Commune member cleared in shooting

August 4, 2008 4:53:25 PM PDT
A woman was cleared of all charges Monday in the shooting of a commune founder nearly killed by a shadowy figure on the stairwell of his compound. The jury took less than five hours to acquit Rebekah Johnson of attempted murder and lesser charges in the May 2006 shooting of Jeffrey Gross. The defendant disappeared for nearly a year after the attack, setting off a huge manhunt and garnering five appearances on Fox's "America's Most Wanted."

The verdict followed a trial that featured bizarre revelations and allegations about the Staten Island commune, including wife-swapping and brainwashing.

When the verdict was read, Johnson, visibly shaken, bowed her head as her mother and sister rejoiced. She had faced up to 25 years in prison if convicted.

"Everything is over now. The jury has said it all," said the defendant's mother, Margaret Johnson, adding that Rebekah Johnson plans to move out of New York and seek therapy after her traumatic experience at the commune.

Gross sat in silence, eyes red, as he learned of Johnson's fate.

His attorney, Mark Gimpel, called Johnson a "predator" and added that "important steps must be taken to make sure she's kept away from him."

The saga began May 29, 2006, as Gross returned home from a movie. In the dull light from a lamp nearby, he saw a gun pointed at him, and he begged the person holding the weapon not to shoot.

"What do you want?" Gross recalled asking in testimony.

There was no answer, and the asss have said.

Gross, tall and lanky with wiry hair and glasses, is still seeking therapy for his wounds, prosecutors said. They said he was capable of identifying Johnson because he'd known her nearly 20 years, even though the stairwell was barely lit the night of the shooting. The two met in the mid-1980s, while Johnson was living in another commune in Canada, Gross testified.

Still, prosecutors had no real physical evidence to connect Johnson to the shooting.

Defense attorney Stanford Bandelli refuted Gross' testimony, claiming it was too dark to see who shot him. He also lashed out at the unusual ways of the commune.

"Ganas is about control," he said. "If you don't follow the rules, you're gone."

Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan said that he respects the jury's verdict but believes that prosecutors "presented a clear and compelling case, which satisfied each element of the crimes for which Rebekah Johnson was indicted."

Johnson was captured last summer in Philadelphia after she used her name to register a used car, authorities said.

A search of her small apartment turned up an AK-47 rifle and rounds of ammunition, several license plates from different states and several driver's licenses under different names with her photo, authorities have said. The weapons found weren't admissible in court. Gross was shot with a .38-caliber pistol, authorities have said.

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