Former worker who shot 2 at Texas ranch executed

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HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) — Convicted killer Gary Johnson has been executed in Texas for fatally shooting a ranch foreman and another man during a ranch burglary almost 24 years ago.

The 59-year-old Johnson’s lethal injection Tuesday evening came about 2½ hours after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to halt the punishment. It’s the second lethal injection this year in the state that executes the most prisoners.

Johnson was condemned for the April 1986 slayings of 28-year-old James Hazelton and Hazelton’s 23-year-old brother-in-law, Peter Sparagana.

The two were killed while investigating a call from a neighbor who reported intruders had driven through a chained gate at a ranch outside Huntsville in southeastern Texas.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court rejected convicted killer Gary Johnson’s plea for a halt to his execution scheduled for Tuesday night in the Texas death chamber for killing a ranch foreman and another man.

Johnson was condemned for the April 1986 slayings of James Hazelton, 28, and Hazelton’s brother-in-law, Peter Sparagana, 23. The two were gunned down while investigating a call from a neighbor who reported intruders had driven through a chained gate at the Triple Creek Ranch about 10 miles west of Huntsville.

Attorneys for Johnson, 59, argued he was nearly blind, in poor health and posed no danger to society if he was spared from the Texas death chamber. However, the court rejected their plea.

Johnson will be the second inmate to receive lethal injection this year in the state that executes the most prisoners. At least six others have execution dates scheduled for the coming months.

It took about two years for investigators to assemble their case against Johnson, who once worked at the ranch, and his brother, Terry. The brothers became suspects after the neighbor who saw men drive into the ranch described distinctive brake lights on their truck.

Terry Johnson, 62, took a plea deal with a 99-year prison term. Gary Johnson went to trial on capital murder charges, was convicted and sentenced to death.

“This was not their first nighttime burglary,” recalled Frank Blazek, the prosecutor at Johnson’s trial. “They knew the various pastures and that was part of a pattern they had.”

Hazelton and Sparagana discovered Terry Johnson but didn’t see his brother, who opened fire with a .44-caliber Magnum pistol and shot Sparagana, according to evidence and statements from Terry Johnson. Hazelton tried to run but was caught by Gary Johnson, who once worked for him.

“He put the gun in Hazelton’s mouth,” Blazek said. “Hazelton begged for his life and people across the way, in the nearby pasture, couldn’t see all this but could hear a man begging for his life.”

Shannon Ferguson, the neighbor who called Hazelton about the suspicious truck entering the ranch, and her husband were in a pasture tending to a horse about to give birth.

She said last week she’s always “felt kind of responsible” for the two men being murdered because they wouldn’t have investigated if she hadn’t called. But Ferguson also believes if she ignored the Johnson brothers’ suspicious activity, “I think they probably would have gone on and murdered more people.”

The murder weapon was recovered at the home of another Johnson brother in Union, Mo.

Johnson declined to speak with reporters in the weeks preceding his scheduled execution. Before arriving on death row, he had no previous prison record. Trial testimony showed that in 1972, in his native Missouri, he paid $150 in restitution to a man whose dog he shot and killed. The dog’s owner was a few feet away at the time.

Blazek said investigators found the same slogan etched in concrete outside Johnson’s home and on a T-shirt he was wearing in a photograph: “Kill them all and let God sort them out.”

“It indicated a callousness about human life,” he said.

Johnson’s lawyer, David Schulman, said the prisoner’s “impaired physical condition and multiple disabilities prevent him from being a danger to others, currently or in the future. … His execution would be cruelly disproportionate punishment, because he does not now and will never pose any risk of danger to anyone.”

State attorneys responded a jury decided in August 1988 that Johnson should die and Schulman’s appeal improperly sought to reassess his threat of violence.

“It’s been over 20 years,” Ferguson said of the jury’s punishment decision. “I think it was time a long time ago.”


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