EVERETT – Her name was written in the thick murder book.
Three decades later Snohomish County sheriff’s detectives came knocking on her door. She knew why the two men were there. The moment finally had come to share the secret she’d been lugging around since she was 18 years old.
She could tell them who killed Susan Schwarz.
The words eventually tumbled out. She had been in the small Lynnwood-area home in 1979 when Gregory Johnson grabbed a pretty, young woman out of her shower, tied her up and put a bullet in her head.
Johnson, then 26, looked up to find his teenage girl- friend in the room. He shot the victim again.
“It’s that easy. This is what happens to people who (expletive) with my life,” the woman recalled Johnson saying, the gun still gripped in his hand.
The teen had already felt the rage of his fists. The threats he made against her family pounded any courage out of her. She would be to blame if they got hurt, he said. Fear bought her silence.
Then last year, two detectives asked her to tell the truth and give a grieving family answers.
“I had this immense sense of relief,” the woman told the Herald recently.
The Herald is not naming the woman, now 50. She is considered a witness to a violent crime and prosecutors refer to her only by her initials in court papers.
A Snohomish County judge on Friday sentenced Johnson to a minimum of 24 years in prison for the death of Susan Schwarz. The Seattle ex-convict, 58, pleaded guilty in January to second-degree murder, finally admitting that he was responsible for the slaying.
Prosecutors believe that Johnson killed Schwarz out of revenge. He blamed her for meddling in his marriage.
Schwarz, 24, was a high school friend of Johnson’s estranged wife. The woman had confided in Schwarz that her husband beat her. Schwarz helped her friend move into a shelter until the woman could leave the state with the couple’s young son. The woman later returned to Washington and spent time with Schwarz in the weeks before the murder.
Back then detectives listed Johnson as a suspect. Over the years, Johnson was questioned at least twice about the homicide.
At the time, there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute, sheriff’s cold case detective Patrick VanderWeyst said.
VanderWeyst joined the cold case squad in 2010. Teamed up with veteran detective Jim Scharf, the homicide cops are assigned to investigate dozens of unsolved murders and missing persons cases. A majority of the victims are featured on the county’s deck of cold case playing cards. Schwarz is on the queen of hearts.
A tip in March 2010 pushed the Schwarz case up the priority list. An inmate had seen the cold case card featuring the 1979 murder. He told detectives that Johnson had admitted to killing Schwarz. That kick-started the case, VanderWeyst said.
They began to take a hard look at Johnson and how his life intersected with the slain woman’s. Inside the case file, they found the name of Johnson’s then-wife.
The woman met Johnson when she was just 17. Her father had died about nine months earlier and her family was reeling from his death. With Johnson’s encouragement, she became alienated from her mom. She moved in with the older man and the relationship quickly became violent, the woman said. He threatened to hurt her if she left. He allowed his friends to abuse her.
The day of the murder, he told the woman they were going to see his friend who owed him money and drugs.
The woman didn’t know the victim’s name or even the address where the homicide happened.
She believed Johnson when he told her the cops would see her as a suspect. She also was convinced that Johnson would go after her family if she told the truth.
“I can’t say I did it right, but I did the best I could,” the woman said. “ I knew my mother would be a victim. I had to protect my mom.”