In 1966, Bethesda was a sleepy and undeveloped town. The busiest street was Wisconsin Avenue, where office buildings were just beginning to sprout, and Wheaton Plaza was the area’s only shopping mall.
Decades before Facebook and Netflix would occupy them, kids took to the streets, seeking adventures. On lazy afternoons, it was normal for neighborhood kids to spend hours at a time away from home, returning only for dinner. They were free to jump from tree to tree, house to house, running around the neighborhood, crawling through sewer drains and playing hide and go seek.
On Sunday, May 8—Mother’s Day—all of this changed. After Sunday school, nine-year-old Steven Johnston went looking for golf balls on the edge of the Kenwood golf course, hoping to maybe find some frogs or snakes along the way. The third-grader at Radnor Elementary never returned to his home on Fairglen Lane.
That night, police officers, firemen and droves of neighborhood children participated in the search for Steve. His step-brother, Rick Neumann was only 13 years old, but vividly recalls poking sticks in a creek by Glenbrook Road—and praying he didn’t find anything.
A fireman found the body on Monday morning, 150 feet from where Little Falls Parkway crosses the Capital Crescent Trail. Steve Johnston had been molested and stabbed. On May 10, the story made the front page of The Washington Post, with the headline “Police Hunt Knife Slayer of 9-year-old Bethesda Boy.”
The family and investigators searched for a killer until the case went cold in 1967. It changed the neighborhood forever.
“The innocence was lost that day,” Steve’s half-brother, Sam Johnston, said in a phone interview. “No longer could kids leave their house and go a mile away to go play by themselves. Everyone was looking over their shoulder. It was a very scary time.”
Up until that point, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the neighborhood was more of a country town than a city—a safe neighborhood, said Betty Ross, who moved into the Sumner neighborhood in 1950s.
Forty-eight years later, Steve’s stepsister Lisa Johnston Howorth (Whitman ’69), now living in Oxford, Mississippi, remembers her brother in her debut novel, “Flying Shoes.” The story blends fact and fiction to create a compelling tale that draws on her brother’s case. The novel, which is being published by Bloomsbury (the same publisher as the Harry Potter series), will be released in June. While the story is mostly fictional, the novel and its characters contain echoes of Howorth’s family and their experiences.
The Johnston family of seven was a blended one. Steve’s dad, Frank Johnston, married Lisa and Rick’s mother, Claire Neumann, when Steve was about three years old. Frank and Claire later had two more children, Sam and Mike.
“We don’t really remember a time when Steve wasn’t in our family, and we adored him,” Howorth said. “He was sort of an innocent little brother, and then of course when my two youngest brothers, Sam and Mike, came along, as far as they were concerned, he wasn’t their half-brother, he was just our brother.”
“Flying Shoes” begins by introducing the charismatic protagonist, Mary Byrd Thornton, who lives in Mississippi with her two kids and husband. While Thornton isn’t a direct representation of Howorth, they share some similarities.
“Her personality reflects me; her style, and details like collections and things like that—that’s very much me. It reflects my world pretty accurately,” Howorth said. “However, nothing but the crime is really factual.”
Howorth decided to ground her story in fiction in order to appeal to the largest possible readership, she said. To make the novel more accessible, Howorth uses a light, casual tone.
“Even though it’s sad and awful, I wanted it to have a hopefulness, a suggestion for people who are involved in these things that life can go on,” Howorth said. “In my family, we always relied on our sense of humor, my three brothers and I. Humor was a life-line for us.”
At the beginning of the book, Mary Byrd receives a phone call from a detective who informs her that her brother’s case is being reopened and asks her to meet with her family in Richmond to discuss the new information.
When she arrives in Virginia, Byrd and her family find themselves at the police station, with an investigator explaining that their brother was killed by a well-known pedophile who had sexually harassed numerous other boys.
Humorous digressions and light-hearted observations fill the pages between the detective’s call and the meeting in Richmond. This part of the book is full of Mary Byrd’s everyday experiences with her moody teenage daughter, caring friend Mann—who grew up on a chicken farm—and her housemaid, Evagreen.
The chatty tone, carried throughout the novel, makes the 304 pages entertaining and easy to read. Howorth excels in her use of details, which add a colorful layer to the story. Although the intricate blend of fact and fiction provokes curiosity in the reader, the buildup to the climax is a little slow.
Howorth weaves the brutal facts and the timeline of the case with her own creative fiction. For example, a suspect in the book named Ned Tuttle represents the initial suspect of the 1966 case, who was later cleared—a teenage outcast who lived down the street.
The teen attended a boarding school, but was in Bethesda the weekend of the murder. He backdated a letter to the then 15-year-old Howorth to make it seem like he was at school over Mother’s Day weekend, which aroused suspicion.
As far as the family knew, this neighbor was the only suspect, until Steve’s half-brother, Sam Johnston, re-opened the case as an adult in 1994. Johnston was only four years old when Steve was murdered.
Twenty-eight years after the crime, Johnston came across the original front page story in the Washington Post reporting his brother’s murder, sparking his interest in the case.
“I wondered what ever happened with that,” Johnston said. “I went into the homicide division of Montgomery County, told them who I was, and that I would like to look into the file.”
Johnston spent years immersing himself in the details of the case. He eventually learned of a local man who was detained in 1967 for molesting a young boy. The man was identical to a composite sketch made in 1966 with information from multiple victims who described their attackers. The victims were all young boys who were sexually assaulted, just like Steve. He also had the same shoe size as a footprint found at the scene of the crime, and carried a knife with the same dimensions as the one that killed Steve.
However, due to a lack of available physical evidence, the suspect was never arrested or charged with Steve’s murder. Based on his research, Johnston came to the conclusion that the evidence from his brother’s case, including pubic and head hairs and a plaster footprint casting, was mishandled or lost by police, he said.
“Back in those days the police department didn’t have the chain of custody that they have today,” Johnston said. “They didn’t have evidence rooms for people to sign evidence in and out of custody. Consequently, the detectives kept evidence in their personal desk, lockers, trunks and homes.”
Fred Burton, the vice president of intelligence at Statfor, a geopolitical intelligence firm, worked in the Montgomery County Police Department during the 1980’s. At this point in time, property lockers were used to store evidence, but “it was also not unusual for detectives or investigators to hold evidence in a case file stuck in a drawer,” he said.
While the family in Howorth’s novel gained some satisfaction from identifying the true killer, the lack of physical evidence in the real case makes a conviction nearly impossible.
“There is no closure when it happens to you,” brother Rick Neumann said. “That’s a psychobabble word that has no business in the English language, in my opinion. There was no closure for my step-father, except the day he dropped dead three years later.”
Frank Johnston died suddenly of a heart attack in 1969, three years after his young son’s death, while golfing with Neumann.
“He was a shell of himself after Steve was murdered; he was just catatonic; going to work, coming home, going to work, coming home,” Neumann said.
Both the Montgomery County police and the family recognize how differently the case would have been handled had it happened today. Johnston says modern DNA evidence would have helped identify the true killer.
“If it happened today, he would be behind bars,” Johnston said. “He scratched the hell out of him using his fingers. The coroner would have scraped the underside of his nails. DNA would have nailed this guy, absolutely nailed him.”
County police protocol for handling physical evidence has improved since the 1960’s.
“The way evidence is packed now is a lot different from the way it was 40, 45 years ago,” said Montgomery County Police Sergeant Christopher Homrock.
Burton recognizes that the police department is not always infallible, and mistakes can be made.
“It’s easy to leap to some sort of conspiracy but don’t lose sight of the fact of human failure or process failures,” he said. “Evidence is stuck in a drawer, desks are moved. I have seen all of that kind of stuff happen. It’s not necessarily purposeful, at times it’s just human error.”
“Flying Shoes” is a book idea Howorth has had in her mind for decades, but the novel has taken time to mature. In 2007, Howorth received a fellowship to the McDowell Colony, in New Hampshire. There, she had seclusion and time to make great strides on her project.
“The book is something I’ve been wanting to write ever since my brother was murdered,” Howorth said. “Of course I was only 15 at the time, and it was quite a while before I was able to even think about it, when I was willing to have this all in my head.”
The crime impacted Howorth so profoundly that she couldn’t wait to leave Bethesda and get away from everything that had happened to her family, she said.
“I think the bottom line is how this crime damaged our family and what a terrible thing it was and how poorly it was dealt with by the authorities at the time,” Howorth said. “We all want to see justice for our brother and protection for kids out there today ‘cause that guy is still out there.”
By Lisa Howorth
304 pp. Bloomsbury. $17.99
Howorth will be at Barnes and Noble June 20 at 7p.m. and at Politics & Prose June 21 at 6p.m.