At Close Range is, in my opinion, a highly underrated crime film. The 1986 drama depicts the events surrounding a crime family based in rural Pennsylvania during the 1960s and 1970s.
I didn’t realize until years later that the film starring Sean Penn and Christopher Walken is based on a real case. While the film stands on its own merit, the true story that inspired the film is equally as interesting.
Bruce Johnston, Sr. was born in 1939 and grew up in a large family in rural eastern Pennsylvania. He was expelled from school when he was 15-years-old and drifted into a life of petty crime with some of his 9 brothers and half-brothers. Johnston started small, breaking into stores and siphoning gas from tractors in the area. He served time in a juvenile detention facility, then later two stints in prison for larceny, between 1960 and 1966.
When Johnston was released from prison, he and two of his brothers, David and Norman, set up a criminal enterprise around Chester County, Pennsylvania. The gang of thieves initially stole cars, then switched focus to farm machinery, there being no shortage of tractors and other equipment due to the rural area where the gang lived. The Johnstons were not picky, however, and they stole plenty of other items as well, including guns, cigarettes, and antiques. The vast network of illegal fences that the gang utilized allowed their criminal activity to flourish throughout the 1970s.
Johnston and his crew used sophisticated methods to steal whatever they could. They knew how to pick locks, crack safes, and they would phone in false crime reports to throw police off their trail while they committed crimes. A retired police officer later said, “Nothing in my experience ever compared to what they were. They were damn good at what they did.”
In the late 1970s, Johnston encouraged his teenage son, Bruce Johnston, Jr., known as “Little Bruce,” to set up his own gang with his friends. Little Bruce and his half-brother James were soon running their own burglary ring. Everything seemed to be going well for the “Kiddie Gang,” and Little Bruce even fell in love with a young girl named Robin Miller.
During the summer of 1978, things went south for the entire Johnston Gang, both the adults and the teenagers. In June, Little Bruce was arrested for petty crimes by police in Oxford, Pennsylvania and sent away to prison. The next month, Robin Miller sent Little Bruce a letter in jail, claiming that his father had raped her. Little Bruce was enraged, and he decided to talk to police and spill his guts about his father’s vast criminal empire.
Bruce Johnston, Sr. and his brothers decided they needed to silence all potential informants. Little Bruce was safe in jail, but the rest of his crew was not. Four members of the Kiddie Gang, including Little Bruce’s 18-year-old half-brother James, were murdered in August 1978 in an isolated field by Bruce, Sr. and his brothers David and Norman.
Ignoring the danger to himself, Little Bruce signed himself out of protective custody shortly after the murders. On August 30, 1978, he and Robin Miller were ambushed by his uncles David and Norman while arriving at Miller’s home. Robin Miller was shot in the face and killed. She was 15-years-old. Little Bruce was shot 9 times, including 3 times in the head, but he still somehow managed to get into the house and call the police.
Miraculously, Little Bruce survived and testified against his father and his uncles. Bruce, Sr., Norman, and David Johnston were all convicted and sentenced to life in prison for their crimes. Bruce, Sr. died in a Pennsylvania prison in 2002 at the age of 63, and his two brothers are still serving out their rest of their days behind bars.
Take a look at the trailer for At Close Range, and definitely check out the film if you’re interested in the story of the Johnston Gang.
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