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Beeper's slayer given third shot at freedom

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Joseph 'Beeper' Spence's killer was granted unescorted absences from prison earlier this month.

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Joseph 'Beeper' Spence's killer was granted unescorted absences from prison earlier this month. Photo Store

Will the third time be the charm?

Federal parole officials are once again rolling the dice on a dangerous killer who has already blown two chances.

Conrad Johnson, 35, was granted unescorted temporary absences from prison earlier this month, documents show.

Johnson is able to return to the community under certain conditions for what the parole board calls "personal development."

But officials admit there is still considerable risk, given Johnson's history.

The Winnipeg gang member was 17 years old when he gunned down 13-year-old Joseph "Beeper" Spence in 1995. Johnson and two co-accused mistakenly believed Spence was a member of a rival gang. The killing made national headlines and sparked calls for tougher penalties for young offenders and tougher laws for gangs. The slaying was also one of the first signs Winnipeg had a major street gang problem.

Johnson pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced as an adult to life in prison with no parole eligibility for at least 10 years, which is the maximum sentence allowed by law.

He was first released on day parole in July 2006, but failed a drug test weeks later. He had what parole officials call "deteriorating" social behaviour, including throwing temper tantrums and lying.

However, Johnson was given several additional chances to succeed. Parole officials didn't revoke his release until February 2007 after several more failed drug tests and increasingly problematic behaviour.

While back behind bars, Johnson admitted his mistakes and blamed them on being given too much, too fast. The parole board agreed to give him a second shot at freedom in 2008.

"You now state that you are motivated to change your lifestyle and have taken positive steps in reaching this goal."

But documents obtained by the Free Press this week show that was a disaster.

Johnson fled from a halfway house in July 2009 and spent 15 months on the run. Officers caught up to Johnson in October 2010, finding him in a hotel room with several high-ranking gang members and a large quantity of marijuana. Johnson was not charged for the drugs, but did get slapped with an unlawfully-at-large offence.

Johnson claimed he ran away because he wanted to see his newborn baby and knew he'd be in trouble for smoking pot. His day parole was cancelled.

Johnson spent a couple of years in remand custody before being returned to federal custody in December. He has enrolled in several substance-abuse programs during the past 10 months and has demonstrated model behaviour, parole board documents show.

That's a big change from the past, where he's been hit with dozens of institutional charges, mainly for assaulting fellow inmates, using contraband drugs, associating with gang members and abusing staff.

Johnson survived a stabbing, then lashed out after his mother died and was prevented from attending her funeral.

Family, friends and associates have been caught several times trying to smuggle drugs to him during visits.

He will be allowed no more than 72 hours of freedom per month. Specific times and dates must be approved in advance. Johnson claims he will use the time to "participate in community activities such as church services, cultural ceremonies and shopping centres" at all times with his common-law wife.

Johnson must submit to random drug tests and pat-down searches.

www.mikeoncrime.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 18, 2013 A3

History

Updated on Friday, October 18, 2013 at 8:02 AM CDT: adds photo

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