Cult House

I came across the reference to this place while searching for something else, so of course I had to learn more about it. Isn't that the way it always is? The Cult House sits back on top of a hillside off of Cossart Road near Chadds Ford and has been known for years as a spooky place. At one point , the property belonged to the DuPont family, not really a big surprise since they owned an enormous amount of property in this area at one point. There have been tales of trucks chasing people down the road, which is barely wide enough for two cars to pass and graffiti adorns many of the trees and signs along the way. A few years ago, the area served as the backdrop for the Movie The Village, but it also has a bit more of a bizarre history.

On December 30, 1978, police uncovered the bodies of three boys, Jimmy Johnston, Duane Lincoln and Wayne Sampson, who had been part of a very active crime ring that has threatened the Chester County areas for years, operated by the Johnston brothers, a trio originally from Tennessee. A fourth young man, Jimmy Sampson, was also killed by the gang, but his body was never found. The Johnston brothers, Bruce, Sr., David and Norman, were responsible for the deaths of 4 young men and a 15-year old female and had eluded police for months. Finally, Ricky Mitchell, another young man who had been involved in the crime gang, led police to the bizarre mass grave where the three bodies were found, no doubt fearing that he would be the next victim of the Johnston brothers.

The article below describes rather graphically the crime scene at the area known as the Cult House:

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA)

August 22, 1999 Sunday, ORLEANS


For two weeks in the summer of 1978, the Johnston brothers, three career criminals from the high ridge country of Mountain City, Tenn., made bucolic, rural Chester County, just outside Philadelphia the city limits, their personal killing field.

From mid- to late August that year, the Johnstons, who had moved to southern Chester County in the 1960s, were responsible for the murders of four young men, all junior members of the Johnstons' prolific burglary ring, and a 15-year-old girl. The trio feared the boys were about to cooperate with police.

It took the combined efforts of federal, state and local law enforcement to prosecute the brothers -- Bruce Sr., David and Norman -- and put them away for the rest of their lives. However, none of the millions of dollars reaped from their burglaries has been recovered.

The startling escape of Norman Johnston from a maximum security state prison and his recapture early Friday renewed for some the bizarre horror of what happened more than 20 years ago.

The murders occurred in a year when Pennsylvania was without the death penalty. Still in state prisons are Bruce Johnston Sr., at Graterford, and David Johnston, at Greene.

Norman Johnston's escape had many who helped prosecute the brothers extremely worried about the safety of former witnesses, and no one considers it an overreaction. Not in light of what happened 20 years ago.

On Dec. 30, 1978, then-State Trooper Tom Cloud was on his knees digging at the frozen ground with a tablespoon in the middle of a sprawling estate in Chadds Ford. Beside him was Chester County Detective Larry Dampman.

"It was a surreal scene," said Cloud, now a private investigator in West Chester.

Battery-powered lights, such as the ones used in a photo studio, cast an eerie glow over the hilltop area. A bonfire was going nearby. Dozens of police milled about. Investigators scraped away dirt carefully, so as not to damage what they were looking for.

Finally, resistance to the digging softened. The police had found what they were there for -- and the stench was overpowering. Slowly, spoonful by spoonful, the bodies of three young men were unearthed.

The bodies of Jimmy Johnston, 18, the stepson of Bruce Sr.; Wayne Sampson, 20; and Duane Lincoln, 17, had been piled like firewood, one on top of the other. Their faces were unrecognizable. One wore a Tweety Bird shirt.

The discovery would eventually break up a notorious ring of criminals that had eluded and taunted police for years. There was no jubilation, though.

"It was the most gruesome thing I ever saw," Cloud said. "And it was sad. Here were these kids with their whole lives in front of them."

Dolores Troiani, who helped prosecute the Johnstons as a young assistant district attorney, remembers that the best-preserved parts of the bodies were the feet, because the boys wore heavy work boots.

"The smell was so bad. I threw away my clothes," she said.

Standing next to Troiani was Ricky Mitchell, the Johnston confederate who led police to the horrific find. He decided to inform on the brothers because if he didn't, "he knew he'd be the next one in the ground," Troiani said.

The three had been killed on Aug. 16, 1978. Mitchell had killed Sampson, the last to be shot. David Johnston had killed Duane Lincoln. And Bruce Sr. had taken care of his stepson. Later, another gang member, Leslie Dale, would tell police that Bruce Sr. told him Jimmy Johnston was still gurgling when he was dumped into the common grave.

The day before the killings, Jimmy Johnston had been served with a subpoena to testify before a federal grand jury to corroborate the story of his stepbrother, Bruce Johnston Jr., about the burglary ring.

Bruce Jr., angry because his 15-year-old girlfriend, Robin Miller, had been raped by Bruce Sr. in a motel room, had turned on his father and two uncles, investigators said.

"The cardinal sin you could commit in the eyes of these people was not robbery, rape or murder," said Bill Lamb, a West Chester lawyer who was the county district attorney in the 1970s and stayed on as a special prosecutor for the Johnstons' trials. "The worst thing you could do was rat on the family."

Jimmy Johnston made the mistake of telling Bruce Sr. about the subpoena.

On the night of Aug. 15, the Johnstons picked up the three young men at the Oxford Carnival using a ruse of hiding them from law enforcement. The next night, one by one, they were lured to the grave site and shot.

On Aug. 21, Bruce Johnston Sr. tricked Wayne Sampson's brother, Jimmy Sampson, 24, with a similar ruse and killed him the same way in the Lanchester Landfill. Bruce Sr. would be convicted of killing Jimmy Sampson, whose body was never found.

Then, on Aug. 30, as Bruce Jr., then 19, and Robin Miller were returning from Hershey Park, David and Norman Johnston -- at the direction of Bruce Sr. -- riddled the teen-agers' car with so many bullets, it rocked.

Bruce Jr., hit eight times, survived the attack. Miller, shot once, was killed.

The Johnston brothers had been a thorn in the side of Chester County lawmen for years before the 1978 killing spree that made headlines and formed the basis of the Sean Penn movie 'At Close Range' The gang's specialty was stealing farm equipment, specifically tractors, although jewelry, televisions, cash, cars and even cigarettes were all fair game.

They didn't have to go far to turn the stolen goods into cash. As the Johnstons worked through fences in the northern part of the county, most of their hot tractors wound up in back yards throughout the Pottstown, Pa., area.

What made the Johnstons stand apart, though, was how far they and their accomplices were willing to go to protect their criminal livelihoods and stay out of jail.

In 1972, a thief who also had migrated from hilly northeast Tennessee, Ancell Hamm, ambushed and murdered two Kennett Square policemen outside the town hall. Hamm, who was convicted and received a life sentence in 1974, was one of the earliest members of the Johnston gang. And although police could never prove it, they believed Bruce Sr. was involved in the killings.

Hamm's connection to the Johnstons resurfaced recently when sources said a sketch depicting the home of Norman Johnston's ex-wife, Susan, had been found in Hamm's cell at Huntingdon. Prison officials would not comment on the map.

That Norman Johnston, the target of a wide-ranging manhunt and the subject of a planned segment on a forthcoming TV episode of 'America's Most Wanted.' was able to break out of prison had Lamb incredulous.

Throughout much of the 1970s, the Johnstons operated a multimillion-dollar, tractor-theft ring seemingly with impunity.

Once, state police tried to connect the Johnstons to a supermarket theft using the odometer on a truck that was used in the heist. After that, the police began finding stolen cars with the odometer wires ripped out. Investigators knew it was the Johnstons leaving their signature.

"They knew that you knew they were committing the crimes," said former FBI agent Dave Richter, who worked on the case and is now a private investigator with Cloud. "And they were telling you that they didn't care that you knew."

The Johnston gang had a clear hierarchy.

Bruce Sr., the oldest, was the leader. Norman and David were his chief lieutenants, and other older career thieves, such as Leslie Dale and Ricky Mitchell, were foot soldiers. Young locals, looking for easy money, made up the lowest tier. Apprentices in crime, the 'kiddie gang' would steal small items and turn them over to the Johnstons, move and help store the heavy stolen farm equipment, and act as lookouts. Bruce Johnston Jr. was in the 'kiddie gang.'

The Johnstons' tight-knit group was held together by spreading money among gang members and anyone who might be a witness. If that failed, intimidation usually worked. One potential witness found dynamite in the front seat of his car. Another had a barn burned.

However, when Bruce Jr., upset about Miller's rape, turned on the family in midsummer, the burglary conspiracy began to unravel. It appeared the other young gang members, if implicated, would snitch, too.

When the Sampson boys, Lincoln and Jimmy Johnston disappeared in mid-August 1978, Tom Cloud and Dave Richter were worried. After the bloody ambush on Bruce Jr. and Robin Miller, the anxious suspicions Cloud and Richter harbored became certainties.

"Everyone knew this was real then," Cloud said. "Those boys were dead."

Even after the Aug. 30 attack on the teen-age couple, police had a tough time pinning things on the Johnstons. Bruce Jr. didn't get a good look at the gunmen in the dark, and Bruce Sr. had a built-in alibi. He had been spreading $100 bills around at a local tavern.

Then police persistence paid off. They arrested Leslie Dale, a Johnston gang member, on theft charges. One of Dale's old partners in crime, Richard Donnell, locked up in the Scranton area, was afraid Dale would tell investigators about a 1970 murder the two had committed together.

So Donnell beat Dale to the punch and worked out a deal for himself after telling Chester County Detective Charlie Zagorskie about how he and Dale had killed Jackie Baen, a Coatesville man, eight years earlier.

Dale, confronted with Donnell's information, then turned on the Johnstons to help his own cause.

He told Zagorskie and Troiani about the 1977 killing of still another small-time thief, Gary Crouch. Dale and Bruce Sr. had shot Crouch in the head and buried him near the Stottsville Inn in western Chester County.

In late November 1978, Dale led police to Crouch's grave site for a midnight exhumation and said the Johnstons had a contract out on Ricky Mitchell. Mitchell, who was jailed in Delaware County on an unrelated matter, had little choice. He took police to the grave in Chadds Ford the night before New Year's Eve.

The end was near for the Johnstons.

In 1980, David and Norman were convicted of four murders, the three young men in Chadds Ford and Robin Miller. Later that same year, Bruce Sr. was convicted of six murders -- the same four, Jimmy Sampson and Crouch. All received consecutive life sentences.

Mitchell, convicted in the murder of Wayne Sampson, is still in prison.

Dale died several years ago, his only death-bed companions the police who pursued him.