Wounded ex-prison captain sues cell phone providers over inmate-ordered attempt on his life

A former state prison captain wants to hold cellphone providers liable for a 2010 attempt on his life that was said to have been ordered by a vengeful inmate using a smuggled phone.

Robert Johnson and his wife, Mary, are suing 20 cellphone companies and cellular tower owners in connection with the attack, in which he was shot six times at his Sumter home.

They allege that these companies had the ability to block inmate calls from Lee Correctional Institute in Bishopville, where Johnson worked, but chose instead “to facilitate this illegal activity.”

The couple, represented by Hampton County attorney John E. Parker, are seeking unspecified damages.

Prison officials have repeatedly cited Johnson’s case to illustrate the need for technology to block calls from contraband cellphones that are smuggled into correctional facilities for inmates to use.

For more than two years, South Carolina has been seeking federal permission to jam cellular signals at state prisons, but the request has stalled before the Federal Communications Commission, despite support from 30 other states.

Regulators have said a 1934 law allows only federal agencies to jam public airwaves. And cellphone companies have argued that jamming methods suggested by the states could interfere with emergency communications and other cellphone use in the area.

Johnson’s attorney said he thinks cellphone companies have a legal duty to help stop activities that present a reasonable chance of harm to others.

“It makes no sense to me why they would fight that,” he said. “We are hopeful that this (lawsuit) may be the catalyst that causes some changes to be made so that these type of events don’t happen in the future.”

The Post and Courier attempted to contact the companies named in the lawsuit. They either did not respond or declined to comment Friday.

Johnson, 59, worked for the state Department of Corrections for 16 years before he retired in June 2011. Parker said the attack on March 5, 2010, left Johnson disabled and with “serious health problems,” though he declined to provide specifics. Johnson is now employed, he said.

An inmate inside Lee Correctional allegedly used a smuggled cellphone to order a hit on Johnson because he was cracking down on contraband at the maximum-security prison, according to the lawsuit.

As Johnson was preparing for work, a gunman broke down the front door of his home and shot Johnson six times in the chest and stomach in front of his wife, the lawsuit states.

Johnson told the Associated Press in 2010 he thought the intruder was impersonating a police officer.

“I heard a yell, ‘Police!’ ” he told the AP. “I came out the bathroom door, and there was this person there. I really don’t remember the rest. From the trauma, my mind just went blank.”

The shooting remains the subject of an ongoing investigation by the State Law Enforcement Division, SLED spokeswoman Kathryn Richardson said. No arrests have been made.

The attack has left Johnson in pain and mental anguish, causing him to lose pay and his enjoyment of life, the lawsuit states. His wife also has suffered, the suit states.

Corrections spokesman Clark Newsom said the agency was aware of Johnson’s lawsuit but takes no position on the matter.

Newsom said cellphones remain a persistent problem inside the prisons and Corrections officials are looking into other options for curtailing their use, as the FCC shows little sign of yielding,

Last year, 3,036 contraband cellphones were confiscated from prisons statewide, agency records show.

The cellular providers named in Johnson’s lawsuit are American Towers, LLC; Farmer Telephone Cooperative Inc.; Cellco Telephone Co. of the Southeast, LLC; Cellco Partnership d/b/a Verizon Wireless; Sprint Cellular Co. of South Carolina; Sprint Communications Co., L.P.; Alltel Communications, LLC; Alltel Communications, Inc.; Alltel Mobile Communications of South Carolina Inc.; T-Mobile USA Tower LLC; T-Mobile USA Inc.; ATT&T Inc.; AT&T Mobility LLC; Verizon Wireless, LLC; Verizon Wireless Service LLC; Verizon Wireless of the East, L.P.; and Tracfone Wireless, Inc.

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.

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