Originally created 08/31/97

Suspect in big heist captured at border



A security guard sought for five months after being accused of stealing $22 million from a Jacksonville, Fla., armored car company was arrested Saturday by a customs inspector who found him on a bus crossing into Texas from Mexico.

Philip Noel Johnson, 33, of Jacksonville was arrested without incident shortly before 9 a.m. at the Gateway International Bridge, the Rio Grande crossing that links Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros, Mexico. Federal agents had tracked Mr. Johnson to both cities after the robbery and had been watching for him in those areas since.

Authorities declined to say whether any money taken in the March 29 heist was found on Mr. Johnson or if the $7-an-hour security guard told them the whereabouts of money taken in the robbery. But more than $10,000 was found on Mr. Johnson when he was arrested, U.S. Customs Service officials said.

Mr. Johnson was one of about 25 people taken off the commercial bus for a routine identification check at a border station. He told a customs inspector he was coming from Tampico, said Customs spokeswoman Judy Turner.

Jacksonville police said the agent became suspicious of Mr. Johnson after finding money on him. Police said the agent learned through a computer records check that a North Carolina driver's license Mr. Johnson showed in the name of Roger Dale Lawter was false. Mr. Johnson, who may have had more than 15 aliases and was carrying identities in several of those names, was arrested when the agent learned his true identity and that he was a fugitive.

Ms. Turner said the agent, whom she wouldn't identify, had a "little gut feeling" when Mr. Johnson handed her the license and she learned he was a fugitive from the records check. Ms. Turner said the money was found stuffed in shirts and pants pockets in several bags of clothes he was carrying.

Though Mr. Johnson is accused of taking two guns in the robbery, no weapons were found. Two cars of FBI agents took Mr. Johnson to the Cameron County Jail in Brownsville about 5:45 p.m. Mr. Johnson, wearing an aqua T-shirt, blue jeans and black tennis shoes, had his hands cuffed behind him and his head lowered. He didn't react when a reporter yelled "Phil."

FBI spokesman Bill Cheek said Mr. Johnson is scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Brownsville. Mr. Johnson is charged federally with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution and is also charged with armed robbery and kidnapping.

Police accuse Mr. Johnson of abducting two guards and using a company van to steal the money from the Loomis Fargo terminal on Jacksonville's southside. One of the guards was found handcuffed to a closet pipe in Mr. Johnson's nearby home, while the other told authorities Mr. Johnson drove him in the van to Asheville, N.C., and left him handcuffed to a tree. That guard also was found unharmed.

Police have evidence showing that Mr. Johnson, using several aliases, bought bus tickets that led him from Asheville to Brownsville. Several people had spotted him in Brownsville and just across the border.

Police said a $500,000 reward in the case will go unclaimed because a law enforcement agent caught Mr. Johnson in the course of her job. The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement formed a task force to track Mr. Johnson and worked out of FBI headquarters.

Police officials said they had been confident they would eventually find Mr. Johnson.

"This is certainly a major case that occurred here in Jacksonville, and it's a relief to have made an arrest," said Jacksonville Sheriff Nat Glover. "There was no doubt in my mind he would be arrested eventually. I thought we were all doing the right things. It's just difficult to escape arrest when you have an entire nation of law enforcement looking for you, plus having your picture published all over."

FBI officials said they, too, were confident they would catch Mr. Johnson.

"Obviously we're delighted to have him back in custody so we can bring him back to Jacksonville," Mr. Cheek said. "The FBI is involved in long-term investigations of many types, and this is no different. We certainly had every expectation that he would be caught."

Loomis Fargo officials said Mr. Johnson's former co-workers were excited about the arrest.

"The people on the trucks out working have been notified and are all excited about it," said Mike Fry, a manager at the Southside terminal. "We were waiting for this to happen. People are calling the office and talking about it."

Mr. Johnson's friends and family said they were relieved he was caught without getting hurt. Bob Johnson Sr., Mr. Johnson's father, lives in St. Augustine, Fla. He said he spoke with the FBI last week about the case, but he had no clue his son would be in custody so soon. He said he has already hired a lawyer for his son.

"Everybody's glad he's OK physically and that he was safely apprehended," Mr. Johnson said. "We're looking forward to seeing him. I had no idea how this would turn out. It's been bananas."

Pete Johnson, Mr. Johnson's half brother, said he doesn't think Philip Johnson is a bad person.

"I eventually thought he would turn himself in," said Pete Johnson, also of St. Augustine. "I think he accomplished making a point or statement about the way he was treated (at work}. You don't pay people $6 an hour to guard $22 million. I'm happy to hear he's OK."

Phil Lyon once once attended the Southside Assembly Church of God with Mr. Johnson, and his name was among more than 15 aliases Mr. Johnson used to obtain identifications in the past five years, authorities said. Lyon said he didn't think Mr. Johnson would be caught so soon.

"I'm surprised he came back into the country," Mr. Lyon said. "Maybe he wanted to get caught. Maybe he got tired of living whatever life he was living on the run."