but just before they got there an FBI car headed them off," he said. "They put me under arrest."
He soon learned that the apparent theft was a botched attempt by the FBI to plant a radio-controlled tape recorder in his car in order to obtain additional evidence against him and others.
Johnson said that later that morning at the office of the FBI in Boston he told agents that he wanted to see a lawyer before he would talk with them. "After I repeatedly said that I wanted to see a lawyer, the agent pointed at me angrily and said ‘You’re finished,’
and he was right."
About ten days later, Johnson was released on bail, awaiting trial.
"I’ve since heard through the grapevine that they had no case against me at the time," Johnson said. "That’s the reason the government didn’t resist too hard on the bail, because they weren’t prepared."
The trial of Johnson and his three co-defendants began nearly a year later, in May 1990. Besides the tape recordings and incriminating letters, the prosecution team brought over RUC officials and British military officers to testify against Johnson and his co-defendants.
"The RUC did their usual lying, and the FBI had taken some radio junk out of my cellar — stuff you could buy at Radio Shack," he said. "Their story was that someone like myself who had some electronic know-how could make that material usable as weaponry. But there were no explosives, no missiles, no rockets, no bombs or anything else."
Johnson, Martin Quigley and Christina Reid, now known as the Boston Three, were convicted of the arms conspiracy and related offenses in June 1990.
A co-defendant, Gerald Hoy, pleaded guilty to the charges against him in May after the trial began.
Johnson was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison, double the sentence recommended by federal guidelines. That period of incarceration was to be followed by 36 months of supervised release.
In his appeal of the conviction, attorney Alan Dershowitz contended that the surveillance of Johnson under FISA constituted a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, and of the Fifth Amendment’s provision for due process of law.
On December 19, 1991 Johnson’s appeal was denied. The U.S. Supreme Court later declined to review the case.
"I got a call from Dershowitz a few days before Christmas that year telling me we lost the appeal," Johnson said. "He said, ‘Richard, you’re a political prisoner.’"
Johnson has been incarcerated since February 1991, originally at the Ray Brook facility in upstate New York. From September 1993 until April of this year he was at Allenwood in Pennsylvania. He is now expected to remain at the Coolidge House in Boston until October 17.
He had hoped to be home by now on a "home confinement" program usually offered to prisoners in their final months of incarceration. He was recently denied that option.
"I’ll tell you one thing I’ve noticed throughout this entire experience," he said. "I’ve always managed to get especially harsh treatment, treatment that other prisoners don’t get…Right off the bat I got double the sentence others usually get under the guidelines, and since then it’s been more of the same."
Johnson said that, as a first-time offender with no record of violence, he should have been in a minimum security federal camp all along. Instead, he spent most of his jail time in medium security facilities miles away from his parents’ home on Cape Cod.
"I really wish I knew if it’s just individuals acting on their own or if it’s higher-ups telling them. But any reading of the record will show that I’ve always received the extra kick in the ribs, the extra stab in the back. These are people I don’t even know, and it’s like they’ve got something personal against me."
Johnson said that his experiences over the past decade with the federal criminal justice system have left him exhausted. "I feel very tired," he said. "At times it’s been like a roller coaster, but after a while you level it out."
Despite some periods of despondency in jail, he has not needed anti-depressant medication or psychiatric treatment. "Prozac is pretty popular among some of the prisoners, but I don’t even like taking an aspirin," he said.
He said that the best advice he got in prison was from a Spanish inmate, who told him to focus on what was going on within the prison walls. "He told me that I’d go crazy if I started thinking about what was going on outside, and I always remembered that."
Johnson became a respected teacher within the prison system, offering high school graduate-equivalency courses and science classes, including a popular astronomy course.
He said that his religious faith also helped him. "I’m a Roman Catholic and I’ve gone to Mass every weekend, that seemed to help too," he said.
Fortunately for Johnson, the computer industry has been booming during the past decade, opening up a vista of future job opportunities for him. "Right now I’m helping them here in the law office keeping the computers going," he said. "I’m learning a lot about the different windows and operating systems. It’s not taking me too long to learn the principles and the new technology."
Johnson will move in with his parents in October. "They’ve suffered greatly through all of this," he said. "All that traveling they had to do and they took out a second mortgage to help me pay the bills."
Johnson said that the total trial and appeal costs have reached about a quarter of a million dollars.
Regarding the situation in the North, Johnson said that he plans to continue supporting the republican movement. "But I still have to be very careful because it’s not hard for them to put me right back in the slammer if they don’t like my politics or something else."
Marge Suter, treasurer of the Boston Three Defense Fund, said that plans for a "welcome home" event in Boston are in the works, although details have yet to be finalized. A similar event in New York is being planned, although Johnson will need permission from federal authorities to leave the state.
But Johnson’s parents will be glad to have their son back home.
"If all the young men today were as good as Richard, we’d have very few problems in this country," Roy Johnson said. "It’s been a very long ten years for all of us."